Ronald Reagan (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

In his famous book The Rhetoric of Reaction, the economist Albert Hirschman discusses three common rhetorical “theses” employed by the Right to blunt the appeal of progressive arguments. The thesis of perversity says that progressive reforms will exacerbate the very problems they’re intended to solve; the thesis of futility says that such reforms will simply have no appreciable effect; the thesis of jeopardy warns that progressive overreach will threaten whatever progressives have already achieved. Hirschman’s analysis is now widely accepted on the Left, but there are limitations to his approach. As its title suggests, The Rhetoric of Reaction conceives of the Right as essentially reactive—merely putting the brakes on progressive ideas. But while the modern Right may have been born of animosity to the Left’s vision of the future, it has only survived and thrived by learning to present its own vision. In the eighteenth century it was the Jacobins who declared it Year One, but in 1980, it was Ronald Reagan who announced, echoing Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.” As Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind:

The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver’s seat since, depending who’s counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation. If he is to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against the culture as it is…. Even when the conservative claims to be preserving a present that’s threatened or recovering a past that’s been lost, he is impelled by his own activism and agency to confess that he’s making a new beginning and creating the future…. [The conservative] develops a particular attitude toward political time, a belief in the power of men and women to shape history, to propel it forward or backward; and by virtue of that belief, he comes to adopt the future as his preferred tense.

In short, the Right is fully capable of developing its own utopian vision of the future, one where American flags are everywhere and immigrants are scarce. The Right’s constructive dimension becomes especially prominent when conservatives think the Left has “been in the driver’s seat” for too long, and that, consequently, just conserving or holding ground is no longer enough. Today, many on the American Right feel conservatives should get out of the business of conserving and into the business of “regime change.” As the right-wing commentator Glenn Ellmers put it in his essay “Conservatism is No Longer Enough,” “practically speaking, there is almost nothing left to conserve. What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.”

To understand what the Right means when they profess a desire “to begin the world again” or “refound” the country, we need to understand its affirmative rhetoric as well as the negative rhetoric Hirschman described. Two of the Right’s most common affirmative theses are what we might call sublimation and naturalization.

 

Sublimation is perhaps the oldest affirmative thesis on the Right. Its roots lie in an ancient conception of society, one defined by what Charles Taylor, in Modern Social Imaginaries, calls “hierarchical complementarity.” According to this conception, social hierarchy corresponds to a transcendent pattern that exists both within and beyond nature. The medieval image of a “Great Chain of Being” is one famous symbol of this conception. The modern Right’s appeals to sublimation go back at least as far as Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, which declared that “sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them…whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he should as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection.” As a summation of the sublimation thesis, this can’t be improved upon, but it can perhaps be simplified as follows: sublimation entails the association of transcendent qualities with particular persons or whole classes in order to justify their superior status and wealth and their power over others.

Sublimation is intended to generate what Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, called a “pathos of distance” between the sublimated person and the ordinary “herd.” This gap is in principle unbridgeable: on one side is the mundane and plebian, available and comprehensible to everyone; on the other is the sublime, which is too refined for ordinary people to fully understand or aspire to. The distinction here is analogous to—and sometimes confused with—the distinction between the profane and the sacred. The point of such rhetoric is to get us to perceive either an individual or an elite group as worthy of deference.

Sublimation entails the association of transcendent qualities with particular persons or whole classes in order to justify their superior status and wealth and their power over others.

From the nineteenth century onward, the widespread transition to democratic governance forced the Right to find new ways to acquire mass support for conservative policies. The rhetoric of sublimation assumed a more demotic tone. Sometimes this meant inviting voters to imagine themselves as members of the rarefied class whose privileges were under threat. In his historically important pamphlet “The Interest in Slavery of the Non-Slaveholder,” James DeBow echoed Sen. John Townsend’s claim that “the color of the white man is now, in the south, a title of nobility.” DeDow pointed out that poor whites in the North are “at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst [their] brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.” Note the spatial metaphor at the end, functioning in much the same way as Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance.”

