The media and even progressives too often credit conservatism with having “big ideas.” In fact conservatism is a reaction to progress … an ideology of “No.” (More)

The Reactionary Mind, Part III: An Ideology of “No” (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Thursday we began with Robin’s argument that conservatism appeals to personal experiences of power and privilege. Yesterday we saw how conservatism romanticizes hardship and struggle. Today we conclude with Robin’s core thesis that conservatism exists only in reaction to progressive change.

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition to The Reactionary Mind, Dr. Robin is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He studied at Oxford University and Princeton before earning his Ph.D at Yale, and blogs at Crooked Timber and Jacobin.

“Big Ideas”

Last December, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) called Republicans “the party of big ideas.” In February, Scripps-Howard columnist Deroy Murdock echoed that claim:

From the Emancipation Proclamation, to supply-side tax cuts, to reversing Communism, to welfare reform, the GOP has been the party of big ideas (like them or not). But Republicans now look brain dead on fiscal discipline.

This is revisionist poppycock. The U.S. policy of resisting communism overseas began with the Truman Doctrine and was grounded in the progressive and populist Long Consensus forged under President Franklin Roosevelt. Supply-side economics and welfare ‘reform’ were less ‘big ideas’ than reactions to Keynesian theory and the Great Society, respectively. As for the Emancipation Proclamation, that was 150 years ago, when the GOP was a progressive party. Republicans have long since abandoned those roots, with many in the party now attacking Abraham Lincoln.

The GOP is now dominated by conservatives, and as William F. Buckley famously wrote in the National Review’s original mission statement:

A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

“To make privilege popular”

Republicans have become the Party of “No” because conservatism is ultimately – in Dr. Robin’s core thesis – an ideology of “No”:

A consideration of this deeper strain of conservatism gives us a clearer sense of what conservatism is about. While conservatism is an ideology of reaction – originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies – that reaction has not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk defense of an unchanging old regime or a thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; and second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.

Throughout his book, Dr. Robin develops the argument that conservatism was born and still exists as a reaction to progressive change: “a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

Stealing credit for change

We tend to focus on conservatives “trying to win it back” and the “reconfiguration of the old regime.” Progressives often speculate on whether conservatism wants to take us back to the 1950s, the 1890s, or even to before the Enlightenment.

We progressives rarely pay much attention to that second element of conservatism, “absorption of the ideas and tactics” of progress. And we should. As we saw yesterday, Phyllis Schlafly claims feminism deprives women of the “freedom” to stay at home in submissive dependence on their husbands and the Heritage Foundation claims unions deprive workers of the “freedom” to negotiate as individuals.

But conservatism is not simply about turning words like “freedom” upside down. Conservatives also try to steal credit for progressive change. In the column cited above, for example, Murdock includes the Emancipation Proclamation in the list of Republican accomplishments, as if today’s conservative GOP might have passed it.

Similarly, conservatives in Texas voted to change text books to ensure Republicans received credit for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and men the credit for the Nineteenth Amendment that ensured women the right to vote. Senator Rand Paul told a Howard University audience that Republicans founded the NAACP, and many conservatives spent the last week claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republicanhe wasn’t – despite the fact that every Republican invited to this week’s 50th anniversary March on Washington declined to attend.

“Repeal and…?”

Paul Krugman is one of many to observe that Republicans are desperate to repeal Obamacare because they know it will work:

Yet even as Republican politicians seem ready to go on the offensive, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety, even despair, among conservative pundits and analysts. Better-informed people on the right seem, finally, to be facing up to a horrible truth: Health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement, is probably going to work.

And the good news about Obamacare is, I’d argue, what’s driving the Republican Party’s intensified extremism. Successful health reform wouldn’t just be a victory for a president conservatives loathe, it would be an object demonstration of the falseness of right-wing ideology. So Republicans are being driven into a last, desperate effort to head this thing off at the pass.

If history and current events are any guide, once Obamacare succeeds and becomes popular, conservatives will rush to tell us that the Affordable Care Act was invented by the conservative Heritage Foundation. (It wasn’t. The Heritage Foundation looked at health care in Europe and favored a private insurance system like Germany’s over a government insurance system like Britain’s.) But we’ll be told that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans wanted Obamacare, before it was Obamacare.

Because that’s what conservatism does when an idea it opposed becomes popular. Republicans claim to favor cuts to Social Security and Medicare, they want President Obama to propose the specifics, so they can blame Democrats. It’s not just partisan gamesmanship. President George W. Bush couldn’t even get a vote on privatizing Social Security in 2005, despite Republicans controlling both the Senate and House.

Yes, conservatism tries to massage popular new ideas, especially in implementation, to preserve existing power and privilege. But in the end conservatism has always yielded to progress because – despite the howls of people like William F. Buckley – history refuses to “Stop.”

Progressives must still organize and act to enhance social and economic justice. But we have a key advantage. Conservatives talk about returning to a mythical Good Old Days … but in the end they want credit for the popular changes we create today.


Happy Saturday!