I write this on Nov. 2, before the election returns have come in. This morning at a weekly gathering at the James Madison Program, estimates of how many seats the Republicans would pick up in the house ranged from a low of 45 to a high of 72. Wherever it falls, as many have noted in the last year, it will dispel the “end of conservatism,” the “coming Democratic majority,” and other recent expressions of left-wing triumphalism.
How could the people who uttered them have misconstrued the ups and downs of politics so badly?
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week suggests an answer. It’s by Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, and it bears the title “Why Conservatives Love War.” The title says it all:
Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. ‘I enjoy wars,’ said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. ‘Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.’ The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively.
The conservative can’t help it. Violence is “encoded in the conservative movement’s DNA,” and blossoms in a “conservative infatuation with war.” It starts with Edmund Burke, whose aesthetic treatise on the sublime and beautiful developed a moral psychology founded on the principle that the mind needs “pain and danger” in order to keep the world from sinking into routine and grayness.
Fair enough as a description of experience, but Robin extends it to political affairs, and even though he observes that Burke did not:
The question for us, which Burke neither poses nor answers, is: What kind of political form entails this simultaneity of—or oscillation between—aggrandizement and annihilation? One possibility is hierarchy, with its twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice.
Apparently, it doesn’t occur to Robin that Burke (and many other conservatives) might believe that, while we acknowledge our darker motives, when it comes to politics we don’t unleash them, we restrain them. Just because our personal nature disposes us in certain directions, we needn’t ask that the polis do the same. On the contrary.
Liberals believe otherwise, of course, regarding politics as an extention of self (“the personal is political,” “the politics of desire,” etc.). And so, when conservatives declare their belief in Original Sin; when they maintain that without civic and religious institutions to bolster virtue, individuals succumb to vice; when they adhere to Great Books and High Art as bulwarks against the onslaught of loud, lurid, and vulgar mass culture . . . liberals take them seriously, but in a distorted way. They point the conservatives’ general pessimism back onto the conservatives themselves and them alone, diserning vile desires and venal ambitions that spread precisely to their political visions. They regard the conservatives’ faith in religious and cultural norms and traditions not as restraints necessary to human fluorishing but as modes of oppression applied to disfavored peoples.
No wonder, then, that we get surmises such as “conservatives love war–they really love it.”
The problem for liberals is that it leads to patent absurdities. It allows Robin to cast Burke as the first in a line of violence-loving thinkers–the very man who mounted magnificent arguments against radical revolutions precisely because of their urge to violence. And it lures so many other liberal commentators into an astounding judgment, namely, that a majority of their fellow citizens (judging by today’s outcomes) are in the grip of a sinister, duplicitous, visceral, and violent ideology that, truculently, against all reason, just won’t go away.