In 2004, then Senator Barack Obama brought the Democratic Party convention to its feet by declaring that there is “not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.” He learned differently. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote recently in The New Republic, the American fantasy of a postpartisan politics runs back to the earliest days of the republic.1 Politicians who exploited it for their own purposes did well; those who genuinely believed in it failed. And it’s a good thing, too. Modern democracy depends on distinctions among factions, principles, and programs, the clearer the better.
But the current public dissatisfaction with our parties is not just about partisanship. It also reflects a sense that the labels we use to distinguish factions, principles, and programs have lost their value. What does it mean to call oneself a liberal or conservative today? Does it make sense to distinguish “progressives” and “reactionaries,” or are those just terms of abuse and self-flattery? It’s hard to know how to talk about the new classes of rich and poor created by the global economy, and their strangely overlapping political commitments. Or where on the linguistic map to put the new populisms spawning around the world, some anti-global, some anti-immigrant, some libertarian, some authoritarian. Words are failing us.
Though it sounds dull, we actually need taxonomy. It is what renders the political present legible to us. Getting it right, though, requires a certain art, a kind of dispassionate alertness and historical perspective, a sense of the moment, and a sense that this, too, shall pass. Political scientists, intent on aping the methods of the hard sciences, stopped cultivating this art half a century ago, just as things started getting interesting, as new kinds of political movements and coalitions were developing in democratic societies. We’re in a similar moment now; we need a guide. That’s why Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind is a useful book to have—not as an example to follow, but one to avoid.
Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College, has been writing thoughtful essays on the American right for The Nation and other publications over the past decade. The Reactionary Mind collects profiles of well-known right-wing thinkers like Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater, and Justice Antonin Scalia, and some deserters who turned left, like John Gray and Edward Luttwak. There are also a few that look beyond our borders, including an excellent piece on Hobbes as a counterrevolutionary thinker. But the book aims to be more than a collection. It is conceived as a major statement on conservatism and reaction, from the eighteenth century to the present. And this is where it disappoints.
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