Huntington, the woke, and Radicalization

by Eric Schliesser on May 16, 2023

Richard Bourke’s (2018) “What is conservatism? History, ideology, party” critically discusses (inter alia) Samuel P. Huntington’s (1957) “Conservatism as an Ideology.” Yes, that Huntington (1927–2008). What follows is not about the clash of civilizations, promise.

Bourke claims that “the conservatism of Oakeshott and Huntington, like the liberalism of Hayek and Rawls, reflects an effort to fabricate an ideal, to stake out territory – to label in order to legitimise a particular system of values.” (Sadly, Bourke is unfamiliar with my own work on philosophical prophecy.) In particular, Bourke treats Huntington as a kind of modern Humean who, first, thinks that liberty presupposes authority. And, second, “that a conservative programme was necessary for the survival of the tradition of liberal politics in America.” On this reading, Huntington, then, criticizes those (like Russell Kirk) who understand themselves as ‘conservative,’ but who in their lack of understanding of American political culture end up in reactionary places. The role of Burke is, following Strauss’ reading of Burke (according to Bourke), to legitimise “existing institutions without prescribing for them any particular content.” Fair enough.

Now, if we go back to Huntington’s essay, he distinguishes among three ways of understanding conservatism as “a system of ideas concerned with the distribution of political and social values and acquiesced in by a significant social group:” first, as an aristocratic response to the French revolution. Second, as “an autonomous system of ideas which are generally valid. It is defined in terms of universal values such as justice, order, balance, moderation.” In fact, those political agents that adhere to this second way of understanding conservatism may well understand it as a “preferable political philosophy under any historical circumstances.” (emphasis added) And third, a situationist one in which a “recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.” (emphasis added.) Notice that, one can accept this three-fold taxonomy even if one is not a conservative. One can even think, as a dispassionate scholar, that one of these kinds of notions best describes conservatism in history while not endorsing it as a political agent or from a normative perspective. As Huntington observes the three kinds of conservatism posited by this taxonomy only differ analytically in relation “to the historical process.”

Huntington himself thinks that if we look at the role and function that Burkean ideas play in conservative thinking then conservatism really amount to “the rationalization of existing institutions in terms of history, God, nature, and man.” And this is why Huntington claims that the situationist analysis of conservatism (as a system of ideas) is the correct one. While it is hard to imagine this merely as an academic exercise, I reiterate the point that the internal logic of Huntington’s argument is such that Huntington is not required to accept the moniker ‘conservative’ (in the situationist sense) for himself.

Rather, the significance of Huntington’s argument is that conservatism is a set of strategies that are available to those who wish to defend existing institutions and cannot count on agreement over the values or goals immanent in those existing institutions. So, thus, conservatism is always a strategic, second best option in the context of fundamental political pluralism for those who wish to defend the institutional status quo to a considerable degree. This is compatible with Bourke’s reading of Huntington, but it has an important component that Bourke does not comment on. Let me quote the evidence before I explain what I have in mind (and also why I emphasized ‘fundamental’):

The nature of conservatism as an institutional ideology precludes any permanent and inherent affiliation or opposition between it and any particular ideational ideology. No necessary dichotomy exists, therefore, between conservatism and liberalism. The assumption that such an opposition does exist derives, of course, from the aristocratic theory of conservatism and reflects an overconcern with a single phase of western history at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. The effort to erect this ephemeral relationship into a continuing phenomenon of political history only serves to obscure the fact that in the proper historical circumstances conservatism may well be necessary for the defense of liberal institutions. The true enemy of the conservative is not the liberal but the extreme radical no matter what ideational theory he may espouse. (46; emphases added)

On Huntington’s approach, conservatism as a situational system of ideas is compatible with a number of institutional ideologies (including liberalism, but not restricted to it). It follows that conservatism is opposed to those (revolutionaries and radicals) who wish to overthrow the existing institutional arrangements dramatically. Huntington here uses ‘enemy’ in its Schmittian sense. For, the use of ‘enemy’ is not an accident, because Huntington uses it again a number of times in a passage I’ll quote and discuss below.

That is, on Huntington’s view the (situational) conservative draws on Burkean ideas in the context of a mortal challenge to the existing status quo. Interestingly enough, this challenge (the enemy) can be domestic or foreign. It follows from this analysis that absent such a challenge (real enemies) there is no real or authentic conservatism.

