What sort of conservative hates Barack Obama?

Everyone but the Oakeshottians, and there aren’t many of those around.

It’s hard to tell whether Andrew Sullivan’s puzzlement – about why conservatives don’t recognize what Sullivan sees as Obama’s fundamentally conservative nature – is genuine or Socratic, but the matter seems simple to me:  most Americans who identify as “conservative” aren’t conservative in the sense Sullivan intends.

“Conservative” has multiple meanings, distinguished by having different antonyms:

An Oakeshottian conservative wants to moderate the pace of change and to proceed incrementally and experimentally rather than suddenly.  This is Sullivan’s meaning. The antonym of “conservative” in this sense is “radical.”

A traditionalist conservative is someone who prefers old ways to new.  (In the extreme, this can mean opposing the growth of knowledge that might threaten traditional beliefs.) The antonym is “progressive.”

An authoritarian conservative distrusts the use ordinary people make of personal  freedom and favors strict social controls over individual behavior. The antonym is “liberal.”

A particularist conservative is unashamed about favoring his own interests and values, and those of his family, neighborhood, ethnicity, and nation over those of outsiders. The antonym is “universalist” (or “liberal” in another sense of that term).

A market conservative likes capitalism and distrusts regulation and state production. The antonym imagined by such conservatives is “socialist.”

There is no word I know of to define the sort of person who prefers hierarchy to equality, and in particular who both supports the maintenance of the current hierarchy and opposes both social mobility and the leveling of status gradients. Under current U.S. conditions, that mostly means favoring the rich over the prosperous, the prosperous over the middle class, the middle class over the working class, and the working class over the truly poor. Call these “hierarchical” or “plutocratic” conservatives, as opposed to “egalitarians.”

Obama, as I read him, is indeed Oakeshottian rather than radical, but he is also moderately progressive rather than traditionalist, quite liberal rather than authoritarian, reasonably universalist, and purely pragmatic about regulation and state production. But most of all, Obama is strongly egalitarian: he wants both more social mobility and gentler status gradients. That’s the feature of health care reform that the plutocrats really hate, however much they maunder on about death panels and stifling innovation: it’s a twelve-digit-per-year income transfer downwards.

The current Republican party is radically reactionary rather than conservative in any ordinary sense of that term: how else could you explain wanting to destroy public education? It’s traditionalist to the point of obscurantism, and it’s deeply, deeply hierarchical and plutocratic. (The tension between the obscurantist traditionalists and the plutocrats – who favor technical progress and economic change, and many of whom believe in personal liberty, at least for themselves and those like them – keeps popping out.)

Obama – precisely because of his Oakeshottian virtues – is these people’s worst nightmare. Of course his skin color is offensive to them, since it challenges the strongest status gradient of all. But their hatred of him is more than skin-deep, and it’s by no means foolish.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

31 thoughts on “What sort of conservative hates Barack Obama?”

  1. If it is not foolish, then what is it?

    There is (and has always been) only one kind of conservatism: aristocratic conservatism. It divides society into an in group (the aristocracy) and an out group (everyone else). The basis of membership in the aristocracy does not matter and may not be everywhere the same; also, the aristocracy is not necessarily a minority. The distinguishing feature of the aristocracy is that it is protected by the law but not bound by it, whereas everyone else is bound by the law but not protected by it.

    This has been the almost exclusive model of society throughout history, with only brief experiments with alternatives. (That is not to defend it, as it is utterly odious.) And we are now sinking back into it.

  2. Mark, the contemporary Republican party is authoritarian. They like “small government” only inasmuch as it allows capitalist markets to concentrate wealth and authority in the hands of a few.

  3. Very well put.

    My own addition is that the contemporary American right wing has a great deal in common with the European right after WWI, with one important exception. They emerged from a far more liberal culture and so do not have the strong collectivist streak of the Fascists and Nazis. No uniformed ranks and mass rallies for them, just uniform thought and lock step politics.

    I think Ayn Rand is important here because I think she was the vector through which an individualist Nietzschean nihilism found cultural access to the US. Her ideas fitted in with to some degree certain kinds of social Darwinism already rooted here, but ultimately lacked all ethical content. (She talked about rights only when it suited her, as her speech about Indians to the cadets at West Point made brutally clear.)

