What are conservatives trying to conserve? “To be conservative,” the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said, “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown…the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded.” The “familiar,” the “tried,” and the “actual” have included most forms of rule and subordination: men over women, rich over poor, learned over ignorant, Euro-American over everyone else. These orders of being, tradition, habit, custom, and reverence are ratified and hallowed by their sheer perdurance through the buffeting vicissitudes of history. From Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre to William F. Buckley and Roger Scruton, conservatives (so the story goes) have constituted a league of opposition to modernity. Conservatives defend “organized, harmonious, consecrated living,” in the orotund cadence of George Santayana.
Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, dismisses this account as a “conceit.” What conservatives have attempted to conserve, he contends, is not tradition, custom, habit, or even reverence, but, rather, the prerogatives of established power; and they have been willing to abandon even the most “consecrated living” to protect that dominion. While proclaiming their fidelity to ancestral convention, conservatives have been virtuosos in the arts of ideological and political innovation, harnessing the energies of democracy for the purpose of sustaining the ascendancy of an elite. Conservatism emerges, in Robin’s telling, as the theory and practice of beleaguered elites in an age of revolution.
Composed mainly of articles originally written for The Nation, Raritan, the London Review of Books, and other periodicals, The Reactionary Mind is a brilliant and polemical contribution to intellectual history. It’s a provocative and persuasive narrative, conveyed with Robin’s characteristic wit. (“Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand,” he writes. “The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.”) Although most reviewers of the new volume have noted its departures from the first edition, published in 2011—its greater emphasis on economics and the replacement of Sarah Palin by Donald Trump as the main character in a Grand Guignol of reaction—there’s a set of questions that connect it to an earlier book by Robin: Fear: The History of a Political Idea. In that work, he chronicled the growing centrality of anxiety and terror to modern political discourse. How do elites rule? How do they maintain authority in the face of instability and challenge from below? How is democracy subverted or circumvented in the age of mass politics and culture?