Who Remembers Clinton Rossiter?

by John Holbo on September 29, 2012

When I was in Texas I met Carl T. Bogus, law prof. and author of Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism [amazon]. He and I turned out to have something in common: affection for Clinton Rossiter’s forgotten Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion [amazon]. I was trying to baffle someone else at the conference, saying ‘Look, the thing you think conservatism should be is the thing the conservatives made a point of writing off in the 1950’s. You’re a neo-Rossiterian.’ Carl’s ears pricked up. We hit it right off.

When I got home I bought and read Bogus’s Buckley book. I liked it, and it filled in some blanks for me, history-wise. Going back and reading the reviews, I see TNR’s reviewer thought Bogus didn’t much improve on John Judis’ earlier Buckley book. I can’t say. Haven’t read it. (But Judis is a good writer so probably his book is good.) But the reviewer does grant that one area in which Bogus really distinguishes himself is in handling the dead and forgotten ‘new conservatives’ - Rossiter, Viereck and Nisbet, in particular. (Kirk was another, but not one who has been forgotten.)

The most interesting passages in Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism chronicle the new conservatives of the 1950s—Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossitter, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet — when they might still have become the leading voices of twentieth-century American conservatism. Theirs was a conservatism of high culture, moderation, and communal aspiration, skeptical of the market and anchored in the writings of Edmund Burke. In 2009, when Sam Tanenhaus declared American conservatism dead, in the pages of this magazine and then in his book The Death of Conservatism, it was the death of Burkean conservatism he had in mind, and George W. Bush was the killer. For Bogus, this death occurred much earlier, with Buckley the eager undertaker, pushing some new conservatives away from National Review. Others, such as Russell Kirk, he labored to co-opt and thereby to neutralize. “Today the new conservatism is forgotten,” Bogus writes. “Even most of the intellectuals in the conservative movement itself are unaware that this struggle [between Buckley and the new conservatives] took place.”

Yep, nobody remembers Rossiter. Except then David Brooks goes and writes a column, just two days ago, recollecting how when he was a lad at National Review, in 1984, what Bogus calls ‘new conservatism’ was still half the story.

On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace. But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

I’m more convinced by Bogus’ version of the story:

Even as it raged, few people were aware of the battle between Buckleyism and the new conservatism. It was inside baseball, something only the players themselves understood. Buckley, however, fully appreciated the significance of his victory. In 1963, he observed that the followers of Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck had been successfully sidelined. They were, he wrote with obvious satisfaction, “bound to enter the ranks of eccentricity.” Today the new conservatism is forgotten. Even most of the intellectuals in the conservative movement itself are unaware that this struggle ever took place. Why did Buckleyism prevail? How did Buckley pull it off? Why was the struggle so short and decisive? The answer has little to do with the competing ideas themselves. The answer has to do with leadership. It is ironic that the new conservatives—notwithstanding their philosophical emphasis on community over individualism—were loners. Despite the commonalities of their views, Kirk, Viereck, Rossiter, and Nisbet never united to collectively promote the Burkean vision. It is doubly ironic that William F. Buckley Jr. was exactly the opposite; he was philosophically an individualist but built a community at and through National Review. (Kindle Locations 2740-2752).

As Bogus says, this was already inside baseball in 1963. 1963 was a long time ago. So probably this is interesting mostly to historians of the conservative movement. But one enduringly relevant lesson is this: liberals, and the likes of David Brooks, often complain that conservatives have recently lost their way, turning radical. Oh, for the good old days when William F. Buckley could be counted on to write the crazies - the John Birch Society, and Ayn Rand - out of the movement, for the sake of preserving some modicum of sanity. I’m not sure how well this sort of concern trolling really works, in practice. Not well, I think. (Everyone finds it annoying, not persuasive, to be concern trolled.) But, in any case, it’s historically misleading. The truth is that William F. Buckley wrote Rand out of the movement because she was an atheist, not because she was nuts. The trouble with the Birchers wasn’t that they were off the reservation but that they were perilously close to being on it. What Jack Robert Welch believed wasn’t so different from what Buckley believed, but Buckley had the knack for saying it in a way that allowed, at the very least, for delicacy concerning more paranoid aspects and implications. Bogus:

Although these two men were only a few notches apart on an ideological spectrum, they were separated by the stark line of rationality. Welch had crossed over into an alternative universe in which the communists were so clever and powerful that the most likely explanation for almost any event was that the communists had secretly engineered it. Buckley realized this, and Welch realized how Buckley perceived him. (Kindle Locations 3588-3591)

The line was even more delicate than that, because National Review didn’t necessarily want to write off the possibility of invoking that alternate universe, around the edges, for rhetorical effect. And they sure didn’t want to tell the people who were living in the alternate universe that this is what they were doing.

The editors at National Review were in a bind. They knew that some backers and readers were members of the society, but they did not know how many. Buckley and his team were in the dark about just how grave a wound they might inflict upon the magazine by denouncing Welch and his society. Moreover, Buckley was also discovering that even within his inner circle not everyone was as repulsed by Welch’s conspiracy theories as was he. While Bill Rusher conceded that Welch was peddling nonsense, he thought that many Birchers accepted Welch’s theories as more figurative than literal — a poetic cry of distress about the grave state of affairs. Rusher also thought that Buckley was jealous that Welch, rather than National Review, was leading a successful conservative membership organization, and that, in fact, this was upsetting Buckley more than was Birch doctrine. Frank Meyer argued that National Review had to disassociate itself from the John Birch Society, but he thought it should be done in a way to give as little offense as possible to society members. (Kindle Locations 3738-3746).

Welch was peddling a version of the 47% line. We are approaching a tipping point! The trick, as we have seen in recent days, is to be non-specific about what you mean when you say something like that, so you don’t come off as vicious or certifiable. Buckley was basically worried, not that Welch was a nut, but that Welch would make it harder for National Review to keep saying things it was already saying and not sound nutty - since something similar sounded awfully nutty, in the unvarnished Welch version.

