Posted by: captainfalcon | December 29, 2011

The GOP is not conservative

What a nexus of lure! Lurers have previously noted Mark Lilla’s work on American “conservatism.” He has an excellent new piece out, reviewing Corey Robin’s new book (the prelude to which we have also already examined). His criticisms dovetail with ours. Us:

The whole thing is a good polemic. True, there’s a whiff of sophistry to it (e.g. the tacit assumption that the fact the status quo is threatened entails that it’s vanished), and, for all it tweaks Oakeshott, nothing that implies the incoherence or undesirability of conservatism in Oakeshott’s sense. Nor does the fact that it is obviously motivated by pissed-offed-ness at the Tea Party help its aspirations to an historian’s detachment. But that doesn’t detract from its value as a contingent social critique.


Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College, has been writing thoughtful essays on the American right for The Nation and other publications over the past decade . . . But the book aims to be more than a collection. It is conceived as a major statement on conservatism and reaction, from the eighteenth century to the present. And this is where it disappoints.

Lilla also observes that American “conservatism” is not actually conservative because it is not predicated on understanding humans as situated in, and constituted by, the society of which they are a part. (This understanding, Lilla argues, undergirds the high value conservatives place on tradition, gradualism and the preservation of the status quo.) What is beginning to define American conservatism, argues Lilla, is its revulsion at what America has become. That is: American conservatives are “redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos.” Lilla excerpts an essay from a 1996 edition of First Things to give flavor to this description:

Given that “law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality,” and that, due to judicial activism, “the government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed,” have we “reached or are [we] reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime,” and therefore must consider responses “ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution”? To raise such a question, the editors insisted, “is in no way hyperbolic.”

To end ouroborotically, I think advantage me — qualified, because Lilla and I also have our differences vis-a-vis what the term conservative currently connotes — in our old debate about whether American conservatism has, in any meaningful sense, misappropriated the “conservative” brand. Verily, it seems that:

[T]here is more at stake on the question whether contemporary movement conservatism is conservative than mere semantics. Even if “conservatism” now primarily denotes contemporary movement conservatism, it still carries with it various connotations – of caution, epistemological humility, a willingness, born of the palpable recognition that man is a finite being,* to sit back and let political and social processes take their courses (stepping in only to correct excesses – to serve as the Oakeshottian “trimmer” Andrew likes so much) – from when it meant something very different . . . Given that movement conservatism isn’t cautious, epistemologically humble or healthily disengaged, it’s free riding on these antediluvian implicatures. It is thus able to claim for itself a powerful narrative – we are the grownups – to which it is manifestly not entitled.



  1. Chrisbait one taken.

    This article is quite good, though its strange to see a book review dismiss its putative subject within the first few paragraphs and then decide, you know what, I can write a better book myself, right here in this review. From all of the summations of Rubin’s book I have encountered (it was a trending topic at the Dish roughly a month and a half ago), I think Lilla succeeds too.

    Either way, I encourage the Lure-verse to take a gander.

  2. I think the best part is towards the end, where he identifies the current GOP’s hollow apocalyptic fascinations (and contrasts them with Rubin’s thesis):

    “To date, all but six Republican representatives and seven senators have signed this collective suicide note, making the group’s president, Grover Norquist, nearly as successful as Reverend Jim Jones. That’s how the apocalyptic mind works, though. It convinces people that if they bring everything down around them, a phoenix will inevitably be born.

    The same faith has been expressed in the Republican presidential candidate debates, where the contenders compete to demonstrate how many agencies they would abolish when in office (if they remember their names), how many programs they would cut or starve, and how much faith they have in the ingenuity of the American people to figure it out for themselves once they’re finished. What’s so disturbing is that they don’t feel compelled to explain how even a reduced government should meet the challenges of the new global economy, how our educational system should respond to them, what the geopolitical implications might be, or anything of the sort. They deliver their lines with the insouciant “what, me worry?” of Alfred E. Neuman.

    All this is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism, or with the aristocratic prejudice that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” which Corey Robin sees at the root of everything on the right. No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse.”

    We have come a long ways from not “immanetizing the eschaton.”

  3. […] become clear to me that Mark Lilla’s New York Books review of The Reactionary Mind, which I previously praised, is disingenuous. Though you wouldn’t know it from reading Lilla’s essay, Robin is well […]

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