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Getting to Know the Conservative Enemy

Matthew Sitman
Sam Adler-Bell

The history of American conservatism is the journey of a dissident political tendency from the margins to the mainstream. That’s why socialists should study it closely.

William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan in 1967, after Reagan's first appearance on Firing Line. (flickr)

Interview by
Luke Savage

Having defied long-held assumptions about the nature of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, the Trump era has undoubtedly given birth to renewed discussions about the character of the American right in the political mainstream. Much of the ensuing discourse has, however, proven frustratingly inadequate and incomplete: treating Trumpism as an aberration from earlier forms of conservatism or focusing on personality to the exclusion of the conservative project as a whole. Some liberals, for their part, now even express nostalgia for earlier incarnations of the Republican Party and hope to see some version of it restored.

In response, some on the Left may be tempted to reject critical engagement with the conservative movement out of hand. But understanding its history and ideas remains a crucial task — particularly in the Trump era — and may even yield valuable insights for socialists looking to roll back its political hegemony for good.

Know Your Enemy, a new podcast hosted by Dissent, grapples with conservatism from the left. Its hosts — Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell — joined Jacobin for a wide-ranging conversation on the history and ideology of the American right.


LS

American conservatism has looked very different depending on the particular social or historical context and has at times been animated by radically different causes and concerns: Cold War anti-communism; reaction against emancipatory social movements like feminism and civil rights; an obsession with markets as the bulwark of individual liberty. What do both of you see as the nucleus of conservatism? What is its primary animating energy?

MS

This is something I’ve probably changed my mind on a bit over the last few years. What we think of as modern American conservatism, which you might date to Bill Buckley founding National Review in the 1950s, often is portrayed as a coherent ideological project. They might have had to piece it all together, but they did the theoretical work — a guy like Frank Meyer in his book In Defense of Freedom, for example, would try to explain why moral traditionalists and libertarian economics, and even the Cold War element — how all that fit together. The term given to that is “fusionism,” which was basically what Ronald Reagan was offering when he won the presidency in 1980.

When I say I’ve changed my mind, what I’m getting at is that I had viewed the modern American conservatism that began in the 1950s as a fixed thing, as a static set of principles. And I think the emergence of Trump has actually made me much more sympathetic to Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism as being a reaction against a progressive movement of some kind: feminism, the civil rights movement, labour unions, the move for a more equitable economic system, or whatever it might be — the idea that conservatism might superficially change its form or shift rhetorical emphases or the particular issues that get underscored depending on historical circumstances, but underlying it all is a defence of existing hierarchies. That’s an approach I’ve become much more sympathetic to, in part because the conservative movement that I grew up in (I’m an ex-conservative) was that fusionist, National Review, Reaganite gloss on what “conservatism” meant. And I think as I moved away from movement conservatism, I became skeptical of the National Review–centric story of American conservatism and also saw how someone like Trump could push different buttons, and this, again, has made me more sympathetic to Robin’s definition, which better accounts for both the continuities and change in American conservatism.

SAB

I came into this project with Robin’s thesis in The Reactionary Mind orienting me toward thinking about conservatism and its intellectual history. It’s useful for our purposes that Matt was steeped in the way conservatives talked about themselves — what they emphasize, what they leave out. Conservatives tend to have this whiggish history of America and of the conservative movement — a fairly clean history of progress. Lots of energy is spent talking about guardrails and how Bill Buckley, to some degree, controlled who was considered a conservative and tried to exclude figures that were more explicitly racist, antisemitic, or misogynist — that’s the story conservatives tell about themselves. But that story also isn’t really true. There are all these salient examples where the guardrails didn’t really function, or where there’s since been a retconning of the history to suggest that “actually, we always knew that this person was not okay.”

