The article from the Economist entitled The Self Preservation Society focuses on creating a distinction between the “reactionary right” and “old conservatism.” They form their argument by romanticizing antiquated conservatism and denigrating the contemporary “reactionary right” as the political force wreaking havoc upon our democracy today. The article expounds upon the good old days, idealizing classical conservatism from the pre-2000s as an entirely different breed than the conservatism we observe today. However, the ideological roots of “dead” conservatism—small government, pro-business, “family and flag above all”—is still present in the narrative of conservatives today. So, what truly separates them? I will argue that the difference is simply outward extremism, and that American conservatism has been cultivating fertile ground for the birth of the reactionary right for decades.
Race and nationalism have been pervasive themes within the Republican party since 1964, sowing seeds for the rise of extremists, populists, and the radical right even in its more moderate ‘golden age’. Conservative parties’ proclivity to status quo diligently interwove ideals of a ruling social class long before the rise of Trump. The reactionary right tread a common thread with old-school conservatives. They share a short nerve which, when triggered, makes the distance between them a seven-lane, double-decked, two-and-a-half-foot-long Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a one-way trip, and traffic is packed. The deep, guttural fear felt by “old-school conservatives” in reaction to the peak of Neoliberalism and the rise of Obama cultivated a highway between classic and reactionary conservatism.
From the author’s point of view, “old-school conservatism” is simply living by the old-fashioned, good-intentioned American dream: flag, family, and God. What we must keep in mind is that the American Dream never included minorities. Conservatism has a long history of gatekeeping the dream from ethnic and racial minorities, especially women of color, women in general, the LGTBQ+, and so forth. The author is painting classical conservatism as Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind when the reality is more like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. And sure, there’s a stark contrast between these characters, but they probably went to a lot of the same dinner parties. The author claims that old-school Conservatism wasn’t hyper-focused on cultural and social identity; it was institutional, pure-intentioned “checking and channeling change.” They sure did channel change in creating the war on drugs and mass incarceration, cultivating a system that would render minority groups politically and economically disadvantaged for centuries to come.
One thing the author and I agree upon is the adverse impact that reactionary nationalism has had on democracy in America. Amy Gutman, author of The Lure and Danger of Extremist Rhetoric, places a special emphasis on the importance of an “economy of moral disagreement.” Respectful and cooperative controversy is the heart of democracy. When people cannot debate effectively, compromise is lost. Often, extremists within the reactionary right utilize passionate, single-minded, inflammatory language to capture an audience. In creating a simple, nonfalsifiable narrative, they push ideas beyond critical thinking and discourage democratic debate, or “fair, open contestation.” Dahl’s Polyarchy makes contestation one of two variables which are imperative for the survival of a democratic, or polyarchic, regime. The other is inclusivity, which wasn’t exactly the conservative party’s strong suit in the first place. Their usage of reductionist tactics and history of minority exclusion has discouraged the very nature of democracy.
Because of economic insecurity and dissatisfaction in America, politics have become an especially affective process. With increasing inequality and decreasing class mobility, public attitudes towards government become rooted in the quality (or lack thereof) of life experiences and circumstances. Lipset states in Requisites For Democracy that unresolved inequalities make democracy look illegitimate to its people. With the promise of democracy unfulfilled, many have turned towards anti-establishment appeals such as populism/reactionary nationalism. Facts and science grow more irrelevant day by day—and in the age of social media, extremism has a stronger platform than ever for spreading baseless ideas. This is exactly how Trump rose to power: using the conduit of social media to exploit preexisting ethnic, racial, and class divisions within his base. What we’re now observing are all the different facets of conservatism, not a new face of it. The online forums created by the “reactionary right” which promote racist and sexist ideas (in the name of salvaging American integrity) are plainly masses of people who have appropriated classical conservative ideals from the 50’s. For instance, a Facebook group endearingly titled “The Patriarchy Loves You” encourages women to forfeit their autonomy and individual freedom to a male spouse. Under Trump, the reactionary right feel validated and safe enough to increase their presence online.
While reactionary conservatives have focused on forging an identity which strives to rebuild oppressive, separatist ideals, conservatism in its basic original form bore those ideals—even if they were more subtle in their expression. The author erases classical conservatism’s history of preserving racist and sexist institutions. In accepting the manufactured narrative which erases this history, we falsely believe that conservative ideology originally had “a respect for universal human nature”. The reality is it has worked as a proponent of millions of American citizens’ suffering for decades. Long before the election of Trump, American conservatism was founded upon a sense of resisting political change that would threaten the ruling class. Even in limiting the existence of true classic conservatives to the 1990’s forward, sexism and racism were still pervasive within the ideology; and if you’re searching for proof, look back on the Anita Hill trial.
Even the name “reactionary right” describes the radicalization of conservatives in reaction to rapid change. This makes them inherently aligned with “old conservatives” at their core, a fact that gets minimized within the author’s article. This is not said to argue that all conservatives are proponents of racism and sexism, but rather to acknowledge antiquated conservatism’s long-standing association with white supremacy and privilege—the author’s erasure of these facts is irresponsible. That being said, privilege is not a consequence; it is a responsibility. The failure to take responsibility will always tap into exploitation, and boils down to some form of oppression (particularly racism). When democratic backsliding threatens our regime, it becomes all the more essential to hold our institutions, leaders, and political actors accountable.