The Chronicle Review

Why Conservatives Love War

Patrick Baz, AFP, Getty Images

October 24, 2010

This year is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Once this was the most famous of Theodor Adorno's works. Today it's largely forgotten. With one exception: its indelible portrait of the "pseudo-conservative." Although Richard Hofstadter is often credited with the term—his essay "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" appeared in 1955—it was Adorno and his three co-authors who first identified the type: that vengeful and violent citizen who avows his faith in calm and restraint while agitating for policies that "would abolish the very institutions with which he appears to identify himself." The pseudo-conservative, in other words, is no conservative at all. Prone to "violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness," he loves war and longs for bedlam in the streets. He has "little in common," in Hofstadter's words, "with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism."

Musing on those passages last June, Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog, "It all sounds weirdly familiar, doesn't it?" He was talking about the predatory revanchism that has stalked the Republican Party since 9/11 and now consumes it. "The Bush-Cheney presidency," wrote Sullivan, was "the perfect pseudo-conservative administration." The White House and its neoconservative enablers celebrated war and torture, shredded the Constitution, and bankrupted the nation. "Throughout all this," Sullivan pointed out, "the Tea Partiers supported them." Merely the latest in a long line of pseudo-conservatives, the Tea Party backer is "the opposite of a natural conservative at peace with the world as it is."

It's hard to disagree with Sullivan's characterization of the American right. But he—like Hofstadter and Adorno before him—is wrong about its lack of conservative credentials. Today's winger, like yesterday's, is not a pseudo-conservative; he's the real deal.

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn't read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative "wants peace and is content only with peace." The true conservative's endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he'd like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it's true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. "I enjoy wars," said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. "Any adventure's better than sitting in an office." The conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It's philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, "Only the dead have seen the end of war," or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death.

Encoded in the conservative movement's DNA, the argument for violence derives from Burke himself, specifically his A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Written long before he articulated the elements of a proper conservative philosophy, The Sublime and the Beautiful is about aesthetics, not politics. Yet Burke develops there a distinctive moral psychology, in which the self is desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort that can be provided only by pain and danger. Some dismiss the work as apolitical juvenilia (Burke wrote it in his early 20s, and its publication in 1757 predates his entry into politics), but elements of its argument appear too often throughout the conservative canon—in Joseph de Maistre's meditations on the executioner, in de Tocqueville's memoir of the Revolution of 1848, in Theodore Roosevelt's speeches, the treatises of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, Churchill's histories, Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative, and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man—to step past it so lightly.

The Sublime and the Beautiful begins on a high note, with a discussion of curiosity. The curious race "from place to place to hunt out something new." Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, "with less and less of any agreeable effect." Novelty diminishes: How much, really, is there new in the world? Enthusiasm and engagement give way to "loathing and weariness." Searching for experiences more sustaining and profound, Burke moves on to pleasure. But pleasure offers more of the same: a moment's enthusiasm, followed by dull malaise. It "quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference." Quieter enjoyments are equally soporific; we "give ourselves over to indolence and inaction." Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us "and so on in an eternal circle."

Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom that we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for "melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder." Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone taking pleasure in the world as it is.

If the self is to survive, it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted, the whole made taut and tense. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with nonbeing. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: "They make no such impression" on the self, because "we were not made to acquiesce in life and health." Pain and danger, by contrast, are "emissaries" of death, the "king of terrors." They are sources of the sublime, which is "the strongest"—most powerful, most affecting—"emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."

One of the reasons the sublime is so powerful is that it both minimizes and maximizes our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, the "motions" of our soul "are suspended," and "the mind is hurried out of itself." We feel ourselves evacuated: The external is all, we are nothing. Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent never felt before. Our "attention" is roused. Our "faculties" are "driven forward, as it were, on their guard." We spill out of ourselves, fully inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but also the space around us. We feel "a sort of swelling"—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further. Whether it is possible to occupy such opposing poles of experience at the same time—crushed and enlarged, compressed and unbounded—it is precisely this contradiction, this oscillation between wild extremes, that generates a strong and strenuous sense of self. Sublimity "in all things abhors mediocrity," Burke reminds us. The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of all.