Another more demotic version of sublimation rhetoric argues that ordinary men and women live more meaningful and dignified lives by submitting themselves to the authority of more elevated persons; their very submission elevates them above the rabble of a democracy. Joseph De Maistre gave classic expression to this point when he insisted that monarchy “without contradiction” was “the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons.” More recently, Alexander Dugin described Eurasian democracy as a system where the people fulfill a glorious “destiny” selected for them by the “single ones.” Believe it or not, Donald Trump also tapped into this current in The Art of the Deal, nicely highlighting its essential fraudulence. He, or rather his ghostwriter, argued that, while many ordinary people may not think “big” themselves, they are naturally drawn to those who do. A person who does think “big” can find it very easy to persuade others, because he allows them to participate in the “fantasy” he projects—though as followers rather than as equals.

Finally, sublimation is intended to mystify. In A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke explained that sublime objects are those the ordinary mind tries and fails to comprehend fully; they therefore instill in the perceiver a sense of “awe, reverence, and respect.” When attached to persons and institutions sublime qualities are intended to induce a sense of overpowering reverence and to diminish whatever confidence ordinary people have in their own capacity to critically assess those in power.

Burke knew this idea might appear paradoxical to the modern mind, which requires that all authority be rationally justified, and that the justifications be intelligible to everyone. But for Burke, the very effort to justify power publicly is what destroys it, since reason alone will never be enough to get the “swinish multitude” to offer their enduring allegiance and to accept subordination. A politics built on rationality rather than mystification risks turning compliant subjects into demanding citizens. By stripping away “all the pleasing illusions which made power gentle, and obedience liberal,” the “new conquering empire of light and reason” tore down “all the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation…. On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman.” Burke suggests that the wise statesman recognizes the need to foster illusions that can disguise raw power as natural authority.

For centuries, sublimation was the Right’s favorite and most frequently deployed rhetorical thesis, but today it has lost much of its appeal. In truth, it was always vulnerable, always the proverbial emperor with no clothes—just another set of fantastic illusions projected on to the all-too-human. This vulnerability is one reason the twenty-first-century Right gets exceptionally shrill when people fail to show the requisite deference to their sublimated better—whether it be a newly crowned seventy-four-year-old king or a tech tycoon.

It is now very easy for progressive critics to deflate the sublimating aspirations of the Right by drawing attention to the very un-sublime realities hidden behind the exercise of power. Behind every proud flag and enchanting palace there is a long history of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and squalid sex scandals. Historical awareness is the enemy of sublimation. Burke lamented that it was always a tragedy when people inquired too closely into the foundations of commonwealths. For the same reason, Ron DeSantis doesn’t want people thinking too much about Black history: it might complicate, or even undermine, their faith in the current distribution of power and wealth. In short, the sublimation thesis may be the most natural fit for the Right, but it is also an easy target for the Left. Hence the Right’s turn to an alternative thesis: naturalization.

 

As Burke, De Maistre, and many other critics of Enlightenment reason understood, the sublime view that a stratified society corresponds to some deeper transcendent hierarchy is difficult to maintain in the face of modern materialism’s leveling ontology. This has led many on the political Right to embrace the naturalization thesis as a more plausible defense of privilege and hierarchy, one that actually draws on the prestige of Enlightenment reason rather than reacting against it. Where sublimation appeals to mysterious metaphysical realities to justify inequality, naturalization appeals to empirical facts, or at least pretends to. Some people and groups of people are just demonstrably superior to others, so why should our political institutions pretend otherwise? Inequalities of status, wealth, and power reflect natural inequalities that no viable political order can hope to suppress.

The naturalization thesis is intended to generate a feeling of resignation: This is just how things are, so we’d all better get used to it. In this respect, naturalization is quite different from sublimation, which is meant to induce not resignation but reverence and awe. Where sublimation presents itself in the pompous garb of timeless tradition, exponents of the naturalization thesis prefer to pose as icy realists. Not for them the sentimental self-deceptions of utopian egalitarians; they choose instead to look squarely at the reality of the human condition and to set their expectations accordingly. They present their case as something all reasonable people can understand—indeed, as something no reasonable person could disagree with. Sometimes they even express sympathy, real or feigned, with the moral ambitions of the Left, before insisting that such ambitions will forever be frustrated by the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Thus, they turn the Enlightenment’s commitment to reason against its commitment to progress. Progressives, they insist, are no less guilty of mystification than reactionaries are.

The naturalization thesis is intended to generate a feeling of resignation: This is just how things are, so we’d all better get used to it.

