Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

Free Photo: Harbors in Barcelona, Spain

In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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