An exchange between Daniel Larison and Corey Robin about conservatism and reaction.
In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political theorist Corey Robin frames right-wing ideologies as impulses “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.” These fighting words were taken up by Daniel Larison, writer and editor at the American Conservative, and their email dialogue is reproduced here, with some edits and informative links added.
From: Daniel Larison
To: Corey Robin
Thanks for the opportunity to discuss The Reactionary Mind with you. Let me begin by agreeing that political conservatism is typically born in reaction and backlash. Conservatism in the Anglo-American experience has developed and evolved in opposition to perceived innovations and challenges to the existing order. Postwar conservatism in America has certainly been defined by a series of reactions against rapid or large-scale social and political changes.
It is also the case that a substantial number of Anglo-American conservatives have mobilized to oppose centralized power and concentrated wealth over the centuries. There is another kind of conservatism besides the defense of inequality and privilege. The “unlikely alliance” of the libertarian, traditionalist, and statist, in which the last has tended to dominate all along to the detriment of the others, is an artifact of the Cold War, and this alliance doesn’t have much underlying intellectual coherence.
As you anticipated, the decision to include everyone conventionally located on the political right in the book’s definition of counterrevolutionary politics is the most difficult aspect of the book. Unfortunately, this obscures much more than it clarifies. Fascists were revolutionary hypernationalists (to use Stanley Payne’s definition) and not counterrevolutionaries in the way that Burke or Maistre or most other conservatives were, and many of the defenders of American global hegemony eagerly praise democratic revolution and cloak themselves in the rhetoric of emancipation. These are the vitalists and neoimperialists whose atrocious ideas you very ably criticize, but are they really counterrevolutionary? In fact, I agree with your definition that “all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionaries,” but that excludes quite a few self-described conservatives.
I was most interested in your claim that infatuation with violence is “constitutive” of the conservative tradition. The clearest examples you cite are statements by Teddy Roosevelt and Georges Sorel, but both represented something quite different from conservatives of their time and later. Sorel may have had monarchist sympathies at one point, but he became a radical syndicalist who went on to praise Lenin after the Bolshevik Revolution. Roosevelt aligned himself with the progressive politics of his day, and he was arguably the least conservative president of the 20th century before FDR. If we take them as spokesmen for political conservatism, the term has no clear meaning.
You say that the “neocon project of imperial adventurism traces the conservative arc of violence from beginning to end.” This takes for granted that neoconservatives are meaningfully conservative in their politics and assumptions, which I am firmly convinced they aren’t, and it assumes that there is a “conservative arc of violence” for them to track. Neoconservative laments about national decadence and lack of purpose set them apart from the rest of the American right in their bizarre preoccupation with grandiose state-driven projects. Much of the American right wrongly supported the imperial adventurism and authoritarian security measures of the last decade, but this had far more to do with excessive deference to executive power and nationalist panic than anything else.
From: Corey Robin
To: Daniel Larison
So let’s begin with what we agree on: Conservatism is an inherently counterrevolutionary philosophy and politics, born in reaction and backlash. Two questions follow from this. First, what is it about revolution — which you variously gloss as “perceived innovations and challenges to the existing order” and “rapid or large-scale social and political change” — that the conservative is reacting against? Second, what form does that reaction take? Here, I think, is where our disagreement begins.
I don’t think you can just say that the conservative is reacting to a challenge to the existing order per se or to innovation or large-scale change. As I try to show in my book, many conservatives, from Burke onward, endorse rapid and large-scale change: What are the overthrow of the French Revolution and the attempt to eliminate the welfare state if not attempts to effect large-scale change?
More important is that these very same conservatives will say quite openly that the order against which they are contending has been the hegemonic order for decades, sometimes centuries. Take Michael Oakeshott, by no means an outré member of the conservative canon. In his essay on conservatism (pdf), he says that the kind of order he is tilting against has been in power since the 1500s or so. So here you have the 20th century theoretician of familiarity, attachment to what is, recommending a comprehensive challenge to a half-millennium development.
