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The Death of Anglo-American Conservatism

The conservatism of Edmund Burke has long served as a source of frustration for radicals, and as a necessary restraint against destructive root-and-branch reforms. But now the top elected representatives of conservatism in the United States and the United Kingdom have embraced radicalism themselves.

PRINCETON – In remarkably similar ways and almost at the exact same time, US President Donald Trump and Brexit have destroyed transatlantic conservatism. Yet while American conservatism has always had rather shallow roots, British conservativism is the product of a long and rich intellectual tradition, which makes its demise all the more astonishing.

The old conservatism opposed radical change but accepted the need for adaptation in the face of new developments and preferences. It favored a piecemeal approach to reform and rejected the wholesale uprooting of institutions, on the grounds that sweeping change is too hard to control. Conservatives were pragmatic, and would not fall for promises of a magic fix to any problem.

According to this worldview, major reforms can still be pursued. But they should be approached in such a way that the effects can be assessed, and the process reversed if necessary. This is the opposite of radicalism, which rejects incrementalism and views any failure of reform as evidence not that one has made a mistake, but that one hasn’t gone far enough.

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