Buckley’s final battle against the Birchers was analogous to contemporary conservatives who, in the end, explicitly distanced themselves from the Birthers, but didn’t go further to denounce the spirit of Birtherism. That is to say: not that much has changed. What liberals are hoping for, when they hearken back to the good old days, is not some of that good old Buckley non-craziness but something more like what Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck offered. But Buckley had the good sense to kill that off decades ago, since it was at odds with the spirit of the conservatism he wanted to champion.

I was going to conclude this post by quoting some choice bits from Rossiter’s conservatism book. He’s a fine stylist and genuinely fun to read. Much more entertaining than dull old Russell Kirk. But it looks like I managed to leave my copy at the office. Maybe I’ll post some Rossiter passages later. (Rossiter is actually better known for The American Presidency [amazon]. I should probably get around to reading that.)

I’ll just sign off by reiterating my recommendation of Bogus’ book as the best history I know, where the forgotten ‘new conservatives’ are concerned. (This is a niche market, I realize.) He’s good for filling in the blanks regarding Buckley, if that’s what you want. I think Bogus is right that Buckley really did make modern conservatism, so a good biography of Buckley ends up being good general history.

{ 65 comments }

1

William Timberman 09.29.12 at 1:36 pm

Unfortunately for me, I was around at the time, and had plenty of opportunity not only to read what Buckley said, but to hear him say it out loud on numerous occasions. It was pretty obvious at the time that he was a mean-spirited nutcase, and that the principled conservatism he was marketing was just that, a marketing ploy. That he was simultaneously winning a war of attrition against the Burkeans, or monarchists, or whatever the hell they were, was less apparent to outsiders, i grant you, but the poison in the man himself was unmistakeable.

2

Barry 09.29.12 at 1:45 pm

“when they might still have become the leading voices of twentieth-century American conservatism. Theirs was a conservatism of high culture, moderation, and communal aspiration, skeptical of the market and anchored in the writings of Edmund Burke. “

This reminds me of Adlai Stevenson’s legendary remark upon being told that he he’d the votes of all thinking people.

Brad DeLong has done a good service with his occasional forays into the cesspool of The National Review ,remaining us that he pulled in far more nasty people than he ever exiled from conservatism.

The reason that Buckley was successful was that he was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Goldwater/Nixon’s Confederate strategy. He helped bring in the racists when the Democratic Party became less hospitable.

3

Jonathan 09.29.12 at 1:50 pm

A useful discussion. I’m very interested in the new conservatism’s influence on the horror genre, for example. I would add a verb to disambiguate “Bogus” before a blockquote, however.

4

Murray Reiss 09.29.12 at 2:34 pm

Rick Perlstein covered this ground too, back in March for Rolling Stone, in a post called “Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years” — “http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/why-conservatives-are-still-crazy-after-all-these-years-20120316

5

shah8 09.29.12 at 2:36 pm

Sounds like the era of a modernizing religious movement…

6

LFC 09.29.12 at 2:57 pm

As the post says, the battle between Buckley and the ‘new conservatives’ has been largely forgotten — I don’t know a lot about the history of American conservatism myself — but the names of Rossiter, Nisbet, Kirk and even Viereck are still known, even if people don’t know what they stood for. (A. Sullivan wrote something on Viereck not long ago, I think. Not sure, since I don’t actually read Sullivan.)

I think there might possibly have been wisps of Rossiterian ‘new conservatism’ in George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft. That was a fairly bad book; Will had trouble writing a sustained argument, as I recall, as opposed to stringing together a lot of one-liners. (J. Fallows reviewed it at the time, IIRC, and said pretty much that.)

7

PJW 09.29.12 at 4:36 pm

This post hits close to home, I’m afraid. I attended my first John Birch Society meeting in 1967 when I was six. I didn’t have much choice as it was being held at my parents’ home. I vividly remember coming out of my bedroom and making myself small and hidden in the dark hallway in order to sneak a peek at an anti-Castro film being shown, wherein a man’s tongue had been cut out of his mouth, presumably for speaking out against Castro. Very scary stuff for a young boy. My parents weren’t Society members for long, maybe three years at the most. I grew up with copies of American Opinion magazine around the house, myself eschewing those in favor of Tales from the Crypt and Mad magazine. I remember well those American O Ipinions and I can’t recall any National Reviews at our home.

8

Russell L. Carter 09.29.12 at 5:16 pm

So this one super smart but not nice fellow manipulated a bunch of other super smart and somewhat nicer fellows and also all of the nasty not so smart fellows (and a woman) who themselves and all the rest of the people observing would otherwise assumed some affinity with him. And the result of this heroic, sustained, perfectly carried out marginalization of otherwise birds of a feather from the pages of a little political magazine achieved no later than 1963 a self-sustaining political dynamic that culminated in two score years later the GWB/Sarah Palin/Mitt Romney sustained colossal incoherence.

Color me skeptical.

9

Jeremy 09.29.12 at 7:01 pm

I think one of the best displays of what sort of person Buckley really was is his debate at Oxford with James Baldwin: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/when-james-baldwin-met-bill-buckley/255787/

In 1965, he’s acting like he’s taking a courageous stand against popular opinion. And arguing that since black people have been admitted to law school for years now, the fact that more of them aren’t making it in must be due to their own inferiority.

10

MattF 09.29.12 at 7:06 pm

I was a student at Cornell in 1970, and I remember how shocked everyone was at Rossiter’s suicide– he played a moderating role in the turmoil at that time. Wikipedia has some details:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinton_Rossiter

11

Watson Ladd 09.29.12 at 7:22 pm

Burke is worse! Do you seriously not believe in the justice of the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution? To abandon freedom is to abandon the left.

12

Colin Danby 09.29.12 at 7:48 pm

It would be useful to get a little more about the content of new conservatism, since I’m among those for whom the names “Rossiter, Viereck and Nisbet” don’t mean much. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone has ever been Burkean, even Burke.

