Seemingly reactionary politics are actually a far more complex ideology that has for too long been marginalized by mainstream establishments in western civilization. In this response to a New York magazine essay, I consider the merits of this “reactionary” ideology.
Andrew Sullivan’s recent essay for the New York magazine is a good example of how something can be insightful, and yet fundamentally flawed. His subtitle “An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology…” puts the article off to a rough start. I do think Sullivan is genuinely open-minded after reading the entire article, but he is too quick to call these “reactionaries” close-minded. Are they close minded for being skeptical of globalization? Are they close minded for rejecting what most in academia swear by? Or is most of academia close-minded for not giving serious thought to the possibility that globalization will do more harm than good?
Despite Sullivan’s inconsistent critical thinking, I do think this article is a genuine effort to understand this movement he’s calling “the reactionary right”. First, he draws a brilliant distinction between conservatism and reactionism. This is spot on! Conservatives, as the very name suggests, seek to conserve the status quo, and implement modest, incremental changes. The changes they seek are to build upon what is already there, rather than change it fundamentally. In this last Presidential race, Clinton was actually the conservative. Clearly, the conservatives are not who elected Trump. As many in the media stated many times over, Trump voters were “thirsty for change”. While I think the term “reactionary” doesn’t do this movement justice, Sullivan’s description of these reactionaries is astute:
“Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt.”
Sullivan’s first-hand experience, and my own
In the essay, Sullivan discussed his own background as a “reactionary”.
“Growing up steeped in traditional religion, in a household where patriotism seemed as natural as breathing, I became infatuated with a past that no longer existed. I loved the countryside that was quickly being decimated by development, a Christianity that was being overwhelmed by secularism, and an idea of England, whose glories — so evident in the literature I read, the history I had absorbed, and the architecture I admired — had self-evidently crumbled into dust.”
I can see that Sullivan is genuine in describing his own experiences, but also that he doesn’t do it justice.
Like Mr. Sullivan, I too have, in the past, fit this description. In my early adult years, despite my mixed heritage and German surname, I strongly identified with my English heritage to the point of wanting to “go back”. I romanticized England, the land of my forefathers, and imagined it much like Sullivan describes above. I’ve discussed my dismay at what I actually found before. I too know the despair of modernity, when compared to a glossy and cherry-picked image of a past I’ve never experienced except in my mind. I admit that to this very day, this “reactionism”, which I prefer to call “nostalgiaholism”, is my instinct. This level of nostalgia really can have an intoxicating effect, and I think of myself now as a recovered nostalgiaholic. Despite this, the ideals of “reactionaries” should not be dismissed, and may have merits.
Sullivan makes two assumptions that should be challenged. 1. That looking to the past equates to resisting progress, and 2. That change is necessarily good.
The benefits of nostalgia in moderation
As drinking in moderation has proven health benefits, I contend that nostalgia in moderation can also benefit the health of society and human progress. What Sullivan is calling “reactionism”, Roger Scruton calls this “restorationism”, and distinguishes it from mainstream conservatism, and this label is probably the most accurate. Reactionaries, after all, would not be proactive, nor have any particular goal other than to impede some sort of change they don’t like. But restorationists see something from the past they’d like to restore.
While trying to fully restore an entire era is not only dangerous but impossible, this does not mean that the past should be ignored. Many times in human history, great leaps forward have been motivated by nostalgia. It was nostalgia for ancient Rome that drove Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. It was nostalgia for the logical thinking of ancient Greek philosophers that motivated the creation of the university. What is more civilized than the critical thinking skills developed out of the early modern university?
Sullivan refers to the Roman Catholic “Counter Reformation” as part of this “reactionary” tradition. However, it should be noted that the Counter Reformation brought about much needed reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, much to the benefit of those nations that were predominantly Catholic, such as finally ending the practice of “selling indulgences”, and disciplining corruption among the episcopate.
The United States of America was motivated also by nostalgia. Go back in time to 1776. Monarchies and oligarchies are the norm.
Republican form of government? Isn’t that the primitive government the early Romans had before they became an empire? Oh yeah, they also tried that in England under Cromwell. Didn’t he turn into a dictator and massacre Irish priests, nuns, and laity in their parish? Why would anyone want a Republic?