LS

The British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once defined conservatism as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

A definition of conservatism like this — moderate, reasonable, empirically minded — is difficult to reconcile with the reality of conservatism, which has been prone to all kinds of utopianism, ideological fervor, and violent adventurism. Clearly the disjuncture between conservative realities and conservatism’s self-image poses some problems of interpretation, and I’m wondering, how exactly you think those should be approached?

SAB

Robin’s hermeneutic approach is helpful to us, but it’s not the only way to approach these ideas. If there’s a sense of tension in our podcast, it’s often over this question of how much generosity and good-faith interpretation to exercise when approaching the arguments that conservatives make about themselves and their intellectual commitments, i.e., when to doubt the sincerity of these commitments or interpret them simply through the lens of ideology. Incidentally, we’ve talked about Michael Oakeshott once or twice, and I think that something we do butt up against when we’re looking at the history is moments where conservatism really does speak to people’s genuine anxieties, needs, desires, and fears. Matt has talked about the ways in which conservatism “goes with the grain” of certain human instincts, especially the instincts of humans who are relatively privileged. The fact that conservatism genuinely has spoken to their felt needs, anxieties, and fears at various moments — more effectively than liberals or the Left was able to do — is something we do try to give credence to and understand.

MS

Oakeshott is actually someone I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about, but it’s worth emphasizing that he’s British. And I do think with American conservatism — as it was constituted in the 1950s, in the postwar era — one of the major debates they had was about what it meant to be a conservative in a revolutionary country.

So you had someone like Russell Kirk writing The Conservative Mind, which begins with these paeans to Edmund Burke, and you had other conservatives saying, “That’s just not going to do in America, it’s just not the same here.” And so some of the best, most important debates in the early days of modern American conservatism were over, say, the nature and character of the Declaration of Independence — what that document meant — and you have some conservatives saying in effect that when it referred to “equality,” it just meant Americans were equal to the British and therefore had the same right to govern themselves. They disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration that equality meant something about individual rights or the nature of human equality as such. I sometimes wonder if American conservatism kind of deserves to be thought of on its own terms, because it’s really not the same as throne-and-altar European conservatism.

And that Oakeshottian preference for the near and the dear, the tried and the true — that’s not something that really exists in American conservatism. The figures who were most like that (say, Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck) were outliers in the conservative movement. There is something more revolutionary and almost constructive about the American right that I think is different in the European context. So that’s just adding a wrinkle to this question about the character and nature of American conservatism — especially the fact that it doesn’t always seem very conservative.

SAB

We did two episodes early on loosely following the trajectory in Sam Tanenhaus’s book The Death of Conservatism, laying out a history of conservatism in America. And one of the things we talked about a lot was a contest between the Burkean ideal of governance as this force for moderation — the sort of conservatism also associated with Oakeshott — and the militant conservatism that really does seem to embody stuff like early National Review and the kind of radical movement whose purpose is to mainstream previously fringe ideas and ultimately instantiate a government in power that implements those ideas. The figures who fit the Burkean ideal of conservatism — and Tanenhaus talks about this — they’re not really partisan. I think, for example, that Obama is a truly Burkean figure in so many ways: he had a certain kind of utopian, revolutionary rhetoric at times during the campaigns, but ultimately he governed by treating compromise as a central, normative value wherein small technocratic changes were supposed to lead to gradual change over time. That conception of politics feels closer to Burke than, say, the one held by George Bush or Trump or Reagan or other figures actually associated with movement conservatism.

LS

Some people on the left bristle at the idea of seriously engaging with conservatism and its ideas, or even at the notion that conservatism has any ideas to begin with. Since the face of the modern American conservative movement is now Donald Trump and patently ridiculous Astroturfed groups like Turning Point USA, some would make the case that there’s nothing much to engage with in the realm of ideas. The title of your podcast, Know Your Enemy, makes explicit that you both think otherwise. So what does it mean to engage with conservatism from the left, and why is it an effort people should take more seriously?

