Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism

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.”


  1. Deb December 1, 2011 at 9:34 pm | #

    Sullivan might be emblematic of a ‘gay-embracing right wing’ in the shifting sands of racial/sexual/gender/religion hierarchies. Last week the term that perhaps best describes this particular marriage of convenience between some members of sexual minorities and older established reactionary movements (highly anti-immigrant also in Europe, e.g. charged campaigns led by the likes of Jörg Haider and Pim Fortuyn) was mentioned in the New York Times with a new name for the phenomenon: Homonationalism.

    • Donald Pruden a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 2, 2011 at 11:31 am | #

      Deb is right to point this matter out. Let me provide an assist.

      As for Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism, there is also this:

      And this:

      I won’t waste the readers’ time with the myriad refutations to the claim that pursuing IQ numbers as “science” is some kind of curiosity motivated, non-interested — and not some intellectually and morally and politically suspect — project. As a person of color, I take seriously Prof. Corey’s observation that lording it over others as a defensive posture is a persistent marker of the conservative project. I therefore would offer the idea that Sullivan’s moderation and “utopianism” does not preclude a social structure based upon the “science” of IQ numbers (after all, anything will do for this purpose if it looks like “science”). I offer this question to all supporters of this notion: I know you are willing to offer up MY body to your schemes; are you willing to pay the price if YOUR numbers are as low as you think mine would be? Are you willing to hand over your cushy job pressing little black keys on a typing pad in a climate controlled room and for which you receive high pay, and spend all your remaining days scrubbing horse poop from Central Park asphalt for starvation wages, if your “numbers” were read to mean that this is best you should be allowed in life? Don’t tell me this is not the end and purpose of IQ “science”. We all know the history. You come at me or mine with your “science” and I will make you pay dearly for it. Very, very dearly.

      What Sullivan and others don’t consider is the degree of co-operation from affected populations once IQ becomes the basis of policy. So much for his “utopianism”. It is on this point, that of social value of IQ “science”, that I don’t find that Sullivan has seen fit to part company with his fellow conservatives. Other matters maybe, but not this one.

      American conservatives love “science” when it can put Blacks (and some others) in their “proper” place — but can’t stomach it when it comes to saving ourselves from human caused global climate change. Or, if it is used in studies on the constituent substances used in hydro-fracking. Huh!

      Beware conservatives and their “marriage of convenience” with some progressive ideas — there other more reactionary ones (like racism or nationalism) for which their other, more moderate seeming, positions are little more than the proverbial Trojan Horse. When it comes to other conservatives, Sullivan is only less obstreperous. What he is not, at least on this other issue, is less of a menace.

      • Corey Robin December 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm | #

        Just wanted to be clear about something. When I say “utopian,” I don’t mean progressive or good or anything like that. I mean that it’s a vision that’s not grounded in reality as it is but in a dream of how it might be. That dream — as was true of fascism or of the avant garde of the Southern master class, who tried to imagine an entire continent, north and south, east to west, an empire, founded on slave labor — can often be a nightmare. But I think it’s worth pointing out that it is as utopian — in the sense spelled out above — as the dream of the most radical leftist. So there’s nothing inconsistent about being the most hidebound racist reactionary and being a utopian. I think Nazism fits that to a tee.

    • Gobineau December 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm | #

      Americans have a very blinkered view of the political spectrum and this touches on another problem I have with Corey’s book. The European Right *is* very different from the American Right, though of course there are similarities as well. I happen to very attracted to the European Right. I find much to like about Nietzsche, Pareto, Maurras, Daudet, Bainville, Taine, Le Bon, Ortega y Gasset, Klages, Heidegger, Spengler, La Tour du Pin, Rougier, Freund, Burckhardt, Croce, Gobineau, Freyer, De Benoist, etc. The American Right and the GOP, however, have very little appeal to me. Admittedly, I’m probably far more cultured than most Americans (on both the left and right), and I would never claim that I represent a large segment of the population, but that pedigree is there and you can’t talk seriously about the right without tackling it.