What I think conservatives dislike about revolutions is not change per se but emancipatory change, overthrowing established hierarchies of power and privilege. And by that I mean something much more particular than “concentrated wealth” or “centralized power,” which, as you rightly point out, some conservatives (though not as many as you might think) oppose. And I also mean something more than a generic opposition to established power, particularly if that power is far away. I mean real forms of concrete and personal rule of superiors over inferiors, which is most pervasive in what we now call the private sphere — power that is intimate and near at hand.
Conservatives can live with revolutions that do not disrupt what is proximate. As one Radical Reconstructionist said of the white supremacists after the Civil War, “They do not care so much about Congress admitting Negroes to their halls … but they do not want the Negroes over them at home.” They can’t live with revolutions that touch too closely. This is why Burke made a special point of noting that “the real object” of the French Revolution was “to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination.” Among his examples were “servants against their masters,” “artificers against their employers,” “tenants against their landlords,” and “children against their parents.” In the 20th century, I argue, conservatives have been most concerned about the revolt of the inferior in the family and the workplace.
On to the second question: What form will the reaction against these revolutions take? Here is where it gets really interesting, for as I argue in the book, conservatives and counterrevolutionaries often take their cues from the very revolutions they oppose. They mimic the tactics of the revolution, they ape the rhetoric, and most interesting of all, they often incorporate the very categories and idioms of the revolution, often in ways that they themselves are only dimly aware of. Conservatives can often sound like the most rabid revolutionary because, as they come to realize, you have to fight fire with fire.
That brings me to your point about fascism and the neocons. You say these guys can’t be conservative counterrevolutionaries because they are revolutionary. If by that you mean that they favor radical change, are ideologically maximalist, mobilize the street, and seek change across national boundaries, that is very much in keeping with counterrevolutionary conservatism. Remember, Burke leaped across the English Channel to intervene in France, and by the time he was writing Letters on a Regicide Peace, he was speaking of himself as a “citizen of Europe,” urging his fellow citizens to take action on behalf of their continental patrimony.
Likewise the neocons’ embrace of the language of democratic reclamation throughout the planet; it’s not that out of sync with the tradition. But more important, it’s very clear in both cases that these movements arise in opposition to a revolution or perceived revolution. In the case of fascism, it is European socialism and Bolshevism; in the case of the neocons, it is the 1960s movements of liberation, particularly the more radical edge of the black freedom movement, the student/youth movement (not just its opposition to war, but its opposition to authority in the academy and the family) and the women’s movement.
One last point. You mention the opposition of conservatives to “centralized power.” It’s true that many have opposed this — Tocqueville is arguably the most significant on this score — but even they have been notably silent on one of the major driving forces of state centralization: war. Your voice is notable on the conservative spectrum today precisely because so many others are silent on that question, either from indifference or from tacit support. But historically, it’s been the minority position.
The conservative sees in centralization a steadfast assault not on localism — and again, localism could be easily forsaken by the conservative seeking to take up the cause of international counterrevolution — but on private hierarchy. As Burke says of the Jacobins, nothing to them is worthy “of the name of the public virtue, unless it indicates violence on the private.” Prior to the French Revolution, there was an aristocratic discourse of opposition to the centralized state — Bolingbroke and Montesquieu would be the most important voices here — that saw in the monarchy the great threat to aristocratic privilege and power. But post-Revolution, that tradition will come to see egalitarian or revolutionary democracy as the driver of centralized state power. And you see this in the slaveholder, the capitalist, and the patriarch. It is not an egalitarian or even a libertarian position (almost all of these figures are absolutely silent on the question of unfreedom in the private sphere).But it does often invoke the language of freedom — again, taking its cues from the revolution it opposes.
From: Daniel Larison
To: Corey Robin
Thanks for your response. We may not disagree as much as it may seem. We agree that conservatives seek restoration of an earlier order from which they believe they and those like them benefited, or from those parts that might still be restored. Something that also links most political counterrevolutionaries is an insistence on defending what they consider legitimate authorities from usurpers, and in the Anglo-American experience that has most often taken the form of appeals to constitutional tradition. I don’t think there’s any question that conservatives react against revolutions to protect privileges and interests. (Are they any political actors who are not acting, at some level, out of self-interest?) But there is also a concern to preserve lawful rule to provide for the common good. So it’s correct to say that it is not the rapidity of the change by itself that alarms conservatives. Counterrevolutionaries would prefer a fast restoration rather than a gradual one, but as they would see it, this would be a speedy return to what they consider the normal or natural order of things.
