By Cory Robin
Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for The New York Times Magazine, who stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire the White House didn’t like. It was about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes and it led to a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off.
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This conversation gave birth to the “reality-based community,” which became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era – a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page.
The phrase is an affirmation of everything the Left ever thought about the Right: that it lives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions, that it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate, that it’s activist rather than accommodating, that it’s not really even conservative.
Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar. They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure.
They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley (above left) once said, the “politics of reality.”
That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It’s also how many liberals who may have read Edmund Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.
To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.
Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations – that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the ‘common hazards of life’ through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.
When Krugman (right) talks about “modern conservatism,” he means anything from the last ten years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above. It’s a pretty common notion: Modern conservatism – however it’s defined – is different from the conservatism that came before it.
Here’s Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely-read The Death of Conservatism:
What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke … Burke’s conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies. The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.
Reaching a little less deeply into the well of history, Sidney Blumenthal wrote at the high tide of the Bush administration:
Bush also claimed to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and Republican presidents alike in his pursuit of a radical and often fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities, Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator prepared for compromise …
Nothing like Bush’s concerted radicalism has ever been seen before in the White House. As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul. Since then, he’s pursued it time and again, pillorying the conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke’s supple traditionalism, Hayek’s critique of utopianism, and more.
So powerful is this meme of conservatism-betrayed-by-conservatives that the blogger P.M. Carpenter has recently declared a ban on any use of the word in reference to the modern conservative movement. Commenting on Krugman’s column, Carpenter writes:
Why, then, do modern commentators persist in referring to modern conservatism as “conservatism”? While Krugman’s statement is perversely unimpeachable – “modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement” – it also contains a colossally unconcealed contradiction, which is way overdue for journalistic retirement. To posit that “conservatism” is a “deeply radical movement” is to untether oneself from intelligible language and customary comprehension. By definition, conservatism is anything but deeply radical. Indeed, authentic modern conservatism arose from Edmund Burke’s revulsion of the French Revolution’s butchery of political order (such as it was), cultural tradition, social institutions, and human life; that is, modern conservatism arose in reaction to modern radicalism. … So, to Mr Krugman et al, please cease perpetuating the contradiction. Stop calling conservative pols what they are not: conservative. They are pseudoconservatives, they are reactionaries, they are radicals, and in some instances they are merely lunatics. But they are not conservative.
I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show – contra Carpenter, Sullivan, Blumenthal, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more – that today’s conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn’t betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan: She has fulfilled them. Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I’d like to make a novel suggestion: Let’s read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France – the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory refers to – but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace.
For Carpenter is right: Modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, did arise in reaction to modern radicalism. But what Carpenter doesn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know it, is that something funny happened on the way to the counterrevolution. As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilisation, putting themselves into the driver’s seat of history, threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.
Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between “ability” – the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob – and “property”, the aristocrats and their clients. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why:
“As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the” state.
Without the protection of the feudal state, property would lose.
By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke’s concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch.
“In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views,” he now wrote of the revolutionaries, “the Jacobins are our superiors.” But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries’ superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances.
The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, “they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour … They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”
It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite – as well as the other monarchies of old Europe – could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate.
Where the Jacobins had “conquered the finest parts of Europe” with an “annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce,” the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.
At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment. We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it. But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments. They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident. In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy. Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.
Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, they were cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:
They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.
These “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour”, Burke complained, charged with defending the old orders of Europe, “had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes”. They lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism.”
The other negative consequence of an inheritance that’s assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor – whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate – quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition.
This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke’s writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.
“Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut,” Burke declared at the outset of his Regicide Peace. The laws of the state, ancient and “full of reason, and of equity and justice,” were a “dead letter,” producing “no more than stubble”. Their very ancientness, he concluded, made them weak.
Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects. Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.
It wasn’t just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced. Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first order.
There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well-tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem.
“Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.”
Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation-all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table-would have to be pushed aside in favour of a more bloody repast. In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.
Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.
To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.
The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.
Every little measure is a great errour.
These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, which Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe. This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: They see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international.
In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe. England should realise that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her,” he wrote. “No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.”
Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.
This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”
I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism – and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favour of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.
In the twentieth century, one finds a similar move in Friedrich Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defence of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty.
There, Hayek says, among other things, that the “successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency” and that
Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today … But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.
The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that while he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read. Likewise, Hayek and the rest of the conservative canon.
Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliche about them-little platoons and so on-emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.
That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?
If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they’re great, which they are. But also because we’re having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about.
If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice. So here’s my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ’em. Then let’s talk.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He’s author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and 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 received his PhD from Yale and blogs at coreyrobin.com. A version of this article was originally published by Al Jazeera.
Illustration by Cheryl Gross