My present interest is not to defend the claim in the previous paragraph on behalf of Huntington. (I do not speak for conservatism.) But rather to explore what, in fact, according to Huntington’s diagnosis, occurs in circumstances when such a mortal challenge is absent. As Bourke notes, Huntington is scathing about what he calls ‘New Conservatives’ of the sort that Huntington (not uncommonly then) associates with Russell Kirk. I quote (the second out of three criticisms):

Secondly, many New Conservatives are astonishingly vague as to the nature and source of the threat to what they wish to conserve. Historically, conservatism has always been the response to a direct and immediate challenge. Conservatives have not usually been in doubt as to the identity of their opponents. Among the New Conservatives, however, the enemy is seldom brought clearly into focus. To some, the foe is Liberalism, although little agreement exists as to the meaning of this term. To others, it is modernism, totalitarianism, popularism, secularism, or materialism. For some New Conservatives the enemy is irrationalism and to others it is rationalism. This confusion, of course, merely reflects the fact that the economic prosperity and political consensus of American society make any conservatism oriented towards domestic enemies absurdly superfluous. Hooker, Burke, and Calhoun fought real political battles against real political enemies. Lacking any flesh and blood social-political challenge, however, the New Conservatives fashion imaginary threats out of abstract “isms.” (471; emphases added)

This passage is the real point of Huntington’s (1957) essay. It is to diagnose how a kind of radicalism of a certain sort is generated, almost accidentally, in the context of relative social peace.

Contemporary readers will recognize how ‘woke’ (an abstract ‘ism’) plays the functional role today that Huntington diagnoses among the would be targets of his contemporary ‘New Conservatives.’ The point is not to trivialize. The fact that a threat is imaginary or invented, where in reality there might be at most a nuisance, does not mean one should be sanguine about the social and political consequences of very real mobilization against such a threat. Civil wars and other wars can be fought over absurdities (as realists like Spinoza and Hume emphasize and Swift satirizes).

Certain radicals originate when those who associate the threat they themselves originally fashioned with the institutional status quo. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which radicalism is a possible side-effect from inventing an abstract ‘ism’ as a mortal threat and then associate that threat with the institutional status quo or ruling/social ‘elites.’ Again, our own, relatively affluent age offers us many examples of this. Huntington may be wrong about the nature of conservatism (it’s not my fight) and right about one mechanism of such radicalization.



steven t johnson 05.16.23 at 1:49 pm

“Civil wars and other wars can be fought over absurdities (as realists like Spinoza and Hume emphasize and Swift satirizes).” But I don’t think this is true. The excuses may be transparently absurd. But the substance of the rivalries between the Big Enders and the Little Enders I think should be read as real as the interests in preferment gained or lost by courtiers. The absurdity of the issue was Swift’s Tory contempt for the petty and mean goals of courtiers and politicians and humanity generally, manifested in fantastic form. The notion the madness of crowds is the bane of humanity seems to me to be more conservative than not, by the way.

It seems to me that rather than analyze the struggle against “woke” as sincere irrationality that it should be deemed demagogy. The question is, is the driver of this movement the popular outrage at somebody, with the unscrupulous elites riding the tsunami of mob hate? Or, is it carefully fostered at great expense by the wealthy as they pursue other goals under cover? Or is it even, the determination to create a new kind of repressive order to use against enemies? And, is the determination there are no real enemies more complacency than realism? Everyone else agrees the world faces a threat so titanic that nuclear must be risked, just for one. The Federal Reserve sees a major threat in high wages but has no fear of woke at all, for another.

By the way, Spinoza so far as I know held the major absurdity causing strife to be false religion. Actual churches are very much material interests. How an Enlightenment figure like Spinoza gets folded into conservatism, realist or otherwise, is unclear to me. But then, the same Burke of the American cause or the impeachment of Hastings being the conservative thinker instead of Hobbes or Bolingbroke is also unclear to me, though that I suppose diverts to Huntington’s other views.


LFC 05.16.23 at 2:30 pm

There wasn’t quite as much political consensus in the U.S. in 1957 as Huntington apparently thought, though this may be easier to see in retrospect. For one thing, “massive resistance” to the Brown decision was brewing in the South and would get fully underway in c. 1959-60.


LFC 05.16.23 at 2:33 pm

P.s. 1957 was also the year that Eisenhower sent the natl guard to Little Rock.


