Right Minds

By Goldman, Samuel | The American Conservative, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Right Minds


Goldman, Samuel, The American Conservative


What sets conservatives apart from authoritarians and fascists?

Radicals, liberals, and progressives have dismissed conservatism as a mental defect ever since it emerged as a distinctive brand of political thought with the publication of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. According to Thomas Paine, Burke's opposition to the revolution was based on an "obliteration of knowledge." Several decades later, John Stuart Mill asserted that, although not all conservatives are stupid, "most stupid people are conservative." In the mid-20th century, Theodore Adorno diagnosed conservative views as symptoms of a pathological "authoritarian personality." More recently, some neuroscientists have argued that conservatives have bigger amygdalae than liberals. This turns out to be far from complimentary: the amygdala is the region of the brain associated with feelings of fear and disgust rather than thinking.

Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, rejects such reductive accounts. As the title of his recently published The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin suggests, he thinks conservatives do have functioning brains. The purpose of the book is to "get inside" them more deeply than other writers on the left have been able to do.

The results of his exploratory surgery are provocative. Robin concludes that conservatism is neither a disposition in favor of the tried and true, as the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott proposed, nor a principled commitment to limited government, as many contemporaries believe. Instead, he argues, conservatism is a "reactionary ideology" that defends hierarchy against the upheavals that began with the French Revolution.

Robin's own conception of politics as a perennial struggle for liberation owes something to Marx, but his description of conservatism as an "ideology" does not mean that he regards it as a fig leaf for self-interest. On the contrary, conservatism "provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity."

The flexibility and power of the conservative ideology, in his view, comes from the fact that the structure of this argument can be preserved even as the identity of the "lower orders" changes. What's important is that conservatives insist on the right of the better to command the worse, however conceived, against the revolutionary claim that no one has the inherent authority to rule anyone else.

Robin has been criticized for assimilating modern American conservatism to its European forebears. In particular, he has trouble making sense of the populist and libertarian appeals that have characterized the movement from the Goldwater campaign to the Tea Parties. George III had Burke right when he thanked him for supporting "the cause of the gentlemen." But Sarah Palin?

Yet excessive generalization is not the book's greatest flaw. The main problem is that Robin is so eager to make the connection between past and present that he does not develop the classic position in detail A "consistent and profound argument" deserves careful analysis. In The Reactionary Mind, we get a few intriguing but not exactly dispositive quotes from Burke and his Francophone disciple Joseph de Maistre.

That's a shame, because Robin is onto something that many of his critics have missed. Classical conservatism is a coherent theory of opposition to the French Revolution and its consequences. And it does insist on hierarchy hi human affairs, both public and private. But what the great sociologist Robert Nisbet called the "dogmatics" of conservatism cannot be understood by reflecting on Irving Kristol, William F.

Buckley, or other 20th-century publicists who loom large in The Reactionary Mind. The counterrevolutionary ideology has to be articulated on its own terms before it is connected to the dilemmas of contemporary politics. …

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