      Corey doesn’t treat most of those names I just mentioned in his book. He is correct that the right is often more activist than not, but he tries so hard to find similarities that he overlooks the substantial differences and clashes between various factions of the right. There is very very little about the American status quo that I wish to conserve, and I’d wager that the changes I would make are more far-reaching than those most on the left would make. This does not, however, entail a “utopian” worldview. Nor does a “politics of reality” or a more “realist” view of human behavior necessitate that we make peace with that status quo and stick with gradual reform. It does mean that we have fundamentally different ideas of man’s capacities and the best arrangement for society. My worldview begins with the assumption that *inequality* is both natural and beneficent, contrary to the leftist utopian vision that total equality is either possible or laudable, and that thus modern egalitarian democracy is, in fact, degenerate and should be abolished.

      And homosexuals have always been well represented on the right, even the extreme right. The connection has not gone unnoticed — Ernst Rohm was attacked by German Communists for his sexual orientation and Luchino Visconti’s La caduta degli dei contains a memorable sequence in the SA barracks. I also recently pointed out to an acquaintance the surprisingly large number of literary homosexuals sympathetic to the right. If homosexuals are associated with the Democrats in the U.S. at the moment, it is because of the gay marriage issue. Once that blows over, people might be surprised where their allegiances shift. Through my personal experience and observation, I’ve also noticed that homosexuals have less compunction about broaching taboo subjects such as race and intelligence — Sullivan being a case in point. I actually try to squelch homophobia on the right on this basis. Not because I believe in nonsense like “equality” but because I realize that it’s foolish to chase away a high-IQ, high-achieving group that, for reasons on which I can only speculate, has a natural proclivity towards your side.

      • Deb December 3, 2011 at 12:21 am | #

        The notion that the extreme right exercised an extraordinary hold over gay people is likely a holdover of an era when gay people were pathologized in most societies as George Mosse argued:

        But the outsider always wanted to conform–which in this case meant subordination to current ideals of masculinity…I have no idea how one can erect a memorial that demonstrates the degradation of a minority as an almost natural consequence of the higher power (translator’s rendition of “Übermacht”) of the society. This seems to be kind of a leap to me, but not only homosexuals tried to conform; many others tried as well. In the years before the U.S. civil rights movement, blacks, or Afro-Americans, tried to straighten their hair chemically, and, for example, used skin creams to lighten their skin. We also know that Jewish women have nose jobs done. At all times the minority wants to conform to the standards of the majority, and of course, this also applies to homosexuals, who, at the time of the Third Reich, were not only conformists (translator’s rendition of “Mitläufer”)…

        Read the Brown Book on the Hitler-Terror, and you will find that the main swear word of the Nazis was “gay.” The anti-fascist movement—I myself was a member of this movement—was defamed as being gay by the Nazis. We know that the National-Socialists dominated the entire political debate of the 1930’s. Therefore, it was logical that within the anti-fascist movement a counter-accusation of Nazi-homosexuality also dominated. However, one must view this within the context of the time. Maxim Gorki set the tone with his remark: “Exterminate the homosexuals, and fascism will disappear.”

        Nonetheless, Mosse—who was a gay Jewish teenager in Berlin when the Nazis came to power—warned against succumbing to the more recent problem of “historical correctness” that tends to portray every gay person under Fascism as a hapless victim: “Even so, the attractiveness of Nazis to many homosexuals should not be ignored.”

      • Corey Robin December 6, 2011 at 8:08 pm | #

        Gobineau: I would submit that a full semester’s immersion in lots of American conservative writers, including the more economically inclined that you dislike, would make you realize that your vision of inequality as central to society is in fact a very American idea. In fact, however much it might pain you to hear it, your views are not at all that different from Ayn Rand’s, who is one of the most popular writers on the right.

  2. Paul Rosenberg December 2, 2011 at 5:40 am | #

    It’s also quite telling that Eisenhower, the President who best emdodies “Burkean conservatism” was for the most part never regarded as a conservative. He beat the “real conservative”, Robert Taft, and was more or less hated for doing the “Burkean” thing by accepting the New Deal as something that had become a part of the established order. The John Birch Society despised him–Welch famously dubbed him a “Communist dupe”–and Eisenhower pretty much returned the favor, so far as forerunners of today’s conservatives are concerned. He accepted Nixon & McCarthy as prominent party figures he had to work with, and he never really complained about them doing his dirty work for him. This was, of course, morally shameful. But that’s “Burkean conservatism” for you.