TM 05.16.23 at 3:29 pm

“Conservatives have not usually been in doubt as to the identity of their opponents. Among the New Conservatives, however, the enemy is seldom brought clearly into focus. “

Really? This was written immediately after McCarthyism? Weren’t the enemies always: Communists, immigrants, Jews, civil rights activists, feminists, gays…?


bekabot 05.16.23 at 4:04 pm

That the radical is a wolf while the liberal is a sheep and the conservative is a sheepdog is a nice idea. As a narrative, it makes sense. As fable, it holds anecdotal water. It sounds like something that might be true. But as a description of what’s going on here and now, it’s flawed, to say the least. Were it less imperfect, we’d be seeing conservatives defend liberals against right-wing radicals today, but that’s exactly what we don’t see. What we do see the is opposite: the sheepdogs side with the wolves and routinely threaten to let the wolves loose on anything which is valued by the sheep. What’s more, history tells us that that’s what they’ve done in the past, more often than not, which means that what we’re observing isn’t merely some kind of by-product of the current phase of the moon.

Which is why (with respect) I don’t take this particular Aesop seriously. I don’t think it reflects reality, and I don’t know that it ever has.


NomadUK 05.16.23 at 8:38 pm

On this reading, Huntington, then, criticizes those (like Russell Kirk) who understand themselves as ‘conservative,’ but who in their lack of understanding of American political culture end up in reactionary places.

Given that American political culture has pretty much always been reactionary, it’s hard to take seriously anything the fellow has to say.


nobody 05.16.23 at 10:21 pm

Huntington, standing in the crowd outside Little Rock High School in 1957, shouts to be heard over the crowd, hefting a brick in his hand experimentally: “The economic prosperity and political consensus of American society make any conservatism oriented towards domestic enemies absurdly superfluous!”


John Q 05.16.23 at 10:51 pm

As I said on Substack, I’d really love to see some serious engagement with Oakeshott. From my limited reading, he seems much more interesting than most of those classed as conservative intellectuals or philosophers, certainly more so than Huntington, but he rarely gets more than a name-check.


LFC 05.16.23 at 10:53 pm

From the last sentence of Bourke’s abstract:

It [i.e. the article] argues that the idea of a conservative tradition is best seen as a belated construction, and that the notion of a univocal philosophy of conservatism is basically misconceived.

Aren’t all these “traditions” — conservatism, liberalism, radicalism, political realism, and so on — to some extent “belated constructions”? None of them is really “univocal,” but there is a need for these constructions anyway, because historians and maybe philosophers also need to have some reference points and some way of grouping not-altogether-similar but also not-altogether-dissimilar thinkers together.

Notwithstanding bekabot’s comment @5, Huntington’s point that conservatism is opposed to radicalism, whether of left or right, is, on one level, sort of trite and obvious. This then devolves into a matter of definitions: was the John Birch Society “conservative” or “radical Right”? What about the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys? What about National Review circa 1957? Goldwater ’64? And so on and so on.

Further complications arise if one throws the word “reactionary” into the mix. Are reactionaries radicals or are they conservatives on some sort of steroids? In C. Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, the subject of occasional earlier discussion here, figures from Burke and de Maistre to Trump are all subsumed under the umbrella “reactionary,” and the labels “conservative” and “reactionary” are treated, if perhaps not as synonyms exactly, then at least as very closely related. Actually, if memory serves (it’s been a while), I think he does treat them as synonyms.

However, I think in the U.S. context the main points are not all that widely contested. The dominant U.S. political culture is, for much of American history, liberal in the Hartzian sense: radicalism and revolution (in the European sense of that word) are bad; change and “progress” are given a positive sign and seen as easy or natural, but must be gradual rather than abrupt; individual rights (at least, at the Founding and after, for white males but not others) are valorized; power must be checked and balanced; the majority’s will must be balanced against that of the minority (cf. also the British model of “government and opposition”). All of this was compatible (for certain senses of that word) but also in tension or contradiction with slavery and its sequels, genocide vs. Native Americans, violent expansion across the continent, imperialism abroad (starting in) late 19th cent., etc.

