In Which I Talk to a Conservative about His Reactionary Mind

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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