The main area of difference brought out in the post seems to be interpretive — the usefulness of paranoid anticommunism to explain events in the world. (The Rusher figurative/literal bit quoted has obvious parallels to left defenses of conspiracy theorizing as politically useful or metaphorically true even if wrong on observable facts.)

But on substance, take Brooks’ characterization: ” the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.” Would Buckley or Rusher have had any problem with those words? These sentimentalized pictures of social/cultural wholesomeness are always counterposed to decadent and threatening sociality and culture, leaving anyone who has mastered the rhetoric ample room to assign particular phenomena to the healthy or sick part. Romney’s bit about the parasitical 47% is compatible with those words once you add the argument that bad gov’t has debased society by making people dependent.

There *is* certainly a wider difference between traditional Catholic social teaching and libertarianism, but despite his Catholicism I see little Catholic social teaching in Buckley. But perhaps someone who has read more widely can help me there.

13

rootless_e 09.29.12 at 8:17 pm

“This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector.”

Conservatives are rarely anti-state. They are anti-democracy.

14

Bill Harshaw 09.29.12 at 9:19 pm

Nothing to contribute on new conservatism, but Professor Rossiter was the lecturer for my Government 101 class in 1959. His balding head was often seen at sporting events, even at lightweight football matches which normally drew a scattering of spectators along the sidelines. That was part of his devotion to the institution, which MattF refers to above. His son has argued in his book against the media’s suggestion of the time that his suicide was a result of the campus conflict over African-American groups.

I remember his suggestion that his style of “government” was being outpaced by the newer “political science”, with surveys and statistics competing with historical narrative and analysis. He was, I believe, linked with the “consensus” school of American history, along Louis Hartz and others, those who seemed to minimize the importance of class and racial conflicts within American life.

15

P. Dant 09.29.12 at 11:48 pm

Buckley was indeed the forerunner of the modern, bigotry-embracing, warmongering, xenophobic right. His ostensible reasonableness was all show, no substance.

Something that intrigues me about him is that he was, in theory, an admirer of Henry George. I cannot reconcile this with his life’s work. I wonder if the book sheds any light on this contradiction?

16

MQ 09.30.12 at 2:29 am

Why was the struggle so short and decisive? The answer has little to do with the competing ideas themselves. The answer has to do with leadership.

Come on — the answer has everything to do with the ideas. Capitalist elites had no use at all for a conservatism that was ‘skeptical of the market’.

17

John Holbo 09.30.12 at 2:49 am

“It would be useful to get a little more about the content of new conservatism, since I’m among those for whom the names “Rossiter, Viereck and Nisbet” don’t mean much. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone has ever been Burkean, even Burke.”

This is rather a hole in the post but, as I said, I seem to have mislaid my copy. I will try to rectify the omission later with some bits from Rossiter and Viereck. I like Viereck quite a bit, too. Carl seems to be a bit lukewarm on him.

One of the main things Viereck and Rossiter share is: not being incorrigible utopian/dystopians – one foot in some recently expired, alleged past Golden Age, the other foot in some inhuman nightmare that is just around the corner.

Burke is a funny case. I think it’s fair to say that Burke isn’t a Burkean, if Burkean means being immune to the worst sorts of utopian/dystopian excesses of the conservative imagination. The French Revolution afflicted Burke with all that big-time. Possibly we can forgive him for seeing Jacobins under the bed because there really were Jacobins across the channel. But it’s telling that his book on the French Revolution, which really was a non-normal time in a lot of ways, has become a kind of stock conservative emotional template for how to think – really, more how to feel – about both normal and non-normal times.

18

Hidden Heart 09.30.12 at 3:52 am

Colin Danby@12: Actually, yes, I think Buckley had a lot of problems with what Brooks is daydreaming about, as do most modern conservatives. “individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government” – all those first few need to go whenever they get in the way of exploitative, centralized, downpushing capitalism. Communities strong enough to resist Walmart (and a hundred other enterprises like it) must go. So must families whose members feel no interest in porn and mass media. So must neighborhoods where shared life strengthens union support, or support for the struggles of their LGBT members. And so on. There’s a place for any of the little battalions only insofar as they operate as subsidiaries of global business.

Basically, the heroes of modern conservativism are the primary destroyers of everything modern conservatism claims as values.

19

Ebenezer Scrooge 09.30.12 at 12:14 pm

I like Burke. I would distinguish “Reflections on the Revolution in France” from “Letters on a Regicide Peace.” I agree with John @ 17 that “Regicide Peace,” with a few transpositions of names and style, reads like a standard wingnut anti-commie tract. But “Reflections” is a whole ‘nuther matter. The two keys to understanding “Reflections”, IMO, were 1.) it was written in 1790, before the Terror, and 2.) Burke supported the American Revolution. Burke was the only person, AFAIK, who could distinguish the American Revolution from the French Revolution, before the French Revolution really took off. Amazing.
Burke was never a big fan of intellectual consistency or extreme clarity of thought. He was more into penetrating insight: a more valuable skill if you work the world of politics, as Burke did. (Oakeshott made Burke safer for political theory.) But as a consequence, there are many Burkes, only some of whom were Burkean.

20

rootless_e 09.30.12 at 12:51 pm

Invention of Air by Stephen Johnson. It’s interesting to read the account of Joseph Priestley being hounded out of the UK by right wing nationalist mobs. Gives some perspective on Burkean conservatives. Also Johnson has some interesting things to say about radicalism.

