Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts

I came across an interesting book: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. I haven’t read or even purchased it yet, although I plan on doing so.

I was intrigued by his proposition that conservatism is reactionary in nature. This makes sense just in the basic meaning of ‘conservatism’. There is something conservatives are seeking to conserve (from being lost) or if (perceived to have been) lost to regain… not that the non-conservative would agree with this reactionary, often revisionist take on the past, the perception of the past that informs what the conservative movement seeks in the present. In an unchanging society such as  an isolated hunter-gatherer tribe, there probably would be nothing for the conservative to react against… but that isn’t the conservatism that we know now or, as Corey Robin argues, as we’ve known throughout the history of civilization. Corey Robins isn’t necessarily talking about conservatism in the psychological sense as I sometimes use it. Instead, he is referring to the political conservatism that arose, especially in the US, in response to the French Revolution. This conservatism is inherently counter-revolutionary, i.e., reactionary.

My disagreement is that Corey Robin separates the conservative mindset from the conservative movement. The conservative movement may have “always been” reactionary since its inception in post-Englightenment Western politics, but that is relatively speaking a short view of human society. With civilization, the conservative mindset was radicalized. With modernity, this radicalized conservatism became a specific reactionary conservative movement. Still, humans and human society existed before all of this. Psychological research shows there are distinctions to be made between the conservative mindset and right-wing authoritarianism, although modern politics have brought the two into close alignment within the conservative movement.

Nonetheless, for practical purposes of dealing with modern conservatism, Corey Robin’s conclusion is essentially correct. I think it’s important, though, to hold onto the understanding of a conservative mindset that can be found in many places, whether inside or outside of the conservative movement. Actually, if one really wants to find the conservative mindset rather than merely the conservative movement, one would be better off looking at the Democratic Party, the moderate centrists speaking about bipartisanship and compromise and the socially conservative religious black demographic, both Democratic groups seeking to conserve US society as it is with the gains of social rights and freedoms and with the gains of the protections against poverty and oppression.

So, maybe it is helpful to separate the conservative movement from the conservative mindset since many in the conservative movement have sought to separate themselves from the conservative mindset. Corey Robin argues that conservatism is a modern movement. In the comments section of a blog post (Bobo’s Reactionary Mind by Scott Lemieux), there was an interaction that touches upon this issue and the distinction made by Robin:

Incontinentia Buttocks says:
September 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

But is this exclusively true of modern conservatism? Doesn’t Cicero, e.g., suggest that virtuous behavior involves choosing the harder path?

Corey Robin says:
September 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

There’s definitely a precedent in Cicero and others (though I’d say that “modern conservatism” is redundant; my argument is that all conservatism is modern. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The difference is that they were writing within the framework of virtue ethics (and other modes of ethics). Brooks and the romantics are not: they’re writing within the framework of a concern about the self, not its virtue or flourishing or anything like that, but its very survival as a self.

Anyway, I wanted to get a better grasp of this book before I bought it. The Amazon reviews were positive, but not thorough. My web search first brought me to a review by Sheri Berman in the New York Times Book Review. Her review is negative and I sensed it wasn’t fair. I was glad to see that Corey Robin responded to the review in a way that was intellectually fair. In checking out some other web search results, I found a nice discussion that refers to this book. Here is the section where he mentions Robin’s book:

Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older.   I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset.  That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.

While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right.  Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought.  They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse.   It involves an invented past to which they long to return.

I wrote a comment which I posted there and thought I would post here as well (although my following thoughts are only indirectly related to the book in question):

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A very interesting analysis. Your transition over the years has given you useful perspective.

I’ve never had such a transition. I’ve never had any allegiances and so have never switched them. The Republican Party these days seems morally repugnant and the Democratic Party seems weak sauce. There is lots of rhetoric in the two party system, but none of it means much to me. The radical right too often seems to have become disconnected from reasonable debate, not to mention factual reality. The radical left has become almost irrelevant, ignored by both parties in power.

I’ve always clearly been a ‘liberal’, although my liberalism is more of an attitude than an ideology: open-minded, intellectually curious, prone to relativism and occasionally utopian longings, critical of theocrats, desiring to believe in the goodness of people and the potential of collective humanity, hyper-individualism and mindless group-think neither make sense to me, etc. So, I’m liberal-minded, liberal in the psychological sense. Neither conservatives/right-wingers nor mainstream democrats understand the fundamental impulse of liberalism.

I do have some radical leanings, but I’m not a radical in the reactionary sense. I prefer reason and the endless conflict of partisan politics is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not as if we lack historical examples to guide ourselves by or lack plenty of data to make informed decisions, but none of that seems to matter. It’s all about winning at any cost. No matter who wins, those with wealth and power maintain their influence. Even though I’m not a reactionary radical, neither am I a ‘moderate’ in how it is normally used. I know what I value and believe. Maybe I’m a person who would like to be a moderate if we lived in moderate times, but in this world as it is I find myself drawn to the ignored radical visions. The radical ideologies that get attention are those with money and power backing them, but few people in the mainstream remember the true radicalism of someone like Thomas Paine when he wrote ‘Agrarian Justice’.

