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coreyrobin

I’ve been saying for months that Donald Trump is the George McGovern of the GOP, the fractious leader who so alienated the elders of his party that they deserted him in droves, handing the election to his opponent. We’re already seeing the signs. [click to continue…]

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Neoliberalism: A Quick Follow-up

by Corey Robin on April 29, 2016

My post on neoliberalism is getting a fair amount of attention on social media. Jonathan Chait, whose original tweet prompted the post, responded to it with a series of four tweets:

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The four tweets are even odder than the original tweet. [click to continue…]

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Yesterday, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait tweeted this:


It was an odd tweet.

On the one hand, Chait was probably just voicing his disgruntlement with an epithet that leftists and Sanders liberals often hurl against Clinton liberals like Chait.

On the other hand, there was a time, not so long ago, when journalists like Chait would have proudly owned the term neoliberal as an apt description of their beliefs. It was The New Republic, after all, the magazine where Chait made his name, that, along with The Washington Monthly, first provided neoliberalism with a home and a face.

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men—and they were almost all men—who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

These were the men who made Jonathan Chait what he is today. Chait, after all, would recoil in horror at the policies and programs of mid-century liberals like Walter Reuther or John Kenneth Galbraith or even Arthur Schlesinger, who claimed that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.” We know this because he recoils in horror today so resolutely opposes the far more tepid versions of that liberalism that we see in the Sanders campaign.

It’s precisely the distance between that lost world of 20th century American labor liberalism and contemporary liberals like Chait that the phrase “neoliberalism” is meant, in part, to register. [click to continue…]

John Palattella: A Writer’s Editor

by Corey Robin on April 26, 2016

Last week, an announcement went out from The Nation that, while barely mentioned in the media-obsessed world of the Internet, echoed throughout my little corner of the Internet. John Palattella will be stepping down from his position as Literary Editor of The Nation in September, transitioning to a new role as an Editor at Large at the magazine.

For the last nine years, John has been my editor at The Nation. I wrote six pieces for him. That may not seem like a lot, but these were lengthy essays, some 42,000 words in total, several of them taking me almost a year to write. That’s partially a reflection on my dilatory writing habits, but it also tells you something about John’s willingness to invest in a writer and a piece.

John is not just an editor. Nor is he just an editor of one of the best literary reviews in the country. John is a writer’s editor. [click to continue…]

Magical Realism, and other neoliberal delusions

by Corey Robin on April 15, 2016

Apologies in advance for all the formatting foul-ups. My usual formatting guru, John Holbo, is off somewhere arguing about the Commerce Clause…

1.


At Vox, Dylan Matthews offers a sharp analysis of last night’s debate, which I didn’t watch or listen to. His verdict is that the three big losers of the night were Hillary Clinton, the New Democrats, and liberal technocrats. (The two winners were Bernie Sanders and Fight for $15 movement.) As Matthews writes:
But just going through the issues at tonight’s debate, it’s striking to imagine a DLCer from the ‘90s watching and wondering what his party had come to. Sanders was asked not if he was sufficiently tough on crime, but if his plans to let millions of convicted criminals out of prison would actually free as many felons as promised. Clinton was criticized not for being insufficiently pro-Israel, but for being insufficiently willing to assail the killing of Palestinian civilians. Twenty years after Clinton named former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin as his Treasury secretary, so much as consorting with Goldman Sachs had become toxic.

Though I’m obviously pleased if Sanders beat Clinton in the debate, it’s the other two victories that are most important to me. For those of us who are Sanders supporters, the issue has never really been Hillary Clinton but always the politics that she stands for. Even if Sanders ultimately loses the nomination, the fact that this may be the last one or two election cycles in which Clinton-style politics stands a chance: that for us is the real point of this whole thing.

I‘m always uncertain whether Clinton supporters have a comparable view. While there are some, like Jonathan Chait or Paul Starr, for whom that kind of politics is substantively attractive, and who will genuinely mourn its disappearance, most of Clinton’s supporters seem to be more in synch with Sanders’s politics. They say they like Bernie and agree with his politics; it’s just not realistic, they say, to think that the American electorate will support that.