If that sketch is recognizable, then Huntington’s picture of “conservatism” as a response to an immediate challenge and defense of a particular status quo perhaps can be slotted in. For Calhoun, Hammond, Fitzhugh et al., it was defense of slavery. For Tillman, Thurmond, Wallace et al., it was defense of segregation and white supremacy. For many Gilded Age politicians, it was defense of the trusts and the railroads and their “right” to exploit and accumulate. For J. McCarthy and others since, it was defense of “the American way of life” against atheistic Communism.

By contrast, what is DeSantis supposedly defending? The putative right of parents to shield their children from “wokeism.”


Frank Wilhoit 05.16.23 at 11:27 pm

You, and/or Huntington, have demonstrated the incoherence of conservatism. On one level, this is satisfying, but I cannot think it is novel, and I am certain that it is not sufficient.

What is necessary (bearing in mind that the audience are always at least 150 years hence) is to demonstrate, just as thoroughly and more forthrightly, the vileness of conservatism.

Any thread in the tapestry will do if it is pulled hard enough. May I suggest “…whether in power or in opposition…” (A. J. Balfour) ?


J, not that one 05.17.23 at 1:03 am

As a theorist, Huntington seems to be committed to a style of politics that was specific to his own time and place, combining a belief that all the best people agree on all important points with a belief that traditional political disputes were outmoded or unscientific. As a participant, his definition of “conservatism” was historically peculiar and probably says more about that time and place than about people like Russell Kirk and the movement that followed from Huntington’s failure to oppose him effectively — and his beliefs require a lot of explanation given what we know about those times.


bekabot 05.17.23 at 7:12 am

“Huntington’s point…is…sort of trite and obvious”

Exactly what I meant.

The tritest things can be the truest things. But the fact that they’re the tritest things doesn’t make them the truest things. There is no one-to-one correspondence. The most a person can say is that often there’s considerable overlap, which means that a thing can be trite and still not be true. There is no direct connection. One ought to bear that in mind.


MFB 05.17.23 at 9:47 am

This is the Samuel Huntington who was later a political adviser to the last apartheid President of South Africa, Frederik de Klerk? Well, at least he was consistent.


M Caswell 05.17.23 at 11:44 am

“…in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.”

It seems to me that “institutions” (broadly construed) deemed as good (not perfect!) by those on the left are perpetually under threat from profiteers, corporate market ideology, or simply the wears of time. In which cases can progressives “employ conservative ideology” in defense of their accomplishments? Why doesn’t it, more often than it does?

(The UC system, the Voting Rights Act, Roe, labor union density, Social Security, Public Schooling, working class urbanism, birth-right citizenship… the list is endless)

Maybe the maintenance what is good in the face of decay, carelessness, or changing circumstances is simply very difficult, both practically (what exactly can be done?) and politically (how can power be rallied for its sake?), compared to alternate political projects.


LFC 05.17.23 at 2:25 pm

bekabot @12
I take the point, at least on the level of language (“trite” does not mean true; it means “stale,” the opposite of fresh or novel). How true or false Huntington’s trite observation is — that’s something we might differ on.

Btw Huntington’s career was marked by some serious mistakes, imo, of judgment and other drawbacks, but he was a prolific scholar who had some interesting ideas. His book on American politics, published in 1981 or thereabouts, is probably worth reading (I haven’t) and his Political Order in Changing Societies, published in the late 60s, is a classic, whether one agrees w it or not. His PhD students also produced interesting work that tended (by the standards of pol science) to take deep dives into history.


steven t johnson 05.17.23 at 3:13 pm

Reverting back to the OP, if I may, the whole reason for digging up Huntington’s corpse was the notion that Huntington had identified a mechanism of right-wing radicalization, which is, basically, that their irrational anxiety over imaginary threats to their values is the driver of an increasing strife.

Now I’m not so certain who Huntington, Bourke or the OP thinks is “they” in this scenario, the filthy masses or the undeserving elites or somebody.

Nor for that matter am I quite so certain polarization per se is the problem. That seems to me to be a consequence of actual change being so hard to accommodate (much less guide in the public interest, if anybody who counts even wants too.) It is the grinding of the gears that barely move no matter how much force is applied.

But my belief is that despite the relatively static politics and policies and personnel, there are in fact real enemies perceived by powerful people. DeSantis is I suspect correct to think the Democratic Party is a real enemy to his partisan rule. And he doesn’t really care that Disney is aware both of how many of its creative workers are ex-drama students and accordingly conducts itself with a little bit of decorum and of how much of its audience really doesn’t share in the alleged irrational conservatism supposedly generating an artificial hysteria.