    At some point this tendency made common cause with the NeoConfederates, possibly after Pat Buchanan saw an opening with the South after they were disillusioned with their alliance with Northern Democrats. The result is this incoherent mix of authoritarian religion and extreme personal authoritarianism and love of domination.

    They are not conservatives in ANY sense, they are nihilists.

    1. Good points all, Gus, except that neither Rand nor Nietzsche were necessary. This individualistic nihilism has been with us since the Borderers came over from Ireland. Rand gave it a certain kind of cultural acceptability, but mainly served to make silly half-educated rich people feel good about about themselves. Paul Ryan is not the descendent of Borderers; nor is Alan Greenspan.

  4. Now, now, Mark. You left out the dominant kind of conservative in today’s Republican Party, the conservative who resents hoity-toity “elitists” who use big words like “Oakeshottian” and “plutocratic” and “obscurantism.” What on earth were you thinking?

  5. I’m with Frank Wilhhoit

    “There is no word I know of to define the sort of person who prefers hierarchy to equality, and in particular who both supports the maintenance of the current hierarchy and opposes both social mobility and the leveling of status gradients.”

    The word is “monarchist”

    1. I don’t think anyone on the right would characterize their views as such, but they are nonetheless.

      There’s a really weird incoherence in conservatism which coyly believes all wealth is to be given protected status as “self-made”, envisioning a sort of perfect meritocracy. Of course, the concept of privilege gives lie to this, and demands progressivist redistribution. Yet even when privilege is admitted, such as inherited wealth, it is argued to have been the legacy the original deceased’s, and his family’s by right. What is this but sympathy and apology for aristocracy?

      Other forms of capital are just as pernicious, such as parent’s education, neighborhood, etc., all of it – the concentration and segregation of capital – serving to entrench privilege and hinder mobility. Communism showed that total state redistribution is ineffective and thus of little utility. But the fundamental insight into the inevitable effects of the leveraging of capital is as true today as it ever was.

      1. They aren’t monarchists in that they have no royal house to serve. What we are seeing is wealth-based oligarchy, under a veneer of liberty for the rubes.

    2. Fair enough, but since we don’t have a monarchy or an established church, the true-blue throne-and-altar Tories have no place to land. That’s the point of Louis Hartz’s great book, The Liberal Tradition in America: our tradition is both progressive and liberal.

      1. They’ve substituted inherited wealth for the Mandate of Heaven.

        Look at the Fortune 400: the Walton heirs, the Koch heirs, the Dupont heirs, the Johnson heirs, the Kohler heirs, the Bass heirs, the Mellon heirs, …

        These are our new hereditary dukes and earls. As so often happened in historical monarchies, they strive to put a puppet on the throne, and to govern from behind the arras.

    3. The long strange trip the word ‘liberal’ has made since the days of John Stuart Mill isn’t as strange as what’s happened, at least in American politics, to the word ‘republican’.

      1. In 1812 the Republicans of James Madison also tried to wage war on the cheap because they did not want to raise taxes. They expected an easy and cheap victory in invading Canada, which would save the expense of raising a navy. So they did have something in common with their namesakes of our day.

        But they also favored easy and quick naturalization, which enraged the Federalists, setting them off from the GOP we have come to know and love. So Davis is correct. The word has traveled through a wormhole to end in a parallel universe.

        1. I dunno, I can see quite a few similarities. I have no doubt that Jefferson and Madison would be Republicans today, they may have written like angels but they lived like racist Gorden Geckos.

        2. I dunno, I can see quite a few similarities. I have no doubt that Jefferson and Madison would be Republicans today, they may have written like angels but they both lived like Gorden Gecko if he was an active member of the KKK.

          1. I think that Jefferson would be a rather quirky libertarian of some sort, since his views on Christianity would not fit at all with the modern GOP. I could see him as a Virginian version of Ron Paul without too much trouble. Madison I think would be more inclined to the Blue Dog Democrats.

          2. Madison waged the War of 1812 even though he had an aversion to the expansion of executive power that war is expected to bring in its wake. He was more ready to accept British military victories, including the burning of the White House, than he was to embrace the curtailment of civil liberties which would have made the war much more efficiently carried out. There was not one trial for treason on his watch for the entire war. Madison deserves recognition for that, and it is one manifestation of the different universe in which “Republican” designated the party in power.