Turning to Oakeshott and conservatism, we need to make a few distinctions. Oakeshott repeatedly and consistently defines his conservatism as a disposition, and he is generally wary of any political program that seeks to achieve a certain goal. His hostility to “teleocracy” (a form of government dedicated to achieving a certain purpose) is well-known, as is his preference for nomocracy (government according to custom and law). In “On Being Conservative,” (pdf) Oakeshott describes his view of the role of government:
And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them, or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule.
This is hardly the rallying cry of the political radical intent on restoring the old order.
Oakeshott is mainly interested in arguing that the conservative disposition he describes is not a very influential one. He writes:
With us, I think, the disposition to be conservative is far from being notably strong. Indeed, if he were to judge by our conduct during the last five centuries or so, an unprejudiced stranger might plausibly suppose us to be in love with change, to have an appetite only for innovation and to be either so out of sympathy with ourselves or so careless of our identity as not to be disposed to give it any consideration. In general, the fascination of what is new is felt far more keenly than the comfort of what is familiar.
Oakeshott makes this statement because he is the “theoretician of familiarity,” and not because he believes that there should be a reversion to the political and/or religious order circa 1500. He reserved the possibility that a conservative can be “radical in respect of almost every other activity” apart from government, and it is important to note that what he is challenging here is the prevailing contemporary attitude toward change. Oakeshott is a dispositional conservative identifying the problems in another disposition. Indeed, Oakeshott is no “radical neocon.” Neoconservatives have little or no sympathy for dispositional conservatism (it is not very useful for believers in activist government), and they have rarely been all that wary of embracing innovation and change.
Leaving Oakeshott for the moment, there is a tradition in modern conservative thought that holds that destabilizing intellectual, religious, and political developments in the modern age can be traced back to certain key points in history that mark unfortunate turning points in the wrong direction. This can be interesting, but it is only by failing to view history as contingent that conservatives can fall into the habit of seeing the last two or five or seven centuries as a slow, relentless string of reverses. One danger of such arguments is that it leads conservatives to accept a reverse Whig interpretation of history.
On the whole, I would agree that conservatives are intent on preserving the private sphere against outside intrusions and influence as much as possible. Opposition to centralized power emerges when state institutions are used to force changes in the private sphere, which brings us back to the matter of legitimate authority. Conservatives typically maintain that public authorities have very limited authority to interfere in the private sphere, and anything going beyond that represents an unjustified encroachment on customary and/or legal protections.
All of this indirectly illustrates why fascists and neoconservatives do not fit the definition of counterrevolutionary or conservative you have laid out. If conservatives are interested in protecting the private sphere, and if dispositional conservatives want a government that “merely rules,” what assumptions can they possibly share with the ideologues of the New Order and advocates of “benevolent global hegemony”? Both of these groups in different ways are strongly teleocratic. As they see it, the state is an instrument for carrying out huge projects designed to remake the nation and the world, and theoretically all the resources of the nation should be put at the disposal of the state to that end.
Fascists were undoubtedly strongly anti-socialist and anti-Bolshevik, but this was because they were nationalists and direct competitors with communists for political support in the wake of World War I. Counterrevolutionaries cannot be keen to preserve the privileges of the private sphere and also be responsible for inventing the concept of totalitarianism. As for neoconservatives, I agree that they changed their political loyalties in reaction to the domestic politics of the New Left, but this doesn’t fully take account of how foreign policy pushed neoconservatives into the Republican camp. They were essentially Cold War liberals looking for a more confrontational policy toward the USSR, but this didn’t mean that they had abandoned many of their earlier political assumptions.
