FLORIDA, August 5, 2012 — Over the last few years, America’s right-wing has become far more right-wing.
Journalists, pundits, scholars, and even politicians themselves have spent countless hours debating exactly why this is. One man, however, decided to forgo the usual banter and investigate the history of conservatism. What he found should be of interest to any individual who seriously observes our nation’s political process.
In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Robin details the complexities and motivations of rightist thought. Stemming from a conversation he had with the late William F. Buckley, Robin’s book provides clear, well-documented insight on how the right came to be what it now is. Whether the subject in question be Ronald Reagan, libertarianism, or, needless to say, Sarah Palin, nary a stone goes unturned.
I spoke with him about far more than the past, present, and future of this end of the right, though. During our discussion, Robin offered his opinions about the role reason plays in politics, how important religion is in our society, why Occupy and the Tea Party are not necessarily alike, and far more.
Joseph F. Cotto: As humans, we are inclined to pursue our own interests. Nonetheless, when politics enters the equation, people often oppose what is most beneficial for them. How do you explain this paradox?
Dr. Corey Robin: People are complicated beings with multiple interests, not all of them reducible to what benefits them personally. They have material interests, they have what sociologists call “ideational interests,” they have interests that do benefit them but not in the short term, and so on.
Politics often entails or requires people to think differently about those interests, about which are most important to them, about how to work with other people and thereby broaden their interests. So I don’t think there’s any real paradox here. Sometimes, to be sure, people do pursue things politically that are not in their own interest or that will harm them. But I think people do that in their own lives as well.
All of us do things — smoke cigarettes, eat more than we should, hurt loved ones — that we know, even as we do them, are not in our interests.
Cotto: In your opinion, can most political motivations be explained on a rational basis?
Dr. Robin: It depends what you mean by “rational.” If by rational you mean “reasonable,” I’d say no. Many of us have political motivations (like our personal motivations) that cannot be rationally justified: They do not meet the bar of reason. Racism, for example, is not a rationally justifiable motivation, yet it plays a tremendous role in politics.
We get taken in by appearance in politics or we allow ourselves to be guided by foolish considerations in voting — would I like to have a beer with candidate x — that are not rationally justifiable. So in that sense, no, I don’t think our motivations are rational. But if by rational you mean, is there an underlying logic to the motivation that can be related back to a person’s interests and beliefs, then I would say, yes, political motivations are rational.
As strange as people’s political actions and motivations can sometimes seem, there is usually a reason they can ultimately give for those actions and motivations that fits with their personal identities and life plans.
Cotto: Across the world, untold billions rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social institution. How do you believe that concept of faith impacts our society? Why, from your standpoint, do people frequently prefer it to reason?
Dr. Robin: I don’t like that opposition between faith and reason, if for no other reason than there are plenty of intellectuals, men and women of faith, who can — and do — give very good reasons for why they believe what they believe. Some of the greatest religious thinkers — Aquinas and Maimonides come to mind — wrote treatises that were imbued with the value and practice of reason. In terms of the other part of your question, however, I don’t really know. I’m not an expert on the role of religion in society.
Cotto: Throughout many American communities, religion serves as a major social force. Should one not adhere to a certain faith, then members might perceive this as an existential threat and possibly a personal insult. Can this sort of mindset be readily explained?
Dr. Robin: Often, religion is fused with other sources of identity and status: race, foreign versus native-born, social class, etc. So one reason why people see other religions as threats is that they see those religions as emblems of, or as somehow constitutive of, other kinds of difference that they find threatening. Too often, I think, we slight these other sorts of differences and just treat religious difference as if it naturally or inevitably produced conflict, when that really is not the case.
Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. Why, from your perspective, are ideologies so powerful? In the long run, what do you think that they do to any given society?
Dr. Robin: Politics is about power and morality. It’s almost impossible, for me at any rate, to imagine a politics without ideology, for ideology is often the moral language by which we understand power: its sources, its justification, its exercise. Take the American state. We have a story we tell ourselves about its foundations in the Constitution, in “we the people,” and we then debate what that state does by reference to that Constitution. That’s an ideology, and it’s a very powerful ideology, as we can see by what the Tea Party says.
There are other ways to understand the American state, of course. I just don’t think you can escape ideology because it’s how we talk about power, about who has authority, and so on.
Cotto: Very often, reactionary ideas gain far more traction in politics than proactive ones do. Why do you suppose that this is?