My radical leanings do make me often agree with Derrick Jensen in his analysis of what is wrong, but I don’t seem to be able to follow him where he wants to go. I really don’t have much desire for revolution unless it becomes unavoidable. Derrick Jensen does have more than a small amount of nostalgia in his anarcho-primitivism. I must admit it resonates with some part of me, although in the end nostalgia seems like empty calories. If the civilization ends, so be it… but If so I will be sad to see it go.

I live in a liberal college town. I voted for Nader and I dislike Obama only slightly less than I dislike Bush. I participated in the anti-war protests during Bush’s administration. I’ve even been to a Marxist meeting once. On the other hand, I have conservative parents and my dad is of the more intellectual bent. I find that I often can agree about certain things with my parents or come to a middleground of understanding. Unlike right-wing pundits and reactionaries, my parents are capable of reasonable thought and discussion. They don’t let their principles get in the way of caring about actual people. That is all I ask for.

As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with the culture wars. It’s all I’ve known. I came of age in the 90s just when the right-wing militants were on the rise and the culture war was in its second phase of anti-abortion protests including the assassination of doctors and of course the various bombings in protest. I was born into a world of social conflict and national decline. I’m tired of the culture wars, the identity politics, the partisan tribalism, the politicized religion, the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the war on terrorism, the war on illegal aliens, war on everything, and on and on. I’m tired of all the bullshit. Sadly, I see my generation produce the worst examples of all this that just egg it over the edge, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks. On the bright side, my generation also has produced Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Comedians all of them, a generation of clowns.

Even though I didn’t swing from one side to the other as you have done, I still feel that sense of not having a clear sense of where I belong in American politics..I’m definitely not in the middle. I feel like I’m somewhere to the side of the typical left/right spectrum. However, when I look at polls of public opinion, I find I often agree (or at least don’t strongly disagree) with the average American on many issues. Obviously, mainstream media and politics is disconnected from much of the rest of the population. I don’t know where this leaves me.

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11 Responses

  1. I will comment on this later, but I am glad you gave me such a thoughtful reply. Once I am done teaching classes today. I will do like-wise, i hope.

  2. Here is a comment (following the blogger’s response to my first comment) I left over at the blog post I linked to above:

    I was never denying ideological components to my liberal attitude. Anyone who denies ideological components is either a liar or lacking in self-awareness. I would agree with your assessment. My ideology is more orientational and, I would add, more open-ended (what conservatives would call relativist). My opinions shift as my experience and knowledge changes. I have two main orienting ideologies/ideals:

    (1) I value ‘truth’ (self-questioning, doubt, curiosity, knowledge, objectivity, logic, learning, experimentation, intellectual honesty and humility, facts over belief, questioning over certainty, etc); and
    (2) I value compassion (prioritizing real world results that impact real people instead of belief, ideology, and theory; empathizing with and caring about people’s suffering and struggles instead of playing the blame-game).

    Both of those seem like very ‘liberal’ values and attitudes. One could even be a left-winger and not share these values or not hold them as being core values. However, it seems to me that it would be very difficult and unlikely too be a liberal without these. So, even though I have left-wing leanings, this is why I am a ‘liberal’. Liberals are those who seek to unify rather than divide. My understanding here is partly informed by Chris Hedge’s ‘The Death of the Liberal Class’.

    Maybe in your worldview you would consider me a leftist. I just know that I feel little loyalty to any specific ideology, even those on the far left. I prefer being a plain ‘liberal’ even if such a label has lost most of its meaning these days. I know what it means… at least to me. My view of liberalism is a combination of historical and psychological understanding. Some would claim that modern liberalism didn’t exist until the 20th century, but I call bullshit. I’ve discussed this issue in relation to classical liberalism:

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/is-classical-liberalism-liberal/

    The basic definition of classical liberalism is liberalism prior to the 20th century. Just look at the history of the US.

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/the-s-word-a-short-history-of-an-american-tradition-socialism-review-of-a-review/

    The labor movement goes back to early America with the free soil movement which was loosely aligned, through the early Republican Party and early Republican newpapers, with Karl Marx. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president of course, read the writings of and corresponded with Marx. The whole abolition movement that helped create the Republican Party was fundamentally a fight of labor against the capitalist class. The working class at the time wanted to be part of the ownership class, wanted a society built on equality of ownership. This also goes back to Jefferson’s agrarian democracy and criticisms of banks. Both Lincoln and Jefferson were highly inspired by Paine, the archetypal American liberal. There are many other names that could be brought up prior to the 20th century such as Henry George.

    Despite what right-libertarians would like to believe, their vision of classical liberalism is very narrow. As you probably know, Chomsky points out that libertarianism and socialism arose in the same socio-political milieu.

    http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people2/Chomsky/chomsky-con2.html

    “The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term “libertarian” means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists — Rosa Luxemburg and others — kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called “libertarian socialism.” So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative — Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that’s a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That’s traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that’s the mainstream of traditional anarchism.”

    Here is a distinction between liberals and left-wingers. Liberals tend to be more moderate and tend to play a moderating role in society. They want to bridge the gaps between the insiders and the outsides, between whites and minorities, between native-borns and immigrants, between the rich and the poor. This is why liberals are often found among the middle class and are the biggest defenders of the middle class. Liberals are more like what is known as the municipal socialists or sewer socialists. They are concerned with practical solutions rather than ideological purity, more concerned about the perfect being the enemy of the good. That is my personality. I’m not a radical or revolutionary at heart. I’m skeptical about massive change even when I acknowledge that much needs to be changed at a fundamental level. That is probably why a left-winger like Chomsky appeals to me. He believes in gradualism rather than revolution. Liberals, and left-wingers like Chomsky, believe in the power of ideas to change the world. The more radical left-wingers believe the only option left is direct action that will force the hand of those with power. I understand and sympathize what motivates such left-wingers, but it isn’t what motivates me.

