While he was still a Tory, Lord Palmerston infamously dubbed the Conservative Party "stupid". According to Corey Robin, this was the first time this epithet had been attached to conservatism. Rather astonishingly, US Republicans frequently call themselves the "stupid party", but they wear the name as a badge of pride. To be unlettered is to possess populist charm.
Robin will have none of this nonsense. He resolves to take conservative thinking in the US (and to a much lesser extent Europe) seriously as an "idea-driven praxis" fundamentally concerned with protecting elites from assaults from below. Conservatives are "reactionaries", not in the negative sense of being naive grabbers of power, but in the sense that they are committed to reacting against "inferior" or "lesser" groups that seek to usurp those above them. As such, conservatives are not at all stupid, but adaptive and inventive. They even prove willing to borrow from the political Left. Strangely, Robin observes, many conservatives also believe themselves to be victims. To be a conservative is to have suffered a loss: the loss of the privileges of a white skin, perhaps, or of entitlement to property.
Probably the most controversial aspect of The Reactionary Mind is its claim that there is such a thing as a conservative. Most political writers today insist that there are such vast differences between people who identify as conservative that it is unhelpful to generalise about them as a whole. At the very least, observers point to the chasm between UK and US conservatism, with Edmund Burke's version unreconcilable with that of George W. Bush, or they note that the populist Tea Party is a very modern aberration. Robin's response is curious: he simply wants us to accept that because we commonly use the word "conservative" to refer to a broad range of groups, this means that it does have a consistent meaning. He is correct to argue that there may be more similarities between the diverse groups than is commonly recognised, but one of the interesting things about reactionary minds (in the plural) is the way significant differences in theory and practice can be papered over, especially in a crisis.
Robin is most original when dissecting modern politics. The chapter "Protocols of machismo" is an intelligent reflection on the current politics of national security in the US. His dissection of the way Bush blurred the line between actual and possible threats is acute, and he notes that Bush was canny enough to avoid categorically stating that an attack on national security was imminent. Rather, Bush made use of hypotheticals, gently nudging listeners into drawing fearful conclusions. Indeed, Robin suggests, perhaps Bush saw no distinction between the hypothetical and the real. When the television journalist Diane Sawyer asked him to compare the "hard fact" of weapons of mass destruction and the mere possibility that Saddam Hussein might "move to acquire those weapons", Bush replied: "So what's the difference?" What, indeed? The invasion of Iraq was not inspired by democratic fervour so much as by a need to consolidate US greatness.
This is a provocative book, and one that has already generated rather ill-tempered reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere. Robin is, in part, responsible for the furore, with the exuberance of his prose inviting heated rebuttals. The Reactionary Mind may make for fast-paced reading, but its author also indulges in moments of incivility, as when he writes about "America's perennially autistic ruling classes". Then, too, the book is uneven in focus and tone, which is hardly surprising given that it is essentially a compilation of articles and chapters previously published elsewhere.
Robin concludes with the comment that modern conservatism is devoted to defeating the political Left and, "as far as the eye can see, it has achieved its purpose". Perhaps, he suggests, it is time the conservatives proclaimed themselves victorious and left the political scene. Not likely. This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
By Corey Robin
Oxford University Press 304pp, £18.99
Published 10 November 2011