Which makes these liberals’ attraction to Clinton all the more puzzling. If it’s all pure pragmatism for you—despite your personal support for Bernie’s positions, you think only her style of politics can win in the United States—what are you going to do, the next election cycle, when there’s no one, certainly no one of her talent or skills and level of organizational support, who’s able to articulate that kind of politics? [click to continue…]

I love my students

by Corey Robin on April 9, 2016

We talk a lot on this blog about pedagogy and other issues related to classroom instruction in the academy. I don’t often participate in those discussions, though I read them avidly, with great interest and appreciation. I suppose it’s because the issues raised there sometimes seem a bit removed from what I encounter at CUNY.  But I posted this post last night on my blog, and spurred on by an appreciative tweet from Henry, I thought I’d share it here. Teaching’s not always like this at CUNY, but it often is. I remember my first semester at Brooklyn College, teaching a nighttime seminar on liberalism and constitutional law. I’ll never forget, about an hour after the class had ended, I walked by the classroom on my way home and there were three students—one from Nigeria, one from Eastern Europe, and one who was African American—still arguing over some passage from On Liberty. It sounds like something out of a movie, and the truth is, it often feels that way. More than 15 years later, I still sometimes fantasize that I’m teaching the next generation of the New York Intellectuals. Only instead of them being the children of East European Jews, they’re from the Caribbean, West Africa, Palestine, Yemen, Turkmenistan. They’re black, they’re Latina, they’re Muslim, they’re working class, they’re Orthodox Jewish, and they come from everywhere.

* * * * * 


I’m not one of those professors who says, “I love my students,” but…I love my students. [click to continue…]

A Very Very Brief Intellectual Autobiography

by Corey Robin on April 2, 2016

Reading Samuel Freeman’s review of conservative philosopher Roger Scruton in the latest NYRB, I had a mini-realization about my own work on conservatism, which features Scruton a fair amount.

In the mid-1970s, conservatism, which had previously been declared dead as an intellectual and political force, started to gain some political life (its intellectual rejuvenation had begun long before). As it did, conservatism began to have an impact on liberalism. Politically, you could see that influence in the slow, then sudden, retreat from traditional New Deal objectives, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton. What that meant was a massive turnaround on economic issues (deregulation, indifference to unions, galloping inequality) and a softer turnaround on so-called social or moral issues. While mainstream Democrats today are identified as staunch liberals on issues like abortion and gay rights, the truth of the matter is that in the early 1990s, they beat a retreat on that front (not only on abortion but also, after an initial embrace of gays and lesbians, on gay rights as well).

Among liberal academics, the impact of conservatism was equally strong. Not only in the obvious sense that conservatism became an object of increasing scholarly interest, particularly among historians. But also in a deeper sense, as the categories of traditional conservative concern, like religion, came to assume a greater role in scholarly inquiry.

The impact was especially dramatic in the world of liberal political theory. [click to continue…]

Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them—not one—had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.

The future was so uncertain, they said, the economy so broken, there simply was no point in devising a plan, much less trying to execute it. The best one could do, one of them said, was to take whatever came your way, without looking more than six months ahead of you.

They even dreamed of the Chilean example, where an activist a few years ago burned what he claimed was $500 million in student debt. Sadly, they pointed out, that option wasn’t available in the US, where all of the debt is up in the cloud. (How strange, I thought to myself: once upon a time, utopian philosophers had their heads in the clouds; that was where they found a better world. Now it is the most dreary and repressive forces of society—drones, surveillance cameras, debt collectors—that take up residence there, ruling us from their underworld in the sky.) [click to continue…]

I’m going to float a series of vast and off-the-cuff historical generalizations in order to try and get at something that is distinctive about the current moment in US politics.

Beginning in Europe in the 19th century, liberalism has been engaged in a two-front war—on-again, off-again—against the right and the left. Against the right’s revanchism and the left’s radicalism, liberalism has held itself up as the original Third Way. It is the reasonable and moderate alternative to the extremes, offering men and women the promise and payout of a capitalist, vaguely democratic, modernity but without its revolutionary perils or reactionary pitfalls.