21

Corey Robin 09.30.12 at 1:19 pm

Like John, I love reading Rossiter (and Viereck as well). And I talk about them a bit in my book The Reactionary Mind (I’d distinguish Nisbet’s position from theirs however; Nisbet was much more critical of and opposed to the New Deal, not just for immediate political reasons but for other reasons concerning the rise of the administrative state). But I think there is a fundamental problem with trying to claim Rossiter or Viereck as exemplars of a more preferred conservatism. John alludes to it here, but I try to develop the argument a little more here: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/12/01/reality-bites-andrew-sullivans-utopian-conservatism/

22

Corey Robin 09.30.12 at 1:25 pm

Sorry, one other plug. Since the issue of Buckley’s radicalism also came up here, folks might want to check out this post in which I trace Buckley’s radicalism on race to more general questions of radicalism on the right, going back to Burke, including on the question of race (and the Haitian Revolution). http://coreyrobin.com/2012/01/03/still-batshit-crazy-after-all-these-years-a-reply-to-ta-nehisi-coates/

23

ralbin 09.30.12 at 1:47 pm

Best short comment on Burke is in (I think) JGA Pocock’s Varieties of Whiggism (could be another one of his articles). Burke was a conservative defender of the existing order but the order he defended was a revolutionary one (paraphrase based on no doubt imperfect memory). Pocock’s point is that Burke’s defense of Britain’s ostensibly conservative mode of historical change was a delusion (as argued by Hume in his History of England).

24

Mitchell Freedman 09.30.12 at 1:59 pm

Funny, I always thought of Rossiter as a liberal oriented fellow similar to the way Daniel Bell was more “liberal” than the people he hung out with during the 1960s through 1980s. Reading this post and the fascinating online book of Rossiter’s son was deeply enlightening.

The Bell qualification of “liberal” and “conservative” into the political, economic and cultural remains very helpful to parsing out the contradictions and disagreements within the larger “conservative” and “liberal” movements.

Corey Robin’s book, however, is spot on in recognizing the consistency of the goal of conservatives in general, which is a diminishing of the democratic impulse, and how each of the Bell realms of conservatives converge in that process. Where people get confused about Robin’s point is in not seeing that the “how” is merely a means, not ends in themselves. So when early 19th Century conservatives attack Bryon and Keats as “sentimental” and “traditional” when they decry capitalist accumulation and the loss of the commons, it is irrelevant to contrast that with the post-WWII attack by conservatives against liberals and leftists for being “cynical” and “anti-traditional.” The goal is the same in both instances.

25

rootless_e 09.30.12 at 2:14 pm

Mitchell Freedman 09.30.12 at 1:59 pm

However, the Conservatives self-identification as opponents of the over-reaching state is widely accepted even by many critics “on the left”. This leads to confusion.

26

JP Stormcrow 09.30.12 at 2:44 pm

I am yet again drawn to post Lars-Erik Nelson’s pithy characterization of Buckley.

Bill Buckley exists to wrap up peoples’ base, greedy, low-life, mean and nasty views into high-faluting language so that they don’t have to go around thinking they are just mean, stupid and nasty, but instead have a philosophy like Buckley’s.

27

J. Otto Pohl 09.30.12 at 2:45 pm

The claims that all streams of American conservatism have been driven only by racial animosity seems extremely overblown. Fusionism combined a number of streams of conservatism and these streams did not all place the same emphasis on race. In addition to excluding the Birchers who while nuts, did not place a great deal of emphasis upon race, Buckley also wrote out the extreme anti-Semites vying for legitimacy in the movement during the 1950s. Some elements of the conservative movement were openly opposed to ending segregation, but racial prejudice was not the single driving force motivating all the elements of the coalition above all other considerations.

The obverse implication that the left has never had any racial prejudices is completely ridiculous. Certainly the left is not immune from racism. The USSR openly had racist policies towards groups such as ethnic Koreans and Kalmyks (see my latest blog post). It also produced such openly racist cartoons as Chunga Changa depicting Africans as happy and lazy primitives. Ironically given the official “anti-racist” position of the Soviet government, the former Soviet bloc countries today are scenes of some of the worst acts of racist abuse in the world. As Marina Mogil’ner has pointed out this racism did not emerge after the collapse of the USSR without any antecedents during the Soviet period. The Soviet government institutionalized a lot of Tsarist racism through the use of line five on internal passports and other similar policies.

28

Antonio Conseilhero 09.30.12 at 2:54 pm

The reason the “New Conservatives” disappeared is that the Democratic Party had room for them. Richard Hofstadter dreamed of an Conservative Party in America, on the model of the British Conservative Party. He called the McCarthyites false conservatives and quoted Adlai Stevenson as having said twice that liberals were America’s true conservatives.

Hofstadter is canonical for most educated Democrats and liberals. Others of more or less that ilk were Shils, Bell, Galbraith, and Schlesinger, with Popper, Arendt and Adorno lurking in the background. The idea was to keep the New Deal while stripping it of its populist, radical, militant, ideological, anti-corporate aspects and turning government into expert administration.

The consequence was that populism became a right wing monopoly (except for Martin Luther King). The kinds of popular support that New Deal instituions need has gone, since the Democratic constituencies have been turned into managed consumers of state largesse, with many layers of representation between the voter and the actual machinery of government.

And then the sixties: civil rights, the Great Society, and the War in Vietnam. LBJ probably could have had two of those, but not all three. He had overetimated the passivity of the electorate.

29

Watson Ladd 09.30.12 at 3:05 pm

I can too! The American revolution keeps around slavery, while Napoleon ends religious prosecution in Europe, establishes modern criminal law across all of Europe, etc. etc. Burke can support the US revolution only insofar as it is a failure: Jefferson and Paine are not going along with his view of France, but rather see it as the what the US should be.

Burke’s liberal reputation rests on his defenses of what he saw as eternal British liberty. He’s the ultimate expression of abstracting from politics everything essential to it. Viewing him as an ally ignores what he actually believes in: old tradition, slow change, opposition to centralized power. Burke would have been against the Civil War, let alone Reconstruction.

30

Davis X. Machina 09.30.12 at 7:47 pm

…but despite his Catholicism I see little Catholic social teaching in Buckley.

Buckley’s Catholicism had a great deal to do with Mexican anti-clericalism, and the progressive nationalization of the Mexican oil industry, and not much beyond.

31

Antonio Conseilhero 09.30.12 at 8:15 pm

Maybe Father Coughlin’s Catholicism, and Pope Leo’s Rerum Novum.

