Monday, January 02, 2012

Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind

Corey Robin's book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011) has attracted considerable sympathetic attention among progressives. He ties together the various themes of his book with the notion that rejects the traditional distinction between conservative and reactionary.

His book is interesting and thought-provoking. And I plan to post about it in some more detail. Digby features a segment with Chris Hayes that includes Robin on a political panel (Action - Reaction 01/02/2011).

But I'm unconvinced on his argument that there is no meaningful distinction between conservative and reactionary thought. He's doing intellectual history in that book, and it gets a bit too ahistorical for my taste. In the early days of the Constitutional period in the US, for instance, Hamilton's Federalists were (in today's terms) conservatives who supported the Constitution, Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans were "liberals" who supported the Constitution. There were genuine reactionaries among the Federalists who wanted to try to block Jefferson from taking office in 1801. But, for all their differences, Jefferson and Federalist John Adams were supporters of the Constitution. It just doesn't work for me to try to see Adams as a reactionary/counter-revolutionary.

In the first half of the 19th century, I also couldn't really make sense of what was going on without distinguishing between "liberals" (Andrew Jackson; Martin Van Buren), conservatives (John Quincy Adams; Tippecanoe and Tyler Too; Daniel Webster) and reactionaries/counter-revolutionaries (John Calhoun, the godfather of them all; Barnwell Rhett; and basically the whole sorry lot that became the Confederate leadership).

And as much as I grind my teeth when our Pod Pundits quote Richard Hofstadter because he's the only writer on the topic of the Radical Right they've heard of, he's correct in seeing a crackpot far-right tradition that runs from the Anti-Masonic Party to the American Party (Know-Nothings) to the Liberty League, the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society and today's Ron Paul fans. While today's Republican Party hasn't completely embraced the hardcore Papa Doc conspiracist worldview, I would very much argue that it has become a radical-reactionary party, with scarcely any Alf Landons or even stodgy old William Howard Taft types left. But I think Corey Robin overreaches in trying to read that situation back into 19th-century political theory.

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