Regarding conservatives and war, there is no disputing that most conservatives in most Western countries in the past two centuries have supported their governments’ foreign wars. I am still not persuaded that this is because there is a conservative infatuation with violence. There are several other factors that may help account for it: deference to authority, the distorting effects of nationalism, and the tendency in modern states to identify the country and people with the state. Perhaps you could say more about your argument concerning sublimity and violence, and also comment on what relationship you see between conservatives and their respective forms of nationalism.
From: Corey Robin
To: Daniel Larison
First, a clarification. You say that you agree that conservatives seek to restore an order of privilege from which they benefit but which also benefits the common good by providing a system of “lawful rule.” Here, I am actually more generous — if that’s the word — to conservatives as theoreticians than perhaps you are. Because, as I take great pains to stress throughout my book, the leading lights of conservatism are often themselves not implicated in the systems of rule that they are defending. Often they are outsiders and/or newcomers to established modes of privilege and rule. Burke, of course, is the classic arriviste, and though everyone from the Duke of Bedford to Marx considered him a grubby self-interested climber. The fact is that his stance against the French Revolution was on behalf of a principle and an order that had never truly welcomed him as one of its own. He was more than willing to risk his membership in that order for the sake of other principles. And Burke was just the first of many, from Maistre to William Graham Sumner to Ayn Rand. In fact, it’s often the outsider who’s best placed to make this defense on behalf of established modes of rule.
While I agree that the conservative’s argument is on behalf of a common order that is supposed to benefit the whole, I don’t think it’s lawfulness per se that is seen as the keystone benefit. What conservatives value about the order they defend is that it is one in which excellence rules. The rule of the better over the worse is critical, I think, to the conservative imagination. That is the law conservatives value above all else, and indeed, they have proven themselves to be quite hostile to laws that undermine that rule. You see this in Scalia’s jurisprudence and the moral psychology of Burke. You also see it in Tocqueville’s revulsion toward the July Monarchy. The law that conservatives value is a kind of natural law in which the best rise to the top, through struggle and adversity, and prove their mettle.
Second, Oakeshott. You’re right that Oakeshott sees a half-millennium of innovation and change, but virtually all of his political examples of that appetite are from the left. While I don’t think his vision of innovation can be reduced to leftist rationalism, there can be little doubt that that, in the political realm, is what he has primarily in mind. Prior to the French Revolution, there was a discourse of anti-centralization/rationalization that partook of that spirit — Bolingbroke and Montesquieu come to mind, though that discourse was definitely caught up with the defense of feudal privilege against centralizing monarchies. After the French Revolution, it’s pretty clear that that discourse became entirely preoccupied with the threat of egalitarian democracy. I see Oakeshott’s critique, which is primarily focused on the welfare state, as an extension of that.
Third, you ask how totalitarianism or fascism can be reconciled with a defense of the private sphere. Here I think we have been far too quick to accept the assumptions of the totalitarianism literature in the social sciences, particularly from the 1950s. Much of the best scholarship on fascism shows that — even in Nazi Germany — it was actually quite sensitive to the powers and prerogatives of capital and private property. People tend to focus a lot on fascist rhetoric before the fascists came to power (though even there, if you read Hitler’s speeches, you’ll see he shows an extraordinary care and concern for the private businessman and his enterprises). Once in power, the more socialist-oriented among them tended to get purged or murdered. Private property (except for that of foreigners and political opponents) was never touched, and the regime did a tremendous amount to crack down on labor opposition and troublemakers in the workplace.
Fourth, you ask about the relationship between conservatism and nationalism. That’s a tricky one because I see lots of conflicting tendencies there. On the one hand, nationalism has been one of the key ways in which conservatives have made privilege popular — particularly nationalism that’s allied with imperialism such that the lower orders can imagine themselves as part of a ruling race or lordly people among other peoples. To that extent, nationalism on the right has often been extraterritorial and imperial. Fascism is not the exception in that respect, but the rule. You see this among the slaveholders in the South as well.
