Sheldon Wolin: Theoretician of the Present

At the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, which met in Philadelphia this past weekend, I participated in a panel commemorating the life and work of Sheldon Wolin, who died last year. Here’s my contribution.

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As a political commentator and witness of his moment, Sheldon Wolin is primarily identified with the 1960s. With the passage of time and recession of those years, that identification—coupled with his partiality to the local and penchant for the past—has earned Wolin a reputation for quaintness and nostalgia.

Yet what has struck me most, in re-reading some of his archive these past few months, is how alert and alive Wolin was to what came after the 1960s: not only the conservative backlash but also the neoliberal ascendancy. In years to come, scholars may look back on Wolin’s time in Berkeley not as a tutorial in rebellion but as his education in reaction, the seedtime of his awareness that what California would stand for, long term, was not Sproul Hall or Haight-Ashbury but the reactionary modernism of Nixon and Reagan, Orange County and Silicon Valley.

For a long time, the 1970s were thought of as years of sleep, the Me Decade when nothing much happened. Wolin saw otherwise.

First, he caught the authoritarian thrusts and imperial ambitions of the neoconservative movement. Perhaps because some of the early neocons had been his colleagues at Berkeley, Wolin intuited that their turn to the right was more than a moment’s revulsion at the 1960s. It marked a comprehensive effort to reconstitute the American state: more police, more prisons, more soldiers, more weapons.

Second, he saw Carter not as a failed or hapless president but as a savvy tactician who used the symbols and slogans of populism to steer the Democratic Party on an evermore neoliberal course: toward austerity, an embrace of low expectations and high-tech, and an increasing globalism in the economy.

In the last few years, US historians have begun to treat the Seventies as a pivotal moment, a hinge decade, in which so many of the seeds of our world were sown. Wolin was there first.

Wolin’s attention to neoconservatism and neoliberalism, and how they intersected, made him well placed to catch the drift of the Reagan Administration. Reading the pieces he wrote during the early 1980s—some of which have been gathered in Fugitive Democracy, an amazing collection of Wolin’s essays, political and theoretical, edited by Nick Xenos—I’m reminded that, with the exception of Stuart Hall writing on Thatcher in Britain, no one caught the revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary, tenor of the Right quite like Wolin. Which says something, I think, about our profession: How is it that the most antiquarian voice of the most antiquarian subfield of the most antique discipline of the academy cottoned on—long before the game theorists and statisticians—to the most important long-term development in American politics of the last half-century?

Reagan spoke in multiple idioms: evangelicalism, anticommunism, patriotism. Wolin cut through all that, focusing on the one language of Reagan that would prove most pervasive and enduring: economism. Reagan didn’t just cut taxes for the rich, deregulate markets, and bust unions. Reagan elevated economics to the reigning language of public life. As Wolin wrote in 1981:

The prominence of economics is both the herald and the agent of a profound transformation in American political culture. “The economy” has emerged in the public consciousness as a sharply outlined, autonomous entity, the theater in which the destiny and meaning of the society will be worked out. Relegated to secondary importance are the main notions through which the society once understood its identity, notions such as “democracy,” “republic,” “the Constitution,” and “the nation.”

In a world where Cass Sunstein is Philosopher King, it’s difficult to recover just how novel that language was. But Wolin saw it, often in the most obscure places.

One of Wolin’s articles, for example, features a lengthy discussion of a little known court case in which the Reagan Administration argued against a health and safety regulation that protected workers from cotton dust. The problem with the regulation, said Reagan, was that it didn’t focus on costs. The Court rejected that analysis, claiming that worker safety was the “preeminent value.” Reagan responded with the extraordinarily controversial, though now forgotten, Executive Order 12291, which declared that all federal regulations henceforth would be subject to and only justified by a cost-benefit analysis.

For decades, Democrats and Republicans would tussle over that issue. But in 2012, an article in Bloomberg rightly noted—and celebrated—the fact that Obama had finally made the Reaganite analysis the bipartisan cornerstone of federal regulation. The author of that article, incidentally, was Cass Sunstein.

Which speaks to this issue of what kind of sensibility is more attuned to reality. During the Reagan years, Sunstein was a full-throated participant in the so-called republican revival, arguing that deliberation and discourse are the hallmarks of democracy. But here was Wolin, the fussy, untimely, antiquarian reader of the Greeks, anticipating and anatomizing the language Sunstein would come to speak, almost unselfconsciously, some 30 years later.

One last note on Wolin as the theoretician of our present. Beginning with the Bicentennial, Wolin anticipated the vogue of Founders fetishism, our contemporary culture’s ongoing celebration of the men who made the republic. But as Nick Xenos pointed out to me the other night, Wolin saw something more particular. Where journalist, scholars, and middle-aged men kvelled over the wisdom of Washington and the genius of Jefferson, Wolin saw, as early as 1976, that it would be another, less heralded, often maligned, name from that era, who truly would articulate the values and commitments that would come to define our age: Alexander Hamilton.


  1. Alfred Giannantonio September 5, 2016 at 9:12 pm | #

    Thank you, Professor Robin, for this insightful, probing article of a man, Sheldon Wolin, who left his mark on our generation and should be carefully studied and commemorated

  2. Thomas L. Dumm September 5, 2016 at 10:14 pm | #

    Having attended that panel, I must say that substantively, your contribution was superlative, Corey. (Among the ten luminaries Wendy Brown gathered together were such folk as Anne Norton and Cornel West.) I also believe that yours is the first — and I hope not the last — voice I have come upon to express skepticism concerning the new Hamilton phenomenon. As a musical “Hamilton” is genius. As history, it is an appalling whitewashing of the American thermidor, as Ted Lowi used to describe the adoption of the Constitution and its aftermath.

  3. ronp September 6, 2016 at 1:08 pm | #

    nothing wrong with a cost/benefit analysis but the people doing it need to be as open minded as possible, pretty easy to game the results.

    • Chai T. Ch'uan September 7, 2016 at 1:35 am | #

      Ah, but you’ve put your finger on the genius of Reagan. The ease of gaming the system was a feature, not a bug. He clearly saw that when a folksy, “ain’t no gubmint bureaucrat gonna tell my kid how much cadmium he’s allowed to eat” would no longer fly, shifting to a pragmatic “sadly, we just can’t afford it” could.

  4. Ronald Pires September 7, 2016 at 12:37 am | #

    “I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savor and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored of its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.”

    — Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs Of A Superfluous Man

  5. Glenn September 7, 2016 at 11:40 pm | #

    “[P]olitical economy established itself as the dominant science, and as the science of domination.” —The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord

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