32

bianca steele 09.30.12 at 9:29 pm

Hofstadter is canonical for most educated Democrats and liberals who would be quite surprised to learn that he wished there was an Conservative Party in America, on the model of the British Conservative Party so that he could vote for it (as opposed to telling Republicans they should vote for it instead of the McCarthyites, and reassuring Stevenson voters that (a) they were not as logically incoherent as the Republicans and (b) they don’t have to abandon what they find plausible about conservatism).

I managed to read several of the writers “AC” mentions, admittedly in my younger years, without at all picking up that they were adamantly opposed to populism or anti-anti-corporatism. I’m not saying that their project couldn’t have been what AC says it was–for all I know it was–only that it was not obvious at the time. If it had been, someone like Bell, for example, would have used fewer $10 words like “antinomianism.”

The problem with conservative utopianism, ISTM, is that either the golden age is entirely lost and requires quite radical, even revolutionary means, for it to be retrieved, or it is only almost lost and there are unspoiled pockets of utopia that only have to be allowed to act without let or hindrance, for the remnants to be unremnantized.

33

Mao Cheng Ji 09.30.12 at 11:17 pm

The 50s? Sounds like it was just a Cold War thing.

34

Colin Danby 09.30.12 at 11:47 pm

Interesting, Davis X. Were the Cristeros more influential than we realize?

I’ve not read much re WFB, but it always seemed to me his Dad’s experiences re oil in Mexico must have been formative.

35

Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 1:14 am

You read carelessly, Bianca. For Hofstadter, it’s mostly in “The Progressive Era”. Daniel Bell, and Shils even more so, was a technocrat and wanted to minimize popular influence on major policy issues.

I figured this all out starting around 2002 when I began to find out how aggressively anti-populist most liberals were. I started reading back through the liberal canon and ended up with Hofstadter, the consensus theorists, Bell and Shils, et al. Populism became a (pejorative) technical term with Gellner’s 1969 anthology, which included Hofstadter, and was generally assumed to be right wing.

Truman was hardly a flaming populist, but he used populist anti-Wall Street language and Hofstadter hated that. In one piece he talks complacently about how antitrust has been forgotten, and that’s a good thing. “A rising tide raises all boats” became the motto.

36

Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 1:25 am

I grew up in a still-populist Democratic area, and obviously anti-populism was not part of election campaigns there. But when I’d talk to liberal intellectuals and party insiders and pros it came out vividly.

Even within the rank and file there are plenty of get-along go-along machine Democrats who unquestioningly accept whatever the party leaders give them and tell them.

In Pol Sci 101 the difference between the politics of governance and the politics of consent is presented as very sharp, and there’s a lot of technocracy, the Condorcet-Arrow theorem about the impossibility of fair voting, etc.

37

LFC 10.01.12 at 2:34 am

A. Conseilhero:
Interesting. Not sure I would lump Galbraith in with those other names.
The political scientist William Riker wrote a book called Liberalism against Populism; haven’t read it but there’s a quote from it (somewhat ripped out of context, it would appear) here.

38

Chris Marcil 10.01.12 at 3:00 am

I am not very learned in Burke, but when I read the Reflections a few years back I kept thinking of the great wit Fran Lebowitz’s line: “The 3 questions of greatest concern are: 1) Is it attractive? 2) Is it amusing? 3) Does it know its place?”

39

rootless_e 10.01.12 at 3:04 am

Populism has often been racist. In America,Tom Watson, George Wallace, Father Caughlin, James Vardaman – to name a few.

40

rootless_e 10.01.12 at 3:06 am

“The idea was to keep the New Deal while stripping it of its populist, radical, militant, ideological, anti-corporate aspects and turning government into expert administration. “

The new deal was populist, radical, militant, and anti-corporate? Howard Zinn would have fainted.

41

Alex 10.01.12 at 10:15 am

And nobody’s mentioned John’s encounter with Professor Bogus. A truly impressive demonstration of CT’s seriousness and commitment to intellectual inquiry over cheap laughs.

42

heckblazer 10.01.12 at 10:42 am

J. Otto Pohl @ 27:
“The obverse implication that the left has never had any racial prejudices is completely ridiculous. Certainly the left is not immune from racism.”

Just to emphasize your point, Abolitionists could be pretty racist. For example, Abolitionist and Lincoln supporter Hinton Rowan Helper wrote in his book The Impending Crisis of the South [W]e have endeavored to show. . .that slavery is a great moral, social, civil and political evil”. Then in his book entitled in full The negroes in negroland; the negroes in America; and negroes generally. Also, the several races of white men, considered as the involuntary and predestined supplanters of the black races. A compilation he included such charming observations as “The policy of the Radical (not the Republican) party, if carried out to its logical ends, will inevitably result in the forced political, religious, civil, and social equality of the white and black races; and the direful sequence of that result, so flagrantly unnatural and wrong in itself, can only be reasonably looked for in the ultimate degradation, division, and destruction of the Republic.”

Watson Ladd @29:
Wouldn’t that be the same Napoleon who re-established slavery (or tried to) in the territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue after getting them back from the British?

As for Burke, he thought slavery was an “incurable evil”, though he preferred gradual over immediate abolition. That’s not too far from Lincoln’s position when he was first elected in 1860.

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bianca steele 10.01.12 at 1:05 pm

Antonio,
Like I said, it was a long time ago. (Everybody reads something first.) Hartz, I remember the fuffing about with definitions, how liberalism means when you’re rich but you’re magnanimous, something like that, nobody could fault it. Hofstadter, I’m pretty sure I remember bending over backwards to distinguish Populism from populism. Anyway, if he’s canonical among educated generalists, it would have to be for Anti-Intellectualism and Social Darwinism, I’d think. About the “Conservative Party” for America, you may be right, I’m just saying if so, lots (and lots) of people would be pretty surprised to hear it.