The question for us, which Burke neither poses nor answers, is: What kind of political form entails this simultaneity of—or oscillation between—aggrandizement and annihilation? One possibility is hierarchy, with its twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice.

Consistent with Burke's argument, however, the conservative often favors the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and "you spoil it of every thing sublime." It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being "the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious." At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.

Rule may sometimes be sublime—our power is not always so assured or secure—but violence is more sublime. Most sublime of all is when the two are fused, when violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination. But history does not always present such opportunities. The conservative must settle for the lesser good of war, pure and simple. Thus, when Carl Schmitt declares that the fundamental distinction in politics to which all "actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy," he merely formalizes an axiom that had been stirring the conservative mind for more than a century.

In this age of terror, it's easy enough to identify this strain of thought in parts of the conservative movement. Even the sunniest of neoconservative spirits can't get enough of the dark arts of war. "We have traded the anxieties of affluence for the real fears of war," a fizzy David Brooks wrote after 9/11. Channeling not only Burke—a patrimony he would be only too happy to claim—but also Schmitt and a great many other fascist and proto-fascist writers, Brooks welcomed "the fear that is so prevalent in the country" as a "cleanser, washing away a lot of the self-indulgence of the past decade." Being attacked, it seems, and attacking back, is like that bracing slap of after-shave in the morning.

But today, with neoconservatism in bad odor everywhere, save at the highest reaches of the culture industry—Brooks was just inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—has the conservative infatuation with war come to an end?

Consider the "Pledge to America," the 45-page manifesto the Republicans recently issued in their campaign to take back the House of Representatives in the midterm election. A reprise of the 1994 "Contract With America"—which netted the Republicans their first House majority in 40 years and provided the party with a road map for governing during the remainder of Bill Clinton's presidency—the document seems about as useful a guide to contemporary conservative thinking as any.

"We are a nation at war," the Pledge declares at the outset of its discussion of national security. That's true, but here's where things get interesting: Only once does the Pledge mention the two wars the United States is actually fighting, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We get lots of discussion of border security, missile defense, supporting the troops, and Iran (site of a potential third war that some neoconservatives and influential Republicans wish to wage). But for a document that insists upon confronting "the world as it is, not as we wish it to be," there's a profound air of unreality (literally: China and Russia don't appear at all) hovering about its discussion of national security.

Is this a new turn, in which conservatives quickly dispense with the necessary formalities (we are at war) in order to change the subject to less martial themes? For a party that not so long ago saw military matters as its great strength, its raison d'être, it is remarkable how little space the topic occupies in the Pledge. Sandwiched between a chapter on reforming Congress (snooze) and another on "Checks and Balances" (snoozier), "A Plan to Keep Our Nation Secure at Home & Abroad" takes up exactly two pages, one of the shortest discussions in the document.

Or perhaps the Pledge is just the incidental propaganda of a party seeking its way back into power—and in the legislature, no less, which is ultimately not responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. But even when Republicans are responsible for fighting an actual war, as the Bush administration was in Iraq, they tend not to pay attention to the details. They like the words—"We will never apologize for advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world," says the Pledge—and the gestures of war, as Bush showed when he piloted his way onto the USS Abraham Lincoln. But its specifics are of little interest. And peace? That's just how folks in the biz say, "Show's over."

Far from challenging the conservative tradition's infatuation with violence, however, this indifference to the realities of war is merely the flip side of the Burkean coin. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, Burke was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers "press too nearly" or "too close"—should they become real threats, "conversant about the present destruction of the person"—their sublimity would disappear. Burke's point was not that nobody, in the end, really wants to die, or that nobody enjoys excruciating pain. It was that sublimity depends upon obscurity: Get too close to anything, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. A "great clearness" of the sort that comes from direct experience is "an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea.

Since 9/11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives—or their sons and daughters—to fight the war on terror themselves. For many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24—it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.

Corey Robin is an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York's Graduate Center. A collection of his essays on conservatism will be published by Oxford University Press next year.