U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Emotional Panoply of American Conservatism, 1964-Present

If the notion of a ‘panoply’ means anything to you, it probably calls forth images of defense—the arms and armor of Greek warriors. My American Heritage College Dictionary tells me, however, that the term has also denotes things that cover and protect, “ceremonial attire with all accessories,” and arrays both “splendid or striking.” The array of emotional states covered by recent American conservatism suggests a necessary, renewable source of power behind the ideas and ideology of movement. Other USIH posts have covered a variety of ideas and ideology underneath post-World War II conservatism, including adaptations of ‘new class’ theory, reactions against the destruction of the informal Protestant moral establishment, free-market ideology, anti-intellectualism, Ayn Randian individualism and libertarianism, and disaffection with liberalism (i.e. neoconservatism).

But a recent post at the Chronicle’s “Percolator” weblog, composed by Tom Bartlett, reminded me of the emotional angle for viewing conservatism. Bartlett’s post actually deals with a research study on cleanliness. In the course of discussing the work, he reminds the reader that Leon R. Kass argued for ‘disgust’ as a biologically natural aspect of the “wisdom of repugnance.”[1] Bartlett also relays Martha Nussbaum’s rebuke of Kass, with the former asserting that “disgust is not wise but terribly obtuse.” Indeed, Nussbaum goes further to say that “projective disgust” says more about the individual and his/her self-loathing, as well as the desire for a scapegoat. [2]

Leon Kass has been on my radar screen for some time. His wife, Amy Apfel Kass, wrote a dissertation at Johns Hopkins on the great books, Robert M. Hutchins, and M.J. Adler titled “Radical Conservatives for Liberal Education” (1973). I consider Kass’s dissertation the first salvo in a relatively successful conservative re-appropriation of the great books idea away from mid-century liberalism. In Kass’s hands, Hutchins becomes an early conservative who railed against a relativist academy from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily by promoting the great books. There is some truth to this—as must be the case with all lies—but a great deal of contradictory information is downplayed or left out, and terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are used homogeneously over large swaths of time. In sum, Kass’s work was a presentist (meaning 1973) appropriation of Hutchins educational philosophy and the great books idea for 1970s conservative and neoconservative ends.

Returning to the emotional history of the modern conservative movement, I am convinced it ascended to dominance when it appropriated a variety of discourses involving feelings related to politics, social issues, religion, the late Cold War, and otherwise. It is no coincidence that Reagan’s optimistic mantra about it being “morning again in America” correlated with the ascendancy of an ideology—of ideologies—that before 1984, or 1980, was probably dead even with mid-century liberalism. Indeed, we pay attention to Carter’s dour discourse on limits and “malaise” because it lacked, and signified the absence of, a connection with the varied emotional desires of the American people.

But the roots are deeper. Nixon played on emotions effectively. They are most evident in his private discourse (the tape recordings), but isn’t the “silent majority” also an emotional tactic? Of course emotional discourse hasn’t always worked well for conservatives. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” or “Daisy Girl” advertisement most certainly played on fears of Goldwater’s emotional and intellectual instability. Indeed, the conservative movement had to put its intellect on display, mostly via neoconservatives, before it could more effectively draw on emotional discourse later.

We all know that politics requires an emotional connection, so I fully realize that what I am discussing here is not news—not by any means. Then again, I am not aware of a recent history of post-1960s conservatism that firmly and prominently underscores the rangethe panoply—of emotions on display in the movement over time, as well as how its internal emotional discourse has changed over time. Though I have not read every recent book on conservatism, my impression is that representations of the movement’s history in relation to emotion are usually about the same old stuff: anger (“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) and fear (fear of the decline of values, family, and tradition). A notable exception, within the context of one year, might be Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2007). But a discussion of the panoply of emotions evident within the movement would enrich discourse about its ideology (or ideologies)—where ideas meet politics and the populace.

What emotions are on the table so far? I just mentioned anger and fear. Kass and Nussbaum deal with disgust. What else matters?

What of outrage and scandal? It seems to me that the 1970s and 1980s were, for conservatives, about fostering outrage over government waste, whether it be through rhetoric about welfare queens or the proverbial $100 hammers purchased through improperly scrutinized defense contracts. Religious conservatives today, in discussions about abortion, prefer to shock us into outrage with stories about late-term abortions, waving the bloody shirt with pictures on campus of aborted fetuses. I suppose, however, that line of attack also falls within the realm of disgust.

