A review of The Reactionary Mind appears in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It’s by Sheri Berman, a respected political scientist at Barnard and author of an important book on the origins and triumph of social democracy. It’s a negative review—which is unfortunate and unpleasant. But beyond matters of fortune and feelings, there is substance, and that calls for at least a provisional response.
In her opening paragraph, Berman writes:
A book documenting the wreckage and continually 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.
My goal in writing The Reactionary Mind was to understand the right—not to criticize it or to show why it’s wrong, but to get inside its head, to examine its leading ideas and bring its sense and sensibility into focus. I did not aim to “document the wreckage” of the right or to trace the linkages between its “ideas, policies, and outcomes.” Nor did I intend, as Berman later writes, to “reveal the ideology’s flaws” or to provide an account “of the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.” Least of all was I trying to explain why my “own side is on balance more deserving.”
Getting Burke Right
My book is a revisionist account of the conservative tradition. Because Edmund Burke is the father of that tradition, he figures prominently. I offer a heterodox reading of his work, which cuts against a conventional wisdom about him and the right that I’ve discussed and critiqued before. Berman is under no obligation to accept my view. But instead of showing why it’s wrong, she writes as if she hasn’t read it.
According to Berman, Burke’s conservatism consists simply of a desire to preserve existing institutions, whatever they might be. She writes:
[Burke] was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as [Samuel] 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 if Burke sought merely to preserve existing institutions, why did he scream to high heaven that “our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut”? Why did he say of those tried and tested Whig institutions that “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”? Why did he declare that the “ancient divisions” between Whig and Tory, which had created and once sustained those institutions, were “nearly extinct” and wonder “if any memory of such antient divisions still exists among us”?
Why did he work so tirelessly for a total war with France when he openly admitted that war “never leaves where it found a nation”? Why did he go to such lengths to explain to an émigré that any restoration of the French monarchy, which he favored, “would be in some measure a new thing” and would “labour under something of the weakness as well as other inconveniences of a Change”?
I understand why Berman holds the view she does; it’s what we’ve all been taught. But she has just read a book in which the author shows why that view is wrong and offers an alternative account: that Burke, like conservatives more generally, responds to democratic movements against regimes of privilege by reinventing those regimes, often by borrowing from the very movements he opposes. If Berman thinks the conventional version is right, she’s under some obligation to show why mine is wrong.
Berman asserts that I “portray America’s leaders as essentially a bunch of evil idiots.” In fact, I argue the opposite, as here, on p. 17 of the book:
It has long been an axiom on the left that the defense of power and privilege is an enterprise devoid of ideas….Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion….Conservatives, for their part, have tended to agree. It was Palmerston, after all, when he was still a Tory, who first attached the epithet “stupid” to the Conservative Party….Nothing, as we shall see, could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.
I further argue that the Bush administration and its neoconservative enablers are the inheritors of the Romantic tradition. If I thought America’s leaders were a bunch of idiots, I would not have compared Donald Rumsfeld’s memos to Thomas Carlyle’s “Mechanical Age,” Richard Perle’s sensibility to Chateaubriand’s, and David Brooks to the leading figures of the Counter-Enlightenment. Nor would I have parsed Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address through the writings of Cardinal Richelieu, Learned Hand, and Francis Bacon. The title of my book is The Reactionary Mind, not The Mindless Reactionary.
Violence, War, and National Security
Berman misconstrues my argument about national security and its relationship to conservatism. She writes:
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.
I don’t think, and certainly don’t argue, that national security is a meaningless concept; my claim is that it’s all too meaningful. Its central premise—the national interest—is the subject of intense contestation, in the US and elsewhere, precisely because nations are congeries of conflicting interests and values. Rather than rise above those conflicts, definitions of the national interest, and its cognate “national security,” are embedded in and reflect those conflicts.
National security is an “ambiguous symbol,” wrote international relations scholar Arnold Wolfers, which “may not have any precise meaning at all.” “May not have any precise meaning” is not the same as “lacks any meaning.” Believers often can’t pin a precise meaning on God yet God is a meaningful concept for them. Most meaningful concepts are imprecise: try coming up with an exact definition of love, friendship, or justice. Likewise, “contested” is not the same as meaningless or empty—a conflation, as H.L.A. Hart noted in his critique of Patrick Devlin, conservatives are all too liable to make.
Berman also claims that I think national security is “merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples.” But my argument in the book is something else altogether. In a nutshell: Because of its ambiguity, national security allows political actors to pursue a great variety of projects in its name: the reinforcement of gender norms, programmatic attacks on the rule of law, the accumulation of economic privileges, romantic notions of battle, and more. And because modern war, in Lukács’ words, insinuates itself into “the inner life of the nation,” various social institutions—the workplace, churches, schools, and more—get mobilized in the name of security. That allows the men and women who run these institutions to describe and defend the pursuit of their interests as contributions to the war effort. Justifying violence and aggression is the least of it.