On the other hand, as you rightly point out, there is a tradition of conservatism that is fairly leery of nationalism, particularly when that nationalism gets allied with national projects of redistribution. Then you see a kind of localism, a discourse of little platoons. Some of that has deep roots on the right (Bolingbroke, again, would be a good precedent).Yet it’s hard for me to see it as a truly consistent position, in part because of the very reaction against the left that so animates the right. To the extent that the left is a universalist movement — which it hasn’t always been; it’s as inconsistent on this score as is the right — the right has felt it necessary to counter that. So you find Burke suddenly invoking the duties of European citizenship in Letters on a Regicide Peace..
Last, the question of sublimity and violence. I think this is one of the most interesting elements of the right because it shows just how extraordinarily rich and sophisticated its vision of human nature is. I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.
You had asked previously how representative the account in the book is. You suggested that my strongest cases are Teddy Roosevelt and Georges Sorel, neither of whom is an unproblematic representative of the right. But I mention a great many other cases throughout history of voices that virtually every anthology of the right would include: not just Burke but also Maistre, Tocqueville, Churchill, and of course many of the neocons. Now I know, Daniel, that you’ve spent the better part of your career fighting the good fight against neocon imperialism and that part of your argument against the neocons is that they are not conservative. But their position has deep roots on the right. My sense that it’s too easy to dismiss the neocons as innovators from afar.
I think what’s distinctive about the discourse of violence on the right is that whereas the audience for violence on the left is the victim of violence — the leftist (whether a revolutionary, guerrilla fighter, terrorist, what have you) seeks to impress upon enemies the power of what threatens them if they do not accede to the left’s demands — I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence. Lenin read Clausewitz, Gramsci read Machiavelli, and so on. And that’s not because the left is more humanitarian or anything like that; it’s mostly because of necessity. Revolutionaries, by definition, don’t have a monopoly on the means of violence; they operate at a major deficit, so economy is essentially forced upon them. The right by contrast suffers from a surfeit of power, so it looks to violence to address a quite different set of concerns.
From: Daniel Larison
To: Corey Robin
Concerning the relationship between conservatism and nationalism, I agree that there are conflicting tendencies. There has been a long tradition since at least the second half of the 19th century for conservatives in Europe and North America to align themselves with nationalist movements as a means of countering their contemporary liberal and social democratic opponents. The adoption of nationalist rhetoric and themes in the later 19th century is a good example.
It’s true that many conservatives in central and eastern Europe under Austrian rule often rallied behind ideologies of pan-Slavism in reaction against both political liberalism and German nationalism, and Russian conservatives from the mid-19th century on saw nationalism and pan-Slavism as important means for mobilizing mass support for the state and its policies in southeastern Europe. John Lukacs has often made the observation that American conservatives and Russian Slavophiles have much in common, and I am inclined to agree. One-Nation Toryism relied on mobilizing popular support for wars of imperial expansion in Africa, especially the South African War.
Things seem much less clear-cut in the American context. American anti-imperialists of the same era were often conservative Democrats. The proponents of consolidated government and overseas imperialism mostly came from the relatively more progressive party of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, namely the Republican Party, and they represented the forces of liberal nationalism in the U.S. It wasn’t until after World War II that political conservatives and nationalists started overlapping so frequently in the context of the Cold War that they became indistinguishable.
Isn’t Burke’s interest in emphasizing European identity and citizenship a deliberate appeal to the virtues of the relatively cosmopolitan prerevolutionary, monarchical Europe against the nationalism of the revolution? Counterrevolutionaries of the 19th century were often both localist/regionalist and internationalist in their opposition to liberal political projects that centralized power in the form of modernized national governments.
As for the conservative “surfeit of power,” this brings me to one of my other questions about your thesis. You claim in your conclusion that “the end of the right’s long march against the 20th century may be in sight” and you refer in several places to the right’s “overwhelming” success in the U.S. Despite the outcome of the midterm elections, this doesn’t appear to be the case at all. If mainstream conservatism is a “philosophically flabby movement,” and I won’t argue that it isn’t, this is not evidence of its success but simply of its exhaustion and lack of imagination. Perhaps conservatism should thrive on loss and defeat, but I see little evidence that the conservative movement in America understands that it has already lost on many fronts. There is an illusion of success that the most recent election has kept alive, but it is a temporary one.
