Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Politics of Resentment vs. The Politics of Condescension

That’s what Pat Deneen says we need to get beyond. He points to the late original and incisive social critic Christopher Lasch for guidance. Lasch was all about the populism of personal dignity and earned self-espect. Although Pat associates Lasch with the Democrats, it’s not so clear Lasch would vote for today’s Democrats. Christopher got more socially conservative, religious, and alienated from the American left as he got older and wiser. There are many more genuinely manly young personal dignity populists (including our Sarah) on the Republican team, Pat admits, and so our party’s future might well be brighter. But for now, the chaotically faltering economy, Pat predicts, will give this election narrowly to Obama, who will win mainly just because he’s not a discredited Republican. And because Mac and Sarah don’t really claim to know anything much about the economy. This is a good article to think about, but as usual I don’t agree with key parts of it.

Discussions - 20 Comments

Peter -
I know that you know that I know that Lasch became increasingly conservative, both in relative and absolute terms. What I meant to point out was that the Left needs someone who can credibly criticize the "Politics of Condescension" from within the Left. I pointed to Lasch because he came from the Left and I do think meant much of his critique to be advice and a corrective directed to the Left. In spite of his conservatism, I don't think he would have identified himself as anything but a man of the Left - and wanted the Left to embrace the "alternative" American tradition that he traced in "The True and Only Heaven."

Lasch certainly would have seen the polarity between condescension and resentment as soft therapeutic categories indicative of a burgeoning "cultural narcissism"...Lasch is pretty tough to pin down from a left/right perspective since as late as the Heaven book (early 90's?) he squarely situates his brand of populism on the left--nevertheless, his view of religion and the obtuseness of liberals regarding it in Revolt of the Elites (90's sometime after the Heaven book) seems to indicate, as Peter has observed, a decisive conservative turn. If fundamental to contemorary liberalism is the view tha human alientation can be desively overcome and with it the religious inclination, then Lasch really does make a deep break with it...


The one writer who got me thinking and moving toward the right in the late 1970s and early 1980s was Christopher Lasch. It is impossible to imagine him supporting as pure a transnational progressive representative of the New Class as Obama. The "left" he considered himself a part of practically no longer exists, and if it is reborn is as likely to find its home in the Republican as the Democratic Party, as absurd as I suspect that sounds. In any case, I agree that Deneen's article offers something to think about, but would not be so sure of an Obama win at all if I were him. I don't say Obama won't win. But his little bump up now seems to me to be due mainly to a bursting bubble that may or may not be in the news next week for all the hysteia about it now and that may or may not work to Obama's favor if it is. McCain is getting out with an economic message finally in the past day or so and is perfectly positioned to knock Obama off his horse in Debate One on this. Obama is very vulnerable on it, as inexperienced, as incoherent on taxes, as weak on energy, and as deep in bed not merely with Fannie and Fredie but in general with the hip, fast-talking world of Wall Street, Hollywood and all the other commanding heights of a class of Americans that is so programmed to look down upon the rest of us that they do not even know they are doing it when they are doing it the most.

let's face it folks: barack is more therapeutic and narcissistic than mac. thanks for three fine responses.

I'm no Lasch scholar but I tend to think his later conservatism was already there early on but not explicitly articulated, even to himself. So by the late 70's he had already pitted his populism versus any project of "widespread redemption" via bureaucratic means and the later religiousness combines this with a kind of Augustinianism--the faith in progress had unfortunately replaced the realistic observation of our permanent alienation and imperfection.

Some thoughts,

1. It would do conservatives some good to spend a week attacking Obama without ever once referring to his elitism, snobbery, alienation, showbiz popularity, cosmopolitinism, or any other aspect of his otherness. There are good reasons for conservatives to lampoon the mores and instincts of the liberal upper middle class (which are often both destructive and self-serving), but many conservatives seem to have gotten into a rut in which attacking the bobos substitutes for a positive vision. The lipstick controversy marks some kind of low point. The mental muscle for mocking elitism has become overgrown while others have atrophied.