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LFC 10.01.12 at 1:14 pm

heckblazer:
“Abolitionists could be pretty racist.”
Some were, some weren’t; there was a lot of variation. Some opponents of slavery like Helper, who was born in N. Carolina and became a “phobic” (acc. to wikipedia) white supremacist after the Civil War, favored ‘colonizing’ blacks abroad. By contrast there was someone like Charles Sumner, who argued a court case seeking integration of the Boston public schools in, I believe, 1849 or thereabouts.

J. Otto Pohl doesn’t care about this anyway. His thing is Stalin’s racism.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 1:32 pm

The racism charge against the Populists and Progressives was Hofstadter’s baby. He was also mostly responsible for making the term “populist” a common noun referring to a type or style of politics, almost always in a pejorative sense.

The Democratic Party has also often become racist. Between 1870 or so and 1948 or so white supremacy was the supported by all Southern Democrats and almost all Northern Democrats.

In 1898 Josephus Daniels instigated the Wilmington insurrection, which overturned the biracial Republican government of North Carolina’s largest city and destroyed Wilmington’s flourishing black middle class at the cost of an unknown number of lives. He later became Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy and Roosevelt’s Ambassador to Mexico. At that time Populists in NC were allied with the Republicans. This was the effective end of both the Populist Party and the Republican Party in the South. The Republican governor appealed to Pres. McKinley for support but got none. I have been told that this is the only case in American history when a legally elected government was overthrown by violence.

Racism is the all-purpose condemnation of any American, because Americans tend toward toward racism. Lincoln was racist, many abolitionists were racist, white liberals are racist, and so on.

The New Deal had populist, etc. aspects. It needed to keep the support of the third parties in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota and similar politicians elsewhere, it needed to neutralize radicals and militant labor. When the Union Party fizzled in 1936 Roosevelt no longer had to do this, and it is generally agreed that 1934-36 was the most progessive period of the New Deal.

FDR had to deal with populist and leftist popular movements, but after WWII those which survived dwindled away or were destroyed as the Democratic Party turned to the patron-client model, and from that point populism belonged to the right.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 3:04 pm

To get to my main point:

Suppose you had a choice between A.) an anti-war, egalitarian, anti-finance populist party which tended toward racism, sexism, and homophobia, and B.) a culturally liberal party which was militaristic to the point of imperialism, subservient to finance, and making plans to weaken the social safety net, as we call it here.

No one would want to be forced to make that choice, and A.) does not exist. (The “American Conservative” group is not anti-finance or pro safety net). If I were to say that I preferred A.) I would be a bigot and so on and become a pariah.

But B. is actual. That is the best we can get at the present time. That is the Obama administration.

After WWII there was a tremendous fear of militant popular movements, which were regarded as proto-Stalinist if leftist and proto-Nazi if populist. The New York Intellectuals, their friends Arendt and Adorno, the consensus theorists, the pluralists, the Popperians all emphasized the dangers of popular politics, and by and large the Democrats and other quasi-left parties reconstituted themselves as anti-popular, elitist parties consolidating the gains of past movements. The idea of popular government was debunked, partly as impossible for technical pluralist reasons, but really as undesirable. Elections became the engineering of consent, with unions, the parties, and other vote-recruiters adding an additional layer of representation between voters and government (beyond the constitutional layers and the permanent and often untouchable bureaucracies such as the Fed and the Dept. of Defense.) Democratic voters became clients hoping for largesse, and whatever initiative came from the voters was reduced to either switching parties or quitting voting.

The idea of a wise, benign, educated political elite is not entirely loathsome, but in a system with a wired-in majoritarian aspect (alongside all the checks and balances) you really needed to have popular movements, including militant popular movements, to keep the party vital. And in fact we do have popular social-liberal movements, but not economic-liberal (“populist”) movement, and the Democrats do not want them since they’re in the grip of finance.

Which makes it hard even to protect past gains.

And if this is regarded as trolling, I’ll quit now.

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rootless_e 10.01.12 at 4:22 pm

Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 1:32 pm

The racism charge against the Populists and Progressives was Hofstadter’s baby. He was also mostly responsible for making the term “populist” a common noun referring to a type or style of politics, almost always in a pejorative sense.
—-

I’m no fan of Hofstadter, but populist racism is not imaginary. The term “redneck” was originally used for the populist alliance of poor whites in Mississippi that dominated politics there starting in the late 1890s. The transformation of Tom Watson in the early 1900s is a classic phenomenon. As for the Progressives, certainly Wilson was an out and out racist. One does not have to buy into Hofstadter’s politics to see how common it is for anti-elite popular movements to be diverted into anti-outsider xenophobia.

As for the Democrats: obviously the Democrats and Republicans are not static. The process starting in the 1940s where segregationist Democrats left the party and gradually took control of the Republican party completed after passage of the civil rights acts.

Thanks for the reference to the Wilmington riots. The long destruction of Reconstruction is a tragedy that still hangs over US politics.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 4:47 pm

Rootless e:

Yeah, but those were Democrats, not populists. Pitchfork Ben Tillman is one of the most famous populists, except that he was a Democrat and supported the 1898 military insurrection which destroyed both the Populist Party and the Republican Party in North Carolina. Bryan was a Democrat, not a Populist — Clarence Darrow was the Populist at the Scope trial.

In the South, almost everyone was racist. Planters, hillbillies, Democrats, Populists, Bourbons, Progressives, and even the Republicans to a degree. This is America.

The Populists never renounced white supremacy, but by their existence and by their alliance with the biracial Republican Party in the South they broke up the solid south and weakened white supremacy — in short, they put their money where their mouth wasn’t. That was a big part of the reason why they were crushed.

I am convinced that the reason why McKinley didn’t intervene after the unprecedented Wilmington Insurrection is that he feared the Populists and was willing to grant the Democrats the entire South in order to neutralize them. After 1900 or so most of the Republican Party abandoned black southerners too — the “lily white” Republicans.