From: Corey Robin
To: Daniel Larison
I very much liked your reminder about pan-Slavism; Hannah Arendt talks about that phenomenon a lot in her book on totalitarianism. She connects it to Stalinism, which most analysts have found forced and unpersuasive. She made that connection in order to buttress the parallels she was trying to draw between Stalinism and Nazism, and, whether or not it works, it points to the very clear connection between older modes of European imperialism and fascism. It’s a very good reminder of how late 19th century European conservatism, which blended nationalism and imperialism (“the other internationalism”), set the stage for fascism, and to show that there is much more of a connection there than many are willing to look at.
But you raise the important question of liberalism and imperialism, pointing out how in the American context it was the progressive party at the turn of the century that pushed for imperial rule. I’m not quite sure that it was progressivism per se that produced that push, but I will say that liberalism has a very intimate relationship with imperialism, and nothing about my argument re: conservatism should be construed to suggest that liberalism is by definition anti-imperial. Far from it, and there’s a move in political theory, in fact, led by many on the left, to salvage the Burkean critique of British imperialism (in Ireland and India) and set it against the liberal imperialism of Mill and others.
In the American context, there is a precedent for the conservative rush to empire, which you suggest is mostly a creation of the Cold War. And that is the slaveholders. But the slaveholders developed a fascinating vision of an imperial political economy, which would be centered around the Mississippi and spread out from there to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. It would be centered on slave labor, and it was thought to be a different kind of imperialism.
And though I’ve never seen anyone discuss this, it strikes me that there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between their vision of a slave empire, based on land, and the Nazis’ vision of an empire in the East, which was also to be based on land. People often forget that Hitler had a major critique of European imperialism in that it was extraterritorial and commercial in its orientation, whereas he wanted an empire that was contiguous territorially and based on slave labor and agriculture.
Your question about Burke and the prerevolutionary European monarchical cosmopolitanism is excellent. Intuitively, it strikes me as right, though I’d want to reread some of the writings before I said yes. And it would provide an interesting backdrop to the more forward-looking dimensions of that European vision that I was talking about in my previous post. Because that is always how I’ve tended to look at it — not as a throwback to the 18th century but as a vision of the 19th century and ultimately the 20th. To my mind, the vision, as I’ve read it in the past, strikes me as too populist to be simply an 18th century vision of the European court, but that might be wrong.
In terms of the last issue you raise — the surfeit of power on the right — I wonder if this is just how partisans (I mean that in the best sense) of one side or other will inevitably see their side’s fortunes. To my mind, the right has been extraordinarily triumphant on two fronts: the economic one (again, I’ve never thought that limiting the state was the point of conservative political economy in the 20th century; it was always about redistributing power from the bottom up, and to that extent, they’ve been remarkably successful), and the imperial one. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was a real move by the left to push back the imperial enterprise, and for a time, it seemed successful. I’m thinking of the reforms that the post-Watergate Congress imposed. But they were almost instantly beaten back, first by Carter, and then of course with Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. The normalization of war, against which you have so powerfully written, is the byproduct. And though I know you see that normalization as very un-conservative, the whole point of the second half of my book is to say that it’s not.
Anyway, on those two fronts, they’ve been successful. And then reproductive rights, which I think is a huge issue that often gets pooh-poohed by my friends on the left, the right has also had a lot of traction. No, not overturning Roe v. Wade (though it seems as if they are not just one vote short of that on the Supreme Court), but in making abortion less and less accessible to more women and imposing more and more roadblocks on the state level (some feminists have even argued that Roe is effectively dead in a fair number of states). I don’t treat the abortion issue as just another policy issue on the right; I see it as very important to the revival of the father’s and husband’s power within the family, which is central to the right’s vision.
If you agree with me that conservatism is an inherently reactionary/counterrevolutionary movement, then one of two things follows: Either the intellectual flabbiness you see now on the right is the symptom of the absence of a reform or revolutionary movement to counter (which would signal the success of the right, no?), or you must think there is a reform or revolutionary movement to counter but that no right has really risen to challenge that. Which would put you in the Tea Party’s camp — not completely, but to some degree — in that you must also then think Obama really is some kind of reformer or revolutionary, which I don’t see, but perhaps you do?
