Guest Post: Corey Robin on the Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism.

In New York on Thursday, October 6th, CUNY, the Roosevelt Institute, and The Nation will present “What is Conservatism?,” a conversation between Professor Corey Robin and Christopher Hayes focused on Robin’s new book, The Reactionary MindClick here for more details on the event.  I really hope you can all make it, should be an excellent discussion.

I’m still absorbing Robin’s provocative thesis — that conservatism is, and always has been, “a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In order to give readers a sense of his argument, I asked Corey to use Ronald Suskind’s famous passage about conservatism during the Bush years as an entry point into his thesis.

Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind who, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for theNew York Times Magazine, stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“Reality-based community” soon became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era — a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page. It is an affirmation of everything the left ever thought about the right: that it lives in a fact-free universe where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions; that it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate; that it’s activist rather than accommodating; that it’s, well… not really conservative.

Because conservatives are supposed to be, at least by reputation, calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar. They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley once said, the “politics of reality.”

That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It’s also how many liberals who may have read Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.

To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.

Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

When Krugman talks about “modern conservatism,” he means anything from the last 10 years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above.

It’s a pretty common notion, on the left, right, and center, that modern conservatism — however it’s defined — is different from the conservatism that came before it. Here’s Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely read The Death of Conservatism:

What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke… Burke’s conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust ofall ideologies…

The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.

As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul. Since then, he’s pursued it time and again, pillorying the modern conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke’s supple traditionalism, Hayek’s critique of utopianism, and more.

I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show — contra Sullivan, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more — that today’s conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn’t betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan; she has fulfilled them.

Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I’d like to make a novel suggestion: perhaps we should read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France — the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory in college refers to — but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace. For modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, arose in reaction to modern radicalism. But a funny thing happened on the way to the counterrevolution.

As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilization, that they somehow had put themselves into the driver’s seat of history and were threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.

Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between “ability” — the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob — and “property,” the aristocrats and their clients of the old regime. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why: “As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the” state. Without the protection of the feudal state, in other words, property would lose.

By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke’s concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views,” he wrote of the revolutionaries, “the Jacobins are our superiors.” But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries’ superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances.  The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, “they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour… They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”

It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite — as well as the other monarchies of old Europe — could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate. Where the Jacobins had “conquered the finest parts of Europe” with an “annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce,” the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.

At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment.  We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it. But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments…

They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident…

In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy. Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.

Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, they were cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:

They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.

These “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour” charged with defending the old orders of Europe, Burke complained, “had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes.” They lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism.”

The other negative consequence of an inheritance that’s assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor — whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate — quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition. This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke’s writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.

“Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut,” Burke declared at the outset of hisRegicide Peace. The laws of the state, ancient and “full of reason, and of equity and justice,” were a “dead letter.” They “ought to be severe and awful.” Instead, they yielded “no more than stubble.” It was their very ancientness, he concluded, that made them so weak.

Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects.

Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.

It wasn’t just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced. Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first degree.

There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem. “Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.”

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation — all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table — would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast.  In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism that was plaguing all of Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe.  England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.” “No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)

This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”

And because of the magnitude of the evil that they faced, all the traditional rules of war had to be thrown out the window; preemption and prevention were now the order of the day. From now on, any country could mount a total war against “any capital innovation” in a neighboring country –even if that innovation was entirely within its own borders — because such an innovation “may amount to the erection of a dangerous nuisance.”

I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism — and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.

In the 20th century, one finds a similar move in Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defense of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. There, Hayek says, among other things, that the “successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency” and that

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today… But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read all that much.  Likewise, Hayek and much of the rest of the conservative canon. Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them — little platoons and so on — that stale blast of familiarity you hear when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.  That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?

If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they’re great, which they are. But also because we’re having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about. If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice.

So here’s my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ’em. Then let’s talk.

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50 Responses to Guest Post: Corey Robin on the Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism.