In part this is a mere linguistic quibble about naming the “populists” after the Populists in such a pejorative, unfair, and inaccurate way. Any bigoted, anti-intellectual demagogue now counts as a populist, even if it’s the Koch brothers. (Whose American family was founded, incidentally, by a grandfather who represented the railroads in Texas right when the railroads were the worst enemy of the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Populists).

But more importantly, it is a sign of the renunciation by the Democratic Party of all “populist”, “us against them”, anti-big-money movement politics whatsoever, and coincided with the concordat with finance (anticipated in Hofstadter and Galbraith) which has gotten us into a terrible mess.

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Harold 10.01.12 at 5:20 pm

“Populist” has come to mean anyone who is popular and is hence a threat to the status quo of the two reigning parties.

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rootless_e 10.01.12 at 6:04 pm

By the way: this is quite interesting and moving story of Rositer’s suicide and the height of the 1960s battles on campus.

http://calebrossiter.com/chapter8.html

Alan Bloom is and was a pompous blowhard.

In the South, almost everyone was racist. Planters, hillbillies, Democrats, Populists, Bourbons, Progressives, and even the Republicans to a degree. This is America.

Not always true. Tom Watson’s political career as a populist started with alliances of black and white sharecroppers and there were a number of other efforts that at times had integrated membership.
http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-2477

By the way, when you write ” almost everyone was racist”, I am pretty sure you mean, ” almost all white people were racist”. Interesting how difficult it is to avoid the normative assumptions of US society

But more importantly, it is a sign of the renunciation by the Democratic Party of all “populist”, “us against them”, anti-big-money movement politics whatsoever, and coincided with the concordat with finance (anticipated in Hofstadter and Galbraith) which has gotten us into a terrible mess.

It’s misleading to characterize the collapse of social democratic working class organization as a kind of moral failure of the Democrats. Not only is this a widespread phenomenon in Western societies (e.g. consider the rise of La Pen and Daughter ) but I think it perpetuates the flawed idea that economics is the motor of history. Ellen Willis:

For some, there is also nostalgia for a time when
white liberal men like Tom Frank were heroes, before they were robbed of
the spotlight by blacks, women and gays, forced to confront private conflicts
as public issues, and ultimately pushed aside by the right. There is
something poignant about this, given the political bleakness of the day, but
it’s an indulgence the American left cannot afford. We need to look not to
the New Deal but to a new politics, one that recognizes equality and freedom,
class and culture, as ineluctably linked.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 6:32 pm

I stick up for Tom Watson a lot, but his alliance with black sharecroppers was flawed from the beginning because he was simultaneously assuring his white supporters that he wasn’t shallenging white supremacy. The 1896 North Carolina Populists came closest, and one of their leaders, Marion Butler, joined the (doomed biracial) Republican Party rather than the Democratic Party with the collapse of Populism.

Ellen Willis may deny it but that is exactly what happened. The same things were happening elsewhere in Europe in the same way — different people, same process, same reasons. And my point is that various intellectual leaders of the Democrats ca. 1945-1955 (Hofstadter, Bell, Galbraith, et al) actively advocated what actually ended up happening. It wasn’t just invisible forces, trends, and tendencies.

Regardless of how it happened or who was to blame, we now have attained choice 1.) above: non-sexist, non-homophobic, not-too-racist militarist imperialism, the dominance of finance, and the disintegration of the New Deal safety net. And plenty of people are happy with this, Andrew Sullivan being the poster child. (If you look at imprisonment statistics, employment statistics, etc., one can doubt that there’s been a lot of progress on the racial front since 1968).

You do not find the 2.) alternative (bigoted homophobic antiwar anticorporate egalitarianism) at all, much less the ideal alternative (antiwar egalitarian social liberalism). Egalitarianism is just gone.

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant, gay-friendly, non-sexist armies clash by night.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 6:41 pm

I still have not been informed that I am trolling, and I should just repeat that the Civil Rights Movement was in many respects populist by either definition. That fact that it doesn’t seem so is a function of the American racial situation.

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bianca steele 10.01.12 at 7:48 pm

I have to admit that I know of Rossiter only by name and because of his less partisan books (one or two of which I may have read, who knows). I’ve heard much more about Kirk (about whom I have managed to get some idea) and Viereck (about whom I’ve managed to get very little from what I’ve read[1]). Of the group of them, I suppose Nisbet is the only one I’m likely to read, foreseeably.

[1] So, from Wikipedia: he was anti-utopian and anti-ideological–Buckley thought this was eccentric? I suppose that conservatism is fluid.

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rootless_e 10.01.12 at 11:17 pm

Regardless of how it happened or who was to blame, we now have attained choice 1.) above: non-sexist, non-homophobic, not-too-racist militarist imperialism, the dominance of finance, and the disintegration of the New Deal safety net.

How has the new deal safety net disintegrated? Compared to 1945, Social Security is vastly expanded (the No Negroes policy has gone away), Medicare didn’t arrive until 1960s and is still there and expanded recently, and the ACA expands Federal assistance to health even further. Even the low interest rate policy of the Fed in the current crisis was more extensive in providing mortgage help than the 1930s New Deal programs.

How is finance more dominant? In the 1980s, Paul Volcker threw all of South America into poverty and destroyed American manufacturing to save Wall Street’s loans. Finance is a larger part of the economy, that’s for sure, but J. P. Morgan, the Mellons, the Rockefellers ( who owned Chase) in earlier decades still had enormous power and reach.

As for labor, it’s really instructive to read C. Wright Mills. By the early 1950s the militant labor unions of the 1930s had been tamed and integrated into a subordinate role in the power structure.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.01.12 at 11:53 pm

“How is finance more dominant? In the 1980s, Paul Volcker threw all of South America into poverty and destroyed American manufacturing to save Wall Street’s loans”

Do you have any idea what happened in 2007 and 2008? The stock market lost half its value, many people lost their life savings (either their home or their savings or both), and we went into the longest recession since 1937, which we’re still not out of. Finance played a big role in that, in many cases a criminal role. What you would normally expect to see done was 1.) takes steps to prevent further such events 2.) punish malefactors and 3.) ease the pain for unemployed or bankrupted individuals. The only thing that happened was that finance itself was rescued.

