Today, one of my favorite political writers explains the difference between conservatives and reactionaries, and why we should all care. Andrew Sullivan, the eminent center-right blogger, writes in “The Limits of My Conservatism”
This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. [Michael] Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault….
One question conservatives are always asking themselves is whether these changes can be integrated successfully into a new social fabric, so we do not lose cohesion as a nation; another is whether this change is largely being imposed from above by ideological fiat, or whether it’s emerging from below as part of an emerging spontaneous order. That’s why conservatives support marriage equality and reactionaries oppose it; why conservatives support equal opportunity for women and reactionaries fret about it; why conservatives think twice before leaving the E.U., which has been integrated into the British way of life for several decades, and reactionaries want to wrench Britain out of it; or why a conservative might hesitate before junking the entire apparatus of international alliances that the U.S. has built and supported since the 1940s, while a reactionary will just rip it up. All these broader social changes are emergent ones that seem well within our capacities as a society to digest.
But there is a place where conservatives and reactionaries find common cause — and that is when the change occurring is drastic, ideological, imposed by an elite, and without any limiting principle. This is not always easy to distinguish from more organic change — but there is a distinction. On immigration, for example, has the demographic transformation of the U.S. been too swift, too revolutionary, and too indifferent to human nature and history? Or is it simply a new, if challenging, turn in a long, American story of waves of immigrants creating a country that’s an ever-changing kaleidoscope? If you answer “yes” to the first, you’re a reactionary. If “yes” to the second, you’re a liberal. If you say yes to both, you’re a conservative. If you say it’s outrageous and racist even to consider these questions, you’re a card-carrying member of the left.
In this column, Sullivan is arguing that the political spectrum features four primary nodes: center-right (conservative), center-left (liberal), farther-right (reactionary), and farther-left (leftist). He suggests that the difference between the center and extreme conservative positions is mainly that the former accepts modernity and multicultural diversity and attempts to manage change, whereas the latter rejects them and will go to radical lengths to push back at them. He also implies that a big difference between the center-right and the center-left is that while they both embrace demographic change only the former also acknowledges its potential for fast tides to overwhelm the country.
Although my own preferred typology of political views is somewhat different than Andrew’s, I have much sympathy with his useful and wise distinctions. Not having the time to write a longer post, let me just say that Integral Politics makes room for all of these four major nodes (left, center-left, center-right, right) as types of political thought with different relationships to subjective and objective realities as well as individual and collective realities. These relationships aren’t always so important to call out, but they are useful when it comes to seeing how each node can have a part of the truth. For example, were not conservatives and reactionaries fixated on individual interior explanations for suffering, they would be more inclined to see a value to systemic, cultural and structural change of the sort favored by leftists (e.g., “change imposed from above by fiat”). Although I won’t speak to developmental holarchies today, I want to add that while Sullivan’s observations are pretty flatland (i.e., non-developmental), they are nevertheless remarkably subtle and useful for highlighting much important political information.
Andrew’s distinctions between conservatives and reactionaries are not without normative significance. He suggests a political program of moderation constrained by natural necessities:
Moderate change within existing structures wins converts and creates conservatives, willing to defend incremental liberal advances. Radical change bent on transforming human nature generates resistance and creates reactionaries. Leftists have to decide at some point: Do they want to push more conservatives into Michael Anton’s reactionary camp or more reactionaries into the conservative one? And begin to ponder their own role in bringing this extreme reactionism into the mainstream.
Sullivan’s column is as smartly argued a defense of conservatism as I have seen — and sound advice to liberals and leftists who have failed to appreciate the wisdom outside of their ideological boxes — yet my heart cannot follow Andrew to the exact same conclusion. Radical change involving r/evolution of human nature and potential now seems almost impossible and yet probably absolutely necessary. Our politics must dance as much with paradox as with method, drawing from sources outside as well as inside of rationality. Left-wing thinkers understand better than most that only deep-rooted structural changes stand a chance at saving the planetary systems we all require. Moderate change is only acceptable if the extreme poles that are being integrated are conceived with sufficient ambition. Doing what needs to be done to save life on Earth and avoid its destruction ought to be a moderate position for anyone’s politics, no matter what it takes to get there.