  1. Adam Glenn says:

    Robin’s book is awesome. It is worth buying for the introduction alone. The themes are not new though. Here is an essay from 2004 by Phil Agre that explains what conservatism is:

  2. SIMON says:

    I think the thesis is quite obviously wrong, almost disastrously so. On the face of it, it may appear to be the defense of power. But research by Jonathan Haidt and other psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered a clear link between feelings of disgust and fear and conservatism.

  3. SIMON says:

    Sorry one more. If conservatism isn’t what people think it is (“calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar… want to be left alone… not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse”), then what do we call that kind of attitude? Girondism?

  4. Pingback: Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism « Corey Robin

  5. Josh K-sky says:

    Simon, what makes you think Haidt’s analysis and Robin’s are contradictory rather than simply orthogonal?

  6. “a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

    Yeah – Fear seems to be the big player here, and the intense emotional level seems to account for a lot of the cognitive dissonance, lunacy, aggression, rabid-animal teabagger behavior. The Republican tribal leaders must conquer, no matter what – even if the party leadership and financiers are the root cause of the threat to personal livelihood in the rank and file. Oh the irony.

    With racism sauce on top.

  7. Dan in Euroland says:

    . . .is, and always has been, “a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

    Isn’t the above statement vacuously true for all political movements? Every political movement (PM) I have read about desire its policies to be implemented. Or to put it another way, every PM desires to have the ‘felt experience of power.’

    Also almost all political advocates, advocate because they see their power (desired policy) threatened. So if any political advocate has lost their power then they want to see it restored, otherwise why advocate? (Does this create selection bias also? People will advocate for a political position primarily when it is threatened

    Lastly, the advocates of a PM typically write and think about their political beliefs. I.e. they meditate on them, and theorize about those beliefs.

    What am I missing? What specifically does he want to say about conservatism other than it advocates, perhaps through violence, for its preferred policy positions?

    One last point. Lets say Burke has political beliefs {X,Y,Z} and a conservatism ‘agrees’ to policy beliefs {X,Y}. It doesn’t follow that since Burke also has belief Z, then conservatism writ large also has belief Z. Political movements are coalitions where certain political beliefs that any specific member would have are excluded. That is why it is important to look at the beliefs of Burke that many conservative writers invoke as their core tenants instead of mining Burke for conflicting positions.

  8. Generallerong — I think you’re mixing up what happens on the ground level (tea party and general craziness) with what happens with the people who are actually funding these movements — which I would say is much more organized and purposeful (rather than lazy). I see Robin’s thesis as saying that American conservatives today are, in a stronger sense than we realize, an updated version of the conservatives who seriously lost out after the American Revolution. That older tradition arguably understood class conflict much better than the Jeffersons or Jacksons of the early 19th century — who in some sense, were really just riding on the wave of democratic, radical sentiment that burst after the Revolution. The older class acted on their power and class conflict in much more direct ways than the progressives did.

    Same goes for modern conservatives — everything from air traffic controllers’ union and other blatant anti-labor policies in the 80s, 90s, up to today, to the examples Robin mentions at the beginning of his article. They are really about understanding power and using that power to their own ends. And further, in their own interests.

    That last point is crucial — let me put it bluntly: Democrats in this country were so shocked when their beloved Obama started sounding like a conservative on economic issues. Bailing out banks? Overly focused on finance? A weak jobs plan? Employing people like Larry Summers on his economic team? Democrats are supposed to be the party of labor, not capital! Obama is for the people! No. He never was. Under the guise of progressivism, all Obama wanted to do is move us forward and out of this mess. And my point is not that Republicans are any different — it’s that Republicans’ actual tactics are much more blatantly class-biased, violent, and active against labor. They have the tea party and we see what it is, but a lot of money is backing it and funding that rhetoric to be spit out. Conservatives are simply using party politics for their own ends — which seems a lot more successful than what Democrats are doing.

    And Edmund Burke, John Adams, — they would have been proud.