MS

When you’re studying conservatism, you study the ideas and the rhetoric, but also the movement builders. I mean, the Left should hope for organizers as effective as Paul Weyrich or some of the Christians who formed the Moral Majority, like Ralph Reed. So, when we say “know your enemy,” we mean both the ideas and their popular expressions, but also the organizations and institutions that bridge that gap. I would also say that the first time I studied conservative history in an academic setting was with Dissent editor Michael Kazin in a grad seminar he taught on American conservatism. This was during the height of the Bush years, in 2005, and he sat down at the seminar table and said, “I’m not going to lie to you: I’m a card-carrying member of the American left, and I’m teaching this class in part to understand why we’re losing.”

SAB

In terms of the ideas, again following the Robin thesis, if conservatism is constituted by this fear and anxiety about mass movements that threaten existing hierarchies, what happens is that conservatives become uniquely sensitive to those movements and thoughtful about what they portend and what dangers they pose. So sometimes conservatives can be really helpful avenues for understanding what’s going on on the Left, and what in particular is making them afraid and causing them to elaborate new ideas to justify or re-justify existing structures of domination, exploitation, and oppression.

There’s also, as Matt mentioned, the organizational strategies. One thing we’ve talked about on the podcast is the Goldwater campaign — which, in the popular imagination, represents the epic failure of right-wing ideas and organizers. In fact, if you look closely at it, what happens with the Goldwater campaign, it isn’t entirely a failure. Rather, its supporters take over the Republican Party, both during and in the aftermath of that historic defeat. It’s the moment at which the conservative movement decides that the Republican Party itself is going to be the vehicle to instantiate its ideas — which was not inevitable. And there is something I think the Left has to learn from those experiences: i.e., how you turn a defeat into a future victory. Somebody, I can’t remember who, said, “Goldwater won the election, the votes just weren’t counted until 1980.” It’s something I’ve thought about in the context of Bernie. We lost in 2016, but in some ways we won. The rising left tendency in the Democratic Party increasingly sets the agenda. Looking closely at how it was that an ideologically committed insurgency took over the Republican Party and used it to its advantage is something we can learn from, too.

MS

Something I think a lot about is how much better the right is at understanding power, and that works on a few different levels. The late, great historian John Patrick Diggins wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of the American Left, and at the end, he has a line where he says something like, “The left needs to understand that power is not just used to oppress, power is used to achieve the things you want.” And I think that’s a lesson the Right has internalized more than the Left. So I look at the Right as a really interesting example of a relatively small group of people who sought influence and power and did really, eventually achieve it. For that reason alone, they’re worth studying. They’re very good at using power to make their continued exercise of power more likely.

Moreover, you need to understand these ideas if you want to defeat them. If you think politics is at some level about persuasion, I think you have to understand what you’re trying to counter or defeat in order to formulate the most effective response to it. And I think the popular lefty dunking on cartoonish right-wing figures who are Trump hangers-on — Astroturfed groups like Turning Point USA, as you mentioned — it’s very easy to dunk on some of these figures and these ideas. But in reality, I don’t think doing so gets you much beyond being a boost to people who already agree with you, a cathartic release of frustration and anger. It’s not actually that effective or even important most of the time.

SAB

One thing we’ve talked about is the Right’s effective use of particularism: of family and community and appeals to a sense of nearness, localism, and place. This allegiance to the family or the religious community can lead to really ugly, exclusionary, and oppressive policy commitments on the Right. But particularism is important, it can move people in a way abstract policy ideas do not. Many on the Left are good at speaking the language of community and place, but sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes we talk about our goals in such exclusively material terms that we lose sight of what kind of life we’re actually trying to enable people to live. The Left shouldn’t cede this ground to the Right, especially because there’s a great American leftist tradition of communitarianism, which we should never give up. Figures on the contemporary right like [Missouri] senator Josh Hawley and these new Trumpist right wingers or other post-libertarian conservatives claim the mantle of community as if they’re the only ones speaking that language, with a claim to that tradition.