What of humor? Long ago, when I wrote an article on Rush Limbaugh for an encyclopedia on the Culture Wars (p. 322-324), I underscored the role of humor in arguing for his attractiveness as a popular conservative media figure. To make matters worse, the same conservatives who play with humor have perpetuated the canard about “humorless liberals”—with some success in the 1980s. It is probably not stretch to say that conservatives have dominated the humor valence of both the Culture Wars and political discourse since the 1970s.

George W. Bush introduced the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” This was a way, of course, for conservatives to take control of the “charity discourse” in politics—to wrest the emotion of love away from the progressive, religious side of liberalism. Voters felt that conservatism wasn’t just about anger and fear, or outrage and scandal.

What of emotions and conservative discourses about freedom and liberty? It seems to me that those discussions introduce a sleight-of-hand in that the actual expansion of freedom is replaced with rhetoric that promotes the feeling of freedom. Americans want to feel that they are promoting freedom around the world, in an unqualified and uncomplicated way. George W. Bush certainly captured that emotional discourse.

In thinking about war, I’m sure that Ray Haberski–in his forthcoming work—will touch on the range of emotions related to civil religion and the rites of war. Conservatives seem more successful, on balance, than liberals, within the 1970-2010 time period, on making connections between the need for aggression, liberty, and disgust with terrorism. Right now conservatives are holding hostage rational discourse about Islam in America as a result. This might of course say more about the American people than political emotion as directed from above.

If one wanted to catalogue the entire panoply of emotions evident in recent conservatism, a Wikipedia entry titled, unsurprisingly, “List of Emotions” is probably a fine place to start.

Moving even closer to the present, I thought in 2008 that presidential candidate Barack Obama effectively re-appropriated some of the emotional spectrum from conservatives. Notions such as hope, change, and the “audacity of hope” attracted independents and liberals to his agenda. But President Obama has been much more reserved in employing the discourse of emotions to advance his agenda. Some of this is strategy in that he seems to enjoy playing the role of a judiciously corrective and moderating parent. The early crisis period of his presidency necessitated level-headedness. In the meantime, however, it seems that Obama has lost something of his ability to use emotions, honestly and effectively, to advance his agenda. Perhaps he should study histories of late twentieth-century conservatism to catalyze his rhetoric for the upcoming re-election campaign.

In some ways, one could argue that conservative discourse has become so attached to emotion that it is impossible to expect cool rationality from its current adherents. With the Tea Party in control of the emotional discourse of conservatism, Obama’s cool-headedness remains at least moderately attractive. Then again, the Tea Party has a way of making John Boehner look like a statesman. Even so, until conservatives put forth a critical mass that brings rationality front and center, it won’t pay for Obama to excite the base emotionally the way he had to in 2008. So long as the paranoia, emotionalism, and anti-intellectualism of figures like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Peter King, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Sharron Angle, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich dominate popular perceptions of conservatism, there is no reason for Obama to show his full range of emotional connections. Indeed, it would be risky for Obama to apply Leon Kass’s “wisdom of repugnance” to current conservative positions; the president would be capitulating political discourse to conservative-dominated terrain. Then again, those terms have enabled the rise of a powerful movement over the past 30 years.

Thoughts? Have a missed a book that attempts to integrate the range of emotions? Are there relevant scholarly articles I’ve overlooked? Are there any powerful emotions I’ve not discussed? – TL


[1] Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” The New Republic (June 2, 1997): 17-26.

[2] Some of Nussbaum’s arguments against Kass are evident in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Danger to Human Dignity: the Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law” (August 6, 2004).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What an interesting post! Three rather disconnected thoughts:

    1) Leon Kass is a Straussian. I don’t know anything about his wife (and I didn’t know that she wrote her dissertation on things U of C…curiouser and curiouser).

    2) This post reminded of Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction, which constantly comes up in discussion threads over on Crooked Timber and is well worth reading.

    3) Nixon, though not a movement conservative, was a master of manipulating emotion and (along with his media team) taught the modern GOP some of its most important tricks. Both in ’68 and ’72, Nixon’s campaigns featured both upbeat and fearful ads. A couple upbeat ones: “Youth” from 1968 and “Nixon Now” from 1972 (the latter is pretty much comedy gold in retrospect). And some of the more famous fearful ones: 1968’s “Crime” and “Failure” and 1972’s “Welfare”.