    Daniel MacDonald

  9. @DanInEuroland I think that you’re being unfair to Robin if you think that what he’s doing by rereading, say, Burke is to analyze both what he’s quoted for and what he’s not quoted for and to say that there is a contradiction. Burke and traditional conservatism in general is a system. So is any ideology. It works as a whole — you can’t pick out parts you like or don’t like. Everything Robin said about Burke is internally consistent with a conservative ideology in which society is viewed as an organic whole (NOT the sum of its parts), in which some are rulers and others deserve to be ruled, and which popular opinion ought to have little sway next to an enlightened elite, just to name a few of the core principles.

    It’s just that it’s quite a different way of thinking about politics — i.e., it’s a philosophy of politics very scornful of political parties (which is really the fundamental language in which close to (not all! ❤ the Marxists) any discussion of modern politics takes form today). So, it tends to be misunderstood. I'm not defending it or apologizing for it — just trying to clarify the terms of the debate with Robin.

  10. Magpie says:

    I think this kind of discussion is useful and important and I congratulate both Mike K and the author, Corey Robin, for treating this subject.

    This particular one, though, to me reveals that people are not clear about what conservatism means. But it simply means to “conserve” the status quo. That’s the strategic goal, so to speak.

    What you do to conserve the status quo is another matter: the tactical mean you choose to attain the goal.

    So, there is nothing surprising with conservatism being revolutionary: that’s their tactical choice, given the current situation.

    Where the thing becomes tricky is that if conservatives are becoming revolutionaries, then progressives are behaving like conservatives used to: progressives became “conservatives”.

    You don’t think so? Well, simply read this passage from Robin’s article, with a little twist:

    “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” imagine you tell Paul Krugman, “they [i.e. free-marketeer economists, politicians] have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have engaged their honour… They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”

    It’s us who are ill-prepared for a total war. We’re discussing and trying to persuade. That’s why we are losing.

    • Matt says:

      Magpie: I had the same thought about progressives as conservatives when reading the piece. Today as in Burke’s time, a whole lot of the old order is in flux. Progressives are the ones trying to tinker with the institutions still around, to shift them a little bit one way or another. Awfully conservative that, while the real conservatives are trying to reinvent the cloth whole in order to get things the way they “should be.”

      • The liberal establishment has been conservative in this sense since at least the 1950s. There were even articles written about that at the time.And, of course, they were, as a whole, totally unprepared for the changes about to come in civil rights, the womens movement, the environmental movement, etc.

  11. Corey: I’m convinced. Your book goes onto the “must read” list!

    Adam: Couldn’t agree more re Agre’s piece.

    Simon: Haidt’s work is intriguing in terms of articulating positive content for conservative motivations, but his casual disregard for the rigorous work of many others is troubling, to say the least. Someone else is going to have to do the hard work of integration. In the meantime, I think there’s less dividing the cash value of his theory from terror management theory (for example) than he imagines. And TMT is quite compatible with the whole point of this post.

    OTOH, your question “If conservatism isn’t what people think it is… then what do we call that kind of attitude?” is a very good one. In fact, I think that the vast majority of self-identified “conservatives” in the US are closer to that attittude than to conservatism’s radical core. (See, for example, their long history of support for the welfare state reflected in the General Social Survey national spending questions.)

  12. sraffa says:

    Hayek and most of the conservative canon? Try reading this part of the conservative canon: Hayek’s ‘Why I am not a conservative.”

  13. Keating Willcox says:

    As far as 18th Century definitions of conservatism, who cares? Conservatism as it exists today consists of people who believe in smaller government, more freedom, fewer taxes, entitlements only for the truly needy or retired, fewer regulations, and a strong defense. One can also consider social conservatism, pro-life, traditional family values, and 2nd amendment rights. That’s it. No class warfare. We just don’t want to become the European Socialist Republic of America. We believe that Ferguson is right and Krugman is wrong.

    So, what is the crisis? The crisis is that Obama delivered. In three years he has taken over banking, student loans hence the education industry, the automotive industry, and the entire healthcare industry. His opponents know they will be punished and his friends know to expect rewards. His anti-voting ACORN groups flourish, undermining democracy everywhere. His environmental movement has made big strides to control all industry, and benefits to those permanently on the dole have skyrocketed. Everything you could have asked for has happened, and quickly.

