U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Time and Again

In Indiana this week, we went back to the future. Governor Mitch Daniels signed legislation making Indiana the first right-to-work (RTW) state in the midwest. A victory Republicans have been fighting for since the late 1960s. At almost the same moment, the state senate approved a bill that would allow creationism to be taught in science classes. Was the passage of these two measures mere coincidence or is the state of Indiana, my home for the past eleven years, returning to the 1880s?

So what gives? Are the measures linked some how? They are both sponsored by conservative politicians, and yet would seem to have little in common with each other in substance. However, in light of reading an interesting exchange of letters between Corey Robin and Mark Lilla in the February 7, 2012 New York Review of Books there might be a way to explain this convergence.

This blog has brought up the Robin-Lilla debate before and Robin has provided an overview of the basic argument of his book in a blog post as well. What struck me about the recent exchange of letters is the debate over the effects of conservative action. In other words, it seems to me that Lilla argues for a strand of conservatism that seeks to preserve a fundamental sense of liberty against revolutions to recreate society, time and again. Robin rejects that conservatism is preservationist; rather he argues it is reactionary, it seeks to create (radically at times) a world without much concern for justice because the liberty to exercise power is ultimately more important.

In the context of Indiana’s recent legislative flurry, the Lilla school of conservatism might see RTW and creationism as moves to return the state to a pre-revolutionary moment, before the revolutions of worker power and scientific elites took the ability to negotiate contracts and teach children (respectively) out of the hands of the people. The Robin school of conservatism might see RTW and creationism as a two-pronged attacked against the establishment of justice for workers and professionals in science education (who had helped make Indiana students more competent in a scientifically-oriented world).

It seems to me that the difference between Lilla and Robin might be illustrated through the relationship between ideas and action. Lilla points to conservatives in the 19th century such as Disraeli and Bismarck who supported legislation that advanced causes of justice–Reform Act of 1867 and the welfare state respectively. In Lilla’s view, we can read ideas held by these conservatives backward through the acts and thereby suggest their conservatism finds no place in Robin’s categorical analysis. In Robin’s view, ideas propounded by conservatives such as Edmund Burke and John C. Calhoun to Sarah Palin and perhaps Mitch Daniels do not need to demonstrate unity through action because their ideas will manifest themselves in different ways given the different movements they are opposing and seeking to overwhelm. Rather, their ideas are joined through a notion (to play on the old H.L. Mencken line) that somebody, somewhere is messing with a social order that I believe is right and good.

For me, Robin’s use of conservatism is elastic in the sense the “reactionary mind” acts in a consistent way but not necessarily with results that look alike. And that insight might point to the dilemma of the left–its struggle for justice requires results to be consistent while its tactics vary. The reactionary works against challenges to a concept of order and even though that understanding of order can differ from person to person the instinct remains the same, to put down that which would change an established order.

Such reasoning is on display in Indiana. In a debate held recently at my university between a member of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and an Untied Steel Workers representative, the spokesman for the chamber stated bluntly (though not intentionally) that corporations want RTW laws because they don’t like having to share power in the workplace with unions. Likewise, in an interview regarding the creationist bill, its sponsor told the Indianapolis Star, “Many people believe in creation. Our schools are teaching what many people believe is false.”

Indeed, both ideas suggest a period from the past, but that is not the inspiration for their actions–they do not wish to return the state to an earlier time. Both measures seek to transform relationships of power in ways that will make their respective “spaces” less just and less favorable to those who would share in the power to shape those spaces. The fact that RTW and creationism seem to share little in common as legislative measures does not mean that intellectual spirit behind is not the same.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    Thanks for making me/us aware of the NYRB exchange. Cool.

    It seems clear, Ray, that you see Robin’s thesis as superior. I generally agree. But what then should historians of the New Right make of the strain that sincerely sees themselves as supporters of an older tradition? My answer would be to point out that every supporter of tradition has a different definition of “tradition” (e.g. unfettered local trade, local government, agrarian economy, America as the shining city of morals on a hill, church-based schooling, etc.). Because of this relativism between traditions, to me the so-called defenders of tradition end up being reactionaries (unless we run across that rare group that happens to have a coherent vision of “tradition”).