    I agree with you about tribalism and the left and I would expand it to the right as well. It’s all identity politics. Every group is a group-identity. There are the parties and partisan movements that separate us. There is politicized religion with the corresponding politicized family values and gender/sexual-identity issues. There is the one-two punch of class war and culture war that seems endless but which I’d like to believe isn’t inevitable. With identity politics, I actually think the right has been more successful in recent history. There is no political force with greater power and influence in recent decades than the religious right, a very narrowly defined identity (mostly represented by white working class protestant evangelicals and mostly centered in the South and Appalachia). You say that the left’s identity politics “has been largely unable to generate a narrative that people that could unite everyone.” I don’t think identity politics is ever intended to serve that purpose, but it does serve well the purpose of the culture wars. Identity politics, by nature, divides rather than unites… or you could say it unites in the sense that it unites ‘us’ against ‘them’. The contemporary culture wars go back at least to the McCarthy era when the Red Scare created a paranoia about communists (and their proxy in the unions and labor movement) destroying American culture. As the Cold War became less relevant and finally ended, the culture wars as we now know them went into full gear.

    From my perspective, identity politics is one of those issues that distinguishes left-wingers from liberals. When liberalism reigned in Washington during the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn’t the identity politics and culture wars to the degree it existed in the following decades. The liberal era was far from perfect, but it was a time when the country felt united and when the middle class was growing. That is the liberal vision of America. Liberals ultimately don’t want class war but neither do they want to deny the reality of class war. What liberals want is to defuse the class war by making it irrelevant. When there is a growing middle class, there is also growing social and economic mobility, a greater sharing of the economic wealth and of political power. To put it simply, what liberals want is a functioning democracy. Liberals don’t have much of a beef with ‘capitalism’ per se. All they want is a well regulated free market not dominated by big businesses and big banks. Get rid of monopolies and allow small businesses to flourish. They don’t see the wealthy as problematic just as long as they don’t use that wealth to monopolize markets, unfairly influence politics, bust unions, and keep the poor disenfranchised. The key to all of this, from the liberal perspective, is democracy. Left-wingers, on the other hand, often believe a more radical restructuring of society is required. I don’t know that such radical restructuring isn’t required, but I hope left-wingers are wrong about that. I want to believe in the power of democracy.

    I like what you said near the end:

    “But if your opponent defines you, I want my opponent to be J. Alfred Nock or Russell Kirk—not Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. The right is degenerating, but, in my view, partly because the left has been weak and cynical. Too willing to accept things as given for entirely too long.”

    That is often been my criticism of the right. I would like there to be more worthy opponents for the left to fight against. To fight against Beck or Palin is to inevitably lose because that is a fight that just brings everyone down. When you fight people who don’t understand or care about democracy, the ultimate loser will be democracy itself. You are correct about the left’s complicity in this degeneration. Identity politics and culture wars on all sides has just led to conflict and division but no solutions. I’d point back to Chris Hedges again. He has a very good sense about how the left went wrong.

    On the other hand, I take a broader view of things. Some of this was simply the times we have found ourselves in. I hold to the view of Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning. What we’ve seen this past century was the normal generation cycle, although amplified by the Boomers being a very large generation and Generation X being very small which allowed Boomers to have more power than is typical. Also, with the beginning of the Cold War, the working class turned against the liberal class. From the perspective of the ruling elite, the only purpose the liberal class served was keeping the working class in line. Since the ruling elite found the Cold War culture wars and politicized religion so effective, the liberal class was no longer necessary which forced the liberal class to retreat from activism into the safety of academia and non-profits. I’m not sure what the left could have done to prevented this. They were between a rock and a hard place. You also have to keep in mind how demoralizing it was to have many of the left’s strongest leaders assassinated in such a short period of time. There was reasons for why the left became weak and cynical.

    However, times have changed. We are now coming into the Fourth turning. The time is ripe for the resurrection of the left.

    By the way, I’m a GenXer who is closer to the GenX/Millennial cusp. I was born in 1975. My life-long best friend is a few years younger than I am. My oldest brother is closer to the mentality of older GenXers which is something I don’t fully identify with. Younger GenXers came to adulthood in the era that followed the ending of the Cold War. The early 1990s was a strange time, a brief moment of respite for our culture. I do have some understanding of the Millennials that came after me, but my identity is clearly GenX. I’m often cynical and not prone to being a joiner.

    My earliest clear memories of the larger world included some vague memories about the end of the Cold War but mostly included the 1990s. I graduated in 1994 and I became most politically aware right when the new century was beginning. In my years of public education (especially high school), I don’t recall thinking of society as necessarily in decline. However, looking back on it, I remember the signs of what I now understand as the culture wars and the rise of the radical right-wing. I just didn’t see it in the larger picture back then. I grew up watching movies about post-Apocalyptic society and about evil children, but at the time I didn’t realize how much impact all of that had on me. My life was perfectly fine as a middle class white kid. However, the collective imagination during my childhood was very dark.

