MPSAblog_Smith_BurkeMainstream political scientists often struggle with the subfield called political theory. Otherwise known as normative theory or political philosophy, theory is the study of history, philosophy, and values. It made up the bulk of political science before the data-driven “behavioral revolution” (.pdf) of the twentieth century. Today’s empirical, or data-based political scientists are often flummoxed by normative theory, preferring instead to simply let it continue in its own world, on a parallel track largely ignored by others in the discipline.

This is a shame, because the insights of these history- and values-based approaches to studying politics can inform not only political science, but contemporary politics as well.

As a case in point, consider the ideas of Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century English-Irish statesman whose writings are now considered part of the “canon,” or collection of most-cited authors in the humanities, philosophy, and political theory. Burke’s traditionalist, conservative biographers would likely be horrified to read this, but I keep thinking about Burke whenever I read about Hillary Clinton.

I am not suggesting that Hillary has the same politics as Burke; not at all. What they share instead is a certain attitude. At its best, this attitude is characterized by a skepticism of drastic change and an appreciation for careful deliberation. At its worst, it can be arrogant and aloof.

Burke was a crotchety old-school member of parliament who was known for his opposition to revolution and skepticism of democracy. He is most famous for being aghast at the French Revolution and predicting that it would lead to the rise of a dictator—which it did. He also argued that it was more important for legislators to represent the interest of their districts than to make the right to vote universal, and developed the well-known trustee approach (.pdf) to representation. Unlike the delegate style, trustees do not poll their constituents or hold town hall meetings in order to decide how to vote on key issues. They follow their own judgment, only later returning home to explain their decisions and sit for re-election. In my own research, I once met a trustee legislator who told me,

“My district elects me because of who I am, to come down here and make some decisions. If you’re going to elect somebody that’s going to take a poll, then you don’t need me down here. And so that’s my attitude.”

That’s a good deal less wordy than Burke, but it captures some of the same ideas about representation—the representative knows best, the popular passions are often wrong, and it takes time and deliberation for the truth to emerge. In 1780, Burke told his electors in Bristol:

“I did not obey your instructions: No. I conformed to the instructions of truth and nature, and maintained your interest, against your opinions, with a constancy that became me. I am to look, indeed, to your opinions, but to such opinions as you and I must have five years hence.”

Burke is also known for being haughty and long-winded: a stereotypical British statesman, like something out of a Monty Python skit. Once, when I gave a match-the-quote-to-the-author quiz, one snarky student commented, “It was long, and I didn’t understand it, so it must be Burke.”

The student had marked the correct answer.

Burke was so removed from the affairs of his district that he lost re-election after only a single, elected term in parliament (he served earlier on a Royal appointment). Yet Burke also had powerful insights. In addition to predicting Napoleon’s rise, he also had a strongly compassionate streak, railing against British abuses in Ireland, America, and India. Burke could not get enough people to listen to his concerns on these issues, and as we now know, he was right about all three.

At his best, Burke was a healthy skeptic: deliberative and a good prognosticator. At his worst, he was arrogant, aloof, and not always pro-democratic. In other words, while conservative hagiographers may scoff, Burke was at least a little bit like Hillary.

Clinton is the only major presidential candidate who cannot even plausibly distance herself from this year’s favorite political punching bag: “the establishment.” This is because, far more than Burke was, she is the establishment—part of it, anyway.  She is well-connected to other politicians, non-elected government officials, leaders overseas, and monied interests, and she makes no attempt to hide that. At her best, her policy pronouncements are careful and measured—a stark contrast to the aggressive, change-the-world-in-one-go plans of her opponents on both the left and the right. Hillary is also pragmatic, with a strongly compassionate streak.  At her worst, she appears clueless, for example holding a high-dollar fundraiser with Hollywood celebrities while her opponent Bernie Sanders wins caucus after caucus by attacking her on these very campaign finance issues.

Few question Hillary’s qualifications to be President, but her occasional stumbles into let-them-eat-cake territory bring to mind Burke’s inability to connect with his constituents. Critics of my comparison will call Hillary untrustworthy, which was apparently not a problem for Burke. Yet I question how objective this judgment is—one recent analysis showed that Hillary’s campaign-trail quotes are in fact the most truthful of any presidential candidate. Her trust problem is not dishonesty on the stump, but rather the voters’ uneasy sense that she is entitled, part of an elite club which does not “get” why some of her actions would offend regular people. Of course, some of this is also because of her husband, still a major public figure and a maddening study in contradictions some sixteen years after leaving the White House. Hillary has to earn trust in her own right.

Earnest Barker wrote the following about Burke:

“His normal belief of the union of minds was confined to a narrow circle, and the area of discussion was an area of the elite. He hardly regarded himself as engaged in discussion with the people of Bristol, or the people of Bristol as engaged in discussion with him…”

In my own essay (.pdf), I wrote the following

“In attempting to define representation by doing it, Burke fell short. He did not develop an effective home style grounded in representative-represented interactions.”

As an experienced, qualified candidate, the likely Democratic nominee and quite possibly our next President (and first-ever female President), Hillary and her supporters would do well to take heed of these warnings. Hillary has to convince voters that she can listen and connect at our level. Being a pragmatic centrist is not enough. She has to earn trust as a representative of the people: something with which she still struggles, and which Burke also failed to do successfully.

Learning from Sir Edmund’s mistakes may just help Hillary ascend to the summit of American politics.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.

 

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