A typical description of conservatism by liberals might run thusly:
Conservatism is the attempt to prevent emancipation of the lower orders. It is a creed for those with privilege and a taste for violence who see their power being threatened and are willing to do almost anything to put down calls for freedom and equality whenever they begin to make headway. If forced to exist within a mass democracy, conservatives face the constant threat of marginalized groups seeking a true voice within public space, and respond by doing whatever it takes to instill fear in those groups. Conservatives for the most part have succeeded in the United States, driving leftist unions and intellectuals underground during the red-baiting McCarthy era and undermining calls for economic justice, especially in the Reagan era, but throughout the last several decades in which they have unleashed heartless capitalism.
If you did not know this “truth” about conservatism, that means you have never either a) ticked off an academic/journalist/political activist to the point where he tells you what he really thinks of you, or b) been in a room with academics/journalists/political activists in one of the odd moments in which they discuss conservatives (rather than merely dismiss us as The Bad Guys) without them knowing your political beliefs. The caricature of conservatives as selfish elites manipulating the masses to retain their privileged positions is not just common on the left, it is gospel.
These thoughts came to mind recently when a friend forced upon me the transcript of an interview with one Corey Robin. Mr. Robin is not particularly famous, but I think his refreshingly open and un-nuanced views are emblematic of current academic prejudice. A teacher of intellectual history at Brooklyn College, Mr. Robin made a bit of a laughingstock of himself a few years ago with a book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The book was panned, to say the least, in the semi-intellectual press. Now, one might think this fact undermines my claims about the prevalence of the caricatured view of conservatism. After all, Mr. Robin’s book is the very model of leftist prejudices about the right. His book treats “reactionary” and “conservative” as synonymous terms. He shows disdain for basic facts, such as Edmund Burke’s spirited, lifelong defense of oppressed Irish Catholics and the distinctly populist politics of Sarah Palin. He treats as privileged a vast swath of conservatives who have little money and less deference for what they perceive as elites.
His own only slightly warmed-over Marxism accounts for much of Mr. Robin’s prejudiced animus, of course. For him, the only sympathy conservatives can have is for members of the lower orders who know their place, populism is mere manipulation and false consciousness, and so on. But what was interesting about the reaction to Mr. Robin’s book was just how frustrated it made leftists-in-good-standing like Mark Lilla. The problem with Mr. Robin’s book for these critics was not that it was fundamentally wrong about conservatives, but that it lacked nuance. Mr. Lilla rather likes some of Burke’s work, and recognizes the distinction between hierarchical elites and populist demagogues (though, as the terms might suggest, neither belongs among the Progressive angels). I confess to finding most of the discussion uninteresting, given that the arguments were over just exactly how evil conservatives are, and whether there was more than one kind of conservative evil. Still, one who read the reviews at the time would have witnessed much leftist sniffing about subtlety and historical contingency. The impression might have been given that Mr. Robin is outside the intellectual mainstream—which is, of course, leftist. But times have changed, and the left continues to move, well, left.
On reading an interview with Mr. Robin conducted under the auspices of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, it seems clear to me that he occupies, or soon will occupy, the mythical high ground among academics. His intellectual perambulations may lack subtlety, but they exemplify currently ascendant standards, including an atrophied conception of intellectual rigor and studied rejection of concrete facts and open discourse in favor of abstract categories and tendentious god-terms.
Some of Mr. Robin’s musings sound very high-brow. For example, he mentions becoming interested “in how cultural forms and texts—particularly economics—are condensations or sublimations of political life or forgotten political vocabularies.” All this means, if you are still reading, is that Mr. Robin likes to translate books and even systems of economics into the standard leftist language of power relations, according to which the elites manipulate the lower orders. Tradition itself, on this view, is merely about power. Everything is “the contest over privilege,” by which Mr. Robin means the drive for Progress through socialism in opposition to those privileged conservatives who oppose it, and must by definition do so for either selfish or self-deluded reasons. Even the highly important work of historian Quentin Skinner, who emphasized the need to examine the historical and political context in which works of political thought were written and directed, becomes in Mr. Robin’s hands an excuse to impose a “polemical understanding” on “conservative texts,” meaning that he portrays them as mere weapons in the war over privilege. The very starting point of Mr. Robin’s book on conservatism, in his own mind, was “how elite power rules and defends itself in an age of popular democracy.” That is, the topic is so carefully defined that the practical answer always is the same—privileged “conservatives” are keeping down the lower orders by hook and by crook.
Mr. Robin professes to admire Richard Hofstadter’s early work on The American Political Tradition for being “caustic and partisan, yet ironic and subtle,” and for “looking upon America from above and beyond its borders, looking on it from the outside, in a kind of bemused and exasperated and horrified way.” And this is the attitude that sums up academia today. It is to place oneself above one’s subject, to consider oneself “outside” the culture in some radical sense allowing oneself to be bemused, exasperated, and horrified all at the same time. To find one’s subject confusing or puzzling while at the same time frustrating and horrifying bespeaks the attitude of the intellectual activist—what today is misleadingly termed a “public intellectual.” One who feels these things about his subject, especially when it is his nation and culture, clearly wished, more than anything, to change it to more closely fit one’s own idealized vision. Such ideological thinking is “public” in the sense of seeking to remake the public in one’s own image; it also is the stock in trade of the contemporary academy. It undermines dispassionate analysis because it rests on delusions of intellectual self-creation, the hubris of the café revolutionary, and the self-satisfaction of the partisan, who knows he is right and that his ideas should rule, whatever the consequences for mere people.
One should add to this Mr. Robin’s stated impatience with boundaries among fields and sub-fields—an impatience most of us share to some degree. Yet Mr. Robin dismisses such boundaries for the simple reason that they get in the way of his own reductionism. If all is power, does it matter that the power is exercised among elites rather than masses? By books rather than political, economic, and social structures? By teachers, students, or violent gangs rather than police, armed forces, or government officials? All is one, all is grist for the mill of privilege bashing. All is food for the endlessly growing, ever-hungry grievance industry and the academics, journalists, and activists who see themselves leading it—and all of us—toward the paradise of enforced equality.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.