Saturday, August 15, 2009

In Praise of Prejudice: What Edmund Burke Might Say About Town Hall Anger

During the August congressional recess, American legislators brave enough to hold town hall meetings with their constituents have been getting an earful. The rabble has been positively uppity with comments like "We aren't here to be lectured to by you; we're here to remind you who signs your paycheck!"

The Democratic reaction has been predictable and could be summarized as: "Stupid peasants - what do they know about what is best for them?" Accusations of "astroturfing" - staged protests by special interest groups - seem plausible to the liberal base because the "mob" just can't be right when all the experts are in agreement that health care reform now is in the best interests of the nation. It must just be because Obama is black; that's it, it must be racism. It can't be that there are two legitimate points of view to be debated here; it must be some sort of flaw in the rabble. Why? Because we are the "Brights." We are better-dressed. We go to cocktail parties where everybody is for health care reform. And everybody on TV says the same.

Perhaps they might want to read a little Burke (or even Russell Kirk on Burke) in order to get a broader perspective on what they are up against. Kirk writes:

"'Prejudice' - the half-intuitive knowledge that enables men to meet the problems of life without logic-chopping; 'prescription' - the customary right which grows out of the conventions and compacts of many successive generations; 'presumption' - inference in accordance with the common experience of mankind: employing these instruments, men manage to live together in some degree of prosperity and amicability. 'Somewhere there must be a control upon will and appetite' . . . and Reason, dear to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, seemed to Burke a tool weak at best, frequently treacherous. The mass of mankind, Burke implies, reason hardly at all, in the higher sense, nor ever can: deprived of folk-wisdom and folk-law, which are prejudice and prescription, they can do no more than cheer the demagogue, enrich the charlatan, and submit to the despot. The common man is not ignorant; but his knowledge is a kind of collective wisdom, the sum of the slow accretions of a thousand generations. . . Even the shrewdest of men are puffed up with vanity if they try to set the product of their reason against the consensus of the centuries." (p. 42)

Burke had great affection for prejudice and prescription and agreed wholeheartedly with Chesterfield, who wrote:

"A prejudice is by no means (though generally thought so) an error; on the contrary, it may be a most unquestioned truth, though it be still a prejudice in those who, without any examination, take it upon trust and entertain it by habit." (quoted by Kirk, p. 43)

It may well be that the ostensible issue is not the real, or at least the whole, issue. Health care is the first issue that the people have gotten mad about in the Obama administration. History may one day look back and say that if he could have passed it in July before the recess, it might have been done. Personally, I think its chances of passage now are thin; but not out of the question.

But it is not just about health care. It is about the bank bail outs, the nationalization of General Motors, and the stimulus bill. It is about waste, pork, and the slowley increasing gut feeling that, campaign promises or no campaign promises, a stupendous tax increase for the middle class is becoming more inevitable every day congress is in session. People wonder, if this passes, then what will be next? Right now any wild-eyed suggestion they hear will be likely to be believed because so much has already happened that they did not expect.

There is a growing intuitive sense that Obama is not the moderate he pretended to be in order to get elected, but a doctrinaire liberal dedicated to expanding the welfare state and the size and authority of the federal government on a scale not seen since the "Great Society" programs of the 60's. When you, as a common citizen, begin to suspect that the president is far to the left of the country as a whole and when you begin to suspect that you have been played for a fool: then the anger that follows cannot be expected to be ephemral or easily brushed aside.

On abortion, the pro-life movement has seen Obama for what he is right from the start: a radical well to the left of center. I predicted before he was sworn in that if he pursued fiscally moderate policies, he might well be able to ram through most of his leftist social agenda. But now he is in danger of letting the moderate facade crumble and when it does, he will confront a country well to the right of him - and very angry. The resulting dissonance may alter the political landscape as dramatically in favor of the conservatives as the Iraq war altered it in favor of the liberals. The conservatives, for the first time since 2003, now have anger on their side and all the momentum created by anger over Iraq may soon be deployed against Obama.

We shall see. I'm no prophet. But never has Burke's praise of prejudice seemed more relevant to the politics of day. If Obama can't understand why "mobs" can't sometimes be more right than the rational planners and calculators, he will never understand the country he is governing and his presidency will be a failure. If he keeps talking like this, he will only polarize the nation and fuel the anger. Sometimes the stubborness of the common man is all that stands between a nation and disaster. Burke didn't say that, but he could very well have and, in the contemporary situtation it is quite likely that he would have.

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