Conservatism is Dead…Because It Lives

In the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind, I claimed that conservatism was dead. I wrote that in the wake of the 2010 congressional election, at the height of the Tea Party euphoria, when just about everyone was saying the opposite.

Last night, a Harvard professor defeated a faux-populist. A coalition of blacks, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, and white working class voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, defeated the most retrograde versions of homophobia, sexism, racism, and anti-intellectualism (notice I say only “the most retrograde”). For the second time in four years. I think (hope?) it’s safe to say that The Real America, The Heartland, The Silent Majority—choose your favorite kitschy cliche of the last five decades—no longer governs the land. Obama’s coalition, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted a decade ago, is the wave of the future.

That said, last night Barack Obama claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration. There’s a history to this, as I’ve pointed out. But it also confirms another thing I said in the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.

Here’s the entirety of my conclusion to The Reactionary Mind:

Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years. Just as the Republican administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon demonstrated the resilience of the New Deal, so have the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama demonstrated the resilience of Reaganism.

The conservative embrace of unregulated capitalism and imperial power still envelops our two parties. Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.

The success of the right, however, is not an unmixed blessing. As conservatives have long noted, there is a dialectical synergy between the left and the right, in which the progress of the former spurs on the innovations of the latter. “It is ironic, although not historically unprecedented,” wrote Frank Meyer, the intellectual architect of the fusionist strategy that brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of modern conservatism, “that such a burst of creative energy on the intellectual level” on the right “should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of Liberalism in the practical political sphere.” Across the Atlantic, Roger Scruton, a more traditional type of British Tory, wrote that “in times of crisis . . . conservatism does its best,” while Friedrich Hayek observed that the defense of the free market “became stationary when it was most influential” and “progressed” when it was “on the defensive.”

True, these were intellectuals writing about ideas; conservative operatives might be less sanguine about the prospect of trading four more years for a few good books. Even so, if the ultimate fate of a party is tied to the strength of its ideas—not the truth of its ideas, but the resonance and pertinence of those ideas, their cultural purchase and ability to travel across the political landscape—it should be a cause of concern on the right that its ideas have so roundly succeeded. As Burke warned long ago, victory may simply be a way station to death.

Several recent books of conservative introspection suggest that many on the right are indeed concerned about the state of conservative ideas. But most of these attempts at self-criticism seem motivated by a simple fear of defeat at the polls. Oriented as they are to the electoral cycle or to the pros and cons of particular policies, they don’t see that conservatism, like any party, can lose elections yet still control public debate. More important, these writers don’t understand that failure is the wellspring of conservative renewal. They imagine that conservatism can simply be reinvented or retooled to meet the needs of a changing electorate or the hobbyhorses of its theoreticians.

But that is not how conservatism works. Conservatism requires defeat; failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Not failure in the brooding, romantic sense that Andrew Sullivan articulates in his paean to loss, but failure in the simultaneously threatening and galvanizing sense. Loss—real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.

What the right suffers from today is not loss but success, and until a significant dominant group in society is forced to suffer loss—of the kind experienced by employers during the 1930s, white supremacists during the 1960s, or husbands in the 1970s—it will remain a philosophically flabby movement. Politically powerful, but intellectually moribund.

Which leads me to wonder about the long-term prospects of the Tea Party, the latest variant of right-wing populism. Has the Tea Party given conservatism a new lease on life? Or is the Tea Party like the New Politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last spark of a spent force, its frantic energies a mask for the decline of the larger movement of which it is a part?

It’s impossible to say, but this much is clear: So long as there are social movements demanding greater freedom and equality, there will be a right to counter them. With the exception of the gay rights movement, there are today no threatening social movements of the left. Once they arise, a new right will arise with them—not a right that needs to invent bogeymen like Obama’s socialism but a right with real monsters to destroy. Until then, we can chalk up the current state of the right not to its failures of imagination or excess of spleen—as some have done—but to its overwhelming success.

Modern conservatism came onto the scene of the twentieth century in order to defeat the great social movements of the left. As far as the eye can see, it has achieved its purpose. Having done so, it now can leave. Whether it will, and how much it will take with it on its way out, remains to be seen.

Update (10:45 pm)

On an unrelated note—to this post, though not to this blog—a commenter writes:

Also, there’s an aspect to the weed legalization initiatives that Corey should be interested in. Neither Colorado’s nor Washington’s laws prohibit employers from firing employees for testing positive for smoking off-duty. Colorado’s legislature and courts haven’t explicitly taken a side, but employers interpret the law in a way favorable to them, so people will probably be fired in the near future for testing positive. Washington explicitly allows firing those that test positive, even for medical marijuana patients.

