“A Loathsome Plague Called Reaction”: Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought
“The tide of American Conservatism runs in confusing patterns, but few will now deny that it runs deep and strong.” – Clinton Rossiter
Today, fear and conservatism might be more frequently linked in the minds of political scientists than any time in recent memory. Whether it is stemming from the rhetoric of politicians or talking points on cable news, fear mongering is at an all-time high. The link between fear and conservatism is not an altogether difficult one to make. Central to conservative ideology is a resistance to change- that the alternative may be worse than the situation we find ourselves in now; fear of what may come is easily connectable to that notion. However, the question of how this fear manifests itself arises. As analysts across the country bemoan the increasing radicalism in the Republican Party, many call for a return to a different brand of conservatism, based more in ideology than appeals to emotion. Still, that transition may not be so simple. Conservative thought is not altogether homogenous. Liberalism and traditionalism do not always go hand in hand. Yet as general attitudes of conservative thinkers shift, from early modern thinkers who trust in power to contemporary philosophers who do not trust it at all, fear remains consistent. Some theorists attempt to suppress this fear while others embrace it, but all invoke it in some way or another.
This paper will seek to track rhetoric of fear throughout the history of conservative political thought. Beginning with Edmund Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France, a text and thinker oft-credited as the foundation of conservatism, and continuing with writings of Russell Kirk, this political theory journey will rely extensively on textual evidence. However, that is not to say that it will cast aside the wealth of scholarship already published on this topic. Burke is one of the most covered scholars in the contemporary theoretical canon, and his emotional language has been addressed in a number of places. Isaac Kramnick’s 1977 book The Rage of Edmund Burke puts forth a controversial vision of Burke the man as an angry and fearful leader- this study aims less to conjecture upon his character on Kramnick’s, but certainly builds upon some of his analyses.1 Additionally, this paper will be seeking to build off the work of Lauren Hall, whose 2011 paper “Rights and the Heart: Emotions and Rights Claims in the Political Theory of Edmund Burke,” spectacularly assessed Burke’s conception of emotions, which in many ways is the bedrock to this thesis. One of the most prolific scholars on Burke is indeed Russell Kirk, and his writings will be examined in on their own merit. With respect to American conservatism as a whole, no book serves as a better background than George H. Nash’s excellent The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945.2 In terms of biographies of various conservatives as well as an understanding of conservatism as a whole, I will relying on Nash extensively. Regarding Kirk’s writing, this paper will draw upon the Gerald J. Russello’s excellent 2007 book Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.3 A benefit of studying a modern scholar is the wealth of book reviews and responses written by contemporaries- this paper will integrate writings from such scholars, including Clinton Rossiter.
In respect to the larger question of how fear and conservatism are inextricably linked, three pieces of scholarship form the basis of this study. Judith N. Shklar’s chapter in Liberalism and the Moral Life, entitled “The Liberalism of Fear,” theorizes that liberal ideology derives itself of a fear of what may happen when rights are restricted, rooted in the ideology and rhetoric of thinkers of John Locke and J.S. Mills.4 Her argument is extremely compelling, and inspires consideration of the emotional aspects of all political rhetoric. While this paper considers conservative thinkers, some of whom may even identify as definitively anti-liberal, Shklar’s work provided guidance and illumination.
Research on fear in the conservative mind has been done in the field of psychology, with the groundbreaking work of Glenn D. Wilson as the preeminent example. While his edited volume The Psychology of Conservatism has a number of fascinating studies, perhaps the most revolutionary is his conclusion- that conservatism in humans can be predicted by the presence of a “generalize fear of uncertainty.”5 This study cannot be taken for fact- central to most conceptions of conservatism is of course a skepticism of “scientific” conclusions- but it does strongly link fear to conservative political ideology. My study begins as an attempt to expand Wilson’s conclusions and apply them to the realm of political theory.
The thought of connecting psychology and conservatism is not unheard of in the realm of political science. George H. Nash briefly addressed the idea of the “irrational roots” of conservative behavior in his “Biographical Essay” at the end of his 1978 book. While acknowledging the novelty of the idea, he mostly comes down against any kind of subconscious explanation of conservatism, saying the work of proponents is marked by “relatively little discussion of conservative thought” and that “the use of social psychological categories like ‘status anxiety’ to explain the activities of highly sophisticated, self-conscious, often idiosyncratic intellectuals is a hazardous undertaking at best.”6 Hazardous indeed, but worthwhile. I will be attempting to address Nash’s main critique by applying Wilson’s “generalized fear of uncertainty” to conservative thought.
Much ink has been spilled in the pursuit of defining who exactly is a “conservative.” Each thinker has their own slightly different outlook. If we are to take Burke as the foundational thinker in what it means to be conservative, then we are led to believe it is about an adherence to tradition and prudence over new ideas and frequent change. However, this does not encompass many that today may be labelled, either by themselves or others, as such. In the modern political landscape, advocates of devolution, the complete privatization of health care, and deregulation of the economy are the strongest voices of right wing politics, but may be decried as radical by more classical conservatives. Indeed, Russell Kirk, foundational thinker of the New Conservative movement in the 1950’s, argued that anyone who thinks that policy decisions can be made “on a basis of absolute right and absolute wrong” are the type of “political zealots” that out to be avoided.7 Kirk’s camp is often described as “paleoconservative,” in opposition to the more well-known term “neoconservative.”8 However, a more accurate term would be “prescriptive conservative,” as their great focus is on trusting the wisdom of the past and relying upon knowledge of what has happened to determine what to do. A term that might suffice to describe the alternative- one that is less context specific than neo-con- is “reactive conservative,” taken to mean those who still look backwards for solutions but are unafraid to alter the status-quo to achieve their goals. These two groups, prescriptive conservatives and reactive conservatives, form the two great camps of conservative tradition.
This simplistic delineation is solely used to say that this paper will fixate on the former camp instead of the latter. While reactive conservatives dominate much of today’s rhetoric, their heritage is far more difficult to understand. Still, both groups have one common ancestor- Edmund Burke. Burke’s own Reflections on the Revolution in France can be seen as torn in these two directions, fixated both on tradition and reaction, and varied different interpretations can lead a reader down opposite paths. Still, authors like William Graham Sumner and John Stuart Mill intentionally decry tradition, while prescriptives embrace it. This enthusiasm makes it all the more inviting look at them through the lens of Burke. Specifically, it is the threads of Burke’s great fear of change and its primary manifestations that can be picked up in the words of prescriptive conservative thinkers. By understanding this fear, and thus the roots of prescriptive conservatism, one can begin to gain a fuller comprehension of those voices throughout history that seek to slow the careening train car of “progress.”