Many apologists for capitalist inequality lean heavily on the naturalization thesis. In a monograph titled Liberalism, Ludwig Von Mises lamented the “sober” fact that “all human power would be insufficient to make men really equal. Men are and will always remain unequal.” Elsewhere, he repeats the point that “men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized.” But Von Mises insists that while natural inequalities can never be eradicated, individuals can at least be made equal under the law. This is one of the features that distinguishes capitalism from earlier, more sublimated forms of hierarchy: in a capitalist system “the more gifted and more able have no means to profit from their superiority other than to serve to the best of their abilities the wishes of the majority of the less gifted.” Competition in the market will allow unequal human capacities and talents to express themselves and be rewarded according to merit, while also generating value for the rest of society. Von Mises insists that the social and material inequalities that emerge in this situation will be justified because they were not artificially imposed, but instead reflect natural differences of talent. And this is just the situation we would expect if meddlesome politicians had the courage to tell the “masses” the truth about their natural inferiority: “You are inferior and all the improvement in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

The naturalization thesis presents the Right’s abstract ideal of social inequality as the default reality and construes deviations from it as either unnatural or impossible. James Fitzjames Stephen gave classic expression to this view in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Responding to John Stuart Mill’s arguments for gender equality, Stephen defends patriarchy by claiming that “we cannot imagine the removal” of “differences of age and sex” unless “human nature is radically changed.” Here we see how the naturalization thesis can be easily combined with Hirschman’s more defensive reactionary theses: the conservative ideologue will present an unequal social order as natural and functional, and then suggest that progressive ambitions to deviate from it constitute a form of “social engineering” that will produce perverse results, prove futile, or jeopardize past achievements. This combination of naturalizing capitalist inequality and deflecting arguments against reform by appeals to perversity, futility, or jeopardy has been common on the American Right at least since Barry Goldwater. In The Conscience of a Conservative (1960) Goldwater’s ghostwriter naturalized dramatic inequalities of wealth while lamenting “artificial” efforts to correct them:

The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax. Its effect, and to a large extent its aim is to bring down all men to a common level. Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation’s wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected if we would restore that charter and honor those laws.

 

The naturalization thesis has generally been a harder one for liberals and progressives to respond to. This is partly because it presents itself as merely describing empirical facts. That means one has to respond to it either by appealing to a different interpretation of those facts or by presenting an entirely different set of facts. What makes things more difficult is that conservatives are often right, at least superficially: there are indeed clear differences in innate human aptitudes and capabilities. Another difficulty for liberals and progressives is that the naturalization thesis can appeal to a certain kind of left-wing, post-structuralist pessimism about how much structural reform is really possible. Centrist liberals have their own version of this tendency. In his new book Liberalism Against Itself, Samuel Moyn points out how many Cold War liberals internalized conservative arguments about the impossibility of radically improving society because of the natural imperfections of human nature and knowledge. This transformed American liberalism from a revolutionary creed into a defensive one, as many liberals gradually turned against the ambitions of the New Deal and the Great Society.

But the naturalization thesis is not unanswerable. Where conservatives go wrong is in obscuring how much freedom we have in deciding how social institutions should respond to natural differences of talent and capability. For instance, a society may decide there is nothing that can be done for infants born with advanced genetic disabilities. One could even surround this cruel choice with naturalizing rhetoric about the unfairness of the genetic lottery. Or instead we could choose to allocate public resources in order to secure a decent and fulfilling life for children with disabilities. As John Rawls eloquently put it in Theory of Justice:

We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carryover to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.

Of course, the sublimation thesis and the naturalization thesis are not mutually exclusive. One often sees the less scrupulous propagandists of the Right trying to combine the two, so that they can appear both more in touch with transcendent wisdom and more worldly wise than progressives, who are caricatured as both nihilistic and naïve. But regardless of the exact proportions of the two kinds of rhetoric, the result is intended to be the same: those individuals or classes whom the Right regards as manifestly superior are entitled to more status, more power, more wealth, and more donations for their legal defense funds. While often presented as the fruit of deep reflection, these claims are often just opportunistic obscurantism. As long as it produces the right conclusion, any reason will do. Of course, that doesn’t mean their reasons are totally without merit: natural inequalities are real, and however we respond to them, we’ll never succeed in making a morally perfect world. Still, there can be a better world than the one conservatives offer. Progressives are not necessarily perfectionists; they recognize the tragic dimensions of the human condition. But they also refuse to allow either hallowed Tradition or capricious nature to set the limits of justice.

Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents

Matt McManus is a lecturer in political science at the University of Michigan and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism and The Political Right and Inequality.

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