The pattern ober the last 30 years has been deregulation of economic and multinational business at the expense of ordinary Americans and decreases in taxes on the wealthiest, either shifting them to ordinary Americans or else reducing government resources, and Democrats have gone along with much of that.

The recession led to decreased government revenues and a big deficit, and now this deficit is being used as a reason for austerity, which is exactly the wrong thing, and has also been recruited into an attack on “entitlements”, which Obama and many Democrats have signed on to. And little or no spending will be shifted from military to civilian purposes, and taxation has not been shifted from ordinary Americans to wealthy Americans.

Most of the above is mainstream liberal economics, DeLong and Krugman and Dean Baker. And the the effect of it all is to leave finance in complete command, untouchable, invulnearable, and underwritten by the state.

Social safety net: state spending, local spending, private pensions plans, private medical insurance have all been decreasing, and now social security is on the chopping block.

“As for labor, it’s really instructive to read C. Wright Mills. By the early 1950s the militant labor unions of the 1930s had been tamed and integrated into a subordinate role in the power structure.”

That’s what I said. “Had been tamed” — by whom? how? Mills was a friend and opponent of Hofstadter et all, an anti-consensus theorist (conflict theorist). He objected to the things the others supported. These were not passive-voice processes and trends, these were things that were done. And regardless of how it happened, this is one of the reasons that the Democrats are now weak. The independent unions were difficult to work with, and the Party and its politicians gained a freer hand, but when the crunch time came the Democrats’ following is weak.

Caveat: in the two party system neither party will ever suffer for long. The non-populist Democrats will always do fine by adjusting to the present balance of power and aiming at moderate Republicans. But there’s a loss in terms of the kinds of issue that I’ve been speaking of.

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rootless_e 10.02.12 at 12:50 am

What you would normally expect to see done was 1.) takes steps to prevent further such events 2.) punish malefactors and 3.) ease the pain for unemployed or bankrupted individuals

(2) really surprises me. There is little historical support for such an expectation. How many senior Wall Street bankers have gone to jail in the last 80 years? The usual process with panics, as with the S&L panic, is to slap the wrists of a few regional VPs, and help Wall Street consolidate power. During the Depression, Samuel Insull was prosecuted for trying to keep his business running and Mellons continued to make big money.

(3) http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/how-unemployment-benefits-became-twice-as-generous/
Compare to WPA- and remember Grapes of Wrath describes life during the New Deal.

(1) This is not the place to discuss Dodd-Frank. But
http://krebscycle.tumblr.com/post/31270512257/why-much-of-wall-street-hates-obama

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.02.12 at 12:57 am

Iceland did it, the US can’t and won’t. I was answering your “How is finance more dominant?” and saying what you would expect if it weren’t.

Comparing the present moment to the depths of the depression — isn’t that a bit silly? I’m talking about the trend since 1945. ” Grapes of Wrath describes life during the New Deal.” Grapes of Wrath describes the kind of thing the New Deal was intended to prevent, the motivation for the New Deal, not the result of the New Deal.

You’re quibbling now. You seem unaware of even the issues Krugman and DeLong have been shouting about for two years, and they are centrists. I am being reminded of why I’ve always had mixed feelings about this place, as the place does about me.

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rootless_e 10.02.12 at 1:03 am

There’s a difference between rational expectation and what would be just. In a just world, Dick Fuld would be on a chain gang. In this world, it would have shocked me if he had been fined seriously.

As for this place, I’m far more out of step with it than you are. And with that, goodnight.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.02.12 at 1:38 am

You totally missed my point when I used the word “expect”, even after I explained it. But thanks for being the one who talked to me.

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burritoboy 10.02.12 at 9:53 pm

The problem with setting up Rossiter as some sort of potential, but now lost, conservatism, is that Rossiter, Nisbet, Kirk, et al. had no political support even in their heyday(s). Any conceivable conservatism in the USA is going to need the support of the American business elite as a necessary but not sufficient condition. Kirk’s conservatism is reliant upon class and religious conditions that theoretically could be applied to the Scotland he resided in, but made no sense in any American contexts. The American business elite likes to rule, and they will dislike any politics that aims at dislodging their control – whether that politics is conservative (dislodging the business elite for an independent military, religious or State elite) or liberal (dislodging the business elite for more democratic control) or otherwise.

To put it bluntly, you’re not going to go anywhere with an American conservatism that doesn’t stroke the egos of the business elite – that means libertarianism has to be part of the mix. If Rossiter, Nisbet, etc wanted to have any viable political impact, they would have been (and in most cases, actually ended up being) liberals – the only countervailing forces in the US that can defy the power of the business elite are (broadly speaking) the popular democratic institutions – the unions and the popular political movements and causes (like Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, 40 Hour Work Week, Temperance and other movements) as well as control of specialized technocracies (such as academe or journalism).

The things that traditional conservatives tended to rely upon – the State, the Church, the Army – simply don’t exist as independent political forces in the US. Without them, you need to either appeal to the business elite or to activate the masses against the business elite.

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Mao Cheng Ji 10.02.12 at 10:31 pm

57, 59, whoa, what’s with the martyr complex? Everybody’s happy to hear from you, John.

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Watson Ladd 10.03.12 at 1:59 am

burritoboy: Yes, the USA is a country formed like Napoleon France as the cradle of liberty. That means no feudal remnants or dictatorships waiting in the wings. You are free not to like it, but I think if you actually want a military coup against the burgers and such silly things as freedom, you might want a rethink.

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KT 10.03.12 at 9:34 pm

Rossiter’s Constitutional dictatorship was discussed in connection with Carl Schmitt in Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception.

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John Holbo 10.04.12 at 2:37 am

“Rossiter’s Constitutional dictatorship was discussed in connection with Carl Schmitt in Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception.”

Interesting!

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John Holbo 10.06.12 at 12:11 am

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