October 9, 2011
Sunday Book Review
The Conservative as Elitist
THE REACTIONARY MIND
Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
By Corey Robin
290 pp. Oxford University Press.
The American right has a lot to answer for these days. Members of this group are ardent peddlers of conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and the demonization of opponents. This approach has contributed in no small way to the sorry state of contemporary American politics, where epithets have replaced arguments, a sense of common destiny seems lacking among citizens and compromise has become almost impossible on the most pressing national issues. A book documenting the wreckage and carefully tracing the links between right-wing ideas, policies and outcomes would be a significant contribution to public debate. Unfortunately, Corey Robin’s “Reactionary Mind” is not that book.
The twin goals of this collection of previously published essays are to provide a coherent definition of conservatism and reveal the ideology’s flaws through detailed analysis of various conservative thinkers and arguments. The book’s problems lie not in concept, but in execution. Driven to distraction by anger at his subject, Robin ends up reproducing many of the pathologies he is trying to criticize. The result is a diatribe that preaches to the converted rather than offering much to general readers sincerely trying to understand the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.
Robin’s definition of conservatism is unquestionably provocative. He starts by echoing arguments made by Samuel Huntington and others about conservatism being a situational ideology, one arising in reaction to a fundamental challenge to an existing order and devoted to preserving traditional institutions. But Robin then adds a substantive component. Conservatism, he argues, involves a reaction to certain kinds of challenges in particular, those by “subject” or “subordinate” classes. It is thus an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below.
The more one thinks about such a definition, the more problematic it becomes, because there is simply no way to lump all the figures and ideas one associates with conservatism under this rubric. Take the two figures mentioned in the book’s subtitle, Edmund Burke and Sarah Palin. Burke fits the situational definition of conservatism well, since he was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as Huntington once wrote. This led him to defend Whig institutions in England and democratic institutions in America, since he believed they were each anchored in their particular societies and traditions. But it also led him to champion the cause of people subjected to the injustices of British imperialism, which tended to destroy traditional institutions in the colonies.
Palin (left), meanwhile, is nothing if not an anti-elitist, so she has little legitimate place in Robin’s system at all. In fact, the most powerful part of the modern right has been not elitist but populist. This is certainly true of the 20th century’s most successful right-wing movements, Fascism and National Socialism (Nazism), which had mass and cross-class appeal and were real (if perverted) responses to genuine societal grievances and problems. They were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power. The strongest right-wing movements in the West in more recent decades have been populist as well, drawing their support from and directing their programs at the frustrations and anger of a wide variety of ordinary citizens.
Robin cannot or will not accept this, insisting instead that conservatism is always, at its core, about subjugating society’s lower orders. He thus has to explain away right-wing populism as some sort of trick designed to “harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites.” Suffice it to say that reliance on conspiracy theories and false-consciousness explanations to dispose of inconvenient evidence is always a bad sign.
The essays in “The Reactionary Mind” devoted to individual conservative thinkers and their arguments are often unconvincing as well. They contain smart and interesting points, but are so filled with exaggeration and invective that make the reader’s eyes roll. According to Robin, for example, “the U.S. media practices a form of censorship that must be the envy of tyrants everywhere.” And conservatives, he claims, “far from being saddened, burdened or vexed by violence,” are “enlivened by it.”
The vituperation reaches a peak in an essay called “Protocols of Machismo,” in which Robin argues that the entire concept of national security lacks any meaning or validity and is merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples. Although the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq gives unfortunate credence to such views, Robin takes his arguments too far, while engaging in a series of ad hominem attacks that portray America’s leaders as essentially a bunch of evil idiots, “perennially autistic,” driven by a “restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything.” And he suggests that even “a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that the rules of evidence will be ignored in practice, but also that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, these rules being flouted.
The Reactionary Mind” has higher intellectual ambitions than talk radio or the right-wing pulp nonfiction churned out by writers like Ann Coulter (right) or Bernard Goldberg, but it ends up replicating their breathless Manichaean attitude. It takes too many cheap shots at the other side rather than bothering to explain why its own side is on balance more deserving. This is both a shame and a lost opportunity, because now more than ever the left needs to go beyond speaking to itself and try to persuade a broad general audience of the validity of its case.
Despite what Robin claims, the problems of advanced industrial democracies today are not all caused by elite cabals hellbent on keeping the lower orders in their place. Populist demagogues feeding off mass anger, frustration and despair are a much greater danger. The left’s central challenge, accordingly, is how to address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so.
The questions Robin and his ideological confreres should really be asking themselves is why the contemporary left has been so bad at this, particularly in contrast to the contemporary right. Why, in an era of extreme unemployment, rising inequality and social dislocation, is it the right rather than the left that generated a movement like the Tea Party? Why are mass protests railing against tax increases rather than demanding more progressive and activist government?
The left’s inability to reach out to ordinary citizens, to address them in ways that resonate with their most basic problems and concerns, is, while not the only cause, surely largely to blame. We have seen this so tragically in Barack Obama, who for all his rhetorical gifts has not managed to connect with the people, and often has not even bothered to try. Nor does Corey Robin. But until the left finds a way to do so, it should not be surprised that the public gravitates toward others who can — even if they are on the other side of the political spectrum.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College and the author, most recently, of “The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century.”
A version of this review appeared in print on October 9, 2011, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Keeping Them Down.