But the Founding Fathers looked to those few examples of a successful republic in the ancient world with fondness. They also saw the failures of the Cromwell Republic in England, and were careful not to repeat those failures. (The first amendment guarantee of “free expression” of religion is a crucial component of that.) Rather than living in the now of 1776, the Founding Fathers lived in the past, the ancient past. Thanks to the ancient past, they were able to restore a republican form of government.
The Church of England has made leaps forward not only for the Church itself, but also for Great Britain, motivated by nostalgia. In the 19th century, many in the Church of England started longing for their Catholic roots. Few desired a full reunion with the Roman Catholic Church, but they did push for the restoration of many Catholic styles of worship. Consequently, they also found themselves increasingly sympathetic to the plight of their long oppressed Catholic brothers in Ireland. In the political sphere, they pushed for better treatment for the Irish with some success, and at least brought an end to formalized suppression of Catholic worship in Ireland.
Then comes the Irish themselves. Around the time of World War I, they began looking to the past. Ireland was free once, wasn’t it? They began pining for an independent Irish nation. They also looked to the United States for inspiration. This all sparked the Irish revolution, leading to a now small but thriving Irish Republic. How fortunate that the Irish looked to the past, rather than embracing the now of 1916.
The Fallacy of Novelty – Change isn’t always good
People don’t necessarily resist change just because they are stubborn and set in their ways. Most academics would in principle agree with the statement – skepticism is a healthy component of critical thinking. Yet, when it comes to “progress”, suddenly skepticism is to be viewed as the anti-thesis of critical thinking. But this is not so.
Many of these salt-of-the-earth Americans are more intelligent than recognized by those in the ivory towers of academia, the Washington beltway, and the mainstream media. There are many changes that they do embrace, some of which Sullivan has identified, such as a desire to fundamentally transform the administrative state. But their skepticism of many proposed changes that are imposed upon them is perfectly healthy. Rather than seeing it as a stubbornness that should, at best, be coaxed out of them, or a worst, should be broken by brute force; perhaps we should be humble enough to admit that they might actually be right, or at least partly correct. Human history is full of examples, after all, of a nouveau elite imposing massive changes on a people with disastrous consequences.
The Cromwell example in England mentioned above is one such.
The Soviet Union is another such example. Massive changes were imposed on the people of Russia. Their historic Orthodox faith was suppressed. Their economy was radically reorganized. Dissenting opinions were not tolerated. It was assumed that anyone who doubted communism was “insane” and they were institutionalized. The Bolshevics never had the humility to consider the possibility that they may not have known what was best for everyone, all the time. And the result was nearly a century of suffering, mass murder, starvation, and the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Communism in China went similarly, though they managed not to collapse.
In America, the early progressives implemented some very positive changes that transformed out economy and led us to victory in World War II. However, some of their imposed changes make up the darker chapters of American history. Many of the early progressives sought to advance the human species with eugenics, which also influenced early Nazi Germany. They also studied diseases on some “lesser human beings”. Sadly, this meant the long oppressed African Americans, some of whom were denied treatment for syphilis as part of the Tuskagee Study in order to study its effects. A growing number of blacks became skeptical of all that change. They were right to be skeptical.
How fortunate that in Spain, many reactionaries resisted change! Led by Franco, the seemingly benign center-left Republic was overthrown. The momentum to overthrow this Republic was not a desire fascism, nor even Carlism (Spanish conservatism), though those elements were there. The momentum that led Franco to victory came from the genuine fear that the Soviets were about to use the Spanish Republic to ultimately turn Spain into another Soviet satellite. Spain could have been like Romania under Ceausescu. Instead, it went from an authoritarian right government under Franco, to a monarchy, to a now a thriving democracy structured around a constitutional monarchy, much like Great Britain and several Nordic states.
As we should not hold on to tradition just for the sake of tradition, we should also not embrace change simply because it’s new. Ideas old and new should be scrutinized, and it is the scrutiny of the new that is an essential function performed by these “reactionaries”.
Make America Great Again – What does this mean?
