Corey Robin has written a wide-ranging review essay on conservatism for The Nation. I have some thoughts on this essay, and I will write them up later this weekend. The nice thing about being a teetotaler at a wedding is that (a) you can appreciate the natural beauty of Monterey and (b) you can write blog posts after you return home and © you don’t generally compromise your dignity on the dancefloor. The trouble is that even without booze, I can’t help but compromise my dignity on the dancefloor — unless you posit that I utterly lack dancefloor dignity, which is not only plausible but rather the most parsimonious explanation of what’s up, so to speak.
Okay, quickly let me just say that
Robin lands some devastating blows against Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right. My sense is that Heilbrunn will have to respond.
As an intellectual historian, Robin brings his formidable erudition to bear, looking well beyond the founding of National Review and the self-mythologizing self-understanding of the US right to place its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution and the defense of human enslavement in the antebellum South.
So what is wrong with this view, exactly? The US right, like the US left, is best understand as a broad set of composite traditions that exist in a long, fractious dialogue. There have been breaks in these traditions, there have been transpositions. For example, is Alexander Hamilton a figure of the right — for his frank defense of elitism, for his firm advocacy of the interests of capital and the emerging industrial metropolis? Or is he a figure of the left — for his advocacy of dirigiste economics and administrative centralization, for his ambiguous abolitionism? It’s not clear to me that this is a very sensible question. There are Hamiltonian strands on the contemporary right and on the contemporary left.
The same is true of Lincoln. Robin identifies the right as “creedal” by its nature, though of course there are others who will dispute this, or who, like Andrew Sullivan, will acknowledge that there are creedal and anti-creedal strands within the right. But Lincoln’s highly unusual, highly effective marriage of Bismarckian pragmatism and moralistic fervor has provided a spine for both (or several) ideological tendencies in American life. The pro-life movement, for example, can easily be described as a reactionary movement. Yet it also involved forging alliances across sectarian lines, and it had an anti-elitist undercurrent. Perhaps Robin considers this anti-elitism a sham, just as he considers the revolt against busing and school integration to be exclusively about racial subordination. Indeed, he sees the rise of evangelical political activism on the right as a thinly veiled manifestation of Jim Crow politics. This gets at part of the history of the rise of the New Right. I wonder, though, if Robin has followed the trajectory of evangelical political engagement, and the ways it has forthrightly confronted America’s — and its own — racial past. This is part of a discourse within the conservative tradition.
Robin’s ur-thesis is that the right has shrewdly employed a narrative of victimhood, victimhood for the predatory classes, as a means to win power and sympathy. I definitely think there is something to this, and I think it is an unattractive pose that the right ought to have outgrown. But again, I don’t see this as structural or ancient. Rather, I think it is contingent and particular, and that it parallels forms of victim politics that are deployed across the political spectrum.
One thing I find peculiar is that Robin sets up, briefly, a contrast between “reformers and radicals” and conservatives. Of course, it should go without saying that there are reformers and radicals within the broad conservative tent, and that reform is an essential part of conservative self-understanding. I’d argue that reformism — which has many different valences, lest we forget — is essential to conservative practice, albeit less so in the age of Abramoff. The Thatcher project and the Carter-Reagan project couldn’t be, rhetoric aside, restorations of a lost Golden Age; they represented reformist moments, which, to be sure, had mixed results. And of course both reformist moments had radical interludes.
This must sound pretty tiresome because it’s all so obvious! To me, at least. That, I realize, is a bad sign that I’m missing something important.
Briefly, on this notion of composite traditions, consider the New Deal, and the sense in which it encompassed both progressive radicalism and conservative reformism and patriarchal reaction — patriarchal reaction advanced, interestingly, by elite women steeped in what David Ciepley brilliant described in Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism as a kind of elitist virtue politics defined by an adherence to public paternalism. Or what my colleague Josh Green memorably called Ronald Reagan’s liberal legacy. As David Frum and Brink Lindsey have argued, the 1950s — the social democratic moment in this country, Eisenhower notwithstanding, during which organized labor and the politics of solidarity set the tone for the country — was deeply atypical in its relative homogeneity, its culture of deference, its egalitarianness. The Reagan era was an atomizing era, defined by things Reagan disliked — family breakdown, hard-edged ethnic politics — and things he liked — a revolution in American business that broke down solidaristic norms, and that emphasized competition over stakeholder logic and (some would argue) rent-seeking. These tendencies were, the Bellian in me can acknowledge, interrelated.
Which is why I think of reformist conservatism, to use a self-serving characterization for the politics a lot of younger right-wingers embrace, as harnessing the wealth created by this (to some extent unanticipated) cultural revolution to frame a new American social model, founded on what you might call an egalitarianism where it counts — in social and cultural capital, in fulfilling what some call social citizenship rights via decentralized, more responsive, bottom-up means.
Yuval Levin has characterized parties and partisanship as fundamentally about insitutionalized disagreements in our public life. These disagreements are loose, they change in response to changed circumstances, but I think of the right as representing one side in an argument about subsidiarity and about the leveling tendency: how do we accommodate difference, are will and conviction enough to make public power do what we want it to do? (That is, is the fact that we badly want corporations to not corrupt a carbon pricing regime enough to make it so, if, say, conservatives rallying around rooting out corruption?)
In fact, I’d love to read Yuval’s response to Robin’s essay, which I’m convinced would be far more coherent than my effort!