LS

There’s a narrative about American conservatism that’s become ubiquitous, particularly in the Trump era, and which is very popular among liberals: that the Right used to be more respectable, ideas-driven, and rooted in a coherent intellectual tradition. This is the story peddled by people who harken back to the days when figures like William F. Buckley were the face of the conservative movement. The handful of right-wing writers and activists who have staged performative “exits” from conservatism in the wake of Trumpism are fond of this narrative, too. What, in your view, does this popular story of American conservatism get wrong?

MS

We talked about this at length in our second episode on Sam Tanenhaus’s book The Death of Conservatism, which is basically: Do we view Trump in terms of continuity or discontinuity relative to the conservative movement as it previously existed? And the answer I would give is that, at one level, Bill Buckley was a more sophisticated man than either Trump or his defenders. There’s no doubt that people like Buckley or his teacher at Yale, Willmoore Kendall, were genuinely more sophisticated than the people we see now.

But I still reject the good conservative/bad conservative dichotomy. Bill Buckley, for all his sophistication, wrote a book defending McCarthyism with his brother-in-law (who, incidentally, went on to become a defender of Franco’s Spain). Buckley wrote editorials defending segregation. Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered and talked about states’ rights. The history of conservatism is ultimately much seedier and filled with nasty elements than the people who are the keepers of the official narrative want you to believe.

When Buckley kicks Ayn Rand out of the official conservative movement, or Joe Sobran — the antisemitic Catholic writer — is eventually dismissed from the pages of National Review, these people were there all along and they really had to cross major lines before they were kicked out. Modern American conservatism, from its beginnings, has been fueled by racist backlash and has played footsie with the most nasty populist elements in the country.

SAB

In many ways, it’s a very pernicious talking point, because it has the effect of rehabilitating people who even liberals before would have thought of as insidious actors. People now talk about George Bush as if he was the epitome of thoughtful, caring conservatism. They say things like, “After 9/11, George Bush went and spoke at a mosque.” Yeah, and then he created a law enforcement apparatus that associated Muslims with criminality to such a degree that it’s still with us — we still live in a society where being Muslim is something that in and of itself invites suspicion. He also waged the most deadly war of this generation. It’s important to reject the narrative of the “good conservative” because it’s wrong, but also because it’s an ideological move designed to reinterpret history in a way that’s sympathetic to some seriously nasty people.

MS

You can think it’s a really important distinction that George H. W. Bush merely hired Lee Atwater, who engineered the Willie Horton ad, compared to Trump, who basically says the Willie Horton ad out loud today. You can think that’s a really meaningful distinction that a lot hinges on, but I certainly don’t.

LS

Now that we’ve cleared the ground a bit, let’s get to the ideas that actually animate conservatism. One way of approaching these is to look at the particular ways conservatives argue — which is something you investigated on an early episode of Know Your Enemy.

MS

In his 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert O. Hirschman laid out three categories of conservative argument, which he called perversity, futility, and jeopardy. The perversity thesis basically says that if you try to make a progressive change, the opposite will happen, the problem you’re trying to solve will be exacerbated. The futility thesis more or less implies that you can’t change anything — that there are certain iron laws of economics or history that you simply can’t get around and which prevent real change from happening. Finally, the jeopardy thesis says that if you try to make progressive change, it will jeopardize some other deeply cherished good or value — i.e., you can’t do one thing without destroying something else. All of them amount to saying it’s just impossible to really change anything, and if you try, it’s likely you’ll not only fail but cause havoc and destruction in the process.