  3. Here is my next comment from that same post:

    “I have contentions about your definition of democracy, and my historical understanding of why liberalism has been insufficient to even bridge the society as it saw fit has to do with what I see is a lack of ability to deal with structural problems within the liberal mindset.”

    I’m not an ideologue. So, I don’t feel much desire to defend liberalism even though I mostly identify with it. I’m simply a liberal because that is my natural tendency under normal circumstances.

    I do, of course, like liberalism. I think it has done a lot of good for American society and civilization in general. However, I’m also rather cynical from years of depression. I have plenty of criticisms of liberalism as it has manifested in American culture (the only culture I know in detail). Then again, I have plenty of criticisms of everything else as well. For example, in America, it’s far from convincingly clear that left-wing politics has been more successful in bringing benefit to society than has liberalism. Left-wing ideologies certainly offer the possibility of great things, but liberalism is more humble in its aspirations. I can understand that some would see that ‘humility’ as a weakness or even a failure.

    Sure, there are structural problems to liberalism. Heck, there are structural problems to all of civilization. That goes back to the issue of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    “In a way, the liberal mindset is a Fabian one or even, in a sense different from the way Corey Robins uses it, conservative. Here I mean conservative in the sense that it wants to bridge social order so that fundamental structures are conserved. I do not mean conservative in the ideological sense, which is to say, reactionary.”

    Yeah, there are aspects of liberalism that could be seen as Fabian, but I don’t know if this can be generalized to all liberals. I do heartily agree with you that liberals are ‘conservative’ in the straightforward meaning of that word. As I see it, liberals hold the middle between conservatives and left-wingers.

    There would certainly be a lot more conflict and divisiveness in society without liberals. No doubt liberals have their failings, but their strengths include a willingess toward reasoned debate and a desire for fair compromise that at its best can lead to win/win scenarios. Sadly, liberals don’t always live up to their best and conservatives will do everything in their power to undermine what good liberals attempt to achieve. Liberalism is an endless seeking to improve. Liberals tend to not be as bothered by this because they see no singular final solutions. Every solution is imperfect and creates new problems requiring new solutions. No one is wise and knowledgable enough to create the perfect system.

    “I think this is, frankly, a bit of a myth: the ethnic fragmentation of the 1950s was extreme, although the relative wealth of that time period did make for more social harmony. There are plenty of objective sociologists who have studied distance between rich and poor and noticed in more equal countries, things are better. This equality did not go into the rural South or into African American homes.”

    Yes, it has elements of myth as it also has elements of truth. It’s all relative, as the liberal would willingly admit. Ethnic fragmentation was extreme in the 1950s, but racial problems had improved vastly since slavery. Change may be slow but, if liberals have anything to do with it, it is steady. I’m familiar with the research on the correlation between high economic equality and low rates of social problems. It’s true that the increasing economic equality earlier last century didn’t spread as equally as one might desire, but once again I’d point out that it had improved vastly. Rural southerners and African Americans were better off in the 1950s than they were in the 1850s. Liberals take the long view on social problems and so liberals recommend patience.

    “The contradictions in this want, or even need for inclusion, made the outcome we have now: in which Liberals are so fragmented by identity politics that they themselves cannot unify to out flank reactionary forces. To point to Post-War period as a model has always been interesting as it was a period where American growth was largely dependent on rebuilding Europe without taking much damage itself in the prior conflict. It was a perfect example of asymmetric destruction–or, in Schumpeter’s terms, “creative destruction.” But that is a historical outlier.”

    There are always contradictions in human nature and human society. We strive to lessen them, but we will never eliminate them. Fragmentation is the central enemy of liberalism because liberalism can only thrive and be effective to the extent that there is a shared and inclusive vision of society. Such fragmentation has been the endless conflict of American society with its diverse flows of immigrants with different cultures, religions and languages. Liberals have a hard time dealing with the reactionaries, especially when they gain popular support. Without the lower classes offering support, liberals are almost completely disempowered.

    I’m familiar with the Post-War period being unique in the asymetric destruction that allowed the US economy to prosper, thus fueling the growth of the middle class and the consumer economy. Yes, it was a historical outlier. That is true. However, we live in a period of history when many things are historical outliers. All of modern civilization is a historical outlier, and no one knows if it will last or even if it is ultimately sustainable in any form. We can only hope for the best in our attempts to improve upon the past. As for assymetries, they still exist today. The American economy succeeded in the past because of one kind of assymetry and it still continues to succeed in other ways because of other assymetries. That particular Post-War assymetry may have been a historical outlier, but assymetry as a general principle is the historical norm.

    “It is not that we don’t believe in democracy: we don’t think the US or any parliamentary system has one. For there are many problems with direct democracy, the history of Republics turning oligarchical was known to the founders.”

    I didn’t mean to imply that all or even most left-wingers don’t believe in democracy. I was trying to point to a distinction. I don’t know how to communicate it. There is a faith in democracy that liberals hold dear. A libeal would never accept that democracies ever turn into oligarchies, rather oligarchies suppress democracies. Oligarchies will be oligarchies. They come and go. There were oligarchies before democracy and they take every opportunity to reassert themselves. You can’t fairly blame democracy for the problems of the oligarchic tendencies that preceded democracy.

