Tag Archives: Peter Viereck

Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism

1 Dec

In a nice post about Peter Viereck, a mid-century American conservative who the New Yorker rightly rescued from obscurity a few years back, Andrew Sullivan makes the following observation:

…there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Equally, there has been a long tradition of the kind of conservatism that is ascendant today: relishing violence and war, ideological, revanchist and in favor of limiting government but not of limiting other forces inimical to liberty, like rentier classes, or a fusion of corporate interests and legislation.

As some of you know, I’ve been poking at Sullivan about this distinction for some time. In a nutshell: my argument is that the second tradition Sullivan cites is what conservatism is all about; his argument is that any account of conservatism ought to include the first tradition as well.

Sullivan doesn’t dismiss my argument:

Viereck preceded [William F.] Buckley and was almost instantly de-legitimized in a manner that the “conservative movement” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has become quite adept at (see: Sullivan, Bartlett, Frum et al.) What Viereck reveals is that in some ways, the new leftist critiques of conservatism (like Corey Robin’s stimulating, if uneven, series of essays) have a point.

He just thinks, as he’s argued before, that my argument is incomplete.

Sullivan admits that Viereck was a minority voice on the right, famously excommunicated by National Review for “passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism”: Viereck argued that conservatives should support the New Deal and labor unions, and opposed McCarthyism and favored the Democrats.  Sullivan clearly sees himself (as well as fellow fugitives David Frum and Bruce Bartlett) in a similar light: as a lonely heretic on the right, trying to bring some moderation to the movement. That made Viereck homeless in the 1950s, and it’s what makes Sullivan homeless today.

There’s just one problem with this story: conservatives aren’t supposed to be homeless, they aren’t supposed to be fugitives. Theirs, as Bill Buckley liked to say, is “the politics of reality.” Indeed, just yesterday, Sullivan said the same thing: “I believe conservatism is about facing reality.” But if your position proves time and again to be a chimera—as the great historian of British conservatism John Ramsden has written, with the exception of Robert Peel and Stanley Baldwin, no Tory leader has ever pursued a Burkean program of preservation through reform, and even Peel could not persuade his party to follow him—at what point does it run the risk of quitting the field of politics altogether and retiring to the reliquary of pure theory and idle speculation?

Back in the heyday of Cold War polemics, there was a phrase tossed around on the left—alternatively, “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism”—intended to signify the gap between Marxist ideal and communist reality. It was used sincerely and ironically, by defenders and detractors of the Soviet experiment alike. But in the hands of a certain type of Marxist purist, it came down to this: yes, the Soviet Union is a disaster, but once we have a true socialist society, all will be peace, love, and understanding. I’m simplifying and exaggerating, but you get the point.

Sullivan’s conservatism, like Viereck’s and others’, often has the same flavor. But where purists of the left have nothing to apologize for or be embarrassed about—theirs, after all, is a self-professed politics of utopia—conservatives of the Sullivan variety have some explaining to do.  For by their own definition and identification, they have excluded themselves from that family of political impossibility. Theirs, to repeat, is a politics of reality, not utopia.

Utopia, it’s often been remarked, has a literal meaning in the original Greek is a word with Greek roots that mean “no place.” I would submit that if you have to reach back more than a half-century to Eisenhower (the notion of Reagan or Bush I being at peace with the New Deal is hard to square with any narrative of American history I’m familiar with) to find a place on the right for your political ideal, then your politics are as utopian as that of the most radical leftist, who, after all, also believes that his Promised Land is a mere half-century out of reach.

Update (December 3, 8:15 pm)

Bruce Bartlett, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s top policy advisers and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Bush I, has weighed in on the comments section. I urge you to read his thoughts on all this.

Update (December 3, 11 pm)

Just to give you another example of the right’s utopianism, this is from Ross Douthat’s column today. We’ve talked about Douthat before, how his views on sex betray an agonistic desire for self-overcoming. Here he is today, in a piece titled “The Decadent Left” (the right, as I argue in my book, is obsessed with decadence), talking about how much he appreciates Occupy Wall Street; unlike self-interested and narrow groups like unions, says Douthat, OWS fights for something larger than itself. The right is infatuated with the politics of impossibility, even when—particularly when—it comes from the left.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

In Which I Talk to a Conservative about His Reactionary Mind

3 Nov

Daniel Larison is just about one of the smartest conservatives around. He’s a writer and editor at The American Conservative*, has got a PhD from the University of Chicago and a sensibility that hearkens back to Peter Vierick and the Southern Agrarians: anti-imperial, leery of corporate capitalism, regionalist, and fiercely independent. He’s one of the most scathing critics of the Republican Party and contemporary conservatism around, and he’s not afraid to call people out on their foolishness, even when they’re (putatively) on his side. Yet he still manages to get high praise from his peers on the right.

So, naturally, when The New Inquiry—an online venture described by Jonathan Lethem as “evidence of book culture’s lastingly bright futureoffered to put me in dialogue with Daniel about my book, I leaped at the chance. What ensued was a free-wheeling and substantive—very substantive—exchange over the course of several weeks: about conservatism, counterrevolution, fascism, imperialism, and more.

That dialogue has now been posted.  Here’s a taste:

Larison: We agree that conservatives seek restoration of an earlier order from which they believe they and those like them benefited, or from those parts that might still be restored. Something that also links most political counterrevolutionaries is an insistence on defending what they consider legitimate authorities from usurpers, and in the Anglo-American experience that has most often taken the form of appeals to constitutional tradition. I don’t think there’s any question that conservatives react against revolutions to protect privileges and interests. (Are they any political actors who are not acting, at some level, out of self-interest?) But there is also a concern to preserve lawful rule to provide for the common good.

Robin: You say that you agree that conservatives seek to restore an order of privilege from which they benefit but which also benefits the common good by providing a system of “lawful rule.” Here, I am actually more generous — if that’s the word — to conservatives as theoreticians than perhaps you are. Because, as I take great pains to stress throughout my book, the leading lights of conservatism are often themselves not implicated in the systems of rule that they are defending. Often they are outsiders and/or newcomers to established modes of privilege and rule….While I agree that the conservative’s argument is on behalf of a common order that is supposed to benefit the whole, I don’t think it’s lawfulness per se that is seen as the keystone benefit. What conservatives value about the order they defend is that it is one in which excellence rules. The rule of the better over the worse is critical, I think, to the conservative imagination. That is the law conservatives value above all else, and indeed, they have proven themselves to be quite hostile to laws that undermine that rule… The law that conservatives value is a kind of natural law in which the best rise to the top, through struggle and adversity, and prove their mettle.

Keep reading here. To my mind, the whole exchange is a model of how two writers of opposite persuasions can talk seriously and substantively about matters of vital—and partisan—interest to both of them.

* That’s the quirky  publication that reviewed my book and, in the highest praise I could ever hope for from the right, said of me: “I feel sure that if trapped on a desert island with the man, I should soon commit suicide.” Which prompted a good friend of mine to write: “If that’s all it takes to make the Right go lemming-like off a cliff into the sea, then by god Corey, you are the secret weapon the Left’s been waiting for. To the island!” Relax, it was just a joke.


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