2. Any conservative populism is going to have to do much better at selling itself to the latino and African American working and middle classes than any recent conservatism has managed to. This year, for reasons both historical and contemporary, no conceivable conservative strategy would have recruited much larger numbers of African Americans into any conservative campaign. But for demographic reasons, the white working class will soon not be numerous enough for a populist conservatism to win absent major inroads among latinos and African Americans. That fellow on Culture11 was right that any future conservative populism will have to use inclusive language, but it will also need to recruit a larger nonwhite voting base than the current conservative "base" represents.

3. Any populist conservatism needs to be more about defending the decency and nobility of ordinary life in America than attacking the pathologies of upper class liberalism (though that has its place). When Obama tries to sell the community organizer as the model of the noble life, conservatives need to portray a compelling vision of the decency of middle and working class life as it is lived and constrast it with Obama's view of the ideological busybody as the good life. That would be as effective as any form of mockery. It would also point to an alternative political agenda . While the current mockery of Obama makes some telling points, it is too oppositional and comes across as carping from people who don't have any ideas of their own.

pete, three excellent points--each one better than the one before.

Pete: I have no hatred towards other races. I wish them the best. But I am also concerned with my own race, the white race, my extended family, and its traditions, namely Western Civilization. The very basic meaning of the Latin conservare is "to preserve." What is wrong with a person wanting to preserve those of his own race? It's a natural instinct. Race, after all, is only extended family. I'm not saying we should hate people of other races. That's wrong. But why shouldn't one want to support the interests of his own race? Universalism is left-wing concept, long attacked by conservatives like De Maistre. The NAACP and La Raza (both racialist organizations) are extremely successful. European Americans (i.e. whites) too should also promote their own interests. SEE: http://www.nationalpolicyinstitute.org/

AMP, that was a very civil reply and it deserves civility in turn. But if, to you, white people in Denmark are in any meaningful politcal sense, more "your people" than your black American neighbors (especially the ones who fight to protect you and me in the military)then the bridge between us cannot be crossed until we both agree to either jointly embrace or reject racialism. I don't see myself changing my mind but people can diagree agreeably.

As a political matter, a politics of white racialism would be a total political disaster for the Right. For starters, most white people would rightly reject it to say nothing of that large and growing fraction of Americans that are not white.

More importantly, any politics based on the error of racial essentialism deserves to lose and even if it were a viable option (which it isn't, thankfully that forbidden fruit need not tempt us), conservatives would be better off losing with the truth of universal human rights than winning based on the idea that our fellow Americans do not really share the same interests because they are of a different skin color or heritage.

Pete, no one is talking about racial separation. Blacks and mestizos promote their own interests. Ever heard of the NAACP or La Raza? Why can't whites do the same? If other races do it and whites don't, aren't whites at a disadvantage? And heaven forbid that I have pride in my European ancestors. I suppose I'll throw away my Aristotle, Bach and Jean Raspail, and replace them with Tha Mexakinz, Snoop Dog, and Snap Yo Mamma.

Thomas, that was a bit less civil but ok. What amazes me is the desire some posters exhibit to replicate the vices of the identity politics Left. Does Left racism seem like so much fun that we must invent reasons to indulge in it ourselves?

Our paleocon fellows diagnose a real problem when they complain of racialist identity politics. But the problem is not that the identity politics is black or latino but not white. The problem is defining political allegiances by race rather than shared virtues, shared citizenship and (not least) common humanity. A white identity politics only makes the problem worse because more of the poison cannot be the antidote for the poison.

Which brings us to a possible role for a truly broad populist conservatism. Populist conservatism will have to draw large numbers of nonwhites who recognize that the identity politics of the Al Sharptons and the La Razas are dead ends and who know this because of the evidence of their own lives. But for this to happen, conservatism will have to be able to demonstrate that conservatism as an orientation is built on shared virtues, shared interests, shared principles, shared citizenship, and a shared policy agenda. Today, too many nonwhites see political conservatism as a disguised special interest politics for white people.