  2. @JJ: Thanks for the link. The “excluded and the snubbed”—perfect. And your prompt reminds me that I actually meant to discuss the emotions of victimization in the post. Appealing to victimization and playing the victim are central tenets of post-1970s conservatism.

    @Ben: I was hoping you would chime in. I wondered what Straussians thought of emotional appeals. I would’ve suspected that they would denigrate them. Then again, the Greek playwrights are nothing if not masters of appealing to our emotions. Otherwise, I’m not familiar with Hirschman. I’ll check out the book.

  3. @Ben (again): How did I ever miss that Hirschman book? Amazing. I just ordered it via ILL. It will play well, as a reference point if nothing else, in my upcoming Adler/great books chapters on Adler’s view of philosophy in the public sphere. – TL

  4. This is a good one from Nixonland’s opening chapters on Nixon’s campaign tactics. It was a good way to go after the snooty, pinkish Alger Hiss types of the world:

    “You [don’t] have to attack to attack. Better, much better, to give something to the mark: make him feel like he has one up on you. Let him pounce on your “mistake.” That makes him look unduly aggressive. Then you sprung the trap, garnering the pity by making the enemy look like a self-righteous and hyper-intellectual enemy of common sense. You attacked jujitsu-style, positioning yourself as the attacked, inspiring a strange sort of protective love among voters whose wounded resentments grow alongside your performance of being wounded. Your enemies appear only to have died of their own hand. Which makes you stronger.”

  5. Tim – You might take a look at the useful survey of sociological approaches in Jonathan H. Turner and Jan E. Stets, “Sociological Theories of Human Emotions,” Annual Review of Sociology 32, 2006, which discusses such figures as Erving Goffman, Randall Collins and Arlie Hochschild. There’s also anthropologist Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, and, of course, Durkheim’s view that religion – and social life – emerge from assemblies in which people experience intense emotions of collective excitement or ‘effervescence.’ Goffman draws on Durkheim in discussing interaction ritual, and Randall Collins elaborates in a conflict theory that considers the important role of interaction ritual chains.

    A fascinating post !

  6. I found that Natasha Zaretsky’s No Direction Home (2007) was quite strong on the emotional valences of political culture in the 1970s.

    Zaretsky’s title (from a Dylan lyric) also prods me to think about the role of music in the transformation of emotions that you’re describing, a subject some historians are beginning to take up very much along lines that might be helpful to you. The passages on Merle Haggard in Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive seem like they’d be an apt place to start, but Shane Hamilton’s great Trucking Country has an even fuller analysis of the emotions bound up in the rather specific genre of the trucker song in country music.

  7. Andrew: Thanks for the Zaretsky reference. And I believe you’re right on about music, by the way: Jefferson Airplane for the the Sixties Left, and “Outlaw Country” for the New Right in the Seventies. – TL

  8. Here’s a paper (forthcoming—Philpapers link) that may be of interest to readers of this post:

    Martyn Griffin (forthcoming). “Deliberative Democracy and Emotional Intelligence: An Internal Mechanism to Regulate the Emotions.” Studies in Philosophy and Education:-.

    Deliberative democracy, it is claimed, is essential for the legitimisation of public policy and law. It is built upon an assumption that citizens will be capable of constructing and defending reasons for their moral and political beliefs. However, critics of deliberative democracy suggest that citizens’ emotions are not properly considered in this process and, if left unconsidered, present a serious problem for this political framework. In response to this, deliberative theorists have increasingly begun to incorporate the emotions into their accounts. However, these accounts have tended to focus only upon the inclusion of emotions in the external-collective exchange of reason between citizens. Little work has been done on how the individual will actually cope with emotions internally within their own minds. There has been no consideration of the capacities that citizens will need to perceive, understand and regulate emotions as they formulate reasons both by themselves and with others. Moreover, there has been little consideration of how these capacities might be educated in children so that emotionally competent deliberative citizens can be created. In this paper, emotional intelligence is presented as an essential capacity that can fulfil this role for the deliberative citizen and deliberative democracy more generally. The ‘deliberative school’ is suggested as a potential site for this transformation that can progress from generation to generation, cultivating citizens that are increasingly better equipped to handle emotionally-laden deliberative engagement.

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