[The logic of the old theory that irrational and hateful abolitionist agitation caused the tragedy of the Civil War—which by the way really was polarization but not a tragedy at all!—is making a kind of comeback it seems.]

I think what DeSantis wants is to be able to enlist Disney and all other corporations of that type in a united front to propagandize for the less popular program, partly against the degenerate masses who somehow seem less reluctant to sacrifice their insufficiently manly sons. But also to enlist Disney against the Democratic Party, which is soft on the real program as he sees it.

DeSantis ultimate aims seem to me not to be so much about putting the police into the bedrooms, as about getting them out of the boardrooms. Selectively policing the masses is always a plus, but the long standing program of no taxation of the rich even with representation; military spending paid for by the peonage; efficient repudiation of the welfare state; indoctrination instead of education; control of the number of workers; state support of “religion” in general (specific denominations favored as determined by local pluralities?)…the whole panoply typical of decaying societies. I think of DeSantis as Governor Gleichschaltung.

But if we must talk about conservatism, it seems to me we should distinguish ego-ideals, where conservatism is imagined to be a favored set of virtues (or “values” if you must.) The particular set of traits marking the superior man (and honorary men, as in conservative women or wealthy male homosexuals,) are more or less arbitrary. The same is true for the liberal ego-ideal. This is the grain of truth that people who want to moan about how the golden mean or the moderates or the middle of the road is the truth. The problem of course is that real politics, who gets what?, real choices about programs and policies and personnel, are ignored. This kind of analysis is, as the physicists like to say, not even wrong.

I am tempted sometimes to claim “conservatives” are characterized by a rancid contempt for humanity in general, distinguished solely by their idiosyncratic exceptions for their favorites. But is this true? I’m not sure I can really judge when someone is just conforming. Other times I think conservatives are marked by an inability to tolerate the thought this is not a just world until we make it one. But then I remember how many very learned and deeply respected figures preach skepticism, which in politics always rejects change because we can’t know how to change things to make them better.


J, not that one 05.17.23 at 10:55 pm

The political theory of the 1950s seems to have involved strenuous public efforts to pretend that there was a certain kind of liberal-bourgeois consensus in the US that actually did not (in that form) exist, alternating with strenuous efforts to remind individuals that only certain kinds of people could be expected to know what beliefs are respectable. It shouldn’t really surprise us to find people using the language of liberal universalism and inequality while also stating that only white racists could be the true bearers of the national culture. It may be charitable to assume their theoretical beliefs were true, but it might be unwise to assume the practical upshot for them was what we think it should be.

The result is that people like McCarthy and DeSantis confuse their personal preferences with the values promoted by established institutions, and have to divide off “good” institutions from ‘bad” ones.


Phil H 05.19.23 at 10:08 am

@STJ comment 16
“ I am tempted…rancid contempt for humanity…idiosyncratic exceptions…”
I have the same temptation. In reality, conservatives are probably diverse, and it’s just a category mistake to look for a few common and defining characteristics. Nevertheless, I keep doing it!
Inspired by this thread, here’s my latest effort: is conservatism the practice of aggressive conservation? I.e. the recognition of something good, followed by a reaction that in order to preserve said good thing, someone must be attacked or excluded or denied the good? So when the good is wealth, conservatives preserve the benefits of wealth by excluding certain other groups from wealth. If the good is culture, it must be preserved by excluding certain people from culture. This provides a nice easy contrast with progressives, who recognise value and then attempt to maximise and share it.
Unfortunately, this definition would seem to cast radical environmentalists as conservatives, and I don’t think that quite works… hmmm…


bekabot 05.19.23 at 12:22 pm

@J, not that one

With respect, I think you’re crediting people like McCarthy and DeSantis with far more respect for the institutions (good or bad) than they possess.


Fake Dave 05.19.23 at 12:47 pm

“Given that American political culture has pretty much always been reactionary, it’s hard to take seriously anything the fellow has to say.”

Can I just point out that this is a weird thing for someone apparently from the UK to say? American political culture has a lot of problems, but we’re not the ones who just blew millions on giving an inbred twit a shiny new hat.