    Where one CAN find plenty of such figures is among the American electorate. as was first documented in the 1967 book, _The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion_ by public opinion research pioneers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril. They discovered the widespread pattern of people who subscribed to free-market, small government ideology on the one hand, but supported liberal social spending programs on the other. The numbers of such people actually exceeded those who were ideologically consistent. Figures from the General Social Survey, which was begun just over half a decade later, have consistently shown a similar-sized demographic block that’s been fairly consistent in its relative size.

    The thing is, these people have relatively no influence on the nature of conservatism among the political classes. Their only influence is largely confined to how far they’re willing to go in following the lead that’s set for them. This is where “Burkean conservatism” comes in handy, as a way of describing their conflicted and relatively powerless state as if it were a soberly deliberated and powerful principled position.

  3. Deb December 2, 2011 at 8:52 am | #

    Eisenhower—and even Nixon—might be described as “enlightened conservatives” by Immanuel Wallerstein. Here is a typically far-ranging audio interview that aired on Tuesday.

    • Paul Rosenberg December 2, 2011 at 10:35 am | #

      To clarify: I think it’s true of Eisenhower–even if it is an oxymoron. But for Nixon, not so much.

      Moynihan actually appealled to Nixon’s ego with that whole line regarding domestic policy. I don’t remember the details, but I believe he invoked the example of Robert Peel. But the truth is, Nixon didn’t really give a damn about domestic policy–and said so on various occassions. Thus, his enlightenment consisted in realizing he could use things he didn’t give a damn about to gain power for things he DID give a damn about.

  4. Bruce Bartlett December 2, 2011 at 10:50 am | #

    I think you are much too dismissive of the Burkean strain of conservatism that was an important part of the Republican philosophy until quite recently. In their own ways, I think Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush 41 were all Burkeans, as was 1997 GOP nominee Bob Dole. Clearly, Bush 43 was not and there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism anywhere in the Republican Party or the conservative movement today. But times can change. All that is really needed is a leader for the Sullivan/Frum/Bartlett philosophy to have an impact. Great oaks from little acorns grow.

    • Philip Wohlstetter December 2, 2011 at 6:40 pm | #

      We can debate who should or should not be counted among this happy few, Bruce, but channeling Corey here, your group needs a new name since Edmund Burke is not a Burkean conservative. He’s passionate, extreme, sometimes hysterical. “A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with… blood rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with an hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and through ways unknown to the murderers had escaped to take refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.” The Queen at Versailles, appearing as what Mark Edmundson calls, the first Gothic heroine’. The words ‘almost naked’ give away the game. I can hear Glenn Beck delivering them.

      I wish the Left had orator-thinkers as passionate and engaged as Burke or Joseph De Maistre. What they say chills but I love to read them.

    • Corey Robin December 3, 2011 at 8:13 pm | #

      First, Bruce (if I may), welcome to the blog! Very exciting to have you round these parts. Second, since you’re someone who knows the GOP and the conservative movement from the inside — and at the highest levels — I’m very eager to hear your perspective on all this. Particularly eager to know how/why you think the figures you cite were all Burkeans. Definitely elaborate! But for now I’d say three things in response:

      1. As Philip says above, I don’t believe Burke was a Burkean (perhaps in the same way Marx is supposed to have famously said, “I am not a Marxist.”) I’d be eager to explain why, but if you’re at all interested, you can check out this post: Or, if you’re really interested, I’m happy to send you my book The Reactionary Mind, in which I make the case at greater length. Feel free to email me your address at

      2. I think the second half of your statement here gives the game away. You say “there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism” in the GOP or on the right. Yet, you think a great leader can, through force of leadership, make something that does not exist come into existence. That seems like a decidedly non-Burkean sensibility to me. In fact, it’s downright Jacobin. In the same way that the Jacobins, at least according to the conservative critiques like Burke’s, were supposed to have imposed an alien ideology on inhospitable soil, on soil that offered up no native or indigenous elements that would be receptive to the Rights of Man. And they did it, again goes the conservative critique, because they believed in the capacity of the revolutionary will, embodied in their leadership, to impose itself on and against the force of circumstance. The syntax of your claim moves in the same direction.