    When the founders were alive, at that point in history there had yet to be any example of a national government that came even close to direct democracy. The founders weren’t so much afraid of direct democracy as most of them probably had little comprehension of what such a thing might mean. What they feared was radical populism of the French Revolution. As I recall, Corey Robin warns against conflating democracy with populism, a common mistake. I suppose populism can potentially be democratic, but that isn’t always or maybe even usually the case.

    “This is to say that I admire your commitment, but I think maybe you should push your liberalism deeper and see where it leads you. Your tone is so sincere and fair that I think you are beginning to really do this, but there are things we all want to hold on to. I do myself. There are parts of leftist theory I have had to abandon over time. In that way, in a commitment to truth, we are agreed. I just don’t think truth is enough.”

    Liberalism is, as I’ve said, not so much an ideology for me. Anyway, liberalism by nature tends to avoid narrow, limiting and exclusionary ideologies. Dogmatism is the complete opposite of liberalism. My sense is that liberalism often is more open-ended than what is found among many left-wing views, but let me be clear that I don’t mean any criticism of left-wingers. I’m merely describing my own tendencies and trust me I’m plenty willing to admit to the problems of my tendencies. I’m no exemplar. I just know what I am. I should also point out that I don’t necessarily see liberalism and leftism as being in conflict. If I had to try to explain my own position, I’d say I’m on the left-wing of liberalism.

    I’m fine with pushing my liberalism deeper, but I realize that if I went any further than Derrick Jensen I might fall off the ideological edge. It’s not that I don’t know about or sympathize with the many valid left-wing theories. I’m just skeptical. I was raised in New Thought Christianity which is centered on positive thinking. I think that my optimistic New Thought upbringing, along with my years of depression, has permanently put me off of utopianism or even the hint of utopianism, although I don’t have hatred for utopianism. For whatever reason, I have a gut-level mistrust of radical change and of those who seek it. I know from history that most revolutions lead to societies that are no better and sometimes worse than what came before.

    I noticed one thing you said that clearly separates you and I. You said it in your response to my first comment. Here it is:

    “I think one is partially defined by our culture opponents, and I would prefer mine to be a image of how I imagine myself: principled, compassionate personally, but ruthless if I need to be.”

    If there is one thing I’m clearly not nor want to be, it is ruthless. It just isn’t in my nature. That is what fundamentally makes me a liberal. It also is probably what previously allowed you to embrace the right-wing and to now embrace the left-wing. Your ideal opponent seems to be a version of your earlier right-wing self. If my ideal opponent was to be a version of my earlier self, then I would have to see New Thought Christians as my ideal opponents. lol

    Let me make one last point. You ended your comment with this conclusion:

    “I just don’t think truth is enough.”

    I won’t argue against that. Maybe truth isn’t enough. That is where, for me, compassion comes into play. Compassion relates to our behavior and choices, the motivation for the actions we take in relation to other people. I like to believe that truth leads to or somehow supports compassion and that compassion makes us willing to be open to new truths… or something like that. Truth may not be enough, but it is for sure a damn good place to start.

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  6. And the next comment:

    “Compromise is necessary to achieve anything, but right knows that starting from the ideal and accepting the real is a better political pattern than starting from the real and getting next to nothing.”

    I have nothing against guiding ideals but that is an entirely different species from unquestioning dogma held as an uncompromising position of righteous certainty. Start from the understanding of an ideal and move toward it, but don’t limit yourself to it. Don’t end in certainty that closes down further questioning and further understanding. One’s understanding should change as one gains new information, new viewpoints and new situations. All that I means is that compromise is necessary, although it needs to be balanced. By compromise, I mean the genuine seeking of the good. Even an ideal should about seeking the good, and the highest good is always the most inclusive.

    “Obama’s health care package being an example of that. What was being asked for would have no legitimate constitutional claim against it (popular options or single payer), but the compromise is probably unconstitutional as it does stretch the commerce clause in the extreme.”

    Obama’s healthcare package wasn’t ideal nor was it necessarily all that good (not good for most people anyway). Obama wasn’t seeking compromise. I really don’t know what he was seeking but it certainly wasn’t the good of the average person (assuming he even comprehends what most Americans actually want and need). Most Americans wanted single payer or public option. So, why did Obama dismiss those possibilities before discussion even began? Who was Obama supposedly compromising with? And what was the ideal being compromised? I see neither an ideal nor any compromise of it. I just see politics as usual.

    “I also think holding up a system that was designed to impede democracy AS democracy is a bit a problematic.”

    As a liberal, I agree. Many liberals would agree. You just have to realize that the average Democratic politician doesn’t represent the position of the average liberal.

    “I respect the liberal impetus, but I don’t think liberals as a group have really looked at that problem systematically in a while because the implications are that they are defending a system that is, well, illiberal in the name of liberalism.”

    Once again, I agree and many liberals would agree. Living in a liberal college town, I’m surrounded by liberals, maybe above average in intelligence and education but otherwise fairly typical Americans (the U of I isn’t a wealthy private elite college), just normal college students and other people attracted to a liberal college town. If I asked the liberals I know about this issue, they would agree that our present political system is illiberal and for this reason they wouldn’t defend it.

    Have liberals looked at that problem systematically? Some have, some haven’t. I don’t know about the comparison between liberals and left-wingers on this issue, but I would say the following. The average liberal has looked more systematically or at least considered it more deeply than the average conservative and more than the average American in general. Liberals care about democracy a lot and so think about it a lot. Some left-wingers share this love of democracy, but not all left-wingers do. Should we all look at this problem more systematically? Of course.