Which brings me to another point. Who the hell decided that Burke and his buddies were the archetypal conservatives and why did they feel it was OK to skip the first century of Toryism? Is Charles II’s brave band of sycophants and enablers to be consigned to the dustbin so quickly? Have we forgotten the grand titles, extravagant fetes, and generous sinceures so many strived so hard for? For shame! After all the backs stabbed and promises broken to put the rabble back in their place and secure a deserved annuity for themselves, these fair weather monarchists deserve our respect, if only for the fashion they left us.

Really, I do think the reflexive monarchism is the key to the whole thing. For the cavaliers, for Burke, for Daily Mail readers, Trumpenproles, and other fascists, it all comes back to the “big name” at the top of the pyramid that people can point to and say “he is the nation, his greatness is our greatness.” It’s so much simpler than saying our rulers are just like us and can fail like anyone else and be subject to judgment like anyone else. That’s why regicide is the ultimate horror of the conservative mind. It’s not just murdering a person, but the soul of the nation and the sense of an ordered universe (with only one person to obey and genuflect to) that comes with it. It’s the loyal servant who, learning his master is dead doesn’t relish the chance for freedom so much as he fears the indifference of a new master and the vengeance of his fellows.

As for who the enemies of conservatives are, the eternal enemy isn’t liberals or radicals. It’s the middle class intellectual who hasn’t sold out. The reformer who tries to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled when God himself intended them to be separate. It’s the person who can get close enough to the center of things to see how many worthless idiots have glommed onto the great man (who is, perhaps, not so great as to see it himself) and yet is not so dependent on that power structure as to be compelled to self-censor. Don’t they know they’re playing with fire, the conservatives ask? Don’t they know that without a natural ruling class, all that’s left is am anarchic scramble for power? Don’t they know it’s bad for business? Apparently not, it seems, with each new generation, there is a new cohort of young, educated, and idealistic people from the establishment class who somehow don’t appreciate what a privilege it is to be privileged and more than putting down the poor or maintaining natural hierarchy, it is the overwhelming mission of movement conservatism to bribe and bully and break these people into becoming the next generation of disillusioned rightwing “realists” before its too late.


J, not that one 05.20.23 at 4:08 pm

bekabot @ 19

Since my comment essentially accused McCarthy and DeSantis of clinical narcissism (the need to divide others into “good” and “bad” with no little ground), or at least its performative equivalent, I’m having trouble with the idea that I’m overestimating his sophistication. Presumably he’s in favor of something – whether you want to call it an “institution” or think that’s too flattering doesn’t really matter to me.


LFC 05.20.23 at 4:44 pm

Roughly a decade after he wrote the “Conservatism as an Ideology” article discussed in the OP, Huntington wrote, in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) — a book whose main focus was “developing” countries rather than “developed” ones — the following about the U.S. (p. 133):

Conservatism [in the U.S.] has seldom flourished because it has lacked [ancient or old] social institutions to conserve. Society is changing and modern, while government…has been relatively unchanging and antique…. These conservative [political] institutions could well change more rapidly than they did in the past. External security and internal consensus have been the principal factors militating against the modernization of American political institutions. The former disappeared in the early twentieth century; the latter appears at times to be on the verge of disruption. The political institutions suited to a society which did not have to worry about external dangers may be inappropriate for one continually involved in a balance of terror, cold war, and military interventions in distant portions of the globe. So also, the problems of race relations and poverty strengthen demands for action by the national government. The needs of national defense and social reform could undermine the traditional pluralism inherited from the past and hasten the centralization of authority and structural differentiation in American political institutions.

Has that happened in the 55 years or so since that was written? For the most part, I think not. The power of the Presidency and the executive branch (including the Pentagon and “national security” apparatus) has probably increased relative to that of Congress, and there have been some new executive departments and agencies created, but in general U.S. political institutions have not been “modernized” (whatever that might mean exactly) and remain relatively “antique.” Or to be more precise, their underpinning remains antique even though developments like the proliferation of numbers of staffers in the executive and legislative branches mean that they can engage in some activities they couldn’t or didn’t before.


J, not that one 05.20.23 at 8:15 pm

“Conservatism [in the U.S.] has seldom flourished because it has lacked [ancient or old] social institutions to conserve.”