    Minor quibble: If Kansas is considered part of the Midwest, it’s been a right-to-work state since the late 1980s or early 1990s. So Indiana is taking its cues from Kansas! Comforting, I’m sure.

    – TL

  2. BTW: In reading that exchange I got severely annoyed on Robin’s behalf. Robin points out that conservatism is diverse due to its situational reactionary-ness, and then Lilla utterly misses the point by claiming that Robin “has no clear idea of what he means by ‘conservatism.'” Holy bejesus. Robin does have a definition, based on relativism, and you just don’t agree with it. Holding onto “the past” as a baseline definition of conservatism is also relativistic because one can always ask “which past”? …SIGH…. – TL

  3. Tim,

    The Midwest distinction is funky to me. Iowa is a RTW state and as you say so is Kansas. Is the line between Midwest and plains the Mississippi River?

    To your point about tradition, which is a good one, I take as one of Robin’s main points that the well-spring of what we consider modern conservatism has reactionary intentions. What I think Robin suggests is a link between justice and ideas that might be included in some actions to return to a tradition, but the big conservative thinkers had little use for justice as an end in itself.

    In this sense, I think you either buy his evidence or you contest with other evidence. The IN examples I put out seemed to suggest that Robin’s argument made sense. But then again…I look forward to alternative views.

  4. I too was surprised at Lilla’s willful disregard of Robin’s definitions. Robin’s letter struck me as pretty substantial and Lilla wrote a reply as if most of Robin’s letter didn’t matter. I take as quite revealing Robin’s aside about Lilla commenting almost exclusively on the introduction to the book.

  5. Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve also been watching with interest the various conservative bills flying through the Indiana General Assembly. I recently moved to Indianapolis. I took a job at one of the big local law firms in its labor group but now work for the state. What I find interesting is how quick many of the younger people here are to distance themselves from “social conservatives.” They want to draw a clear distinction between themselves, who often voted for Mitch Daniels, and those like Mike Delph, the state senator who sponsored the immigration bill and tried, and failed, to get a birther bill through the General Assembly. These fiscal conservatives aren’t xenophobic, they don’t care whether someone is gay, etc. But unions aren’t important, programs for the poor aren’t that helpful, it would be nice to have better schools, but what can you do? There’s a naïveté with this sentiment that surprises me every time I hear it. Someone at the law firm told me that unions aren’t important because there are so many laws to protect employees. This is while we’re sitting in a employer-side firm that takes millions of dollars in fees from employers and the Chamber of Commerce as part of the effort to crush unions and any nascent union efforts. That being said, thinking about your statement about the conflicting or uncoordinated efforts of reaction, I’m wondering if there’s a change in tactics on the part of the right or reaction or capital or what have you. I’m not sure if I’d put this in psychological terms or even something of consciously aware, or whether this is something structural. But, regardless of the crazies in the Republican race, there’s a move away from blatant racism or homophobia to something nominally colorblind and process oriented that will nonetheless still protect entrenched power, albeit one that appears more fair, open and fluid. I’m not even sure whether this change is happening is the interesting question, or whether how and why is more important.

    By the way, the only thing that surprises me about the Chamber of Commerce representative’s statement is that he or she was so clumsy. Usually the message is controlled enough to maintain the disconnect between what they say in private and what they tell the public.

  6. Sorry to take so long to reply to your comments, anonymous. Your point about the Chamber’s rep being a bit clumsy is right on. He had been very good and on point for most of the talk but was tripped up a bit by the union rep, a guy he has spoken with in situations like this one before. I understood the Chamber rep’s revelation as something that happens once the deed is done. He probably relaxed and let slip the view of the corporations he represents. Revealing, but as you suggest above, almost beside the point if the younger generation of grad school professionals don’t understand the reason unions exist or how corporate power is not an end in itself.

Comments are closed.