Tag Archives: William F. Buckley

From the Arms Race to Climate Change, Conservatives Have Never Cared Much About the Day After

20 Sep

Sunday’s the big climate march in New York City, which I’ll be going to with my family and, well, a lot of other people. I had promised my friends Ted Levine and Carolina Bank-Muñoz that I would blog about it. But the last couple of weeks have gotten away from me.

But tonight I read a great post by David Roberts that my wife sent me. It’s about the conservative refusal to deal seriously with climate change. And it tells an unbelievable story.

I give you North Carolina, where a government-sponsored scientific report revealed that, by the end of the century, oceans would rise up to 39 inches and the Outer Banks would be under water — an economic and cultural cataclysm for the state.

Galvanized by the threat, the Republican-controlled legislature … threw out the forecast.

The state’s new Republican governor appointed a new coastal commission chairman, Frank Gorham, an oil and gas man who announced this spring that the new forecast would be limited to 30 years.

These are people who literally close their ears to the news that their own homes will be underwater…

Roberts tells this story as a counter to a friend of his, George Marshall, who thinks conservatives can be reasoned with on the question of climate change.

Marshall’s suggestions are sensible: find spokespeople within the movement to do the talking; frame things in terms of values like conservation, purity, and loss-aversion; avoid divisive, hot-button topics like cap-and-trade. My contention is simply that the [conservative] tribe is too far gone.

Count me on Roberts’s side of this one, but I want to take issue with that last “the tribe is too far gone” remark. Because it implies that once upon a time, they weren’t.

Now I’ve blogged many a time against the notion that once upon a time, conservatives were different, that they were like Edmund Burke and Bill Buckley. In fact, I’ve written a whole book against that notion. So I won’t rehearse those arguments here.

Instead, I want to focus on that North Carolina story and what it tells us about how conservatives think about time. Not necessarily about the environment, about which their views may have changed in response to political contingencies, but time. And the truth is, though conservatives are supposed to care about conserving the past for the sake of the future—hence, Roberts’ friend Marshall urging him to talk about “conservation, purity, and loss-aversion”—they’ve always had a strangely distended notion of time. Even Burke. An almost teenage, James Dean-esque, version of time.  In which we’re burning the candle at both ends, so why worry today about what we may not survive to experience tomorrow?

I was going to write more about this and then remembered that I already have in a previous post:

In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

When conservatives in North Carolina in 2014 hear “by the end of the century” in the context of climate change, they’re responding the way Bill Buckley did in 1984 in the context of the nuclear arms race: You’re saying we’ve got 15 more years? 20 more years? That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

No, it’s not.

See you on Sunday.

An Archive For Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz Interviews?

16 Jul

In the summer and fall of 2000, I interviewed William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz for an article I was writing for Lingua Franca. The article where Buckley compared capitalism to sex (both boring), Kristol complained that there was no one on the right with the political imagination of Marx, and Podhoretz (who I never quoted) cited a list of resentments so long it would make the Underground Man blush.

I have four cassette tapes from those interviews that I would like to have transcribed and also converted to audio files that could be posted on the web. I’m hoping there’s an archive somewhere that might be interested, so I don’t have to pay for this. But I’m also prepared to pay someone if necessary.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Feel free to email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

 

Rimbaud Conservatism

22 Dec

All this talk of arming teachers and training children to rush psychopaths who are outfitted with machine guns semi-automatic weapons reminds me of a moment in high school.

But first, a recap.

In the wake of the Newtown killings, writers on the right have suggested we should teach children to turn on their assailants, rushing them en masse. Here’s Megan McArdle writing in The Daily Beast:

I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

McArdle is a libertarian. You know, the type who believes you can’t derive Rawlsian-style social justice from self-interested premises—that shit would never work—but that you can adduce from those very same premises a mass death instinct of the sort that powered the Red Army to victory against the Nazis. When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.

And here’s Charlotte Allen—about whom the less said, the better—writing in National Review Online:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker observed in response:

One image that comes to mind is the soldiers sent to die in outmoded frontal assaults against machine-gun embankments in the First World War….

As the mother of a twelve-year-old who might be described as husky, or at least big for his age, I do teach him that he has an extra responsibility to, for example, stand up for littler kids who are bullied—to never be a bystander. But I greatly resent the idea that he should throw himself in front of a bullet because a grown congressman isn’t brave enough to throw an N.R.A. lobbyist out of his office.

The World War I reference is apt. There is something bloodcurdling about grownups speaking so blithely about sending children off to their deaths. As if these kids don’t have a future of their own, as if they are all to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever K Street Moloch the right happens to be worshiping at this particular hour.

Which brings me to my story. In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I reject the notion that there has been some kind of downward trajectory on the American right since Buckley (or Burke, for that matter). What we hear from the Allen’s and McArdle’s of today is no different from what we heard from the Buckley’s of yesterday. The right has always been interested in violence and death. It has seldom been a country for old men—except the old men, and apparently women, who dream of the slaughter of young children.

Rick Perlstein Schools Mark Lilla

16 Mar

After discussing the forgotten lunacies of the conservative movement during its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s—including one Fred Schwarz, right-wing crackpot and author of You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists—Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the American right than just about anyone, writes this:

The notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it. In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin’s ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that “most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley.” So what did a “reality-based conservative” like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for “instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know.” So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack’s “tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights.” And here’s the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz’s 1996 memoir(Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): “How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism.” The “establishment conservatives,” Reagan and Kemp, and the “nut,” Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.

 You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today’s Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all. Here’s the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush: “It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.”

Amen to that.  Rick also writes:
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
Again, amen.

Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 Jan

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries' worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)

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.”

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