Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Corey Robin’s "The Reactionary Mind" (2011): (3 of 4): Log Cabin conservatives

[Continues directly from Part 2] The 1940 campaign brought a notable adjustment in campaign style for the more conservative party vs. the Jacksonian Democrats. Incumbent President Martin Van Buren was the Democratic candidate. The Whig Party ran war hero William Henry Harrison, whose campaign devised one of the most famous campaign slogans in American history, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too". Tippecanoe was Harrison's nickname; John Tyler was his Vice Presidential candidate.

William Henry Harrison
The Whig Party realized that to get a President elected dedicated to protect the power and privilege of businessmen and bankers, they needed to find someway to sell that program to an expanding electorate; extending the franchise by such methods as eliminating property ownership requirements had been a key achievement of the Jacksonian movement which heavily influenced Van Buren and his Administration, as well.

To do so, they adopted a less overtly elitist pose than the Federalists had. The classic A Concise History of the American People (1977 edition) by Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William Leuchtenburg describes the campaign this way:

'Tippecanoe and Tyler too' was the slogan. The Whigs had so far abandoned patrician values that Van Buren was pictured with cologne-scented whiskers, drinking champagne out of a crystal goblet at a table loaded with costly viands and massive plate. An unlucky sneer in a Democratic newspaper, to the effect that Harrison would be content with a $2000 pension, a log cabin, and plenty of hard cider, gave opportunity for effective contrast. It became the log-cabin, hard-cider campaign.
Morison in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) adds:

The reason why the 1840 campaign became the jolliest and most idiotic presidential contest in our history is that the Whigs beat the Democrats by their own methods. They adopted no platform, nominated a military hero, ignored real issues, and appealed to the emotions rather than the brains of voters. Expectations of profit and patronage were employed to "get out the vote," and the people were given a big show. Democratic politicians, even Jackson himself, now complained of Whig demagoguery. ...

There were log-cabin badges and log-cabin songs, a Log Cabin newspaper and log-cabin clubs, big log cabins where the thirsty were regaled with hard cider that jealous Democrats alleged to be stiffened with whiskey; little log cabins borne on floats in procession, with latchstring out, cider barrel by the door, coonskin nailed up beside, and real smoke coming out of the chimney ...
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. adds more details in The Age of Jackson (1945):

With tireless industry and bewildering resources Whigs everywhere rushed to doff their broadcloth and flaunt their homespun. Every speech, song and slogan held up the rustic and plebeian as closest to the Whig soul. The staid meetings of their past gave way to barbecues, clambakes, excursions and noisy processions. Raucous campaign songs echoed in the streets ...

Wood engravers and lithographers were kept perpetually busy turning out pictures: Harrison the Hero of Tippecanoe, astride a monumental horse; Harrison as Cincinnatus at the plow; Harrison greeting his comrades at arms at the door of his log cabin, with a long latchstring hanging down; Harrison as an Indian chief, paddling furiously toward the White House from which Van Buren ("the Flying Dutchman") was fleeing; Harrison as a boxer administering a thrashing to Van Buren, with Old Hickory, as Van Buren’s trainer, looking on in gloom. Brass and copper medals were struck off, with a log cabin, a flag, a barrel and a cup on one side, Harrison on the other: "He leaves the plough to save his country."
Winning the masses for causes hostile to their interests

The period 1815-1848 in continental Europe was the era of the post-Napoleon Restoration. The various kings and principalities there did not feel a great need at that time to build a base of mass support for conservative policies. Mass acquiescence was sufficient. Otto von Bismarck’s later devices for building mass support for his military and monarchist politics in Germany may not have been quite so cornpone as the Tippecanoe and Tyler Too approach. The same was true of Napoleon III's regime in France. But they knew they had to build some basis of public support for there regimes among the general public, which expected to play a more active role in governance than the people of the 17th and 18th centuries had played up until the French Revolution.

Corey’s The Reactionary Mind is a history of ideas and thinkers which requires him to deal with their stated ideals. But throughout the book he tends to treat the seeming disconnect between conservative ideals of stability, hierarchy and tradition and the often militant, public-spirited tone of their writing as a psychological phenomenon disconnected to their historical context.