This seems obviously false. It would be possible to go through that paragraph, checking off each feature of government according to whether Huntington is right about its not existing in the US, and according to whether Huntington is right about its being “modern.” I think he’d be wrong, in one of those ways, about almost all of them. (Not to mention whether he’s implicitly assuming that what’s “modern” is authoritarianism, or that he’s overvaluing propaganda for the “liberal consensus” when he says the US doesn’t have the kind of centralization of authority characteristic of the modern state – usually this means the 17th-century state, not Fascism.)


LFC 05.20.23 at 10:57 pm

J, not that one:
I didn’t want to reproduce too long a quote, but by “old” social institutions he’s talking here about a formal aristocracy and an established church, among other things (neither of which of course the U.S. had/has).

That said, I don’t want to suggest that I necessarily agree with Huntington about anything. But since the book happens to be on my shelf, I thought it might be interesting to give a flavor of what he was saying roughly 10 years after the article discussed in the OP.

P.s. I managed to get through my formal education without being assigned and without reading Political Order in Changing Societies, so I’ve been dipping into it now. If one had taken an undergrad intro to comparative politics course in a certain time frame, portions of the book would likely have been on the syllabus. I don’t know whether it appears on syllabuses today. The prose style is readable, running to confident generalizations supported by illustrative examples. It definitely comes out of a certain period when “mainstream” social scientists in the U.S. were talking about the dimensions, political and economic, of “modernization” in what was then called the Third World. For some of the context, see e.g. N. Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America, M. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution, and D. Milne’s very good America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.


JPL 05.20.23 at 11:16 pm

Any system of political ideals that aims to be considered valid has to be consistent with general ethical principles; let’s take the “rule of law principle” as an example of an ethical principle (or ideal) applying to political organization. So the attempt to “legitimise ‘existing institutions without prescribing for them any particular content'” is not going to work for any attempted idealisation, because, e.g., institutions established by power rather than rational debate may preserve inequalities of benefits for those holding power in those institutions to the disfavour of everyone else, and thus attempts to preserve these institutional imbalances would be illegitimate. Preserving existing institutions would only be legitimate if these institutions are maintaining effectively general principles such as the rule of law principle. Reducing “conservatism” to a position in a debate about the fundamental nature of situations of change, such as that any situation of change necessarily involves an aspect of the situation that does not change, but remains equivalent with the initial state, even if correct, has only practical significance not connected to the ethical principles. So far, it looks like there is no system called “conservative” (e.g., that includes the special pleading) that can be made consistent with systems of ethical principles. I’ve been wondering if it’s because of the realization of this situation that we haven’t been hearing much these days, like we used to, of attempts to make “conservatism” a respectable ideology consistent with principles of rationality, truth-seeking and so forth (Huntington lists as universal values “justice, order, balance, moderation …,” but not, e.g., that all citizens are equivalent with respect to the application of the laws of the land), and we see people who used to proudly call themselves “conservative” regressing to mere moneylust and support of a popular primitivism and even criminality. Where are the Oakeshotts and Scanlons of today? People on that side used to seem to accept the notion of “ideal values”; now it seems to be gone. (Maybe these are the “Lincoln Project” types; but their erstwhile voters are not buying what used to be the “conservative” component of their appeal.)

BTW there are a couple of key sentences in the last paragraph (of the OP) that seem to present difficulties for interpretation. For the first sentence, you have a relative clause that looks like it is a subject NP, but there is no predicate (verb phrase). Would the following sentence express a thought that might be equivalent to what you intended to express there? “A certain radicalism originates when people associate the threat they originally fashioned with the institutional status quo.” (This may not be what you intended.) The second sentence has a prepositional phrase that requires verbs with the “-ing” form, so the second verb in that phrase should also have it; so: “from inventing an abstract ‘ism’ … and then associating that threat ….” If this does not reflect what you intended, I apologize, but I noticed people missing the point, which I also may have done in my admittedly crude comment. (The point about elevating and mobilizing against imaginary threats, which are really only nuisances, while they themselves are busy undermining more central institutions, such as the Justice System? No longer “conservative”, only criminal.)


Alex SL 05.21.23 at 7:07 am

Agreed with the main gist of the post: capitalism is so dominant and unchallenged that conservatism in the sense of the desire to conserve capitalist arrangements is flailing around. But that is not, by itself, sufficient to explain the ascendancy of the populist right-wing, the continuous rightward shift of what were traditional centre-right parties, and the general malaise of cultish behaviour.