Though it has on occasion entered into a more productive, albeit tension-filled, front with the left, liberalism has always been uneasy about the left. For a variety of reasons, among them a doubt about the left’s commitments to the rule of law, civil liberties, the norms and procedures of parliamentary democracy, and the institutions of the capitalist market. (Which is ironic since it was the left, at least in Western Europe and the US, that fought hardest for civil liberties and the right to vote, but I digress.) Liberalism and the left thus have been either uneasy partners or outright antagonists.

While liberalism has often loathed the right, it hasn’t always been sufficiently attuned to the shape-shifting power of the right. Its attentions have too often been focused in the other direction, so fraught has been its relationship to the left. Till it was too late.

The left has not been entirely blameless in this. It, too, has been engaged in a two-front war: against liberalism and the right. On the ground, and in the streets, the left has understood the power of the right, but up in the chambers of political theory, intellectual debate, and elite party argument, the left has sometimes, and catastrophically, construed liberalism (or its positional surrogate on the ideological spectrum) to be its greatest and only enemy. Even at a moment like the present in the United States—when liberalism, at least as it has been historically understood in the United States, has been in abeyance, or at best, has played second fiddle—the left has tended to focus on the power and betrayals of liberalism.

What liberalism and the left have in common, in other words, is an insufficient appreciation of the right. What made that lack of appreciation understandable, historically, was that the left—whether in the form of socialist parties, communist internationals, militant trade unions, social movements, and the like—had some real power and traction on the ground. It was understandable for liberals to be more focused upon—and fearful of—the left, which often seemed ready to march right over the liberals. So was it understandable for leftists to be more focused upon—and pissed off at—liberals, who often seemed ready to betray the left.

But that is not the situation we are in right now. In fact, we haven’t been in that situation for some time. [click to continue…]

The Definitive Take on Donald Trump

by Corey Robin on March 13, 2016

No, not really. Just my self-aggrandizing way of introducing this Salon column I wrote about Trump and what he means within the long arc of conservatism. My frustration with much of the discussion about Trump is that it presumes he’s a complete outlier within the conservative tradition, that he simply crashed the party. Not so: in many ways, he’s a classic conservative. But there are some elements in his campaign that are new and that make him dangerous. But those elements have less to do with Trump, the man, than with the state of play of the conservative movement.

Here are some excerpts. My apologies in advance for all the paradoxes and dialectical twists; I went heavy on the Louis Hartz here:

If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and the general election in November, it will be a victory for the GOP—and a defeat for conservatism. Not because Trump isn’t a conservative but because he is.

[click to continue…]

Are we dying of history?

by Corey Robin on March 13, 2016

Nazi salutes and Weimar pastiche. Debates laden with references to Mossadegh, Allende, Cambodia, and the Sandinistas. Gaffes about Nancy Reagan. Discussions of George Wallace. Decades-old legislation. Have we ever had a presidential campaign so saturated in history, not just of the US but of other parts of the world? I feel like we’re watching history unspool, in a completely chaotic, unedited way. It’s as if we’re at one of those sumptuous and feverish Viennese balls from the turn of the century, and every ghost from empires past has shown up to dance. What’s going on? Joseph Roth, where are you?

Conservatism at Yale

by Corey Robin on March 12, 2016

GESO, the graduate employees’ union at Yale, took a quantum leap forward this week when it was chartered as Local 33 of the UNITE-HERE international union. It now joins Yale’s two other unions: Local 34, the clerical and technical workers’ union, and Local 35, the service and maintenance workers’ union. Though Yale has yet to recognize Local 33, this is a big step.

As the Washington Post reports:

On Wednesday evening, something happened that generations of graduate students at Yale University had awaited for nearly two decades: The founding of a union. With about 1,500 members present, amidst New Haven’s other unions and with the support of a who’s who of Connecticut public officials, the international president of UNITE-HERE arrived to certify their majority support and grant them a charter.

“It’s a really historic and amazing event, and something that will bring a new local to the UNITE-HERE family at Yale for the first time in 30 years,” says Aaron Greenberg, a graduate student in political science who chairs the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. “We’re not waiting for the administration to come to the table.”

