Conservatism is not about time, the past, tradition, or history

Reason #2732 why I don’t think a philosophy of history or an attitude toward the past or a view of tradition or time is what distinguishes right from left:

I must of necessity turn back to past times, and even times a very long while passed; and you must believe I do so with the distinct purpose of showing you where lies the hope for the future, and not in mere empty regret for the days which can never come again.

— William Morris, “Art and Labour,” cited in Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury


  1. sunnylagarto April 21, 2015 at 4:38 am | #

    It seems to be more about keeping wealth with the wealthy.

  2. graccibros April 21, 2015 at 9:24 am | #

    I offer my essay “The Heavenly City of the Republican Right” up online at “Sardonicky” as a counter-view.

    • graccibros April 21, 2015 at 9:44 am | #

      To save busy people some time, that “Heavenly City” is surely located in the American 19th century, the one without a Federal Reserve, organized labor, environmentalists, consumer movements, and where the gold standard served very well as the central pillar substitute, equivalent to today’s ideology of Austerity. It’s a little tougher for the Right to decide which half of the 19th century they favor, and they contain conflicting forces: choosing the small businesses of Lincoln’s boyhood, which of course, under good capitalist logic, evolved into the Robber Baron Trusts of the Gilded Age. Not static, very dynamic and at times the creative destruction nearly tore the system apart.

      To add to that impulse to go back to the 19th century is the legal trend of strict construction, literal interpretation of our Constitution and “original intent.” Hence the great dichotomy I write about:
      a straightjacked view of the Constitution which would undermine the commerce clause based environmental and regulatory state, even while the worship of the private sector (“only the private sector can creat jobs” – the New Deal was illegal!) means that we will all be subject to wherever the waves of creative destruction wash us up upon…as Garry Wills has written in “Reagan’s America,” there is nothing conservative about the effects of capitalism unleashed…but the American Right, by going back to the 19th century, will assure that no “counterveiling powers” are able to rise to contain or direct those powers in other direction.

      In essence, we might have to repeat the hard lessons of recurring 19th century economic panics, recessions and depressions that so strikingly litter the historical timeline, the real reason for the growth of the “demon” big gov’t.

  3. graccibros April 21, 2015 at 11:12 am | #

    Here is a letter from someone whom I think is a very representative writer from the Right, and I invite readers to put it alongside Corey’s declaration. My essay was a response in good part to what follows:

    Here is the April 7 the Letter of Jim Hinebaugh of Maysville, West Virginia, to the Cumberland-Times News,

    “Government’s role is to serve, not to create chaos”:

    “During the 19th century, most Americans took it for granted that the federal government has no constitutional authority to engage in public charity, (that is, to legislate forced transfers to help some individuals at the expense of others.)

    It was generally understood that the powers of the federal government are delegated, enumerated, and therefore limited, and that there is no explicit authority for the welfare state. Now health and human services are the most significant cost to the taxpayer.

    The “liberal transformation” of constitutional law began with the Progressive Era, Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. They created new entitlements and enshrined welfare rights.

    That transformation has come to mean freedom from responsibility and has created moral and social chaos.

    For the modern liberal, justice refers to distributive justice or social justice. But ‘social justice’ is a vague term, subject to all sorts of abuse if made the goal of public policy. As we can now see when the role of government is to do good with other people’s money, there is no end to the moral and social chaos government can cause. The internal moral compass that normally guides individual behavior no longer functions as the state undermines incentives for moral conduct and blurs the distinction between right and wrong. Additionally, rights to welfare create a legal obligation to help others. In contrast, the right to property merely obligates individuals to refrain from taking what is not theirs namely, the life, liberty or estate of another.

    We have forgotten that the government is supposed to be a servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.”

    I think if we could figure out why places like West Virginia have turned Right, not left, given their incredibly difficult economic history, we would understand why elections go the way they did in the fall of 2014.

