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Return of the Millman Political Taxonomy
To see how Trump differed, do we have to conclude that Reagan was a liberal?
My colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, had a piece up yesterday about how Ronald Reagan was really a liberal, and it really took me back. Back, that is, to 2010, when I wrote a piece called “Notes Toward a New Political Taxonomy” that got the attention of, among other folks, Andrew Sullivan. Its argument was that the customary division of our politics into “left vs. right,” “liberal vs. conservative” or “progressive vs. reactionary” doesn’t do justice to the subtly different shades of meaning implied by those alternative labels. I argued that we should tease out those differences because doing so would help us more accurately understand people’s political orientation, and in particular to be able to make comparisons across time and culture. I want to make a nuanced response to Linker’s piece, and I’m going to use it as an excuse to recapitulate and extend some of what I said in my old piece about taxonomy. Bear with me—or, if you like this kind of thing, enjoy!
The “left vs. right” dichotomy dates to the French Revolution. In the National Assembly, supporters of the king and the church sat on the right side of the chamber, and supporters of the revolution on the left. If we limit ourselves to that original meaning, though, then both terms are obsolete, certainly in America where there is no king and no established church. So what do they mean? One could adopt a Marxist definition according to which to be on the left is to be on the side of proletarian revolution and to be on the right is to be opposed, but this is both extremely limiting and contradicts the self-definition of many of the political actors themselves. From a Marxist perspective, after all, FDR was on the right because he was trying to save capitalism and prevent a revolution. Nor is it adequate to say that the right opposes change while the left supports it—plenty of right-wingers have agitated to change things. They want to change things so they are more right-wing!
What I tried to do in my own definition is to get at the emotional core of what it means to be right-wing, and I think that emotional core is about one’s relationship to success, to achievement, to dominance, to winning. The core right-wing impulse is to valorize hierarchies and to cheer for the top to go even higher; the core left-wing impulse is to tear them down or, at least, make them flatter. I think that’s a perspective that allows us to understand right and left across time and space, to see what the right in an aristocratic culture has in common with the right in a capitalist society, or what the bourgeois left has in common with the labor-oriented left. FDR and Trotsky are both properly located on “the left” even though a Marxist would disagree, because their politics were both, in different ways, oriented around that leveling impulse. So is the deeply conservative ideology of Catholic distributism, which seeks to level economic power through the wide distribution of productive private property.
This definition can even be applied to cultural politics. The high modernists, for example, ranged widely on the spectrum in terms of their politics, but in their approach to art they were profoundly and fundamentally elitist. In that sense, modernism was constitutionally right-wing. I suspect that it’s impossible to be an artist at all while completely rejecting a hierarchy of talent or achievement, but you can push against that impulse from any number of perspectives—you could defend the middlebrow, exult in poptimism, valorize craft traditions, impose a dour socialist realism—and the reason I would characterize all of these inherently contradictory impulses as “left-wing” is that the pushback against them all would be that they wind up valorizing art that isn’t that good for social reasons (generally leveling ones) rather than artistic reasons. I call that a fundamentally right-wing objection. (Which, let me be clear, doesn’t mean it’s correct—or incorrect.)
Similarly, I tried to get at the emotional core of what divides “liberals” from “conservatives” and what divides “progressives” from “reactionaries.” The usual confusion around “liberal” stems from the fact that in America “liberal” tends to mean “left but not that left” while in Europe “liberal” means “pro-capital” as opposed to “pro-labor.” But there are clearly illiberal currents on the left, and not only on the far left but also (if differently) on the center-left. As well, there are pro-capital positions that are in no sense liberal and pro-labor positions that clearly are. Even if by “liberal” you just mean “giving people more freedom” you need to reckon with the complexities of how freedom is defined, and how to measure its experience.
That’s why I focused on the emotional core of the divide. From that perspective, I defined liberals as people fundamentally animated by a belief in the capacities of individuals, and conservatives as people who are fundamentally skeptical of those capacities. That emotional difference ramifies in all sorts of ways. Conservatives are likely to be more supportive of punitive authority because they don’t trust that people, if left to their own devices, will behave in a moral fashion; liberals will generally have an instinctively rehabilitative approach to justice because they believe people can change. That difference sounds like it lines up pretty well with a right/left divide, but others don’t: there are liberal policies that have, at different points, gotten support from the right, the left, or both. On immigration, for example, liberals should naturally favor making it easier to immigrate they trust that immigrants will, generally, be making a positive contribution to the society they uprooted themselves to join. But conservative opponents may be motivated by right-wing concerns about eroding established hierarchies or by left-wing concerns about the power of the labor movement.
