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.