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March 2016

The Jacobins of the Right

To understand the Presidential election, look back to Burke and Rousseau.

There is something almost Jacobin – and thus deeply unconservative – about the idea that a virtuous, plain-speaking, authentic outsider can just step into politics and fix everything, and that when all is done, the nation as a whole will be regenerated. Or great again. Or something quite like it. There is something equally Jacobin, and unconservative, about the idea that our country or any other needs to be radically remade.

I mean more than just the recent presidential campaign, although it clearly fits the bill. I mean also national-greatness conservatism, which has been around for much longer, and which sees politics – and government – as the answer to all our problems.

A healthy conservatism would guard our political culture against such radical foolishnesss from any quarter, and it would most certainly reject this idea from within its own ranks. At the moment, however, much of American conservatism is busy doing neither.

This month at Cato Unbound we’ve been discussing the idea of authenticity in politics. Authenticity has dominated the current presidential campaign both left and right: On the left is Bernie Sanders, a lifelong non-Democrat who is nonetheless putting up a surprisingly strong fight for the Democratic Party’s nomination. He is succeeding precisely because he is an outsider, a purportedly authentic voice who serves as a near-perfect foil for the all-too-managed, all-too-insidery Hillary Clinton. Sanders represents authentic progressive values, we are told, while Clinton represents Washington’s corruption and willingness to compromise. Which may well be true, but it does little to recommend Sanders.

On the right, or rather on what passes for it, we have Donald Trump. Trump’s chief appeal seems to be that he carefully says exactly what everyone else is careful never to say. It’s authenticity once again, only a lot more vulgar. Republican insiders represent compromise, the thinking goes, while Trump says he’s putting the interests of plain, working-class Americans first. And not compromising. In this he is not so unlike Sanders at all. Both, incidentally, rely on cranky protectionist math that just doesn’t stand up; wherever else they may disagree, they both want to isolate us from the world. In order to make us great again.

I’m particularly concerned about the right, because I have to wonder about the eagerness that I see among conservatives to embrace what is, essentially, a Jacobin political stance.

I’ll explain what I mean.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment’s great champion of anti-Enlightenment ideas, famously believed that commercial society corrupted both individual mores and the polity as a whole. He held that simplicity and candor were the marks of the good in both individuals and society as a whole: If only we could go back to the good old days, he might have said. The good old days had a simple, uncorrupted virtue about them.

Now, by “the good old days” Rousseau seems to have meant “Sparta,” and he held that everything thereafter had been to some degree corrupt. The Spartans, he thought – the Spartans had authenticity. (They also had cranky protectionism, because apparently some things never change.)

Sparta is a lot to sign up for, and our present-day Rousseauans settle for a good deal less: On both the left and the right, there’s a weird nostalgia for the 1950s, which serves as the mythic past for us. It helps, undoubtedly, that few can still remember it.

Now, Rousseau himself didn’t think that anyone could actually turn back the clock. Like the classical republicans who inspired him, he thought that the trip from ancient virtue to modern vice was inexorable and one-way only. Rousseau particularly doubted that anyone could reform the French Old Regime. And on that, perhaps, he may well have been right. But he couldn’t stop his followers from trying, after his death, to do just that.

Enter the Jacobins, who adored Rousseau, but who wanted to do politics anyway. What mattered to them was not technical expertise, or an understanding of the complex social phenomena of political economy, but rather some disarmingly simple qualities of personal character: virtue, authenticity, and incorruptibility. The Jacobins proposed no less than the complete regeneration of France, a feat that, somewhat to his credit, even Rousseau would never have attempted.

In the case of both Jacobinism and modern-day muscular conservatism, it’s easier when there’s an enemy abroad: For the Jacobins, it was England. For modern conservatives, it’s increasingly an amalgam of China and Mexico, with occasional help from ISIS. As long as an enemy exists, the details about how to regenerate our country at home can remain a little vague. Fighting off the threat is enough, even if – true of both cases – the enemy threat is at best exaggerated.

In former times, one of the saving graces of American conservatism was that it was conservative about all the proper things: It aimed to conserve liberty. It promised that no one would undermine the American system of more or less free enterprise. It stood strong against a genuine world-historical foe, in the form of Soviet communism, but it was otherwise reluctant to resort to international violence. The business of America was business, and that wasn’t so bad at all. A much better conservatism would resemble the Jacobins a whole lot less, and Edmund Burke a whole lot more.

Burke, who praised a “steady and moderate conduct” in public affairs, would not have recognized a conservatism, like today’s, within which individuals fight over who can be more extreme and rigorous. Indeed he might see parallels between the French Third Estate and the more popular outsider presidential candidates of our own day, of whom we might also say that there were “some of known rank, some of shining talents; but of any practical experience in the state, not one man was to be found.” We hear often of Burke’s “little platoons,” but the passage in which the phrase occurs is even more relevant in full. It could be written equally of our own day:

Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally despise their own order. One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.