When I see people claim that it is the left that has become ever more extreme in recent years, when it is in government represented by centre-right politicians like Clinton, Obama, Blair, Albanese, or Scholz who sell themselves entirely as better managers of the status quo; when, if challenged to name the worst that the left has done in the last ten years conservatives could at best come up with something like mask mandates during Covid or some inconsequential student protest, then that isn’t even still in the realm of having to make up enemies to justify one’s political movement. It is paranoia and cultishness.

The true enemy of the conservative is not the liberal but the extreme radical no matter what ideational theory he may espouse.

What always gets me about this kind of centrist, horse-shoe theory stuff is that ‘radical’ is itself extremely situational. How can somebody recognise conservatism as a situational defense against too much change, against a mortal threat to the established order, without immediately realising and admitting that what is now the established order would have been radical a few decades ago? Without, in other words, realising that conservatives are and have always been wrong both morally and factually?


J, not that one 05.21.23 at 6:36 pm

LFC: “but by “old” social institutions he’s talking here about a formal aristocracy and an established church, among other things (neither of which of course the U.S. had/has).”

Yes (though there have been identifiable aristocracies and established churches – both official and de facto – in the US), but this cuts against the position taken in quotes in the OP that conservatism isn’t a specific program, just the preference to preserve whatever exists (or existed in the past). Those two positions aren’t compatible in the Western Hemisphere, and aren’t fully compatible with the histories of England and France either at the time he was writing. (They aren’t compatible at all with almost all of Europe today.) In either case, it isn’t logically impossible in a US context to have a traditional conservatism – it would simply take another form.

Should you (or I) be concerned that you’re (I’m) not familiar with Huntington’s work on this topic? A quick bit of online research suggests that his ideas weren’t widely respected among his contemporaries, so maybe not. What I myself was assigned as coursework on the topic was Barrington Moore, who contrasted Germany’s and Russia’s path to modernization unfavorably with that of the UK, France and the US, in a way Huntington doesn’t appear to take account of (or be compatible with). If Huntington is beholden to Schmitt, would be an interesting fact, in that respect.

And the kinds of things JPL notes (moderation, etc.) – it’s simply assumed that religion always and everywhere inculcates the bourgeois or capitalist virtues, which isn’t really true. In reality, much of anti-secular conservatism today very nearly does the opposite: offering adherents a way of lowering their personal standards in order to increase their well-being. This was very popular among adherents of the “liberal consensus” in the US but w/r/t Huntington is obviously taken from Weber.


LFC 05.21.23 at 8:02 pm

J not that one,
Barrington Moore and Huntington came from different parts of the political-ideological spectrum and they were interested in somewhat different (though related) questions. So I agree that they approached things differently. Despite their being at the same university for decades, my guess — I emphasize “guess” — is that they did not have much, if any, personal interaction.

It’s not accurate btw to say that Huntington’s ideas were not “widely respected” by his contemporaries. He was one of the leading political scientists in the U.S., and he did not confine himself to one narrow subfield. How well his work has held up is another question and one I’ll leave to others. He did stir up controversy, as I noted earlier, which was probably something that didn’t bother him much.


LFC 05.21.23 at 8:23 pm

P.s. I’m pretty sure that Huntington served a term as president of the American Political Science Association. You don’t get elected to that position unless a substantial number of your colleagues respect you and your work (even if they don’t necessarily agree with everything you write).


JPL 05.23.23 at 2:47 am

“The fact that a threat is imaginary or invented, where in reality there might be at most a nuisance ….”

It seems to me that the Republican Party, as well as the mass of ordinary Republican voters out there in Trumpland, could easily just ignore the pseudo-left “woke” mania, since the woke warriors are not talking to them; rather, it seems that they are only talking to “liberals” and people who they deem to be insufficiently absolutist in the mainly “progressive” university or urban world. To me it’s a big problem that the wokists don’t focus their energies and message more on the Republican Party and especially on the Republican Trumpist electorate, in any effective way. It would of course require a different approach to discourse. As it is, radicalizing responses such as those of DeSantis could well be cases of “cutting off their nose to spite their face”. But as I hinted above, this Republican Party can no longer be called “conservative”, since, in service to their ancient underlying lust for money, and their fear-driven support for the primitivism of their voters, they are no longer preserving central established institutions, but working to destroy them. Conservatism as an intellectual movement has been reduced to an afterthought.

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