    4. I can’t agree with that. I think “feudal conservative” is the thing you’re reaching for… and the puns are intended.

      In many ways, the Teahadists are much like the baronial party that forced John to sign that Magna Carta thingy at Runnymede. The Magna Carta is symbolically important… but when one actually reads it, it doesn’t do a damned thing for the “common people”, but instead favors one subset of the nobility over another.

      1. “Monarchist” can’t be quite right, given how quickly the Radial Right abandons its one-time heros when it is done with them (e.g. George W. Bush). The UK-ians may think that Charles is a buffoon, but they will acknowledge him as King until he does the decent thing and retires in favor of William. Bush I, Bush II, McCain: not so much.


  6. Only slightly off topic: what would Pat Robertson say if the Democratic convention were cut short by an act of God?

  7. Which of the descriptors for Obama covers being cool with torturing Bradley Manning with no charges whatsoever, being cool with military tribunals, being cool with no legal forum for tortured Canadian nationals grabbed and rendered to even more practiced thugs, and claiming for himself the legal authority to kill US citizens with zero due process, not even the fig leaf of a trial in abstentia? Is that liberal, progressive or something more like Obama himself, every bit as amoral as Cheney, just a lot smoother.

    1. Sorry to nit-pick but I believe the word is ‘immoral’. My eyebrows are are amoral (i.e. have no relationship to a moral framework). But implicitly condoning torture is immoral (in almost any moral framework).

      This usage bugs me because I see it increasing frequency. It’s as if people are afraid to say immoral because the christian right has effectively put a trademark on it. I’m not willing to let them keep it. Some things are clearly immoral and we can say what they are.

      I’m generally not a linguistic originalist but the two words are distinct and usefully so. Blurring them does not serve us, IMHO. I now return to actual living…

    2. “Reasonably universalist” unless the “other” is an innocent Muslim subject to lethal drone attack or resident of an authoritarian nation from our client portfolio.

      “Quite liberal” unless the controlled individual is a government employee bent on exposing U.S. wrongdoing; that person is the object of persecution and intimidation.

      “Strongly egalitarian”, except for installing a steadfast Wall Street ally at Treasury, structuring ARRA as a permanent upward wealth shift, declining to punish well-off thieves or prevent them from repeating their crimes, shunning Keynesian stimulus (the team knows the facts show Keynes is right, but robust stimulus leaves a sour populist taste on their neoliberal, elitist palates), accepting and propagating the Republican fictions of structural inequality and permenent high unemployment, and refusing to protect a bedrock 80-year-old social insurance program.

      The taxonomy is fine, the positioning of the subject within it reflects selective attention, to say the least.

    3. JMG: Nailed it.

      When we’ve all been encouraged all our lives to vote for the “lesser evil”, why is it such a surprise that we end up with “smoother evil” instead?

  8. An authoritarian conservative distrusts the use ordinary people make of personal freedom and favors strict social controls over individual behavior. The antonym is “liberal.”

    It’s not just authoritarian conservatives, and “liberal” isn’t always antonym to this trait. I know of a certain professor who calls himself liberal, yet talks this way about drug policy.

  9. This analysis of the many uses of the word “conservative”
    is truly superb. It is something to keep in mind
    not just for the current moment.

  10. You’ve got two forms of conservatism mixed here. The authoritarian, traditional, and hierarchical bits go together, the term that links them is “reactionary”, and the antonym is the Reformation, as their origin is the Counter-Reformation.

    The Oakeshott, market-liberal, and particularist bits also go together. The term that links them is probably “conservative”, or “Christian Democrat” or even “bourgeois”, and the antonym is “socialist”.

    Group one are fine with rapid change if it’s rapid change in the direction of authority and hierarchy, and are convinced that such change must be imposed by the elite (so Oakeshott and Burke are completely out of court). They are often suspicious not so much of markets as an economic device as of what they consider to be the values of the market (Handler statt Helden and all that jazz), but on the other hand they are willing to support economic liberalism because whatever it is, it ain’t socialism, and they tend to think inequality is a good thing because it’s hierarchical. Particularism is interesting if it agrees with them.

    Group two are suspicious of change on principle, and think it must be legitimised by consensus. They like markets in general and also tend to like what they think of as the values of the market. They appreciate particularism and federalism as an end in themselves.

    These are obviously orthogonal. I would point out that group two is much closer, however, to social democracy, liberalism, greenism, etc – it’s obviously on the same page, whereas the other group is on a different ideological planet. I would note that a lot of Confederate writing sounds very “1840s Euro-reactionary” to me.

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