    The crisis is now this. Last year’s election showed how much the American public hated these changes. Next year will be an opportunity to show how much we continue to hate these changes. Liberals hate these elections because it shows how unpopular their ideas are. Efforts to talk about suspending elections, and massive government funded voter fraud are tolerated by a sycophant media who can’t believe their star is so unpopular.

    Conservatives are angry at the ideas of the socialist liberals thugs now in power, and can’t wait for the elections 13 months from now.

    • Tim says:

      I can’t tell, this is either an amazing parody, or we’ve got a troll.

    • kevin says:

      Tim: I see no reason to assume that Keating is not sincere, in fact he might be – if I understand Robin correctly – an example of what Robin is talking about. He’s a radical fighting for the interests of his order – or however he sees his interests best defended. The precise policy positions he takes, and his use of the word “conservative” to describe them, may be simply convenient mechanisms to bond with his fellows and organize to defend those interests. It doesn’t matter at all that his claims are inaccurate – reason has no place in this word. This is passion pure and simple. That probably makes it more effective than any reasonable argument – though I wish this weren’t true.

      I suppose the same can be said for liberals or anyone who engages in the same tactics.

      This really changes things. Ideology may be less a set of solid ideas than a mechanism for organizing the protection of one’s interests. Sounds very Madisonian – he didn’t speak of ideology, only the interplay of interests.

      Gotta read the book.

      • “Ideology may be less a set of solid ideas than a mechanism for organizing the protection of one’s interests.”

        My God! Ya think???

        Someone get in your time machine & go tell Marx!

      • kevin says:

        No need to tell Marx, tell Willcox. Undoubtedly he thinks his positions are philosophically pure and justified apart from any position he enjoys in society – he does not see himself as a class warrior, but he almost certainly is. They all are.

    • DrJim says:

      So which Ferguson do you like, the guy who manages Manchester United or the guy who plays poker? They’re the only Fergusons I could find that know any economics …

    • allis says:

      Keating Wilcox’s comments: an example of Poe’s Law.

  14. Simon says:


    As a Ernest Becker fan, couldn’t agree with you more. I just don’t think Corey’s thesis does much for explaining the roots of conservative political sympathies writ large.

    • Simon, I think there are multiple things going on simultaneously. What Corey is up to, it seems to me, is examining and exposing the actual content of conservative ideology, what it boils down to at bottom. But, of course, very, very few people form their identities and allegiences on this sort of basis. This does not make what he’s doing irrelevant by any means. I think that the social science/cognitive science approach that’s been developing over the past 60 years–which Becker is clearly a major part of–will become increasingly important in provding answers, but it’s going to have to be a fairly wide-ranging enterprise, and Corey’s work has an important place within that larger enterprise as well.

  15. Simon says:

    I think Keating right, even though I may disagree with him. “Conservatism as it exists today consists of people who believe in smaller government, more freedom, fewer taxes, entitlements only for the truly needy or retired, fewer regulations, and a strong defense. One can also consider social conservatism, pro-life, traditional family values, and 2nd amendment rights. That’s it. ” Why do us liberals find it so hard to recognize this?

    • Progressive Libertarian says:

      There is power and there is legitimacy. The world of “conservatives” like to claim legitimacy – protectors of western civilization. Keating (with knuckles dragging) makes clear that it is power, fear and purity. Robin presents the historical/intellectual context for this retreat from conservative sketipicism to reactionary ideology. In a deliberate fashion, reactionary elements sought, in reaction to the ’60s, to present the liberal center (the ongoing dialectic of conservative and progressive) as the far left. If the center is far left the far right is right (or conservative). The reactionaries could then claim intellectual legitimacy through the ephemeral “conservatives” while pursuing there own goals of power and class interests. That may not help in dealing with the forces that Keating describes and advocates, framing does matter at some level.

  16. Simon says:

    @Keating. I would say upon second glance, however, that your assertion of the Obama policies are totally withour substance. Taken over the banking industries? What are you talking about, we could’ve nationalized the banks or pushed through mortgage refinancing, but the banks weren’t having it. Taken over healthcare? Healthcare for non medicare and medicaid is still entirely in the hands of private insurance companies, who are reaping in record profits. What does entitlements for the truly needy mean by the way? Do you think people under the poverty line are not truly needy? And how is ACORN anti voting? Arn’t they a voter registration organization?