And conservatives might think how past conservative actions have helped convince many nonwhites that identity politics, for all its manifest absurdities, better represents their interests and protects their rights than the conservative movement. A historically literate black person must know that the NAACP was right about Jim Crow and the conservative movement was wrong as - William Voegeli's Claremont Review article shows. We as conservatives ought recognize that the special power of identity politics is partly of our own making.

And Thomas, your rundown (in every sense of the term) of black and latino culture was very nasty, mean spirited, and culturally illiterate.

I appreciate Pete's tone and content.

It's funny business promoting approprite populism through such a smart, university-affiliated blog.

There's a learned heritage that supports the well-balanced State and the Soul. Yet we can't expect everyone drawn to this living heritage to take an Ashbrook Master's degree, broadly speaking.

Not only that, but the tradition has a built in impetus to extend its shelter beyond, well, decendents of Athens, Rome, Wittenburg, Zurich, Plymouth, etc.

The task of building an appropriate multi-racial populism is challenging yet not at odds with an appreciation for the Western Tradition. Just the opposite! We are good conveyors of the tradition by meaningfully extending it.

All very well said, Pete.

Pete: "rather than shared virtues, shared citizenship and (not least) common humanity. " This is Jacobonism, not conservatism. Pete, identity politics of non-whites will not end because a neocon tells them to do so. In fact, it will grow stronger. There is major money and political capital in racial identity politics, and even now Asians are doing it too with the 80-20 Initiative, akin to the NAACP or La Raza. It is your Pied Piper strategy that is a dead end. Until whites promote their own interests in the same manner as do other races, whites are doomed. "Common humanity" is an invention of left-wing revolutionaries (read De Maistre). Race is extended family, and there is nothing wrong with promoting the interests of your own kind.

Pete: You essentially are arguing for propositionalism, a left-wing concept. I suggest you read this: http://buchanan.org/blog/2006/10/web-exclusive-pjb-nation-or-notion/

Paleocon, lets take them one at a time.

Shared virtues: Is it true that large groups of black and white people share the same virtues. The experience of our own lives proves that this is so.

Shared citizenship: Aside from the obvious legal status, have not some of our most faithful citizens been black, and some of our most loathsome traitors been white? Doesn't it make more sense to make our political alliance with our fellow citizens based on their personal virtue and constitutional faithfulness rather than on race? Would a white Greek American conservative be sane to prefer Mike Dukakis over Clarence Thomas?

common humanity: Your argument is not with me, it is with the Founding Fathers and the evidence of our own senses.

On identity politics. Racial identity politics is inherently destructive. not just for the nation but also for those groups seduced into playing them. The racial paranoia and spoilsmanship is inherently destuctive of both good government and good citizenship. Does anyone think that Detroit's population has profited from identity politics? Some members of the group that practice racial identity politcs prosper (otherwise it would have no social base at all), but most members of the group come out losers because the kind of politicians drawn to identity politics manipulate racial animosity to chase false problems, offer fake solutions, and alibi their own corruption and incompetence. A white identity politics would surely follow the same course. Why would anyone envy the communities most in the grip of identity politics? Do the people who live there live better? would you change places with them?

But that is a populist multiracial conservatism's oppurtunity if it ever figures out how to seize it. There are lots of people in those communities who see the absurdity of much of identity politics but who go along because it at least seems to be truly on their side. Conservatism usually seems to be on the other side and the impression has hardened that conservatives are the enemy. Conservatives bear alot of the blame for that impression. Nonwhites can hardly be blamed for preferring a sketchy, sometime deluded friend over a consistently obtuse opponent. The irony is that this converts people who based on their actual lives and their policy preferences would be allies into enemies. It is one of any truly populist conservatism's challenges to heal that breach. If it seems impossible, so did recruiting Southern whites to the GOP once upon a time.

And I ask again, Is some white guy in Denmark more "your people" than your own black neighbors? Who do you owe more to, your fellow whites on a different continent ,or to your black fellow citizens in the military who protect you and your rights?

The Dr. moniker is just to let a few NLT friends know of my new status, BTW. I won't make it a habit.