Dr. Robin: I have a fairly specific definition of reactionary ideas: I don’t mean ideas that merely react to other things. If that were what we meant by “reactionary” that would apply to any idea in politics.
Politics, as Hannah Arendt said, is the realm of plurality, of difference, and plurality and difference mean that we will always be speaking to each other, engaging in conversations, in ways that are reactive. So that extent we are all “reactionaries,” even when we are setting out positive, proactive ideas. The Constitution sets out some positive proactive ideas but of course it was a reaction against the Articles of Confederation. Ronald Reagan set out some positive proactive ideas but he was reacting against the New Deal and the Great Society.
If, however, you mean reactionary in the sense that I use the word — that is, as a reaction against a democratic movement from below, a movement of men and women seeking to emancipate themselves from the bonds of their social and political betters — then I think the answer is fairly straightforward. Democratic movements seek to dispossess powerful people of their privileges and powers. People don’t like being dispossessed. They don’t like to lose that which they think belongs to them. So they are drawn to reactionary ideas.
Cotto: Over the last several years, the American right-wing has become considerably more hardline. Do you suppose that there may be a specific reason for this?
Dr. Robin: Well, we have to be careful here. The American right has always been hardline. There’s an awful lot of nostalgia, often founded on ignorance, about what people like William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were like. These were men who were very hardline. Goldwater’s entire political identity was built around the notion that he would not compromise: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and all that.
What has changed, however, in the last 20 years or so, is the left. Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan came to ascendancy against a powerful left in the US. There were powerful social movements — labor, civil rights, feminism — and there were laws and institutions that embodied the ideals of these movements (the NLRB, the EEOC, Title IX, and so forth). The presence of these laws, institutions, and movements provided a discipline, a check, on the right, preventing it from indulging in too exotic fantasies.
The right had to win power, to take it back from the left. But since the Clinton administration, it’s been pretty clear that there really is no left anymore in this country. That has emancipated the right to indulge in these more luxurious visions that it previously had to keep to itself.
Cotto: Both the Occupy and Tea Party are reactionary movements which gained immense popularity due to dire economic conditions and government malfeasance. Comprehensively speaking, are these movements really as different from one another as pundits tend to claim?
Dr. Robin: I don’t think Occupy is a reactionary movement, except, again, in the literal and banal sense that it is reacting to something it sees as wrong in the world (but what politics does not do that?). If anything, it sees itself as initiating an entirely new type of politics, one that breaks with all the established assumptions of the day, that is not indebted in any way to any of the reigning myths or values of the American polity.
The Tea Party is not like that. Members of the Tea Party say quite clearly they want to take their country back, to reverse time, to go back to some mythical place where things were not like they are now. They’re not a movement that seeks to empower the people at the bottom of the social order (they’re extraordinarily hostile to immigrants, show a greater degree of animus toward blacks than do other groups); they seek to empower people at the middling levels who they believe have lost power.
Cotto: Have you seen any indication that our country’s political tone might moderate during the years ahead?
Dr. Robin: It depends on what you mean by tone. If you’re just talking rhetoric and language, then, no, I don’t see that. But if you’re talking about substance, I’d say the tone of this country, particularly among its ruling elites and parties, is remarkably moderate. Not in the sense of reasonable or restrained, but in the sense that it occupies a fairly narrow band of the political spectrum.
We have two political parties that are essentially austerity parties, that believe the major task of government in the coming years is to cut social spending, not raise taxes (or only at the margins), not cut back on defense spending, and so forth.
Cotto: Exactly how it was that you came to be such a prominent political theorist? Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Robin: Well, I don’t know that I’m a prominent political theorist, though it’s nice that you think so! Although I majored in history as an undergraduate at Princeton, I took a lot of political theory courses. And I had the unbelievable good fortune of being able to take classes with Sheldon Wolin, who was one of the most important and influential teachers of political theory in the second half of the twentieth century. Wolin really turned me onto political theory.
I then went to graduate school at Yale where I learned quite a bit from two political scientists — Rogers Smith and Steve Skowronek — who weren’t theorists but who taught me quite a bit about the modern state, American political development, and the importance of conservatism to American politics. I also was incredibly lucky at Yale in that I got involved with the labor movement there, which taught me so much about power and ideology that I would never have known just from my own studies.
So I’d say it was the combination of these three experiences - studying with Wolin as an undergraduate; learning about the state and political development as a graduate student; and working with the labor movement - that really set me on the course that I’m on.
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