      3. Lastly, often when people say Reagan was a Burkean what they mean is that he was pragmatic, realistic, that he responded and was sensitive to the institutional resistances to his agenda, that he was adaptive, willing to change course as circumstances dictated, etc. I think we need to be wary and leery of that definition of Burkeanism. For two reasons. First, it’s not what Burke himself thought, or at least not simply thought; and indeed, he often castigated his allies for their pragmatism and so-called realism, which he thought was a cover for cravenness. Second, that kind of pragmatism and realism — a sensitivity to circumstances, etc. — is hardly the monopoly of the right or even the Burkean right. Lenin has often been described in exactly the same terms (as against, supposedly, the greater rigidity of Trotsky and his followers.) As someone who certainly kept his eye on the prize, but who had a great deal of tactical savvy, and knew how to adapt to circumstances and be sensitive to certain institutional constraints and resistances. I suspect any successful revolutionary — genuine revolutionary, that is — must possess a certain amount of that kind of supple realism. It kind of goes with the territory.

      Anyway, very eager to hear thoughts on any and all of this. And more important very eager to get your own insider perspective on all this.

      Thanks for writing.


    • Benjamin David Steele October 31, 2013 at 6:20 pm | #

      Republicanism is a confused concept in the United States. The Republican Party began as a radical third party which attracted even the 19th century version of left-wingers. Marx was supportive of Lincoln’s Republican Party.

      Well into the 20th century, the GOP had both a right and a left wing. Eisenhower praised liberalism and even Nixon who implemented the Southern Strategy was reluctant to criticize liberalism. It wasn’t until Reagan that the GOP became more fully taken over by the right.

      Some have argued that liberalism and republicanism were interwoven ideological movements in the early American period. Consider Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, for example.

  5. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 5, 2011 at 2:11 pm | #

    Can you, Professor Robin, please engage the comment on Andrew Sullivan’s pro-Bell Curve views, and how a belief in the innate (intellectual inferiority) of those ascribed he racial status ‘black’ relates to your arguments about the reactionary mind? It is interesting to me that only the self-proclaimed person of color bothered to bring up this ‘elephant’ in the conservative room (and yes, an allusion to the GOP icon–the elephant–too).
    Especially in light of Newt Gingrich’s comments about poor children and janitorial work, why are so many conservatives loathe to acknowledge the racist social Darwinism informing so many conservative understandings of social relations, politics, and the legitimacy of hierarcy/exclusion?

    I ask this question–especially in relation to janitorial work, menial labor, and the (elite) university–because I also think it relates directly to your comments on being radicalized as a Yale graduate student, and remembering what it felt like to be seen and treated as someone who was, essentially anf fundamentally, a servant: a maid, as you wrote.

    I also ask the question as a fellow Yale alum whose work-study job was in the Yale dining hall: and who continues to regularly be seen and treated as a servant, in daily interactions, because of the color of my skin and despite my Yale degree (earned with academic honors). There is nothing ‘soft’ about the bigotry of low expectations, or constant assumptions that one is of low intelligence, ‘ghetto’ origins, or criminal proclivities: especially so as to justify conservative polices produced by and that reproduce structural inequality, structural and symbolic violence, early death, and which legitimate dehumanization and treating some as barely-human second-class citizens.

    • Corey Robin December 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm | #

      I did talk in my book a fair amount about the role of racism in conservative thought. I actually, I’m embarrassed to say, haven’t really followed much Sullivan’s continuing obsession with this topic. I did read the back and forth between him and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and felt like there wasn’t much more to add to it beyond what Coates said. But I obviously agree with much of what you guys say about it here. It wasn’t the focus of my particular engagement with Sullivan, only b/c his work raises different issues for me.

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