Conservatives and War

After reading earlier today about the new British study that shows a link between conservative political views and larger amygdalas (the part of the brain that controls fear and other primitive emotions), I came across another article from two months ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education addressing the affinity conservatives seem to have for war, and connecting it to the past work done by Richard Hofstadter and Theodor Adorno on “pseudo-conservatives” and “the authoritarian personality.”

This year is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Once this was the most famous of Theodor Adorno’s works. Today it’s largely forgotten. With one exception: its indelible portrait of the “pseudo-conservative.” Although Richard Hofstadter is often credited with the term—his essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” appeared in 1955—it was Adorno and his three co-authors who first identified the type: that vengeful and violent citizen who avows his faith in calm and restraint while agitating for policies that “would abolish the very institutions with which he appears to identify himself.” The pseudo-conservative, in other words, is no conservative at all. Prone to “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness,” he loves war and longs for bedlam in the streets. He has “little in common,” in Hofstadter’s words, “with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism.”

Musing on those passages last June, Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog, “It all sounds weirdly familiar, doesn’t it?” He was talking about the predatory revanchism that has stalked the Republican Party since 9/11 and now consumes it. “The Bush-Cheney presidency,” wrote Sullivan, was “the perfect pseudo-conservative administration.” The White House and its neoconservative enablers celebrated war and torture, shredded the Constitution, and bankrupted the nation. “Throughout all this,” Sullivan pointed out, “the Tea Partiers supported them.” Merely the latest in a long line of pseudo-conservatives, the Tea Party backer is “the opposite of a natural conservative at peace with the world as it is.”

It’s hard to disagree with Sullivan’s characterization of the American right. But he—like Hofstadter and Adorno before him—is wrong about its lack of conservative credentials. Today’s winger, like yesterday’s, is not a pseudo-conservative; he’s the real deal.

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn’t read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative “wants peace and is content only with peace.” The true conservative’s endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. …

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