Ross Douthat: American conservatives need to be more reactionary

Ross Douthat, who like David Brooks somehow has a steady gig at the New York Times, has a variation on the theory liberals should be blamed for Trump: the real problem is that conservatives aren’t conservative enough (not a direct link). Academia and the intelligentsia are filled with radical, left-wing reactionaries (he references a study claiming discrimination against conservatives in social psychology and that academics in general are more left wing than in the last century); conservative intellectuals, by contrast are milquetoasts: “Our intelligentsia obviously does have a conservative wing, mostly clustered in think tanks rather than on campuses. But little of this conservatism really deserves the name reaction. What liberals attack as “reactionary” on the American right is usually just a nostalgia for the proudly modern United States of the Eisenhower or Reagan eras — the effective equivalent of liberal nostalgia for the golden age of labor unions. A truly reactionary vision has to reject more than just the Great Society or Roe v. Wade; it has to cut deeper, to the very roots of the modern liberal order.”

First off, I cry bullshit on “just a nostalgia.” When conservatives complain about how women shouldn’t have the vote, or still calling to ban gay marriage (as Ted Cruz has) or how Muslims aren’t entitled to religious freedom, or women shouldn’t have sex without consequences they’re not just waxing nostalgic for the days Americans lived in a white-dominated, straight-dominated, male-dominated, Protestant-dominated nation. They’re wanting us to go back there, and I don’t have the slightest doubt that if they could legally push us back that way, they’d do it.

Second, if getting rid of gays and longing for the days of shotgun weddings isn’t reactionary enough, just what is? Here Douthat flounders, possibly because he’s aware there’s no answer that makes him look good (I don’t doubt Douthat would favor a movement of theocratic reactionaries as he’s one himself but he doesn’t say that here) He admits that his definition of “reactionary” would include the Confederacy and fascism which are bad, but reactionaries are still important because they see past the optimism that clouds liberal and conservative thinking and recognize “the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion” and that even though they’re wrong, sometimes they’re right, so there you are! Oh, and authors with reactionary politics like Kipling (imperialist and anti-semite) still deserve study (I think Kipling’s an awesome writer myself but no, his politics are not worthy of resurrection).  The end result is like a Lovecraftian horror story—faced with a conclusion that would blast our sanity (or at least Douthat’s reputation as a serious thinker) he resorts to elliptical descriptions of the Crawling Chaos.

As a final point, it’s worth noting that most of the reactionary insights aren’t really such. In writing elsewhere, his concept of “the poverty of modern substitutes for family” includes gay marriage and more generally the sense that marriage and kids are optional rather than obligatory. Modern substitutes for religion include atheism and secularism. I don’t think any of these things are actually poor substitutes rather than good things (at least potentially) in their own right. “The inevitable return of hierarchy” is due to people who are at the top of the hierarchy pushing like hell to stay there, and to keep the rest of the people below them. And as for intellectual decline—okay, there he has a point. His own columns pretty much showcase it (for an example, watch Susan of Texas dissect Douthat’s follow-up column on reactionaries).


Filed under Politics

8 responses to “Ross Douthat: American conservatives need to be more reactionary

  1. Perhaps it would benefit you to actually read some Reactionary political theory:

    I know we ‘theocrats’ and monarchist racists anti-egalitarians are kind of scary, but since our ideas are now influencing Russia, Poland, Hungary, and other countries, you might want to do some research.

    “They’re wanting us to go back there”

    Paleoconservatives place value on the ideals of the 20s. We Reactionaries do as well, just not the 1920s. We’re a little more extreme than that.

    • Having spent 30 years deep in the Bible belt I’m quite familiar with theocracy supporters, but thanks.

      • They aren’t really the same thing. You have a very narrow view of what true extremism constitutes, because I doubt you’ve ever left the United States. The changes Reactionaries would want to bring into society by force are far more radical than the vision presented by laughable figures of American Evangelicism such as Rafael Cruz and co., as are the consequences that dissent would suffer under the proposed regime.

  2. Even though I have been beyond our borders, I don’t focus much on European extremists, as I’m more concerned with US politics. But the extremes of Christian dominionism in this country include no rights to vote for anyone but them, no freedom of religion or speech, death by stoning for homosexuals, heretics and dissenters, among other goodies—I’d say that’s radical enough (and also fascist in its worldview, and yes, I’m using fascism in a precise sense).
    Ted Cruz’s father seems to trend that way. I’m not sure how authoritarian Cruz is, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a Dominionist (certainly he’s theocratic enough I don’t find him laughable)

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