Once you see these arguments laid out, it’s impossible not to see them everywhere on the right — so many have made comments to that effect to us, that the episode on Hirschman’s book was revelatory for them. In that episode, we spent a fair amount of time discussing what those kinds of rhetorical moves can mean now in relation to stuff like evolutionary biology and Jordan Peterson or the general conservative attitude toward gender roles and sexuality, to take a few examples. Certain people on the Right, like Peterson or Rod Dreher, are so preoccupied with trans issues, what Dreher would call a “condensed symbol” of everything going wrong with the world. (Peterson first came to prominence, let’s recall, when he refused to use people’s preferred pronouns.) The arguments these people make are a good example of the futility thesis in action: the belief there are iron laws that cannot be transgressed, that doing so is a kind of madness that ultimately is, well, futile. If you fight “nature,” it fights back. But also, more generally, the perversity thesis is probably the most pervasive in terms of how the Right argues and is what’s lurking behind the rhetoric about how something like Medicare for All will inevitably become a complicated boondoggle that couldn’t possibly work.

SAB

The perversity thesis also has a quality that implies, say, providence laughing in the face of efforts to change things. Whatever you try to do, the opposite is going to happen — in essence, that you’ll be punished for trying. It’s a sort of looking-down-the-nose at anyone with the hubris to think they might actually be able to change anything. You hear that not only with the health-care stuff but also in relation to the minimum wage or innumerable other progressive reforms. The Left uses these strategies, too, particularly in its internecine debates. Revolutionary Marxists, for example, are often critical of reformists on the Left in ways that echo the perversity thesis: i.e., you’ll try to change things for the better but will end up further embedding the existing social order. These arguments are available, and anyone can use them. They’re effective rhetorical strategies.

LS

The conservative relationship with markets is fascinating. From the 1960s onward, the market strain in American conservatism increasingly became a dominant one, to the point of making the market into a kind of religion. On your show, you’ve talked about currents in conservatism less interested in markets — particularly from social conservatives who view the market as too atomizing to be a foundation for ordered political community. An obvious Trump-era example that comes to mind is some of the stuff Tucker Carlson has been pushing on his show, or the recent National Conservatism conference. To what extent is it even possible to envision a conservatism that’s less interested in markets at this point?

MS

It’s a good question, in part because we recently recorded an episode on the Koch brothers, right-wing funding, and some of the institutions that make up the conservative movement — and we used Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money as a jumping-off point. When you realize how much the Koch brothers have their tentacles in almost every nook and cranny of the Republican Party, it is hard to imagine that the entire party will adopt a completely different economic philosophy in the near future. That said, reading about the Koch brothers, one of the things you see is that they’re about much more than classical liberalism or abstract appeals to “free markets” — they want their businesses deregulated; they chafe at being held accountable for poisoning water or giving workers cancer; they actually don’t want competition but to crowd out anyone who might challenge them. They hire private investigators to destroy their critics.

Koch Industries made a lot of their early money from Hitler and Stalin and government contracts. A lot of these big fortunes on the Right owe a lot to the government.

Many on the Right, their commitment to capitalism and free markets is more contingent or provisional than you might think — an expression, in part, of their self-interest in a particular moment or historical period. So where I see things going is an approach to economic policy wherein if redistribution happens, it’ll happen for certain people: meaning mostly white people. That shift could be easier than we might think because, as we all know, all these people are hypocrites. None of them actually believe in a totally free market, or, rather, they only started believing in it once they gained a position of dominance within it. Many are just rich kids who pull the ladder up behind them. And even the National Conservatives, who are the ones ostensibly formulating more populist economic policies, are very careful to not talk like Bernie or Elizabeth Warren. They’re ultimately trying to carve out this space where they distinguish themselves from the Left while rhetorically updating their economic vision and adjusting to current realities, including the GOP’s increasing reliance on downscale white voters.

I think even plutocrats, if they have to pick, would prefer welfare chauvinism administered by Republicans to the real attacks on their wealth and power promised by the Left.

SAB

It’s worth noting that there’s always been a certain tendency in conservatism that’s suspicious of capitalism and markets in the sense that they don’t have a soul and undermine traditional values and local ideals like community. When conservatives criticize market fundamentalism, it’s not like Marx in the Communist Manifesto saying, “All that is solid melts into air,” but there’s nevertheless always been a somewhat analogous tendency on the Right.

