Ever wonder why conservatives often seem to vote against their self-interest? Why people who are struggling financially vote to protect the wealthy? Why conservatives dislike government programs even though they benefit from them? Why the wealthy and the powerful believe they are oppressed?
In his book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Professor Corey Rubin describes the fundamental principles behind conservatism. In doing so, he provides answers for these questions and more.
Contrary to William F. Buckley, who once described a conservative “as someone who stands athwart history yelling ‘stop’ when no one else is inclined to do so,” Rubin has written that, although conservatives define themselves as defenders of tradition and values, they are more reactionary than conservative. They defend the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless; aristocrats and land owners against peasants; factory owners against labor unions; husbands against wives.
During a recent interview on Democratic Perspective, we asked him to explain his thoughts.
“If you ask conservatives today, some of them will say they stand for defense of tradition,” Rubin began. “Others will say they stand for defense of freedom. But those two values are often in conflict. Certain kinds of freedoms, such as market freedoms that Republicans like to defend, uproot traditions. They uproot communities. They change things all the time,” said Rubin. “So the question really is that if these two values are in such contradiction, is there something that actually brings these values together?”
“Through a lot of historical research I’ve done going back to the foundations when conservatism first arose in reaction to the French Revolution, what I’ve come up with is that conservatism is always, most consistently a movement of reaction to some kind of movement or democratic action from below. The movement can change. It can be abolition of slavery. It can be labor unions for workers. It doesn’t matter. It can change across time.”
“Conservatism is the movement in reaction against those movements,” Rubin explained.
“What it tries to do is not simply defend power and privilege. It has to defend power and privilege in a way that makes sense to a large group of people,” he continued, “and in doing that, what it does is come up with a new defense of power and privilege…something that seems more modern, more democratic , and more appealing to a broad swath of the population.”
This explains the alliance of the right wing populists like the Tea Party with large corporate interests like the Koch brothers. It also explains the juxtaposition of Burke and Palin in the book title, according to Rubin.
“A lot of people look askance at that, but these two figures have something very much in common despite all their differences, and that is that they’re outsiders. Burke was a major outsider in the British establishment. He was from a Catholic family. He was Irish. And he was not an aristocrat. Likewise, Sarah Palin is a woman. She’s from a state that many people don’t even think is part of the United States. She’s very much an outsider. And that outsider quality is really important to conservatism because it’s a way of saying to the majority, to the broad population, “look, our chief spokesperson is this person from the outside. And that outsider brings a certain kind of scrapiness and a populist appeal that can help reinvent conservatism for it to become a mass ideology,” said Rubin.
Rubin argues that the government programs supported by the left actually make people more free. Programs such as government-supported healthcare and unemployment insurance give employees more freedom to leave a bad job, because they are not dependent on the employer for health care and they can take the time necessary to find a better job. But conservatives see these things as oppressive to employers.
“I think that’s the fundamental battle between the left and right,” said Rubin. “How many people and what kind of people get to have freedom. It’s not about a battle between one side that stands for freedom and the other side stands for government. I think that’s completely the wrong way to look at it. It’s really who in the society gets to be free and who doesn’t.”
“When freedoms are exclusive to one group of people – my freedom to not allow you into my restaurant or something like that – we have another word for that. It’s a privilege,” Rubin continued. “And I think what conservatism has always stood for going back to the very beginning, is the understanding of freedoms and rights as the privilege of a few. That’s always been the battle. When the Confederacy seceded from the Union, it was in the name of freedom, and very sincerely so. It was the freedom of the slave holder and it was understood as a kind of freedom, which it was.”
According to Rubin, these battles are never won permanently. “Things can always go backwards,” he said. “I think in this country we have a myth of progress that everything moves forward. But we forget. When slaves were emancipated, there was about a 12-year period in which there was a great deal of progress that was made. It was called Reconstruction. And then it was pushed back and defeated and then we got 75 years to 100 years of Jim Crow after that. My point is that you move forward on things…voting rights is a good example. We thought we had won on voting rights, then it got pushed back.”