    “To acknowledge the pain and reality of others is a good, but it doesn’t get you much since it is hard to apply consistently in a way that weights all the parties involved various pains. Treating everyone as individuals is not cognitively possible and one must way the needs of the many various the needs of the one. That does not mean that any individual’s pain is irrelevant. It isn’t, but compassion doesn’t answer that question either when having to adjudicate between competing pains and motivations.”

    Compassion doesn’t answer anything. All that compassion is or can be is a motivation, a worldview, an interpretive lense, a guiding ideal. No one ever claimed that compassion in isolation by itself would solve all problems. What is claimed is that any solution that lacks compassion will likely fail to deal well with human problems and suffering or, worse, will end up increasing human problems and suffering. Compassion isn’t about only individuals. Compassion isn’t the same thing as sympathy. Compassion is one of those things that can’t be explained. If you feel a strong sense of compassion, then you will more likely understand it clearly and you will more likely feel motivated to live according to it. I really don’t know why some people feel compassion strongly and others don’t, why some act compassionately and others don’t. I wish I knew.

    I’m not the perfect defender of compassion, rather imperfect in fact. I just feel it strongly enough to understand why it matters. I wouldn’t want to live in a world that lacked compassion. I doubt democracy could function without at least minimal compassion being applied in its implementation. That is the best I can do to explain compassion. If you truly want to understand, then ask someone like the Dalai Lama.

    “Every ideology says that, Ben. That is almost always a form of special pleading. Technically speaking, that’s a category error too.”

    Psychological research shows that some people are more dogmatic than others. That is just a scientific fact, like it or not. Science trumps philosophy or history in this regard (by which I don’t mean to imply that science always trumps everything). I don’t care if you believe me or not. Just look at the research. Liberalism correlates to the trait ‘openness to experience’ (curiosity, questioning, doubt, etc). It doesn’t matter what some people think liberalism is or isn’t. It doesn’t matter if some people claim conservatives aren’t dogmatic. What matters is how actual people who identify with those labels think and behave. It’s like the problem Corey Robin faced in trying to understand how conservatives actually behave as opposed to the justifications given to what conservatism is supposed to be.

    “Wilsonian liberalism was dogmatic, almost utopian in its goals. So historically, I don’t think this is true. Now you can claim, Wilson wasn’t really a liberal, then you are moving awfully close to the no-true-Scotts-man fallacy.”

    This is where the relativistic, psychological understanding of the liberal excels. A trait like liberalism means different things in different contexts. In psychology, most if not all traits exist on a spectrum and most people aren’t on the far ends. So, Wilson might have been further to the liberal end of the spectrum relative to other people at that time in history and yet be seen as not very liberal relative to contemporary standards. Capitalism and individualism seemed very liberal in the 18th century when monarchies and theocracies ruled the world, but today with increasing democracy the ideal of capitalism and individualism is now questioned in terms of its liberalism.

    Here is a clarification of this issue from Alan Wolfe as quoted in one of my posts:

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/is-classical-liberalism-liberal/

    “[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

    “I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

    “[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

    “When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.”

    Furthermore, there is the problem of what is labeled as liberal. Something can be liberal in its goals while being illiberal in how it is held as a belief and/or in how it is implemented; the opposite or some other combination is possible as well. The questions that follow are: Why was Wilson considered liberal for his time? Who was it that labeled Wilson as liberal and why? What was Wilson’s supposed liberalism being compared to that was supposedly illiberal?

    “Now, I can grant that not all ideological orientations are dogmatic, including most forms of liberalism, many forms of leftism, and even some reactionary conservatism. All of those ideological traditions have dogmatic and non-dogmatic trend lines, and liberalism has tended non-dogmatic for a while on certain areas (although perhaps NOT on Keynesian-ism or the rationality of the market with some regulations to control excess).”

    Part of the problem here is that I come from a primarily psychological (or, if you prefer, attitudinal) perspective. The liberal label as used in psychology is loosely although closely aligned with liberal label as used in politics. Research shows that those who self-identify as liberals tend to have the traits that psychologists label as liberal. There has been a lot of research and discussion on this and there has also been some meta-analysis done. I’ve looked into it for years and I have a basic understanding of much of it, but it is a confusing area for a non-specialist (myself being included in this category of the non-specialist).

    I would point out that, from my perspective, your view of liberalism seems extremely narrow. You may find a lot of agreement with liberals in positions of power and authority, but among more average liberals there is much more diversity of opinions. For example, not all liberals believe in Keynesian economics and many others hold belief in it very loosely.

    “I think, however, you think I mean a creed by a ideology. I don’t. I mean a complex of cognitive biases and sociologically constructed ideas in which your thought is shaped in ways that are barely conscious. Sometimes these manifest in dogmatic ways, sometimes in attitudinal ways, sometimes in orientational ways.”

    No, I share that view of what is meant when referring to ideology. However, I was speaking of my own personal biases in some of what I was discussing (e.g., “Liberalism is, as I’ve said, not so much an ideology for me.”). My focus of interest and understanding, when it comes to politics, tends to be psychological, first and foremost. However, I have much interest in other things as well that leads me to study a variety of topics (which seems similar to you, from what I can tell of your blog).