    • Richard Girard October 21, 2016 at 1:13 pm | #

      The cause of the panics int the Gilded Age was when the rich hoarded their gold, reducing the money supply, resulting in the panics. This was usually done by the robber barons to force smaller, less wealthy competitors out of business. The robber barons then bought up their competitors assets for pennies on the dollar.
      Our manufacturing capitalist system in this country was built on the back of slavery and low cost labor, exploiting first the slaves then the workers. We had a brief copper age (I say copper because we never achieved FDR’s economic Bill of Rights), when thanks to FDR and his successors, our middle class expanded to include not only the shopkeeper, but much of the working class as well (1947-80). The rich hated this, so following the ideas laid out in the Powell Memorandum, they succeeded in convincing millions of Americans to begin voting against their own economic self-interest, in some amorphous ideal of God, Guns, and smaller Government. They never realized that it was that self-same government that was preventing the corporations from exploiting the average American, Just as the corporations and banks had in the Gilded and Jazz Ages.

  4. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 21, 2015 at 11:13 am | #

    And there is that slavery thing.

  5. graccibros April 21, 2015 at 12:10 pm | #

    Yes Mr. Pruden, there was a slight “discontinuity” in the Heavenly City from 1860-1865, when we changed the categories of some of our people from pure property to various forms of indentured servitude, which came to include both races in the South. A few people got banged up in the process. Some little towns, though, like Gettysburg, were put on the map and have thrived, as a result, as good tourist destinations. Doris Kearns Goodwin summarized it all for us in good liberal manner for the 150th anniversary in 2013.

    It is very rude of you to point this out because don’t good manners, bi-partisanship, willingness to compromise mark our political system? Let’s skip all of the 1850’s while we’re at it, rewriting things.

  6. Mushin April 21, 2015 at 4:08 pm | #

    Cory Interesting Reflection!

    I am a golfer. The highlight of my childhood was shag caddying for Jack Nicklaus at Scioto Country Club. I was 12 years old and had excellent eye sight which normally as a pattern to the members meant I was carrying two 30 pound bags of the worst golfer’s requesting me as a caddy. Shagging for the “Golden Bear” was going over to his private range and becoming a mobile pin where every shot he tried to hit you with the swing, ball and club. It was game and I used my cap to catch balls. Today there are shag caddy’s and what was the highlight of my childhood is impossible because some caddy got hit and a soccer mom claimed it abuses caddy’s. And we all know how fragile children and need protected. So today children don’t go outside and sit in living rooms texting one another as the new game. What a shame?

    Our biological fundament contradicts the primal ancient social origins from which our current humanity sprung from in modernity. Our ancient ancestors lived in balance in social organization as societies stewarding leading as women and men in partnership with the household as a generative economy for systemic goodness caring for wholeness, maturity and wondering curiosity of the surrounding universe. I assert we on a verge of a quantum leap beyond the Cartesian mistake opening the possible possibility of a third wave renaissance in artistically sculpting together a process envisioning a new story in becoming human beings.

    I continue to play my game of golf in the manner of the Golden Bear. It doesn’t matter what my handicap is at all. What is important is loving the game and never cheating oneself on the scorecard in your pocket.

    I know how precious this space is and it you want to view my entire response in philosophy here is my Linked IN Post

    Really enjoyed the articles and my admiration for you is growing.

  7. Junius April 21, 2015 at 8:12 pm | #

    The history of civilization is the history of human progressivity.
    Progressivity *comes* from the “tradition”.
    Social progressivity is the natural consequence of cultural and scientIfic progress.

    I believe that the main problem of american thinking, is understanding that never in the history “liberalism” has ever been a progressive thought. The social issue ain’t a liberal object, is a socialist object.

    Conservatism and liberalism (both classic and modern) has always been two faces of the same coin.

    Liberalism gives good answers to wrong questions. Conservatism gives wrong answers to good questions.

    Responsability is not a virtue and liberty is not an absolute value. Both are newspeak words.

    Liberty is a value only if it’s married to the dignity of the Man.

  8. Frank Wilhoit April 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm | #

    “It’s the unaccountability, stupid.”

    That’s all it is.

  9. David Green April 22, 2015 at 2:08 pm | #

    Corey, where does David Bromwich place himself in terms of your argument about Burke?

    • Corey Robin April 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm | #

      I don’t think he does.

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