Something I took away from our recent discussion of the Kochs and these other massive fortunes that have played such an important role in setting the policy agenda for the Republican Party is that, in some ways, their money has propped up a set of ideas that are deeply unpopular. Hardly any voters at all are people who are both socially conservative and market fundamentalist. Besides conservative intellectuals, the people in this category number very few. So, from a strategic, vote-getting perspective, moving in the direction of unapologetic social conservatism plus some amount of communitarian economics does seem wise.

The moment we’re in now is sort of a test for the idea that libertarianism is central to conservatism. It’s true that the Kochs never spend any money on reducing immigration, and in fact have always wanted there to be cheap immigrant labor flowing into the country for the purposes of corporate profits. I often wonder: Would the needs of global capital have been better served by a Hillary Clinton presidency or a Donald Trump presidency? And, in some ways, I’m not convinced it’s the latter. Capital hates Trump’s posture on trade, as do the Never Trumpers at the National Review. Because there is a set of priorities that the National Conservatives are identifying: namely, how to preserve an idea of America that will be undermined by more and more immigration, and, whether acknowledged or not, I think there’s an undercurrent of unconscious belief that there will be massive dislocation wrought by climate change even if we do the things we need to do very soon. Welfare chauvinism of a certain kind, which is already on the rise in Europe, makes a lot of sense for conservatives in America because it allows them to say, “Look, there’s an era of scarcity and statelessness coming, and what our party is offering you is that you, citizens, are going to be taken care of while the hordes of people at the gates don’t count as human beings.”

The reason conservative rhetoric is moving in this direction is that there are material conditions creating a necessity for a change and open borders, and the Koch-aligned preferences for open borders and immigration is not going to have much of a constituency, whereas redistribution for white people and people who count as “real Americans” might. That’s why a Trump presidency that had actually embraced Steve Bannon’s ideas and been able to implement them would have been far more dangerous.

LS

From being in the wilderness after the triumph of the New Deal consensus, the fringes of the conservative movement successfully rallied to redefine and realign American politics in the 1980s. That’s a recipe that socialists would very much like to repeat from the left. So what, if any, lessons can we learn from the Right’s success?

MS

One of the most important strategic decisions movement conservatism made was to actually try to acquire power through the vehicle of the Republican Party — in other words, they made a choice for power over purity. And I think the importance of that cannot be overstated. One thing the Right did really well was actually try to figure out how to not just bring different factions together, but also try to theorize how they could actually cohere in some way. Earlier, I mentioned Frank Meyer and his fusionist project, marrying anti-communism, free-market economics, and moral traditionalism — and I wonder if something like that is what the Left needs to think about, i.e., doing real work to figure out what the real points of commonality are and what the underlying theoretical coherence of a forceful but nonetheless ecumenical left might be. That’s something the Right did really well — they attempted to give reasons for why the various conservative factions should work together to seize power.

SAB

One thing the Right doesn’t do is leave potent symbolic language or powerful existing infrastructures on the table for their opponents to control. So the Goldwater conservatives looked at the Republican Party and recognized it was something they could use to instantiate their ideas. And I tend to think it would be very unwise of the nascent socialist left to look at the Democratic Party and not reach a similar conclusion. That’s not at all mutually exclusive with being primarily focused on things like trade unionism, and obviously we can’t just be the vanguard trying to take over the Democratic Party, because you ultimately need an organized constituency that’s sufficiently powerful. A lot of debates about electoralism on the Left present us with a false choice. One thing that the Right does well is simultaneously know where it’s going and what it wants to achieve, while also intervening and engaging with politics in the present with a view to changing conditions — so that its ultimate ideological goals can be fulfilled. In other words, keeping one eye on the ground and the other on the horizon. The Left can and should do the same.