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.