So state legalization means you can smoke or you can have a job. Freedom!




  1. William A. Franklin November 7, 2012 at 10:49 am | #

    You do not mention the advent of unlimited money on electoral processes

    and the conquering of the state level, much less the gargantuan media assault

    of the current era on liberalism, socialism, centrism, and everything not to the

    right of hell.

    William A. Franklin

    806 Warwick Court

    Burlington, NC 27215


  2. jonnybutter November 7, 2012 at 11:17 am | #

    I think you showed very well that, in a general sense, ‘failure is the wellspring of conservative renewal’. I would note that this is also true in a rather literal way: the golden issues for the modern GOP have been golden only insofar as the goals sought thereby are not achieved. In this election, abortion was not the salient issue it had been for more than one reason, but one of those reasons is that the GOP has more or less ‘won’ that issue (not entirely, but in the US context, sort of). The real mover/shaker pols in the GOP dread the prospect of getting their way on cultural issues, because then the issue goes away. One of the most astonishing political feats of recent years is their ability to create and sustain the problems they themselves then use against their opponents. It’s a liberal cliche, but true: the GOP and their right libertarian policies do more to crap on actual family values and create moral anxiety than anything else on the scene – they create it and then they run against it. These feedback loops are less effective now because, well, they won a lot of those fights. ‘Family values’ politics is so mainstream now that you don’t even see it. See also gay marriage.

    That some of the employee coercion CR and others have cited is neither illegal nor seen as shameful also speaks volumes.

    • Scott Preston November 7, 2012 at 8:55 pm | #

      Reading your comment (and also parts of Corey’s book) reminded me of “the Questing Beast”, and I had to google it up to recall the thread of the story. It seems to fit the issue you raise.

      From the Wikipedia entry (describing White’s The Once and Future King: “Having searched fruitlessly all his life for the beast, Pellinore is convinced by his friend Sir Grummore Grummursum to drop his quest. However, when it turns out later that the beast had been pining away for lack of attention, King Pellinore nurses it back to health and resumes his Sisyphean hunt.”

      Nursing the questing beast back to health so one can continue one’s sisyphean quest….

      In fact, it fits somewhat the theme of the post: “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

    • Gaurav Khanna November 8, 2012 at 9:15 am | #

      I’m going to guess you’ve read the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Some of the points you mentioned are echoed in that book — its a great read.

      • jonnybutter November 8, 2012 at 10:10 am | #

        Not sure if you’re talking to me but, no, I never read ‘Kansas’ and probably never will at this point, although you never know…

        I’d also note that the kind of symbiosis were talking about also seems to be an essential feature of the PoMo MO – sort of a subtext to CR’s book. Without an ‘enemy’ – or whatever is is you are struggling against – your own struggle becomes meaningless.

    • Scott Preston November 9, 2012 at 10:28 pm | #

      @jonnybutter: “Without an ‘enemy’ – or whatever is is you are struggling against – your own struggle becomes meaningless.”

      That was the post-cold war “malaise” amongst conservatives. “In Search of Enemies”. Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations based, in part, on the premise that “Americans”, as he put it, needed an external enemy through which to define their identity. In other words, the mirror effect or projection. Barnett in The Pentagon’s New Map noted the malaise that had set in within the Pentagon post-Cold War also (in part) because the prospects for promotion and career advancement had suddenly seemed to dry up (!). The need for enemies in order to define oneself and one’s identity (or preserve one’s meaning, purpose, identity and, of course, career path)… that is what is so bizarre about it all. Do human beings really need an absolute, alien Evil Other in order to define their identity? Is that not a form of narcissism?

  3. Vicky November 7, 2012 at 11:29 am | #

    Corey, do you think that the environmental movement is the new “mustard seed” of the right? (I’m thinking in particular of the more activist efforts of and other organizations directly attacking, e.g., TransCanada’s plans to lay down the TarSands pipeline, or Chevron’s intent to not pay damages for polluting the Amazon rainforest.) It seems likely, given the evidence Will Potter provides in “Green is the New Red.”

    • Corey Robin November 7, 2012 at 11:32 am | #

      Vicky: Not yet, not by a long shot, but it could be if that movement actually started really making inroads into corporate power and privilege.

      • Stephen Zielinski November 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm | #

        It would help if the environmental movement were to spawn a Karl Marx. I say this not because movements need persons around which they may form a cult but because movements need a political culture that points to a feasible path that ends in a play which will be beyond despair and misery.