Corey's eighth chapter, "Easy to Be Hard", provides an example of the disjointed argumentation that recurs throughout the book. Quoting from Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Corey shows Burke lamenting the effects of peace and prosperity:

'When it has run its career, Burke says, pleasure "sets us down very nearly where it found us." Any kind of pleasure "quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference." Quieter enjoyments, less intense than pleasure, are equally soporific. They generate complacency; we "give ourselves over to indolence and inaction." Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. We bring ourselves to the world, and the world is brought to us. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us "and so on in an eternal circle." In a world of imitators, "there never could be any improvement." Such "men must remain as brutes do, the same at the end that they are at this day, and that they were in the beginning of the world."
Burke's Sublime and the Beautiful was a work of aesthetic theory, scarcely as influential on conservative and reactionary thinkers as his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and not remotely as well known. But Robin treats it as a classic of the conservative canon as he writes:

For a certain type of conservative theorist, passages like these pose something of a challenge. Here is the inventor of the conservative tradition articulating a vision of the self dramatically at odds with the imagined self of conservative thought. The self, as we have repeatedly seen, claims to prefer "the familiar to the unknown ... the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." [Michael Oakeshott] He is partial to things as they are not because he finds things just or good, but because he finds them familiar. He knows them and is attached to them. He wishes neither to lose them nor to have them taken away. Enjoying what he has, rather than acquiring something better, is his highest good.
In the next paragraph, Corey jumps two centuries-plus into the future from The Sublime and the Beautiful to describe this as a fundamental oddity in conservative/reactionary thought:

Perhaps it is this lethal ennui, lurking just beneath the surface of conservative discourse, that explains the failure of the conservative politician to follow the lead of the conservative theorist. Far from embracing the cause of quiet enjoyments and secure attachments, the conservative politician has consistently opted for an activism of the not-yet and the will-be. Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address was a paean to the power of dreams: not small dreams but big, heroic dreams, of progress and betterment, and not dreams for their own sake, but dreams as a necessary and vital prod to action. Three months later, in an address before Congress, Reagan drove the point home with a quote from Carl Sandburg: "Nothing happens unless first a dream." And nothing happening, or too few things happening, or things not happening quickly enough, is what the conservative in politics dislikes. Reagan could scarcely contain his impatience with the dithering of politicians: "The old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and add a little there. Well, that's not acceptable anymore." Old and comfortable was the indictment, no "half-measures" the verdict. [my emphasis]
Ockham's razor suggests that Reagan’s rhetoric quoted there was an updated version of Tippecanoe’s log cabin and cider barrel. Reagan's supply-side economics, his determination to have a major military buildup and a stepped-up nuclear arms race and his hostility to social services were all about comforting the comfortable in the United States. Reagan's true political base was what George W. Bush would later characterize as his own base, too: "the haves and the have-mores". Reagan was calling on the Captains of Industry and the Lords of Finance to enjoy lower taxes and fewer pesky regulations on their quest for higher profits. The stirring appeals to great tasks and urgent problems was about rallying political support among the people who were far more likely to be hurt than helped by his policies.

The American Whigs didn’t invent this political concept in 1840, though they gave it their own modern form and started a tradition of down-home, we’re-folks-just-like-you conservative appeals that arguably continues today. The taunts of elitism the Whigs hurled at Martin Van Buren would surely sound familiar to John Kerry after his unsuccessful 2004 run for the Presidency as the Democratic candidate.

But the larger phenomenon has a longer history.

Die narzißtische Befriedigung aud dem Kulturideal gehört auch zu jenen Mächten, die der Kulturfeindschaft innerhalb des Kulturkreises erfolgreich entgegenwirken. Nicht nur die bevorzugten Klassen, welche die Wohltaten dieser Kultur genießen, sondern auch die Unterdrückten können an ihr Anteil haben, indem die Berechtigung, die Außenstehenden zu verachten, sie für die Beeinträchtung in ihrem eigenen Kreis entschädigt. Man ist zwar ein elender, von Schulden und Kriegsdeinsten geplagter Plebejer, aber dafür ist man Römer, hat seinen Anteil an der Aufgabe, andere Nationen zu beherrschen und ihnen Gesetze vorzuschreiben. Diese Identifzierung der Unterdrückten mit der sie beherrschenden und ausbeutenden Klasse ist aber nur ein Stück eines größeren Zusammenhanges. Anderseits können affektiv an diese gebunden sein, trotz der Feindseligkeit ihre Ideale in ihren Herren erblicken. Wenn nicht solche im Grunde befriedigende Beziehungen bestünden, bliebe es unverständlich, daß so manche Kulturen sich trotz berechtigter Feindseligkeit großer Menschenmassen so lange Zeit erhalten haben. (Sigmund Freud, Die Zufunft einer Illusion; 1928; S. 18-19)

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is also among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes, which enjoy the benefits of the culture, but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own unit. No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one's share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws. This identification of the suppressed classes with the class who rules and exploits them is, however, only part of a larger whole. For, on the other hand, the suppressed classes can be emotionally attached to their masters; in spite of their hostility to them they may see in them their ideals; unless such relations of a fundamentally satisfying kind subsisted, it would be impossible to understand how a number of civilizations have survived so long in spite of the justifiable hostility of large human masses. (Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion; James Strachey translation; p. 13)
Efforts to frame one’s policies or political philosophy in a way that appeals to people who may receive only limited benefits, or even be harmed, by its results is not some secret twist of the conservative mind that shows an essential hidden identity between conservatives and reactionaries. It's an ancient piece of politics and statecraft.

Continued in Part 4


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