Thursday, January 12, 2012

Corey Robin’s "The Reactionary Mind" (2011): (4 of 4): John C. Calhoun and his political heirs

[Continues directly from Part 3] In discussing political trends like these, we're not talking about separate rivers, or about separate states whose physical boundary lines can be defined. All were part of the same political system and responded to each other. Jacksonians and conservatives interacted and influenced each other at the margins. Conservatives and reactionaries, even more so.

What a reactionary looks like: John C. Calhoun
But the distinctions are meaningful and necessary. The Calhounian/hardline proslavery/Fire Eater trend in American politics produced a very distinct and non-conservative outcome: the Confederate rebellion. The Democratic Party split in 1860 with John Breckinridge running as the splinter Southern Democratic nominee and Stephen Douglas for the official Democratic Party. John Bell ran as the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party, and of course Abraham Lincoln as the Republican nominee.

The fact that the Calhounites became secessionists and set out to destroy the US Constitution, certainly as it applied to the states of the Confederacy. The Confederate Constitution established slavery as a permanent institution, a radical rejection of classical liberal political concepts in both its liberal and conservative variations.

It obscures far more than it clarifies to put Calhoun and the Fire Eaters in the same category with conservative Democrats and with those Republicans who leaned more toward conservative policies than Lincoln did. Nor would it be particularly helpful to blur the distinction between radical democrats like John Brown and the Republican Party. The proslavery factions, including those in the Union states who became Southern-sympathizing Copperheads during the Civil War, represented a definite reactionary trend that was very meaningfully different from pro-Union conservatives.

Left/right ideological difference weren't always cleanly represented in the actual political parties. Both the Whig Party and the Democratic Party had both proslavery and antislavery wings. In the 1850s the Democratic Party became clearly more and more conservative and the Fire Eater faction strengthened their hand. But even then, there were Democratic free-soilers who were still loyal to the Jacksonian democratic-egalitarian outlook. That complicates efforts to distinguish ideological trends. But it doesn’t make it impossible. The fact that conservatives and Fire Eaters were both in the Democratic Party up until the split of 1860 doesn’t change the fact that there was a huge difference between those who were willing to support secession by armed violence and those who were American patriots and remained true to the country and the Constitution.

Calhoun's Political Descendants

Fortunately, we haven’t had any more civil wars. But there continued to be distinct reactionary positions and advocates that could be distinguished from conservatives. The anti-democracy, anti-Reconstruction "Redeemer" movement in the South continued the Calhounian reactionary tradition. We can trace that tradition further, through the Jim Crow segregationists, the Ku Klux Klan resurgence in the 1920s including significant influence in non-Southern states, the massive-resistance movement against integration after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

There was another significant radical-reactionary trend that can be identified, embodied in the Liberty League in the 1930s, continuing in the Old Right isolationist movement from the late 30s through the John Birch Society (JBS) to Ron ("Papa Doc") and Rand ("Baby Doc") Paul. And in the 20th century, Protestant fundamentalism emerged as a politically reactionary movement.

These three trends – white supremacy, business democracy-haters and fundamentalist Christianism – were more distinct from one another than they are today, though there was definitely overlap. The affluent grumps and occasional oil millionaire who were attracted to the John Birch Society, "a coven of anti-Communists and intellectual louts" (Stanley Crouch, "Why the Koch brothers love Herman Cain: The right- wing billionaires care only about their bottom line" New York Daily News 10/30/2011), looked kindly on fundamentalist Christianity and not so fondly on black people, for instance. There were also partisan differences. In 1960, segregationist ideology and white supremacist organizations like the Citizens Council were more directly influential on the Southern Democrats than on Republicans; the Old Right isolationist/hyper-nationalist Birchers were popular among segregationists but their appeal was more familiar to the paranoid anti-Communism of Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy and his admirers within the Republican Party; white fundamentalist Christians were a group that overlapped heavily with Southern segregationists but politicized “Christian Right” type groups such as Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade were marginalized.

Organizations like the Birchers, the White Citizens Council and the Christian Crusade were generally understood to be Radical Right groups in 1960. And neither of the two main national parties wanted to be too closely associated with them.

But what came to be known as "movement conservatism" that congealed in the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign combined much of the style, uncompromising rancor, conspiratorial thinking and much of the substance of their positions. And that Movement Conservative trend is now dominant within the Republican Party.

It strikes me that this reality may be heavily coloring Robin’s treatment of the conservative tradition in American history and in 19th-century political theory more generally. It certainly is difficult to distinguish conservative from reactionary in today’s Republican Party. Especially since reactionaries often self-identify as conservatives and all but the most radical organizations embracing that ideology call themselves conservatives.

The three Radical Right organizations I've just named can serve to illustrate the point. The JBS is still around and largely churning out the same cranky, crackpot notions as in 1960. You can hear them, or something very similar to them, in Glenn Beck's rants or Ron Paul's speeches. Papa Doc Paul's goofy goldbug economic ideas are popular among today’s Birchers. Their isolationist foreign policy does distinguish them from Republican imperial notions. But the hardcore nationalism and contempt for international law that lies behind the JBS' famous hostility to the United Nations and to foreign aid are both found in the kind of Dick Cheney thinking that dominates today’s Republican foreign policy. So is the contempt for democracy common among Birchers and white supremacists. Papa Doc may occasionally sound like a hippie pacifist when he talks about some military intervention he opposes. But his outlook is far removed from either liberal internationalism or pragmatic realism, the foreign policy concepts common in the Democratic Party.