  4. Stephen Zielinski November 7, 2012 at 11:56 am | #

    A sound read of the current situation. For instance, one only needs to consider this hypothetical situation: If Nixon and Obama were to both seek the Presidency in an election, Nixon would likely be the lesser evil choice of the two candidates even though Nixon butchered more of the poor in the world than Obama has or will. I base my conclusion on what Nixon actually did during his time in office.He was, as Chomsky remarks somewhere, the last liberal president. If, on the other hand, Nixon’s ghost were to possess Obama during the next four years, he might make a real mess of South America. I doubt Obama does anything like that. Still, I may have under rated Obama. Who in 2008 expected Obama to push the country to the right on security and constitutional matters?

    • JohnLiberty88 November 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm | #

      comments is missing an important point…libertarians aren’t nessessarily socially liberal. They just don’t believe social issues are the governments business. In other words, it doesn’t belong in the political sphere. Many libertarians are socially conservative. Many are socially liberal. They believe in the same social policy though because they want to end government involvement. In reguards to gay marraige, liberals want to allow gays to aquire marriage liscenses. Conservatives don’t want gays to be allowed to get marriage liscenses. Libertarians want to abolish the marraige liscense altogether so that government can’t decide.

      btw give us 20-24 years from now: social conservatism and all sort of resident marxian socialism will die. the political battle will be between liberals and libertarians,fuck off the anti-capitalist left and the authoritarian right

  5. Paul H. Rosenberg November 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm | #

    Quite apt. I’m looking to cop a quote here for my next AJE op-ed, talking about what a real progressive presidency might look like, as opposed to Obama.

  6. Cavoyo November 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm | #

    “With the exception of the gay rights movement, there are today no threatening social movements of the left.”

    Are you sure that’s really threatening? It’s threatening to the Church, sure, but the Church’s social power has been declining since the Scopes trial, especially when compared to capital’s social power. The reason pro-gay politics are so popular now is because they don’t really threaten capital. It’s a safe way for the rich and powerful to look progressive. Weed legalization is pretty much like this as well, with the exception of a few notable industries (alcohol, tobacco, prison-industrial complex, and most importantly drug companies, because you can’t patent it). Connor Kilpatrick put it best: “Our ruling class is totally fine with [libertarianism]. Smoke your reefer and sodomize whomever you please, just keep your mouth shut and hand over your Social Security account.”

    • sandeep November 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm | #

      This is a critical point that progressives must accept. Gay rights and humane drug policy should remain elements of the progressive agenda but they cannot be the centerpieces of it. This type of progressivism, which unfortunately is the prevailing progressivism, concedes far too much ground to the executive and dividend-drawing classes. Until challenging the economic, political, and social power of concentrated capital becomes the focal point of progressive politics, the condition of average Americans, let alone poor Americans, will continue to deteriorate.

      • Stephen Zielinski November 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm | #

        I do not necessarily disagree with your claim that gay rights and legalization advocates ought to cede ground to radical economic and political reform, but we should recall here that movements like the feminist, gay, immigrant, etc. cut their teeth criticizing the white male left for its self-centered and myopic politics.

    • Cavoyo November 7, 2012 at 10:41 pm | #

      Also, there’s an aspect to the weed legalization initiatives that Corey should be interested in. Neither Colorado’s nor Washington’s laws prohibit employers from firing employees for testing positive for smoking off-duty. Colorado’s legislature and courts haven’t explicitly taken a side, but employers interpret the law in a way favorable to them, so people will probably be fired in the near future for testing positive. Washington explicitly allows firing those that test positive, even for medical marijuana patients.

      So state legalization means you can smoke or you can have a job. Freedom!

      • Corey Robin November 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm | #

        Thanks, I didn’t know that, though I should have! Am posting this as an update to the post.

  7. Omar November 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm | #

    Corey, while I think that social conservatism is on the decline I think you are mistaken in your assessment in terms of the economic philosophy that dominates both parties.I do not think that “austerity” will become the new norm, but rather an attempt to “stabilize” the system while keeping expenditure at or near it’s current levels. Although many on the left are scared that President Obama will buckle under pressure and agree to large spending cuts,the leverage is on his side at this point. Personally I am curious about how you feel about the rise of nationalism globally and the neo-mercantilist attitudes that seem to go along with it? Because while many on the intellectual left have been critical of “neoliberalism, free trade,and fiscal conservatism” I wonder in your opinion if they would/should continue to embrace such neo-merchantlist policies/theories even when there are also rightwingers across the globe who embrace them albeit for different reasons.