  17. SIMON says:

    Hahaha apparently. Going back to Becker. Personally I was very affected by his works because ever since a young age I have been very frightened by my inevitable mortality, and have seen it as having a huge impact on my worldview. I think the conservative rush to faith is probably an technique to ameliorate this anxiety as TMT supposes. But I don’t think we should dismiss it. Being afraid of dying isn’t bad! Arguably the worst tragedies of the left (Soviet Communism 1919-1954, Great Famine etc) came about because leaders were NOT sensitive to loss of human life because they thought they were striving towards utopia. Something, I think, to keep in mind, and I’d be curious to hear your comments.

    • Simon: We have data on rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) from the late-stage Soviet Union, and it shows clearly that Soviet establishmentarians scored high on RWA. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the same were true of early SU Stalinists & TMT. Those he got rid off? Probably not so much. (He gave them something quite concrete to be terrorirzed of, thank you very much!) The reasoning here is that there’s a relatively weak correlation between ideological content and realworld social organization. Actual hierarchies around ideals of freedom are to be expected. How else can authoritarianism compete, once people get a taste for freedom? It may be more complicated with TMT, but ultimately more similar than not, I’d wager.

      Social science is inherently messy. Even identical twins are nowhere near as alike as two carbon atoms.

  18. Tony Wikrent says:

    “he has taken over banking, student loans hence the education industry, the automotive industry, and the entire health care industry.” “Scuse me for being more than a little skeptical about these assertions, but can you, Keating Willcox, please point to actual mechanisms of control? How many pharmaceutical companies, for example, now answer only to federal government bureaucrats, instead of their own management bureaucrats and shareholders? How many doctors and nurses have been yanked off their previously private payroll, and now draw their pay only from the U.S. Treasury? If the government controls banking, please explain to me wtf I am paying 18% interest on my Visa card, and why there does not seem to be any real competition leading to lower interest rates? (Is it perhaps because what you conservatives refuse to admit, that a new financial oligarchy has arisen which has achieved “regulatory capture” ?) In fact, if the government now controls banking, please point me to all the billions of dollars of loans being issued to build high speed rail and wind turbines ans similar such “libruhl” follies.

  19. Pingback: Edmund Burke and American Conservatism « The Baseline Scenario

  20. It seems that shortly before his death Burke had moved much closer to the sort of revolutionary conservatism favored by Joseph DeMaistre. DeMaistre’s brand of conservatism embraced more than a reaction against the French Revolution; it was a backlash against the entire 18th century Enlightenment.
    One could make a good case that contemporary American conservatism has evolved in his direction, even though DeMaistre himself is something of an embarrassment mainly because he’s too honest about stating that you can’t maintain a conservative regime without killing and terrorizing a lot of people. DeMaistre’s argument that the public executioner is the enforcer of social stability is a bit too blatant, though given the recent right-wing response to Rick Perry’s record of public executions it’s not too blatant for some of us.
    DeMaistre was one of the key figures in the formation of modern conservative thought–for more on him see Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Joseph DeMaistre and the Origins of Fascism” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas–even though conservatives nowadays try to sweep him under the rug. Berlin’s essay is a useful antidote for the bogus argument that conservatives are Just Plain Folks who only want a government like Grandma’s.

  21. Jerry Nutter says:

    Last night I was reading some of the posted comments. The lengthily one by Philip Agre (21 printed pages) was the best critique of conservatism I have ever encounter, and now it is gone. Has some “conservative” come along and taken the grate piece down? It needs to go back up. It is completely brilliant. Jerry Nutter

  22. Pingback: Baubles, Bangles, and Tweets: Reactions to The Reactionary Mind « Corey Robin

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  24. Progressive Libertarian says:

    For me, the useful hermeneutic axis has progressive vs conservative (if you can find one) on one axis and liberal vs authoritarian on the other axis. This matrix covers a lot of the cultural variations in “politics” both historically and ethnographically. Most of what we see on the right is the authoritarian conservative quadrant (Burke becoming DeMaistre). I think this is what Robin is arguing. Today, most of the public debate is certainly authoritarian vs liberal, not conservative (skeptical of changes to existing political power arrangements) vs progressive (seeking greater equality). This political construct is mostly useful in the liberal arena because it is by definition amenable to multidimensional dialectical thinking. Authoritarian thinking by definition benefits more from hierarchical discipline (including in the progressive authoritarian quadrant). The Jacobin TEA parties and the Keatings of the world won’t care if they have intellectual coherence (i.e., if facts and history disagree with them). This intellectual coherence can be assumed and asserted in the authoritarian arena (it is an entitlement not a negotiation or conversation). Keating expressed this coherence perfectly (which is why his “facts” out of thin air might have been taken as parody). As I said above, this may not stop authoritarian conservatives from trying to subvert liberal democracy, but at least it allows us to frame them as “conservo-fascists” (would Luntz approve?) with inellectual integrity and consistency. Or in other words, we can understand why TEA parties aren’t the solution, TEA parties are the problem. Or better yet, understand that reality has a liberal bias.

  25. Pingback: Two on Hayek and the Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism « Chasing Fat Tails

  26. Pingback: The Beast looks back at you, or, the Ideological Mirror: When the real right praises the actual left. « Left Turn At the Crossroads of Critical Thinking:

  27. Pingback: Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts « Marmalade

  28. Pingback: Edmund Burke and American Conservatism | My Blog

  29. Stephen from Minneapolis says:

    Here is a post to James Kwak regarding Corey Robin’s thinking. Kwak never responded to my questions about the Robin’s thesis. Perhaps someone here might be interested. I found your comments here interesting — however, I have a question for you regarding “definitions”. To define conservatism is fundamentally about radical change (going back to the mythical good old days) would seem to require that we understand that this is what the conservative movement is in all it varieties. It would also seem that the various political leaders of the movement were of the same mind set. The problem here is this idea of “mind set”, for a case can be made that we know a persons views, not by what they say but by what they do. Certainly, Thatcher and Reagan spoke in a “conservative voice”; but there is now much discussion about the fact that unlike what the Tea Party types say, these two figures were not all that radical regarding “rolling back the state” and, in fact, both look fairly liberal (progressive) in economic terms and in given the current crop of “conservatives” (true believers who are wedded to radical reactionary visions). (See Bruce Bartlett.) Thatcher and Reagan seemed to have been political realists — and despite their bluster, there is little evidence that either would be in sympathy with the likes of a Palin, a Bachmann, or a Perry.

    James, If I am correct (that we judge a persons politics by what they do and not by what they say), and if the behavior of Thatcher and Reagan gives no evidence that they had not only bought into the welfare state but also where responsible for its expansion and growth, then how can we but them into the revolutionary ‘back-to-the-future” camp which you high school friend would seem incline to do?

    One of note: you mention Nixon and his “silent majority” — but it is not clear to me Nixon was much of a “back-to-the-future” revolutionary, but rather by today’s standard, he would be a flaming liberal (of course a very flawed in terms of his political and ethical behavior and his paranoia.

    • Benjamin David Steele says:

      Since according Robin conservatives are reactionary, you must judge them by the social and historical context of their reaction. Thatcher and Reagan were reacting to one situation and conservatives now are reacting to another situation. Yes, in reaction, conservatives push further and further away from liberalism even as they adapt to new forms of liberalism. It doesn’t matter that conservatives become increasingly radically anti-liberal over time. It’s the reaction against liberalism that defines conservatives and not how their views appear relative to conservatives at a later time.

      The conservative is in an interesting position. Robin points out that even someone like Buckley admits he would probably become something if he had come of age at a later time. A conservative isn’t a traditionalist in the way a Protestant fundamentalist isn’t a traditional pre-Enlighenment Catholic. A fundamentalist is creating something new with each generation because they are constantly reacting to new social changes and new scientific knowledge.

  30. Pingback: The Reactionary & Reckless Minds « the surface of things

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