Pete, fine stuff. The thing I would add is this: conservatives need to attack the OVERRELIANCE upon group-identity politics practiced by(or rather, upon) black Americans and other minority groups. The tragedy that is Detroit is exhibit A. See Tamar Jacoby's fine book Someone Else's House to absorb its maginitude. If Obama loses by a hair, then his affiliation with Rev. Wright could be exhibit B, i.e., way back in the day, Rev. Cone and his ilk suffered from Elijah Muhammad envy and wanted to find some way to Black-nationalize the black church and Christianity, but little did they know, with all their ignorant talk of the importance of "power," that their teachings would one day work to keep a black man who could have been president from being so. And let's face it, there is a whole alphabet of exhibits, and one that could be extended to Mexican-Americans, gays, who-have-you.

But conservatives should not talk as if there is never any need for identiy politics, even racially-grounded identity politics. If, for example, you are a white student in a school district that has become largely Latino and whose administration has become largely Latino or black, you might find, given certain abuses, a need to organize against mistreatment of whites. A Central Los Angeles Caucasian Council, for example, might be a regrettable LOCAL necessity in the future. I don't recommend such a course, but I won't be condemning whites who do if the issues are real.

But this reasoning applies even more so to the minorities most likely to suffer discrimination: blacks, gays, perhaps Muslims. All of these will have continued natural self-interested reasons for protecting themselves, and to utilize the natural instinct to "defend one's own" that group-identity politics encourages. Now with blacks in particular, I'm simplifying the history and the identity dynamics a whole lot, of course, but the basic point here is that certain conservatives get hung up on the disproportion in the fact that the past and continued existence of a NAACP is far more acceptable and understandable than would be the creation of a NAAWP (attempts to organize around this name have been tried, as Carol Swain's fine book on white nationalism shows). For some paleos, the disproportion shows that there should be NAAWP, or worse, that the conservative movement should work to protect white interests. For some non paleo-cons, the disproportion shows that things like NAACP shouldn't exist. It is true that the logic of multiculturism leads you to white nationalism, perhaps even one officially agnostic about race and primiarly focused on culture and group interest. And if there is anything less genuinely American, and thus less appropriate for American conservatives to avocate than white nationalism, I'd be hard pressed to name it. But from that it doesn't follow that blacks don't still need some organizations to mobilize them when needed as blacks.

Now it is of course presently a pipe dream to expect that the NAACP or its ilk is going to step back and say to black Americans, "we are less important to you than the Democratic or Republican party, or other non-racial affiliations you will take, but we're remaining here so that when the collective interests of all blacks against racism need to be defended we can quickly mobilize." No, it will continue to talk, albeit in an increasing disconnect from the reality on the ground, about the paramount importance of race, race, race, race. They will continue to dwell in 1963 Birmigham for as long as they can. But conservatives who happen to be white can at least point to that disconnect and say to blacks, "Look, wouldn't you really prefer a sane NAACP that would defend a limited set of policy goals and interests, that would refuse to demonize the likes of Cosby or Barbershop who simply say it like it is, and that would not be rightfully regarded by serious people as the Boy Who Cried Wolf when it came to making charges of racism?" The same argument, in fact more easily applied, applies to Latinos, gays, etc.

Conservative outrage about Rev. Wright, La Raza, etc., will simply make no inroads into the minority communities that it needs to unless it is accompanied by a defense of more moderate practitioners of group-identity politics. Few of these moderate practioners yet exist, but our rhetoric on this is very important.

Carl, congrats on the phd. That post was very moderate in the best (as opposed to Lincoln Chafee) sense of the term. You are right that while conservatives should oppose the "there is only race, class, and gender" style identity politics of the Left, there are other more benign forms of identity politics that are easily tolerated and even embraced by a decent multiracial politics. And you are right that in fighting against extreme identity politics, conservatives should take care not to further alienate those communities that identity politics is damaging. There is alot of ways to critique the politics of Detroit, but some of those ways will convince the people of Detroit that conservatives do not care about them, have contempt for them (conservative condescension), and are just using Detroit's problems to further dismiss and humiliate the black community. If we aren't careful, we can be identity politics' best friends.

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