  8. Scott Preston November 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm | #

    it should be a cause of concern on the right that its ideas have so roundly succeeded. As Burke warned long ago, victory may simply be a way station to death.

    Nietzsche’s remark about liberal institutions pertinent here also:

    My conception of freedom. — The value of a thing sometimes does not lie in that which one attains by it, but in what one pays for it — what it costs us. I shall give an example. Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Their effects are known well enough: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic — every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

    Of course, I think one has to be careful to understand what he means by “liberal” in the context of the late 19th c. (and in German also), and not as the term is used, necessarily, in the United States today (or elsewhere, for that matter. A “liberal” in Canada or the UK is something different from a “liberal” in the US).

    In any case, N.’s conception of the self-negation of “liberal institutions” once they triumph (which could include the “free market”, etc), is connected with his formula for nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves.” In this case, after all (too) contemporary conservatism is virtually indistinguishable from classical liberalism. Fukuyama’s triumphalist End of History always brings to mind Nietzsche’s remark.

  9. Gaurav Khanna November 8, 2012 at 9:21 am | #

    Corey – excellent post. One of the most important themes emerging from this election is the change in demographics. The math for future elections is not on the Republican’s side. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about this. The good news is that America is becoming more diverse and more tolerant. If this means a Republican Party that is more attuned to the needs of our changing population (instead of just the “angry white males”), then it’ll make for more competitive elections!

    • Cavoyo November 9, 2012 at 1:58 am | #

      More diverse, perhaps, but not more tolerant. White people are actually less tolerant than they were before 2008:

      Remember, Obama got only 39% of the white vote, which is less than he got in 2008 (43%) and Dukakis got in 1988 (40%). As time goes on we will see two trends. One is the share of white voters as a whole decreasing. The other is the share of whites anxious about losing the wages of whiteness increasing. Only time will tell which trend predominates.

  10. Dan November 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm | #

    This isn’t wrong, but it seems unaware and uninterested in the details of politicized heartland bigots and the possible causes of their anger which is misdirected against imaginary enemies and runs counter to their own interests.

    As Robin notes, Conservatism achieved dominance by wedding religious and social conservatives with libertarians — and because the religious right spend the past 4 decades organizing as much as 35% of the voting population into a big, wealthy and profitable culture-warring machine that runs 24/7. So at the height of their influence when Conservatives had no major monsters to slay, the libertarians expected to be awarded legalized drugs and the social cons expected re-criminalized abortion — two things the GOP and broadly centrist elite in both parties absolutely do not want to happen.

    That’s already a tough situation to navigate, but then the country was sneak-attacked by brown “infidels,” and the Heartland kids went off to war. The gay bandidos, sensing opportunity, popped up and proved surprisingly effective at passing gay marriage legislation and blocking homophobes’ attempt to block them. Then major sectors of the economy affecting Joe Heartland’s pension and mortgage crashed due to the banking “reforms” made under Clinton and Bush I. Bush II was widely seen as a failure, and a black, African, “Muslim” professor-pinhead-pussy was elected president, and this inspired old white men to become terrorists. China came into view as the rising economic king of the planet and a competitor for energy resources whose pigs eat before middle-eastern peasants. Iran emerged as a credible nuclear threat. Declining American cities and infrastructure, the influx of brown and black immigrants, even an increasing awareness of domestic and international demographic futures — all of these phenomena can be brought together in a paranoid apocalyptic fantasy, in either religulous or fairly secular forms — all of them bigoted, xenophobic, rather racist, and based on a cockeyed idea of American exceptionalism/neo-imperialism: we must identify the BIG EVIL ENEMY out there in the world (or in our midst) and FIGHT him TO THE FINISH. We can do this anywhere, any time, because we are on a mission from God Jehovah or the Enlightenment gods of liberty and so on…

    I am not so sure this stuff will just fade away and can be safely disregarded.

  11. Cavoyo November 13, 2012 at 3:31 am | #

    I just remembered something else about this election of interest. It’s been in the news that various employers are firing employees, lowering wages, cutting hours, etc. because of Obama’s reelection or Obamacare. In other words, capital is striking because of politics. If union labor were to strike because Obama didn’t pass the Employee Free Choice Act, or slow down the line because they expect a Republican house to weaken the Affordable Care Act, the union would be violating labor law. So much for “elections hav[ing] consequences.”

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