The only correction I would add is what my friend Kristi Starr said on Facebook: the grad students at Yale have not been “awaiting” this move for nearly two decades. They’ve been fighting like hell for this move for nearly two decades. The grad union drive began in the late 1980s, and if all goes well, it will come to a conclusion in the coming year.

Speaking of the union’s history, my friend Nikhil Singh, who’s now a professor at NYU but who was one of the founders of GESO, sent the founders of Local 33 a letter on this historic occasion. This excerpt really captures what’s so special about the unions at Yale: [click to continue…]

Nancy Reagan: Straight Outta Dreiser

by Corey Robin on March 7, 2016

A thousand years ago, back when I was writing book reviews for Newsday, Laurie Muchnick and Emily Gordon asked their stable of regular reviewers to make a summer reading recommendation. Mine was Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. Before I retire, I still plan to teach a course on American Politics where Kelly’s biography is the only text on the syllabus. In the meantime, here’s what I said back in 2000, about Kelley’s biography.

A friend of mine in graduate school, a member of the Communist Party even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liked to brag that when he taught American politics he would assign only Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. I thought he was crazy. Until I read the book.

Authored by a reporter dubbed “the Saddam Hussein of privacy invasion,” Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (Pocket Books, out of print) was more than a nasty assault on a nasty woman. It was also a poignant chronicle of America’s hidden history: the obsessive quest for privilege in a country that denies its existence. Through Reagan’s persona, Kelley profiled those Americans who reinvent their pasts, invoking imagined genealogies of gentility as cover for working-class backgrounds. Not since Alexis de Tocqueville had anyone produced such a devastating cultural biography of a nation committed in theory to equality but in practice to elitism.

“Two entries on Nancy Reagan’s birth certificate are still accurate—her sex and her color. Almost every other item was invented then or later reinvented.” So begins this merciless epic, straight out of Dreiser, of a poor, unhappy girl who lies her way to the top. The detritus along the way is extensive: the hushed-up suicide of an uncle broken by a miserable marriage; a birth father spurned and an adopted father embraced, all for the sake of money; a desperately engineered marriage to a second-rate actor with a wandering eye, wayward heart and shared penchant for ambitious fantasy.

“Nancy Reagan” suggests that the cost of social climbing in America goes beyond personal unhappiness. Because of our ache for aristocracy, we’ve suffered a terminal case of collective self-deception in this country, refusing to acknowledge that the poor are one of us, that a society built as a monument to personal success means that only a few can achieve it, that wealth is not a measure of merit but luck, power and personal connection.

As the Greek tragedians understood so well, an act of deception—particularly about one’s family—can wreak havoc upon the body politic. In this regard, Kelley’s biography remains a work of unfulfilled prophecy, anticipating not the Clinton impeachment scandals but the conflict that is to come when America wakes up and realizes the inequalities created in the name of Nancy.

Having said that, I found “Nancy Reagan” to be an exceedingly funny book—maybe because it was a pleasant distraction from a summer of lethal reading in preparation for my PhD qualifying exams, or because I was amused at the thought of my friend’s forcing rich kids to read it. Whatever the case, I giggled my way through a hot July. Who says Communists don’t have a sense of humor?


Actually, if you’re interested in the wider cultural ramifications of Nancy Reagan (and would like a little historical perspective to avoid the canonization that has already begun; live long enough, and you really do see everything), I’d also recommend another book: Deborah Silverman’s Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America.

Trump Talk

by Corey Robin on March 5, 2016

I’m writing a much longer piece on Trump. In the meantime, some clips from the cutting-room floor.

1. At last night’s debate, Trump said of Rubio, “And he referred to my hands—if they are small, something else must be small—I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.” Lest you think we’re tumbling down a new rabbit hole here, once upon a time, the king’s body and the body politic were thought to be, if not one and the same, then in some kind of alignment. Trump’s reference is as much pre-modern as it is post-modern. Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic book on the topic, The King’s Two Bodies, was subtitled “A Study in Medieval Political Theology.”

In any event, I’d rather hear Trump’s opinions about his penis than his views on Muslims and Mexicans.

2. You often hear that the rhetorical brutality of Trump is unprecedented. Never before have we seen a candidate so cruel. I’m not so sure.