Many have dismissed this slogan as a racist desire to return to the Jim Crow era. As a recovered nostalgiaholic, I can tell you that when I was on the wagon, I had no desire to restore white supremacy. Actually, I had great sympathy for some of the most radical African Americans who wanted to embrace their African roots. I wanted to embrace my English roots, they wanted to embrace their African roots…makes sense. To me, the desire of any people to reconnect with their ancestors, their traditions, and the land of their forefathers, is a perfectly natural desire. The philosopher Roger Scruton (the aforementioned restorationist) has argued that Islam is incompatible with the West, but he likewise has shown respect for the right of the Islamic people to be autonomous, and not have western values imposed upon their part of the world. In so doing, Roger Scruton shows greater respect for the Islamic world than many a self-righteous neoliberal, who preaches compassion when calling for admitting refugees, but doesn’t hesitate to bomb entire nations into submission because they think that the west knows what is best for the whole world.
This claim that “reactionaries” or restorationists are racist is absurd, and is a cheap tactic by the globalists to racially isolate this movement as an exclusively white movement. But people of all races across the world face different threats from the forces of globalization.
Sullivan, fortunately, is open minded enough not to dismiss this movement as “racist”. But this is only a matter of strategy, rather than intellectual inquiry in the merits of “reactionary” politics.
“The American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.”
It’s commendable that Sullivan seeks to reach out to these American under siege, but how can he expect them to be open to his ideas, if he is not also open to their ideas?
Sullivan himself not only acknowledges that globalization is very new and fragile, but admits to the negative consequences of globalization. He refers to the work of Robert Putnam, who found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” I saw this firsthand during my time in London. You’ll never meet a more unpleasant Englishman than the one who lives in London. But I found the English I met anywhere outside of London to be far more pleasant and welcoming, contrary to stereotypes.
In America, we are more accustomed to multiculturalism, given our long history as a nation of immigrants. While the 1950s were, admittedly, “whiter”, it is not the “whiteness” that so many in Trump’s base pine for. My father tells me of a time in America when you could walk into a factory and get a job the same day. As a political scientist, I look at a time in the past when there wasn’t as wide of a gap between rich and poor, and America had a strong middle class. Do I really care how “white” the middle class is?!
The great thing about restorationism is that you don’t have to restore everything. If we can restore America as a manufacturing giant, it doesn’t mean we have to restore Jim Crow. Manufacturing in no way depends on racial segregation. (If anything, segregation was an impediment, and manufacturing thrived in the 1950s despite it.)
We can debate whether or not restoring America’s manufacturing sector is possible, or a good idea if it is. But to claim that this is “racist” is a cheap straw man argument designed to impede any legitimate debate.
The stale intellectual elites, and Mr. Sullivan
At the risk of getting back on the wagon, I must lament at the changes I see in academia. I joined academia in the hope of becoming a part of an institution that valued knowledge and critical thinking. Many in academia still do. But I see this under assault by a violent wave of political correctness. The short term feelings of students and faculty takes precedent over the development of their minds. Expanding the mind is sometimes a painful process, which involves challenging everything you know, or think you know. But when doing so is “offensive”, it is increasingly suppressed by those claiming to be the open-minded advocates of the oppressed. I see this in academia, but others on the #trumptrain see it all around them.
This is not progressive, but the antithesis of progress! We do not move people forward by shielding them from scrutiny. We do not move society forward by embedding a strict set of social norms and ostracizing those who challenge those norms. It makes no difference whether those norms are conservative values or politically correct values. As John Stuart Mill stated, “This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions.” This assumption of infallibility I see increasingly from academic elites, as well as beltway bureaucrats and media pundits. Those Sullivan comes from that ilk, he is fortunately more humble.
Sullivan, like me, laments the rise of left-winged authoritarianism on university campuses. Maybe, like me, he also looks fondly on the past, on the foundation of the university, as a place of open minds, thoughtful questions, and the pursuit of genuine, objective answers. Restorationism deserves to be a part of the conversation. It is not merely reactionary, it is a method of critical thought, rooted in the principle that human history contains many examples of past glories that can be revitalized in new and interesting ways. Don’t get drunk on it, but we could all use a nightcap of nostalgia.