Is Obama a Burkean?

David Brooks may claim Obama as a fellow Burkean but the president's greater debt is to Thomas Paine

The current issue of the New Republic includes an account of the remarkable political romance between Barack Obama and the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Brooks's admiration for Obama appears to confirm the dictum that how people think is often more important than what they think:

[As] they chewed over the finer points of Edmund Burke, it didn't take long for the two men to click. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging," Brooks recently told me, "but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don't know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense he knew both better than me."

His more ambitious claim that "Obama sees himself as a Burkean" has caused much consternation in conservative circles, but how accurate is it?

Burke is now largely remembered for Reflections on the Revolution in France, his assault on the principles of the French Revolution and the founding text of conservatism. Yet Burke, who was not an English Tory but an Irish Whig, always had a more liberal streak.

He was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and an advanced opponent of the slave trade. He led the long and dignified campaign for the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his crimes and misdemeanours as governor general of Bengal.

Despite this, it is Burke's nemesis, Thomas Paine, to whom Obama's thought owes a greater debt. The president's inauguration speech even quoted (albeit without attribution) Paine's stirring pamphlet The Crisis:

Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

And his declaration that "we must begin again the work of remaking America" bore an unmistakable resemblance to Paine's assertion that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again".

Obama may not have explicitly rehabilitated the man Theodore Roosevelt dismissed as a "filthy little atheist" (in fact, Paine was a deist) but he is consciously reviving the dormant tradition of left republicanism.

Brooks's belief that Obama is a Burkean may be an example of the wish being father to the thought, but as the president struggles to secure health-care reform he could yet come to appreciate the value of evolutionary change.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's dilemma: which voters should it try to add to its 2017 coalition?

Should the party try to win over 2017 Conservatives, or people who didn't vote?

Momentum’s latest political advert is causing a splash on the left and the right.

One of the underreported trends of 2016 was that British political parties learnt how to make high-quality videos at low-cost, and Momentum have been right at the front of that trend.

This advert is no exception: an attack that captures and defines its target and hits it expertly. The big difference is that this video doesn't attack the Conservative Party – it attacks people who voted for the Conservative Party.

Although this is unusual in political advertising, it is fairly common in regular advertising. The reason why so many supermarket adverts tend to feature a feckless dad, an annoying clutch of children and a switched-on mother is that these companies believe that their target customer is not the feckless father or the children, but the mother.

The British electorate could, similarly, be thought of as a family. What happened at the last election is that Labour won votes of the mum, who flipped from Conservative to Labour, got two of the children to vote for the first time (but the third stayed home), but fell short because the dad, three of the grandparents, and an aunt backed the Conservatives. (The fourth, disgusted by the dementia tax, decided to stay at home.)

So the question for the party is how do they do better next time. Do they try to flip the votes of Dad and the grandparents? Or do they focus on turning out that third child?

What Momentum are doing in this video is reinforcing the opinions of the voters Labour got last time by mocking the comments they’ll hear round the dinner table when they go to visit their parents and grandparents. Their hope is that this gets that third child out and voting next time. For a bonus, perhaps that aunt will sympathise with the fact her nieces and nephews, working in the same job, in the same town, cannot hope to get on the housing ladder as she did and will switch her vote from Tory to Labour. 

(This is why, if, as Toby Young and Dan Hodges do, you see the video as “attacking Labour voters”, you haven’t quite got the target of the advert or who exactly voted Labour last time.)

That could be how messages like this work for Labour at the next election. But the risk is that Mum decides she quite likes Dad and switches back to the Conservatives – or  that the second child is turned off by the negativity. And don’t forget the lingering threat that now the dementia tax is dead and gone, all four grandparents will turn out for the Conservatives next time. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.