    I wanted to add two pieces of data that seems relevant to my own experience and views of liberalism

    The first thing is some polls I’ve seen (I love polling and demographic data for the same reasons I love psychological research). The polling data shows that, of all the general political demographics, it is liberals who have majority support for compromise. Even the majority of independents are against compromise.

    This piece of data relates to my claim of liberalism being the opposite of dogmatism. Yes, it’s a generalization and as such it is generally true, though of course there are exceptions to the rule. Even if a liberal was more dogmatic in their beliefs and values, they would still tend to be less dogmatic in forcing their views on others in that they are more likely to be willing to compromise with the views of others. This is relative, though; specifically, relative to the average American and relative to other political demographics; however, in the context of other societies including future societies, the America liberal of right now may seem relatively more dogmatic.

    The second thing has to do with psychological research. It is about the differences between pessimists and optimists. Research shows that pessimists have a more accurate ability to assess present conditions including of themselves. Optimists, on the other hand, in their being less clear about present conditions are more clear in their ability to alter the present conditions.

    This is relevant to my own experience for these reasons. I’ve been depressed for most of my life at this point. Having started in an optimist religion, I have become very pessimistic. This has also colored my political views. My dad, and my mom to a lesser degree, is strongly conservative and strongly optimistic (Thomas Frank, by the way, discusses the relationship between positive thinking and abundance theology in the American evangelical tradition). I don’t know exactly how this relates to the discussion of liberalism vs conservatism, but it does remind me of the ‘conservative’ tendencies of liberals and their skepticism about left-wingers as being too utopian (whether or not that skepticism is fair).

    Just some thoughts.

  7. And the next comment after that:

    I was thinking about this all tonight at work. I felt like we were having communication difficulties. We come from different backgrounds and maybe have read different types of books. I have three issues I want to clarify.

    First, I’ll add some further thoughts to the issue of what ‘ideology’ means. I’m not sure I always use that word in a consistent way since it is used in many ways by different people. I sometimes use it more widely, but I most often use it more narrowly. I don’t equate an ideology to a reality tunnel; that would be to widen ideology too far for my sense of it.

    An ideology isn’t necessarily a creed, but it is something akin to a creed. It is a belief system or a pattern of thinking, and yet it goes beyond that. It is a belief system that is held very strongly, even dogmatically. Or it is a pattern of thinking that has become deeply ingrained through habit. An ideology is an understanding or set of ideas that is clearly delineated or systematized or something along those lines. There is some kind of certainty in what it is or else in how it is held.

    A single idea or a loose set of thoughts isn’t an ideology. In order for an ideology to form, there needs to be connections made as part of a consistent coherent system or worldview. For ideas or thoughts to become an ideology, they have to be treated as something very clearly known or ardently felt as true or valid. Also, an attitude by itself isn’t an ideology. I was explaining my views on compassion which could be seen as an ideology or with the potential of becoming one, but the mere attitude of being compassionate isn’t an ideology. An ideology most obviously is seen where ideas and attitudes meet. It’s not exactly the same as what is meant by ‘belief’, but there is some similarity. Belief may be a necessary even if not sufficient factor. I would say the stronger belief is the more clearly ideology can be seen.

    Also, it seems to me that an ideology is (always or usually?) conscious to some extent, even when we aren’t fully conscious of its impact on our thoughts and perceptions. An assumption that is unnoticed or a subconscious cognitive bias probably couldn’t by itself be considered an ideology. The person who holds an ideology may not fully understand it or even be fully aware of its implications, but it does in some way have to play a role in the person’s conscious experience and thinking. A reality tunnel, although similar, would tend to be more unconscious, more in the background as it is the larger context in which the person operates.

    All of that said, my most basic and most common meaning for ideology is simply a belief system. So, an ideology that is held with strong conviction can become dogma and an ideology that is held loosely can simply be a philosophy of life.

    Second, I was considering some of the confusion of terms. I realized that left-wing/right-wing aren’t perfectly comparable to liberal/conservative. There is some overlap, but how they are commonly used isn’t always the same. Or, to put it another way, they can’t accurately be placed on a single linear political spectrum. A left-winger, for example, isn’t just a more confidently certain liberal, even though that is sometimes how opponents think of it.

    Being a conservative or a liberal isn’t about any single ideology. They are more about consistent and persistent attitudes and predispositions, but of course they tend to lead to or be supportive of particular ideologies. What they mean changes with historical and social context. On the other hand, right-wing and left-wing are most often used in a more specific sense. They tend to refer to particular ideologies such as libertarianism or socialism. You can speak of a Marxist in the 19th century and a Marxist in the 20th century and there is some basic commonality, but a 19th and 20th century liberal can mean vastly different things.

    Here is where the spectrum fails. A left-winger isn’t merely to the left of a liberal and a right-winger isn’t merely to the right of a conservative. A left-winger can be either liberal or illiberal; and a liberal can hold more left-wing or more mainstream views (or even more right-wing views in certain cases); the two aspects have no necessary relation. On the other side, a right-winger such as a libertarian can be more liberal than the average conservative; and a conservative can take elements from left-wing ideologies in order to achieve their counter-revolutionary ends. Furthermore, left-winger and right-winger often have more in common than they have to liberalism and conservatism (an example being left-libertarians and right-libertarians).