Much of the rhetoric and vote-suppression practices of today’s Republican Party are straight out of the segregationist playbook. The successor organization to the Citizen's Council is still around, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). And the heritage shows. They are more blatantly racist than even Rush Limbaugh tends to be. But their bitter sleaze-slinging would not seem that unfamiliar to FOX News viewers. Their website used to run articles by Sen. Trent Lott, who served as the Senate Republican leader until he got in trouble himself by his praise for Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist Presidential campaign got to be embarrassing (plus the Bush White House preferred a different Senate leader at the time). Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, in 2010 famously praised the Citizens Council of the 1960s as a moderating influencing during the massive resistance to integration in Mississippi, when in fact the Council spearheaded the effort. The Republican Party’s decades-long strategy to appeal to white prejudice against African-Americans and, increasingly against Latinos, has given the CCC and, more importantly, its way of thinking a role in the Republican Party not unlike the one its predecessor organization had with the Democrats.

The influence of the Christian Right on the Republican Party can only be a secret to respectable pundits for whom the strange conventions of their pundit tribe require them to pretend its not that important. (I’m tempted to add that they surely know better. But given the odd ways so many of our Beltway Village pundits process things, I’m really not sure that they know better.) But it’s certainly no secret to Republican candidates at all levels. The kind of politicized Christian fundamentalism that made Billy James Hargis a marginalized crank in 1960 is now the outlook of the most important element in the Republican voting base. The biggest difference would be the emphasis that today’s Christianists put on Christian Zionism while downplaying the anti-Semitic core of that viewpoint. Though the latter is there, more evident in some like John Hagee than others.

Ronald Brownstein looked at the divisions in the Republican Party during the race for the 2012 Presidential nomination in The Two Republican Races National Journal 10/27/2011. Reporting on the results CNN/ORC surveys, he is appropriately cautious in describing the division between the Tea Party/evangelical portion of the Party and those who don’t identify so closely with it:

The CNN/ORC surveys divide Republican voters into those who express support for the tea party and those who are neutral or opposed to the movement. In the most recent survey, 49 percent of Republican voters expressed sympathy for the movement, 45 percent said they were neutral and 5 percent said they opposed it.

That roughly 50-50 split is a reasonable proxy for the divide in the party between the most ardently ideological and populist elements (who express support for the tea party) and the somewhat more pragmatic (and to some extent moderate) voters who are more focused on reviving the economy than crusading against Washington. (Largely overlapping with that divide is a similar division between voters who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians and those who don't; most polls have found evangelicals disproportionately represented among the tea party supporters.) [my emphasis]
Later he makes a distinction between “the more pragmatic and secular wing of the party”, on the one hand, and the Tea Party/Christianist wing on the other.

Even people who should probably know still sometimes refer to a “moderate” wing of the Republican Party. But at best the Party has a conservative wing and a reactionary one, though distinguishing the two is particularly challenging. Which is why Corey Robin’s longer historical argument rings true if you’re projecting backward from today’s US Republican Party.

But it is nevertheless flawed and misleading. And flawed in a way that less likely to help liberals and progressives understand the real political currents in today’s conservative movement and the Republican Party which is its main vehicle than it is to serve hardline rightwingers in passing themselves off as harmless, stodgy let’s-make-haste-slowly conservatives. Or, to use Grover Norquist’s notorious metaphor, it doesn’t help to distinguish those who are mainly concerned with not throwing out the baby with the bathwater from those who want to drown the baby in the bathwater. The baby in this case being democracy.

Returning to Robin's eighth chapter in which he makes jarring juxtapositions among Burke and Reagan, Goldwater and Tocqueville and De Maistre: This chapter first appeared in a collection called Performances of Violence, ed. Austin Sarat, Carleen Basler, and Thomas L. Dumm (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). He uses the calls he finds from various conservatives for grand adventures and causes to argue that conservatives have a particular fondness for war. And that in turns feeds into his larger argument of an essential "unity on the right" of conservatives and reactionaries in which he seats "at the same table" his motley collection that includes "philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia".

In that chapter, he calls to witness, along with Sorel and Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt. That would be the Theodore Roosevelt who established the national park system, the Republican President who made the hallmark of his Presidency his fight against the "trusts", the name used at the time for corporate monopolies. He doesn't make an argument as to why an icon of liberal Republicans – yes, such creatures once walked the earth! – should be considered a conservative. Much less why he should also be considered essentially the same as the most hidebound reactionary.

And when it comes to war, that is scarcely a specialty of conservatives and reactionaries, though both may tend to consider it especially praiseworthy. Teddy Roosevelt certainly delivered some blistering jingoistic rhetoric against Germany during the First World War. But was he really more inclined to war that the liberal Democratic icon Woodrow Wilson? Robin doesn't even try to make that case.

Robin's The Reactionary Mind includes many valuable observations, including his profiles of Ayn Rand and American neoconservatives. But his central argument, which he mostly presses in the Introduction, that conservatives and reactionaries are essentially the same, is not convincing.

"Radicalism is the raison d'être of conservatism; if it goes, conservatism goes too," he argues. But many conservatives are the stereotypically dull conservatives who are afraid of change, afraid of the disruption of hierarchies and who want to make haste slowly. Militant rightists are kindred spirits in many ways. And they draw heavily on conservative ideas, typically referring to themselves as conservatives. But the political tribe of John Calhoun is nevertheless a different crowd than that of Daniel Webster.



Foppe said...

I quite like this review, even though most of the names mentioned (Calhoun etc.) hardly mean anything to me as a non-American. Because they don't, I had mostly read those bits as 'illustrated' examples of how various types of reactionaries think, and not really as claims about how specific historical figures should be understood. That said, in the case of Teddy Roosevelt, about whom I do know a little bit, I found Robin's remarks peculiar, for the reason(s) you identify. (Part of the reason for this seems to me to be the fact that the essays weren't intended to be part of a book, and weren't changed a lot once that decision was made.)

Anyway, about Wilson and his war-mongering. Whenever I hear his name I recall the following quote: Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down … Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.

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