Conservatism as an Adversary Culture

Conservatism as an Adversary Culture

Alan Johnson: Conservatism as Adversary Culture

Is American conservatism becoming an adversary culture? The term was coined by the critic Lionel Trilling to describe a romantic revolt against “bourgeois” society. The temper or sensibility was inspired by the romanticism of the eighteenth century, pioneered by small groups of bohemians in Paris in the 1820s and 1830s, spread by modernist movements in the arts after 1870, and went global with the affluent, youth-centered, self-centered, de-traditionalizing, media-drenched counter-cultures inaugurated in the “Sixties.”

The concept of the adversary culture was at the heart of the neoconservative Irving Kristol?s 1970s indictment of a Left that, in his view, was driven by “an anarchic, antinomian ‘expressionist’ impulse in matters cultural and spiritual” and was waging a “quasi-religious revolt against bourgeois sobriety.”

The health care debate suggests the respective tempers of Left and Right have flipped. We are the sober bourgeois now and they are the anarchists engaged in their expressive performances of identity.

The Democrats championed a prosaic bourgeois idea: health care for citizens. They used the quintessentially bourgeois form to do so: narrative. In the spirit of Dickens and Gaskell and Eliot they told moving stories about people who can?t get insurance cover. And the Democrats have compromised so that reform can be passed – so, no public option, and no federal funding for abortion.

It has been on the Right that we have found the antinomian temper of the adversary culture. They have spurned responsibility for the 30 million uninsured Americans. They opposed ?Obamacare? as a dictatorial assault on freedom. Theirs was a quasi-religious revolt and seemed rooted in their own inner emmigration of spirit from a fallen world.

It was not always like this.

The late neoconservative Irving Kristol wrote an essay in 1976 titled “Adam Smith and the theory of capitalism.” Its main insight was worked up into a book by his wife, the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Anglo-American enlightenment was different from the French enlightenment in important ways. There were distinctive “roads to modernity.”

That proposed by Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and John Wesley (the Methodist whose influence on the British Labour Party was vastly greater than Karl Marx?s), was pragmatic and reforming, realistic and compassionate. And it held faith and reason together as interlocutors in a public conversation.

By contrast, the “French” enlightenment, for Kristol and Himmelfarb, was romantic and ideological, system-building and grandiose, anti-clerical and authoritarian.

The point is not whether their account of intellectual history is correct in every detail. The point is that today?s conservatives no longer seem to feel an affinity for the humane and reforming temper of the old Anglo-American road to modernity. They have descended from the Public Interest to the Glenn Beck Show, where ?sob stories about people without proper fitting dentures? are mocked.

The successors of the pragmatic and humane traditions of Adam Smith?s theory of moral sentiments, John Wesley?s Methodism, and Charles Dickens? novels, it turns out, are we (social) democrats. It was the British Labour prime minister Gordon Brown who wrote a laudatory preface to Gertrude Himmelfarb?s book, calling it ?one of the most important in years.”

Many on today?s Right, by contrast, exhibit the worst of the “French” enlightenment.

There is the unrealistic and theoretical cast of mind (on display in their support for the Iraq fiasco no less than in their opposition to universal health care).

There is a sun-lit, dreamy, and “Jacobin” rhetoric about “The People” that brackets, and then hurts, real people (such as the uninsured).

And, “back right after these commercials folks” there is a paranoid and sectarian style. The spirit of the tricoteurs knitting while watching the ?counter-revolutionaries? lose their heads to the guillotine is alive and well at The Glenn Beck Show.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels