Reagan was more of a Thomas Paine man than a Burkean

This detail is symptomatic of a larger truth: In its politically relevant form, modern American conservatism does not embody a theory of incremental change. On the contrary, conservatives from Reagan to the present day have been moved by the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction and needs to reverse course. Ever-growing government must shrink; the encouragement of risk-taking must replace the expansion of publicly provided security; the relentless growth of laws and regulations must yield to the rebirth of individual liberty.

The point is not whether contemporary conservatism is right or wrong, but rather that it is radical, not Burkean.

In fact, it is hard to be both an American and a follower of Burke. As Mr. Levin acknowledges, Burke rejects the theory of natural rights at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, and he denies that society is a contract that the people may alter when it ceases to secure those rights. In Burke’s view, Mr. Levin suggests, the early Americans “merely sought to continue and preserve the traditions of the English constitution and the privileges they had always enjoyed.” If that had been the case, the first two paragraphs of the Declaration would have been superfluous.