I considered titling this week's review “Conservatism for Dummies” but that seemed unnecessarily cruel. As someone raised with your basic anti-social, self-hating, ahistorical so-called “conservative” values, I enjoy reminding myself and others of both my shame as a young person at being cowed by that foolishness and celebrating my nearly infinite and enduring joy at being liberated from it today. Keeping track of what pass for ideas in RightWorld keeps the Bibliofella happy, busy, even entertained, especially in Orange County, where you assume at your peril that people share your satisfaction at exercising what Noam Chomsky calls “intellectual self-defense,” especially against Reaction. Indeed, Mr. Bib meets citizens who imagine themselves “conservative” or “libertarian” or espouse the “Objectivist” worldview of a kooky second-rate fiction writer who is approximately to philosophy what Lafayette Ronald Hubbard is to, well, Lafayette.
In my more charitable moments (which I try to keep at a minimum) I concede happily that this public OC default position of conservative is what sociologists call “culturally constructed,” meaning that since so many have assumed it for so long, are seldom challenged, don't read books like the three recommended here, well, nobody really even knows what it is.
Thomas Frank, for instance, is a brilliant, funny writer. You knew that. His classic What's the Matter with Kansas? considered Frank's own benighted home state as a case study in mass voting against your own self-interest. The Wrecking Crew studied the evolution–you should forgive the phrase–of the modern Republican Party and took apart how it actually governs when in power. Frank is a cultural historian who writes about business and punk rock and is not–again, forgive me–an economist. His Baffler magazine once profiled, sarcastically, Newport Beach, world capital of mail fraud.
But here, we're in the present. In Pity the Billionaire, Frank marvels at how the obvious and clear failures of economic and social policy which nearly destroyed the nation resulted in revivals of the culture and politics of Wealth. By, weirdly, people who are not even wealthy! What to make of a revitalized Rightist “base” which responds to the greatest banking fraud in history by opposing banking reform?How to explain “populist” opposition to industry regulation after the Gulf disaster, or so-called grassroots protest on behalf of health insurance companies? How, in the face of the failure of corporate capitalism, can so-called conservatives, in some weird mockery of 1930's street protests, stand along the wide boulevards of Mission Viejo demanding, of all things, a return to the Gold Standard?
In Corey Robin's philosophically rigorous, polemical, and no less fun (if you go in for this kind of thing) The Reactionary Mind, we get answers. Mostly one. Robin says Conservatism doesn't really exist, taking giddy pleasure arguing that its boosters should correctly be called instead “counter-revolutionary” or “reactionary.” He begins, provocatively: “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Junger, Carl Schmitt, Winston Churchill, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Nixon, Irving Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and George W. Bush interspersed throughout.” Some party! But where do we put Old Man Bren, or at least the corpse of John Schmitz?
Each of these characters represent opposition–French Revolution to women's rights–to any and every variety of social movement pressing for freedom and equality. The relative if slow success of liberation movements defines and animates the reactionary imagination, or lack of it. “Failure, argues Robin,”is the wellspring of conservative renewal.” It requires defeat. No, they would not have walked with MLK. In fact, they'd have marched against Civil Rights.
[Finally, in The Rise of the Tea Party, Anthony DiMaggio does a Social Science take-apart, arguing that the Partiers, inspired by a screaming cable television business news reporter to defend, yup, day traders (!) as the real victims of the economic collapse, are not in fact a social movement, much less a “genuine social movement” but rather a front for top-down GOP revanchists. Big news. Me, I am not even sure they are a “movement” as that suggests cooperation and mutual aid. After all, if everybody is a heroic John Galt, an independent uberman who doesn't need the collective, well, you see the problem. They don't. In a section called “Tea Party Business Elites and the Manipulation of the Masses,” DiMaggio helpfully reviews the sordid CV of one typical Galtesque con artist, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a key Tea Party leader, and founder of Freedom Works. Armey simultaneously created himself a terrific new job as anti-big guv organizer (with a big salary) while moonlight, incredibly, as lobbyist for TARP bailout dough. Corporate welfare, okay. Social welfare, not so much. Best of all is profiting personally, as bait-and-switch poster boy Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, who organized churchy anti-gambling tent meetings while hustling with Jack Abramoff for Indian casinos. None of this matters to Righties, who can always feel resentment at somebody, good Indians or bad Indians, in their march backwards.