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You also hear that we’ve never had a leading politician who so shamelessly, if rhetorically, flirted with violence. Again, I’m not so sure. [click to continue…]

Antonin Scalia: The Donald Trump of the Supreme Court

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2016

Antonin Scalia has died. Cass Sunstein, one of Obama’s favorite law professors and, for a time, regulatory czar in Obama’s administration, had this to say from his perch at Harvard Law School:


(Suddenly I see the wisdom of Bill Buckley’s famous quip about Harvard.)

In the coming days, the retrospectives on Scalia’s career and predictions of what is to come will be many; they’ve already begun.

But for me Scalia is a figure of neither the past nor the future but of the present.

If you want to understand how Donald Trump became the soul of the Republican Party, you need look no further than Antonin Scalia. Scalia is the id, ego, and super-ego of modern conservatism. He was as outrageous in his rhetoric (his unvarying response to any challenge to Bush v. Gore was “Get over it!”) as he was cruel in his comportment. Sandra Day O’Connor was the frequent object of his taunts. Hardly an opinion of hers would go by without Scalia calling it—and by implication, her—stupid. “Oh, that’s just Nino,” she’d sigh helplessly in response. Even Clarence Thomas was forced to note drily, “He loves killing unarmed animals.” He was a pig and a thug. (Sunstein, by contrast, believes “he was a great man, and a deeply good one.”) And he was obsessed, as his dissent in PGA Tour v. Casey Martin shows, with winners and losers. They were the alpha and omega of his social vision. He was the Donald Trump of the Supreme Court.

And the second most misunderstood judge of the Supreme Court, as I argued in a lengthy profile of Scalia, which originally appeared in the London Review of Books and which I revised extensively for one of my chapters in The Reactionary Mind. I reproduced that chapter in four parts on my blog. Here they are again.

Prologue: I’ve Got a Crush on You

Scalia’s mission, by contrast, is to make everything come out wrong. A Scalia opinion, to borrow a phrase from New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, is “the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage.” Scalia may have once declared the rule of law the law of rules—leading some to mistake him for a stereotypical conservative—but rules and laws have a particular frisson for him. Where others look to them for stabilizing checks or reassuring supports, Scalia looks for exhilarating impediments and vertiginous barriers. Where others seek security, Scalia seeks sublimity. Rules and laws make life harder, and harder is everything. “Being tough and traditional is a heavy cross to bear,” he tells one reporter. “Duresse oblige.”


Act One: Diva of Disdain

Scalia’s conservatism, it turns out, is less a little platoon than a Thoreauvian counterculture, a retreat from and rebuke to the mainstream, not unlike the hippie communes and groupuscules he once tried to keep at bay. It is not a conservatism of tradition or inheritance: his parents had only one child, and his mother-in-law often complained about having to drive miles and hours in search of the one true church. “Why don’t you people ever seem to live near churches?” she would ask Scalia and his wife.  It is a conservatism of invention and choice, informed by the very spirit of rebellion he so plainly loathes—or thinks he loathes—in the culture at large.


Act Two: American Nietzsche

Left unresolved, however, the contradiction reveals the twin poles of Scalia’s faith: a belief in rules as arbitrary impositions of power—reflecting nothing (not even the will or standing of their makers) but the flat surface of their locutionary meaning—to which we must nevertheless submit; and a belief in rules, zealously enforced, as the divining rod of our ineradicable inequality. Those who make it past these blank and barren gods are winners; everyone else is a loser.


Act Three: Affirmative Action Baby

Scalia preys on and profits from the very culture of liberalism he claims to abhor: the toleration of opposing views, the generous allowances for other people’s failings, the “benevolent compassion” he derides in his golf course dissent. Should his colleagues ever force him to abide by the same rules of liberal civility, or treat him as he treats them, who knows what might happen? Indeed, as two close observers of the Court have noted—in an article aptly titled “Don’t Poke Scalia!”—whenever advocates before the bench subject him to the gentlest of gibes, he is quickly rattled and thrown off his game. Prone to tantrums, coddled by a different set of rules: now that’s an affirmative action baby.