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“All that is necessary for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.” You may know this as the most famous sentence that Edmund Burke never wrote. It’s attributed to Burke in film, on a card for sale in the Dublin Writers Museum, and on a poster I tacked to my wall during high school. But while the faux quotation sounds the call to gallant effort by individuals, the likely source actually encourages ordinary people to join together for political objectives: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

It’s from a 1770 work, Thoughts on the Present Discontents, and far from resounding with appeals to individual heroism, this pamphlet is Burke’s classic defense of political parties. And yet, twenty years after this defense, Burke left his party. Having provoked the hostility of his fellow Whigs for condemning the French Revolution, Burke accepted exile from them. Three years later, in 1794 (just after Burke retired), his closest Whig allies joined the Tory government of William Pitt, sending the rump of the party into an opposition that lasted forty years.

 

Like many in the run-up to the election of Donald Trump, I thought something like this was in the offing for Republicans. Amid summertime predictions that future GOP success would be as unlikely as a World Series championship by the Cubs, I expected Hillary Clinton’s election would spark reform of the Republican primary system. “Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room,” as Jason Riley put it a week before the election. [2] Adopt the Democrats’ super delegate system to thwart the outsiders. Instead, Republicans enjoy historic strength in Congress, legislatures, and governor’s mansions, and the smoke-filled room is as unlikely to reappear in primaries as in hipster restaurants. But if defeat divides and victory unites, Trump’s election actually makes it harder for the party to define itself. President Trump has no time-honored party loyalties or friendships. He holds few if any principles with a significant purchase in Republican tradition. So who are the Republicans now? In evaluating the historical circumstances that brought him to power, political writers have looked back to the GOP rupture that brought forth the Bull Moose Party or even the rise of Andrew Jackson. With Bill Galston and Bill Kristol lamenting that our political parties are unsound, and David Brooks predicting that Trump’s personality cult will leave the Republican Party in tatters, where does one turn?

Back to Burke, of course. The elements that worry us about a Trump presidency –loyalty and friendship, principle, and challenging historical circumstances – are the same ones that preoccupied Burke as a Whig politician.

What’s more, if parties are unpopular now, they were far more unpopular in 1770, when Burke explained the need for them. They were often viewed as disloyal to the king – even treasonous – for didn’t a party’s slate of ministers undermine the right of the royal head of state to choose his own advisors? Or, if not actually treasonous, parties were viewed as factions in Madison’s sense of the term: they promoted private interests over national ones. The country needed “measures, not men,” the critique continued. It needed pragmatic legislative policies (“measures”) over partisan loyalties (to “men”). Starting to sound familiar?

Burke considered these critiques a particularly dangerous type of folly. Without party, he wrote, free government would fail.Some combination of demagoguery and conspiracy would replace it. Without party government, moreover, “the people” would lack a sufficiently powerful voice to curb the other branches of government, and the system would lack sufficiently powerful means of curbing a demagogue.

Party friendships, principles, and character as tested by historical circumstance weave throughout Burke’s life, now bending his thought one way, now another. But since his 1770 defense of party emerges from a historical circumstance – not from a set of principles – let’s begin there. Conveniently, the story begins with a crisis over the election of a media-savvy libertine with demagogic tendencies.

Subhead: either “Wilkes and Liberty”

Or When the Court wouldn’t read the election returns

In 1768, John Wilkes won the poll to represent the significant London constituency of Middlesex in Parliament, which he had served ten years earlier. Since that time, however, he had gained notoriety for his pornographic poetry, sexual adventurism[5], and above all for a journalistic attack on George III. Wilkes was charged with seditious libel – publishing material that incited insurrection against the King – and fled the country.[6] His conviction in absentia in 1764 was based on a constitutionally dubious “general warrant,” and “Wilkes and Liberty” became the cry of his supporters in Britain and America. Streets and towns were named in his honor. Nevertheless, the House of Commons refused to seat Wilkes. Soon, riots broke out, and half a dozen people were killed.[7] The voters re-elected Wilkes in February 1769, and the House expelled him again. He was re-elected a third and a fourth time by April. Keeping up the farce, the House duly expelled him each time and ultimately seated the second-place finisher. Wilkes had to wait until 1774, when he was made Lord Mayor of London, to occupy his seat in Parliament. When Boswell proposed a dinner meeting between Wilkes and the pious Dr. Johnson in 1776, Johnson retorted: “I’d as soon dine with Jack Ketch” – the name for London’s hangman. (The dinner, one of the great scenes in The Life of Johnson, came off splendidly.)

 

Surely you wouldn’t vote for such a dangerous buffoon—a target of lawsuits, a man known for putting his popularity above the national interest? Surely he wouldn’t have a place in your party?

 

Many of the Whigs despised Wilkes personally, but Burke’s reaction was typical of his entire career: deal with it, for there’s more here than meets the eye. He realized Wilkes was a demagogue. But under the circumstances of 1769-70, Burke was far more concerned that the Court and its ministers would ignore the voice of the people at large (not just Middlesex) and rule through a “cabal” of its own choosing.[8] Party government responded to both problems: it respected the voice of the people while preventing ambitious, individual politicians from coopting it.

 

Here’s how it turned out: as a mere member of the Whig Party, Wilkes had relatively little influence. He never held office and served uneventfully for sixteen years, mostly promoting his own reputation. He supported Whig policies fitfully, refused to defer to party leaders, and apparently developed no significant friendships with them.[9] His parliamentary career is almost completely ignored by the parliamentary histories. In sum, defending his right to sit in Commons averted a constitutional crisis, while party discipline nullified his parliamentary influence. Mission accomplished.

[1] I will supply footnotes so that the editors can identify and check my references. They may all be removed prior to publication. Thoughts on the Present Discontents in Writings & Speeches of Edmund Burke, 9 vols., Gen. ed. Paul Langford (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981-2015). 2.315. Hereafter W&S.

[2] Wall Street Journal Nov. 2, 2016.

[3] https://www.nolabels.org/values/ Accessed. 12/12/16. David Brooks, “The Death of the Party.” New York Times 22 July 2016.

[4] This assertion is found in the opening line of Burke’s 1769 “Observations on The Late State of the Nation.

[5] Arthur Cash, John Wilkes, 30-60 – member of the “St. Francis” club in 1750s, illegitimate son born 1762….

[6] Ronald Donald Spencer, Political Controversy: A Study in Eighteenth Century Propaganda (Greenwood, 1992), pp. 150-60.

[7] Bourke biography 252, etc.

[8] Thoughts in W&S 2.315.

[9] Mitchell, 291.

vulcan_paolozzi

Vulcan by Eduardo Paolozzi | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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