    Reading Corey Robin’s book, I’m beginning to question even the oppositional relationship between conservatism and liberalism. He makes a convincing distinction that separates the conservative from the traditionalist. The confusing part is that the label ‘conservative’ doesn’t refer to people who primarily want to conserve. The liberal and the traditionalist are more interested in the basic value of conserving things, whether preserving nature and resources or governments and traditions. The conservative, in actual behavior, is reactionary but isn’t reacting to liberalism. It seems that the conservative is most clearly reacting to the radical and revolutionary left-winger.

    One might think this puts the conservative more in line with the right-winger, but my understanding of that aspect is confused. I’m not sure I get what is or isn’t the connection between the conservative and the right-winger. In reading Corey Robin’s description of the conservative, I must admit that it often sounds like he is describing what I normally think of as a right-winger or at least a certain kind of right-winger. It reminds me of how conservatives often adopt the left-leaning views of the past, so 19th century libertarianism of anarchist socialism and the labor movement is transformed into 20th century right-libertarianism.

    Unlike the liberal and the traditionalist, the conservative may not care about improving or maintaining anything. Robin’s conservative seems like a very strange creature. The conservative only gains meaning in reaction to revolution and so the identity of the conservative is tied up in being a counter-revolutionary. When there is no revolution to challenge the conservative, they would rather not think about politics at all because it is boring and insubstantial compared to the pleasures and comforts of everyday living (food, sports, family, etc), a very fundamental down-to-earth sense of meaning and purpose. The conservative only cares about politics after a sense of loss is felt; the loss can be either real or perceived, tangible or symbolic. To the conservative, a sense of loss is an opportunity to gain. In thinking about or romanticizing about the loss, the conservative imagines what it was or would be like to possess that lost thing. Like the left-winger, the reactionary conservative thinks about what could be… even if their vision may be directed toward re-creating something that once was (such as finding a new justification for why a particular type of authority should be respected).

    Here is the questions I have. Why are the conservative and the traditionalist so often conflated? Why do many conservatives want to think of themselves as traditionalists? Why do both conservatives and liberals like to romanticize about a more respectable conservatism that once upon a time supposedly existed? I’ve often confused these labels myself. I understand the distinction Corey Robin is making, but still I’m confused by what it means. I’m getting the sense that often the romanticized ‘conservative’ of the past was in reality a liberal of the past. For example, Eisenhower is mentioned by some as being what conservatism used to mean, but Robin points out that Eisenhower considered himself to be a liberal for any and all issues that weren’t purely economic.

    Third, I realize that my description of liberalism can seem like an ideological defense, even though that isn’t my intention. My liberalism is ultimately descriptive rather than prescriptive. Like anyone, I have the tendency to think of my position as being right, but I’m too aware of my limitations, weaknesses and failings to be overly confident in my position. Plus, my psychological view opens my view beyond mere liberalism. It’s just liberalism is my starting point, the attitude that orients and guides me.

    However, I’m aware that there are many other parts of me as well. Either my liberalism has some kinship to traditionalism or else I’ve grown to respect aspects of traditionalism. Or it could be the influence of anarcho-primitivism as presented by Jensen in which traditional cultures are seen as examples to follow. Related to Jensen and others, I’ve been heavily influenced by many left-wing views. At times, I think I could be a left-winger. My only problem is that no single left-wing view fully convinces me. I can envision left-wing ideologies in a future world, but it is hard for me to imagine a left-wing society in the present or in my lifetime. Left-wing ideologies always have this sense of the utopian to me because they forever are in the future. My favorite left-wing ideology is anarcho-syndicalism and it seems more realistic, although maybe not as practical in present society as was sewer socialism.

    Still, I inevitably come back to a basic sense of liberalism. It is the only thing I feel confident in, in spite of or because of its imperfections. But being confident in knowing what I am doesn’t mean being confident in knowing what I am is right.

    This brings to mind the correlation I was speaking of with liberalism and openness. In our society, having an open mind is seen as good and having a closed mind as bad, but that isn’t what is intended with openness as a psychological trait that is morally neutral. This is made more clear by bringing in another correlation.

    Hartmann’s thin boundary type is correlated to both liberalism and openness. Having a thin boundary is good for some things. Thicker boundaries predisposes one to black/white thinking and so thin boundaries are better for more complex abstract thought. However, the same thing that makes the thick boundary person’s thinking more confined also makes their attention more focused. They are less easily distracted and are better at things that require focus. A surgeon needs to be focused in separating their actions from their emotions, separating the body on the surgery table from the people working in the surgery room. Also, thick boundary types prefer things with clear well-defined rules which means they can make for better lawyers or judges.

    Differences exist, but not all differences are moral distinctions. On the psychological level, differences often are just differences. This is why I prefer psychology as my basic framework of understanding.

  8. [...] would put Lockean classical liberalism more in line with the reactionary conservatism described by Corey Robin. A conservative critic of Locke, writing in 1776, summarized it [...]

  9. [...] an important distinction Corey Robin clarifies in his book The Reactionary Mind (which I’ve written about previously). This connects to an aspect of Haidt’s research that I was wondering about. Is Haidt testing [...]

  10. [...] an important distinction Corey Robin clarifies in his book The Reactionary Mind (which I’ve written about previously). This connects to an aspect of Haidt’s research that I was wondering about. Is Haidt testing [...]

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