Since John wrote his post below, Mark Lilla has come out with a lengthy attempted rebuttal of Corey Robin’s argument. Even as New York Review of Books articles by creaky centrist-liberals go, it’s a terrible essay – see further Alex Gourevitch. Even as Mark Lilla essays on the American right (a category that includes a plenitude of incompetent arguments) go, it’s awful. Two things that I think are worth adding to Alex’s takedown.
First, the extraordinary degree of self-congratulation in Lilla’s alternative explanation of the rise of apocalyptic conservatism. It turns out, you see, that the unacknowledged legislators of American politics are New York intellectuals such as Mark Lilla.
The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. … brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, … a long story to tell, and central to it would be the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology. The first neoconservatives were disappointed liberals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer … Sometime in the Eighties, though, neoconservative thinking took on a darker hue … At first, neoconservatives writing in publications like Commentary and The Public Interest (which I once helped to edit) portrayed themselves as standing with “ordinary Americans” … neoconservatives began predicting the End Time … the voice of high-brow reaction … was present on the right a good decade before Glenn Beck and his fellow prophets of populist doom … Apocalypticism trickled down, not up, and is now what binds Republican Party elites to their hard-core base.
No evidence is presented to support this claim beyond anecdotes and post hoc ergo propter hoc handwaving. Lilla professes himself to be allergic to the efforts of political scientists to ‘ape’ the hard sciences, instead advocating a `a certain art, a kind of dispassionate alertness and historical perspective, a sense of the moment, and a sense that this, too, shall pass.’ While he does not claim overtly that he, unlike Corey Robin, possesses this art and dispassionate alertness, he surely intends that the reader infer it. For my money, I find explicit attention to questions of causation and evidence more convincing than any number of ostentatious self-advertisements for one’s historical perspicacity.
Second, his suggestion that:
the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.
is quite a remarkable one. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has already said, it’s hard to reconcile the “sober-minded Buckley” with the “man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of ‘a crazed Negro’ and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa.” But it’s even more extraordinary if one tries to reconcile it with the discussion of Buckley in Robin’s book. Robin presents evidence (from repeated interviews) that Buckley was anything but reality-based – that he found the conservative emphasis on markets “boring,” and instead preferred to see politics as a Manichean struggle. Buckley indeed suggested that if he were a young aspiring intellectual in 2000 (when the interviews were conducted), he would likely have become a Communist, to stir things up.
All of which would seem to support Robin’s argument, that the right is genuinely reactionary, and that its ideologues are often more interested in the fight than the issues. Myself, when I review a book by an author whom I disagree with, I am inclined to present the evidence that the author presents in support of his arguments, so that readers can have some opportunity to judge it for themselves. Very likely, Mark Lilla does not feel burdened by the same obligation. Or perhaps he simply failed to notice the two points in the book where these comments by Buckley receive extensive discussion. Certainly, his review provides no great evidence of engagement with anything other than the book’s introductory chapter.
It’s a pity that Lilla was given this assignment, and that he turned in such a shoddy review. I’d have liked to have seen a good critical engagement with the book. I think the argument is very interesting, and deserves further attention. I also would have liked to have seen it better worked out – the book is as much a collection of essays as it is a cohesive work, with the result that some of the more provocative claims don’t get as much sustained attention as they deserve. What is most interesting about Corey Robin’s argument is its suggestion that conservatives are true reactionaries – they not only are defined by their struggle with the left, but have taken this struggle for an ethos.
Even when the conservative seeks to extricate himself from this dialogue with the left, he cannot, for his most lyrical motifs – organic change, tacit knowledge, ordered liberty, prudence and precedent – are barely audible without the call and response of the left. … As Karl Mannheim argued, what distinguishes conservatism from traditionalism – the universal “vegetative tendency to remain attached to things as they are … – is that conservatism is a deliberate, conscious effort to preserve or recall “those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way.” … Even if the theory is a paean to practice – as conservatism often is – it cannot escape becoming a polemic … To preserve the regime … the conservative must reconstruct the regime. This program … often … can require the conservative to take the most radical measures on the regime’s behalf. … Conservatism … offers a defense of rule, independent of its counterrevolutionary imperative, that is agonistic and dynamic and dispenses with the staid traditionalism and harmonic registers of hierarchies past … Unlike the feudal past, where power was presumed and privilege inherited, the conservative future envisions a world where power is demonstrated and privilege earned … in the arduous struggle for supremacy.
Al-Ghazali, as quoted by Ernest Gellner, puts Mannheim’s point more pithily – `the genuine traditionalist does not know that he is one; he who proclaims himself to be one, no longer is one.’ But what I don’t know (and can’t tell from the book) is how much of this agonism is unique to conservatism’s intersection with liberalism, and how much is a generic product of the competitive pressures of political conflict. The left and the right shape each other as they fight. Conservatives read Saul Alinsky. Markos Moulitsas, when he started trying to organize the netroots, was partly inspired by the Goldwater movement (as depicted in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm). To really get at the questions that I think (perhaps I’m wrong) Robin is interested in, you would need an intellectual history not of the left, or the right, but of how they have shaped each other, and how each has separately been defined by the struggle between them. This would allow you better to figure out which parts of conservatism are uniquely reactionary, and which parts are simply reactive.
Perhaps a review essay that tried to make this case would have been annoying in its own way, being, after all, another version of ‘you didn’t write the book that I would have written if I’d written about this topic.’ But I think that it would have been far less annoying than Lilla’s, and surely more useful (if only because Lilla’s sets such a very low bar).