(By NCrissie B)
This week Morning Feature considers Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Today we begin with Robin’s argument that conservatism appeals to personal experiences of power and privilege. Tomorrow we’ll see how conservatism romanticizes hardship and struggle. Then we’ll conclude with Robin’s core thesis that conservatism exists only in reaction to progressive change.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition to The Reactionary Mind, Dr. Robin is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He studied at Oxford University and Princeton before earning his Ph.D at Yale, and blogs at Crooked Timber and Jacobin.
“A meditation on … the felt experience of having power”
In his introduction, Dr. Robin emphasizes that conservatism is rooted in personal experiences of power and privilege:
This book is about the second half of that story, the demarche, and the political ideas – variously called conservative, reactionary, revanchist, counterrevolutionary – that grow out of and give rise to it. [...] They have always been, at least since they first emerged as formal ideologies during the French Revolution, battles between social groups rather than nations; roughly speaking, between those with more power and those with less. To understand these ideas, we have to understand that story. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.
To emphasize the personal nature of conservatism, Dr. Robin offers marital rape as his first concrete example. He cites a 1736 treatise by British jurist Matthew Hale that argued a woman implicitly agrees to sex on demand with her husband in the marriage contract, “a tacit, if unknown consent ‘which she cannot retract’ for the duration of their union.” A 1957 U.S. legal definition held that “A man does not commit rape by having sexual intercourse with his lawful wife, even if he does so by force and against her will.”
That changed over the 1980s, and by 1993 marital rape was illegal in all 50 U.S. states. Not coincidentally, that covers the time period that conservative David Usher described in his screed against marriage equality:
Feminists made feminist marriage their top long-term goal twenty-five years ago and invested tremendous resources in it, because they intend to convert marriage into a feminist-controlled government enterprise and subordinate the rest of America to fund it.
“The day-to-day experience of ruling other men and women”
Slavery in the U.S. was also an intimate, personal experience. Slaves lived on their masters’ property, making it what Dr. Robin calls “an exceptionally personal mode of rule.” He details the masters’ detailed control over their slaves’ daily lives, adding:
The consequences of this proximity were felt not just by the slave but by the master as well. Living every day with his mastery, he became entirely identified with it. So complete was this identification that any sign of the slave’s disobedience – much less her emancipation – was seen as an intolerable assault upon his person. When [John] Calhoun declared that slavery “has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people,” he wasn’t just referring to society in the aggregate or abstract. He was thinking of individual men absorbed in the day-to-day experience of ruling other men and women. Take that experience away, and you destroyed not only the master but also the man – and the many men who sought to become, or thought they were already like, the master.
By the time of the Civil War, over 400,000 Southerners owned slaves and some states subsidized the purchase of slaves to ensure more whites were invested in the system, a motive that would be repeated in President George W. Bush’s “ownership society.”
“The state suffers oppression, if such as they … are permitted to rule”
From the time of Edmund Burke, conservatism also sought to exclude ordinary workers from government and from any role in workplace decisions:
The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person – to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.
For conservatives, “freedom” means to be lord of your manor: your home and your business. To extend the “freedoms” of wives or workers is to limit the “freedoms” of those ruling over them, as Dr. Robin writes:
If women and workers are provided with the economic resources to make independent choices, they will be free not to obey their husbands and employers. [...] For the conservative, equality portends more than a redistribution of resources, opportunities, and outcomes – though he certainly dislikes these too. What equality ultimately means is a rotation in the seat of power.
Rusty is voting his own interests
In asking why not-wealthy Republicans “vote against their own interests” – as Thomas Frank famously explored in What’s the Matter with Kansas? – progressives usually conclude that working class white Republicans have been “duped” by appeals to religion, race, and “family values.” But that misses the key appeal of conservatism: Rusty Redvoter’s personal experiences of power and privilege.
Conservatism reminds Rusty that he was once, and promises him that he can be again, the lord of his own manor. No, Rusty’s manor was not and likely never will be as big as the Koch or Walton families. But for Rusty to compare himself to them is, in the conservative moral universe, to violate one (or two, depending on the numbering) of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet.”
Rusty’s moral duty, as Irving Kristol wrote, is to wield his own power over his own manor:
Power breeds responsibilities, in international affairs as in domestic – or even private. To dodge or disclaim these responsibilities is one form of the abuse of power.
This is why Republicans – emboldened by Rusty and his Tea Party friends in 2010 – promptly attacked women’s reproductive freedom, including calls for laws requiring the husband’s consent for abortion. In 1976 the Supreme Court said Rusty’s wife could have an abortion without his consent and, in 1992, without even telling him she was pregnant. Conservatism tells Rusty that abortion and marriage equality are part of a feminist plot to undermine his manhood and promises him a return to “family values” where his wife must obey him under fear of physical punishment.
Rusty doesn’t vote Republican to protect the Koch or Walton families’ wealth. He votes Republican because they promise to make him lord of the manor once again, to return Rusty’s personal experience of knowing he rightfully stood ahead of women and people of color … in his own home and at his own job.
That is a powerful emotional appeal, and progressives dismiss it at our peril.