From: Daniel Larison
To: Corey Robin
Let me start with some of your final comments. If we assume that concentrating wealth and increasing economic inequality were goals of the right, I suppose I would have to agree that there has been success of a sort. But I don’t consider either of those things to be desirable or consistent with conservative assumptions. Most conservatives have supported or acquiesced in consolidating or expanding an American imperial role overseas, but far from opposing the developments of the 20th century I see this as the right’s complete capitulation to them. I agree that there is no new revolutionary or reform movement to counter at the moment, and that might partly account for the right’s intellectual decline, but instead of great successes for the right I see something more like exhaustion and stagnation. Obama is certainly no revolutionary, and not much of a reformer either. To the extent that Obama mostly accommodates existing interests and institutions, I suppose that indirectly shows that at least some of the gains the right has made in the last 30 years are not going to be reversed.
Coming back to pan-Slavism and other ideologies of conservative imperialism in the 19th century, I don’t see a direct connection between them and fascism in terms of continuity, but I think it is clear that fascist movements wished to imitate the earlier imperial projects of the established world powers. Fascist movements were most successful in newly independent states and young, second-tier powers after World War I. One way that conservative imperialism unwittingly set the stage for fascism was through the collapse of the two most conservative empires during and after WWI and the end of the monarchy in Germany, but it is also the case that fascistic nationalism was the antithesis of these monarchies. They “set the stage” by destroying themselves and helping to create the conditions out of which fascism emerged.
There’s no question that continental expansionism was much more strongly favored by Southerners and Democrats generally, and the idea of annexing Cuba was one of the more popular expressions of the push for continued expansion in Latin America, especially after the Mexican War. However, once we get into the 20th century there is no conservative enthusiasm for overseas empire, and we do have to wait until anticommunism fully captures the conservative mind after World War II to see anything like it.
I’ll make just a few more observations. You have referred to the tendency of “outsiders” to make counterrevolutionary arguments, which you identify as part of the conservative habit to serve as “tribune of the displaced.” There is something to this, but I wonder if there isn’t also eagerness in contemporary American conservative circles to receive international approval from Anglophone conservatives coming from around the world. It’s one thing for American conservatives to offer ringing endorsements of American exceptionalism, for example, but it is even more valuable to have conservatives coming from other countries to vouch for this. On a related note, I’d be curious to know how you see the American exceptionalist rhetoric coming from the right over the past two years in relation to your overall argument.
From: Corey Robin
To: Daniel Larison
It’s been interesting having this discussion while Wall Street — and many other streets throughout the country and the world — are getting occupied. Almost as if we’re operating in parallel universes.
About the phenomenon you mention: There’s always been a tendency on the American right to seek the approval of its English counterparts: Think of the Anglophile affectations you see in Russell Kirk, Jeffrey Hart, and Bill Buckley. (There is a famous debate that Buckley had with James Baldwin in the ‘60s, at the Oxford or Cambridge Union in Britain (video). One of the uglier — and unintentionally hilarious moments —comes when Buckley mocks Baldwin for affecting a British accent because the latter happens to be in Britain. Baldwin, of course, was speaking in the same exact accent he always spoke in, but Buckley of course truly did affect a British accent at times.) Anyway, as I think I mentioned earlier, conservatism has always been an internationalist movement from the beginning, so the traffic between American and non-American voices on the right doesn’t surprise me.
I should have more to say about the rise of American exceptionalist rhetoric on the right. To my mind it sounds like one of these bizarre tempests in a teapot about rhetoric that the right — like any political movement — occasionally stirs up. What’s odd in this case is that for years it’s been the left that has been obsessed with rhetoric and labels and whatnot. That the right is fighting over this question — does Obama believe we are an exceptional nation or not? — provides yet another piece of evidence for the very tentative thesis I offer at the end of the book that the right is actually on the wane and that whatever power the Tea Party seems to have right now is in fact temporary and a sign of the long-term decline of the right rather than its ascendancy.
A hopeful note to end on. Depending upon your view, of course.