A friendly reminder that tonight, Thursday October 6th, CUNY, 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 Mind. Click here for more details on the event, which starts at 7:00pm at the Martin E. Segal Theatre. Hope to see you there!
The best thing I can say about Robin’s book is that, after reading it, it is hard for me to view conservatives without using its terms, models and ideas. Take David Frum’s post-Obama trajectory, often viewed as tacking to the center. Actually, wait, first let’s look at Burke. Specifically Burke’s counterrevolutionary contempt for the order he wants to restore. From Corey’s guest post:
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…
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…
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…They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates….
Let’s look at one way to date the start of the current conservative movement – the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater. What do you imagine was on the first page of Goldwater’s book that energized his base, Conscience of a Conservative? From Robin’s essay Conservativism and Counterrevolution:
What these two opening statements of the conservative persuasion suggest is that the greatest enemy of the old regime is neither the revolutionary nor the reformer; it is the old regime itself, or, to be more precise, the defenders of the old regime. They simply lack the ideological wherewithal to press the cause of the old regime with the vigor, clarity, and purpose it requires…
More than a century later, Barry Goldwater would take up the same theme. The very ﬁrst paragraph of The Conscience of a Conservative directs its ﬁre not at liberals or Democrats or even the welfare state; it is aimed at the moral timidity of what will later be called the Republican Establishment:
I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them. Or if not to apologize directly, to qualify their commitment in a way that amounts to breast-beating. “Republican candidates,” Vice President Nixon has said, “should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart.” President Eisenhower announced during his ﬁrst term, “I am conservative when it comes to economic problems but liberal when it comes to human problems.”. . .These formulations are tantamount to an admission that Conservatism is a narrow, mechanistic economic theory that may work very well as a bookkeeper’s guide, but cannot be relied upon as a comprehensive political philosophy.
Now look at David Frum’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s exit from the presidential field (my bold):
Palin will never become a party elder stateswoman. Over the past three years, it became apparent to all but a handful of cultists that her only interests were money and celebrity. She had no concept of public service, and no capacity to serve even if she had wished to do so. Soon even those last cultists will quietly abandon the argument. We talk often these days about makers and takers. Sarah Palin was the ultimate taker. She abandoned her post as governor of Alaska to cash in on lectures and TV. She squeezed her supporters for political donations and spent the money on herself. To adapt an old phrase, she seen her opportunities and she took ‘em.
In the end, she exploited, abused, or embarrassed almost everyone who had believed in her. Most embarrassing of all: she was never even a very good con artist. Everything that was false and petty and unqualified in her was visible within the first minutes of encountering her. The people she fooled were people who passionately wished to be fooled. To that extent, what was important in her story was not the faults and failings of Sarah Palin. There have always been grifters in politics. What was important in her story was the revelation of conservatism’s lack of antibodies against somebody with the faults and failings of Sarah Palin. That’s the story that should trouble us still.
The old guard and its defenders are so weak they are falling prey to not even top-grade hucksters.
Robin’s thesis is also a framework for understanding why Frum’s essay reflecting on the passage of Health Care Reform, Waterloo, wasn’t addressed to liberals, undecided voters, etc. but instead called out the Republican movement (“A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves”). He specifically put the blame on the petty comforts and small venality of the conservative spokespeople (“Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds”).
The same way Burke is vicious describing the British elite’s estates making them too sleepy and short-sighted, Frum attacks what he sees as a petty, unprincipled, comfort-grubbing conservative establishment not capable of defending itself anymore. Frum probably lost a think-tank job for that Waterloo essay, but if you take Robin’s thesis seriously then that essay was the most conservative thing he could have done.
Hope to see you tonight!