I devote some 30 pages to this argument, yet Berman does not address it.
Berman also fails to address the detailed evidence I produce in support of the claim that conservatives are “enlivened by” violence and that the notion of catastrophe is such that “the rules of evidence [regarding the imminent destruction of a nation] will be ignored.”
The first claim—about conservatism and violence—opens a 28-page chapter on the intimate relationship between the two. Using Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful as my urtext, I offer as proof that conservatives are enlivened by violence the testimony of the following voices from the right: Harold Macmillan, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, Douglas MacArthur, George Santayana, Helmut von Treitschke, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, Robert Nisbet, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, John Adams, Joseph de Maistre, Georges Sorel, Carl Schmitt, Teddy Roosevelt, John C. Calhoun, Ernst Jünger, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benito Mussolini, and a great many figures in the Bush administration.
The second claim occurs in the midst of a dense five-page discussion—via Bacon, Richelieu, Hand, Michael Walzer, Bush, and Perle—of the following phenomenon: The more terrible a threat is to a nation’s well being (e.g., thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union), the less proof that nation’s government will require of the existence of that threat in order to take action against it. Flouting the rules of evidence in situations like the run-up to the Iraq War is not accidental or peculiar; some four centuries of theoretical and legal precedent can be invoked to justify it.
Again, Berman need not agree with these claims, but she is under some obligation to suggest why they’re wrong. Instead, she simply dismisses them as “vituperation” and “invective” that make “the reader eye’s roll.”
Populism versus Elitism
The one argument of my book to which Berman does devote some time and energy concerns the relationship between populism and the right. Given her work on fascism, I had hoped to learn something from Berman’s critique. Instead, she flies past my argument in pursuit of yet another straw man.
After writing that I believe conservatism is “an inherently elitist” ideology, Berman claims that that argument cannot account for the anti-elitist dimension of conservatism and that I “explain away right-wing populism as some sort of trick” to keep the masses in their place.
The problem here is that Berman seems to believe that elitism and populism are antipodal forms, where never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that’s why she overlooks my argument that elitism and populism are the mutually reinforcing, yet tension-ridden elements of a single project.
Rather than dismiss right-wing populism, I see it and describe it repeatedly throughout the book as fundamental—not just a recent phenomenon but coterminous with the entire tradition of the right. It assumes one of three forms, none of which involves false consciousness or conspiratorial trickery:
Democratic feudalism: Giving real, not imaginary, power to members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them. This can happen in factories (supervisors), families (husbands/fathers), and fields (overseers, slave catchers, etc.) It can also happen in certain forms of nationalism and imperialism, in which the lower orders of one society get to wield real and symbolic power over all the orders of another.
Upside-down populism: Get the lower orders to identify with the higher orders, not through deception but through an emphasis on the one experience they share: loss. When the higher orders are toppled by a revolution, they become victims and thereby join the ranks of a common humanity: their losses are real, and as Burke realized, this can make them formidable claimants on the masses’ attention and sympathy.
Outsider politics: Because the conservative defense of privilege occurs in the wake of a democratic challenge, it must develop a new ruling class and “a new old regime,” in which the truly excellent—not the lazy inheritors of privilege but the very best men—rule. These men often hail from outside the traditional precincts of power, proving their mettle in one of three places: at the barricades of the counterrevolution, on the battlefield, and in the marketplace.
Yes, Palin—like Bush, Reagan, Nixon, and Agnew before her—makes much of her opposition to “liberal elites” in the Ivy League and the culture industries. That sort of rhetoric has been the hallmark of the American (and European) right throughout the twentieth century. But as virtually every historian of the American right has shown, right-wing anti-elitism has seldom been leveled, in policy or practice, at the real sources and centers of power and privilege in America. Quite the opposite: it often has cheered an upward transfer of resources. Indeed, can Berman cite one proposal of the McCain-Palin ticket that would have undermined the power of elites? Is she aware that many members of the Tea Party would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct and popular election of senators? That they harbor, as empirical political scientists who’ve studied the Tea Party demonstrate, an unusually high degree of animus against racial minorities and immigrants?
For all of Berman’s insistence that my book is politically driven—The Reactionary Mind replicates the “breathless Manichean attitude” of Ann Coulter; it’s “a diatribe that preaches to the converted”—her main complaint seems to be that it is not politic enough. It’s not diplomatic or tactful; it doesn’t talk to “the people” the way a politician should.
The left’s central challenge, accordingly, is how to address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so.
It’s an odd responsibility to assign to a work of scholarship: that it “connect with the people,” “reach out to ordinary citizens,” and “get credit for doing so.” Instead of marketing a palatable worldview, I was aiming to offer a fresh sense of an intellectual tradition. I also hoped that, if my argument were truly fresh, it might stir up an argument or two. While Berman’s review is, frankly, not the sort of argument I’d hoped for, I look forward to the dust-ups to come.