While I would expect conservatives to be temperamentally disposed to trust authority, those same conservatives might also doubt the wisdom of giving any individual too much power. Even duly constituted authorities are, after all, only individuals, with all the same limitations. That’s why you can find conservatives who oppose concentrations of government or corporate power. You can even find conservative libertarians. Their hoped-for world isn’t an individualist free-for all; it’s thick with traditional and local authorities that would provide the necessary restraint on individuals without exposing them to terror at the hands of a too-powerful tyrant. The conservative aversion to change is, from this perspective, rooted in a deep skepticism that anybody really knows what they are doing.
That’s very different, though, from what motivates reactionaries, in my typology. Reactionary opposition to change isn’t rooted in skepticism but in an idealization of the past. That’s why reactionaries can actually favor quite large changes—if those changes take us “back” to that idealized era. The “reactionary vs. progressive” dichotomy is all about the arrow of history: the lode-star for progressives is the future. Both in principle and in practice all kinds of illiberal actions have been justified in the name of progress. Robespierre and Lenin were both progressives; neither were in any sense liberals. But of course John Dewey was also a progressive, and very much a liberal. George Orwell, meanwhile, was both left-wing and liberal, but deeply reactionary; he “loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future.”
To me, notwithstanding the new vogue for the term “progressive,” the era that we’re living in strikes me as fundamentally reactionary, in that while we might not all love the past, we increasingly dread the future. I think there are deep reasons for this, from fear of climate change to the global drop in fertility. The Sunrise Movement is unquestionably left-wing, and it undoubtedly thinks of itself as progressive, but its essential orientation is reactionary, whether it realizes it or not, inasmuch as it is fundamentally trying to stave off a terrible future by turning back what for the entire industrial era we thought of as progress. I also think its notable that our most potent futurisms imagine escaping from life itself into some other plane of meta-existence. I doubt any progressive from the past would recognize that dream as their own. Meanwhile, across the world mass movements are animated by reactionary dreams of restoring past glory, which is just what you would expect of an era without a clear conception of progress. When Francis Fukuyama wrote about the “end of history” he didn’t mean that nothing else would happen much less that we had achieved utopia. Rather, he meant that political theory had gone as far as it could; the inevitable revolts against the future that had arrived, then, would be atavistic and reactionary, even perverse.
Anyway, as you can see from the foregoing, I still think my typology has its uses. One of these is in getting clarity on the past. So, to return to where I started: is Linker right? Was Reagan a liberal?
In one sense, I think he was. Reagan operated entirely from inside a liberal political perspective, broadly construed. He was an FDR liberal in his youth, after all, and his political career was marked by liberalizing California’s abortion laws and championing amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. His tax cuts and deregulatory agenda would make him a “liberal” in the European sense, and his conviction that nuclear weapons were fundamentally immoral and his optimism that Communism was ultimately doomed due to its own contradictions were deeply liberal at their core.
But while Reagan was an inveterate optimist, he was also deeply nostalgic by temperament, and he spoke to that temperament among many of those who voted for him. His turn toward Goldwater was motivated by a fear of socialism at home and Soviet communism abroad as existential threats to the American way of life—it was, in a fundamental way, about fear of a terrible future. There was a potent reactionary streak in Reaganism that coexisted with a surprising level of comfort with his essential optimism about the future.
Similarly, the Reagan era’s deregulatory agenda coexisted comfortably with an increasingly punitive approach to criminal justice and social justice alike. Reagan’s distrust of government was fundamentally conservative: he thought government bureaucrats didn’t know what they were doing and should butt out. He did not bring a similar skepticism to the behavior of the police. His skepticism of the welfare state was also conservative; he told stories about “welfare queens” because it was only logical that people would take advantage of government largesse by abusing it. Unlike the libertarian Milton Friedman, he didn’t believe that one virtue of a universal basic income is that it would be less paternalistic, more trusting of people to do what was best with their money.
What Reagan was, fundamentally, was right-wing. He was on the side of success, of merit, of winning. He was opposed to leveling outcomes and to undermining standards. He believed in good and evil and believed he was on the side of good. One of his most characteristic sayings, in response to saying that he proposed solutions to complex problems that were too simple, was that the solutions to our problems were simple: they just weren’t easy. But his version of the right was a big tent. It had room for temperamental liberals and conservatives, for progressives and reactionaries.
I think that capaciousness is what neither political party has managed to achieve since Reagan’s day. After Bush’s reelection some Republicans deluded themselves into believing he had achieved it, but were quickly disabused of that notion. I don’t know if anyone even imagined Clinton would; nobody could possibly have thought he did. Obama looked like he might just do it, capaciously define a new progressive and liberal era—but he didn’t. Indeed, much of the politics on the left since then has been a response to that failure and its attendant disappointment—in some quarters, disappointment about the failure, in others disappointment that constructing a capacious left-wing political identity (as opposed to liberal and progressive) wasn’t ever really tried.
And what about Trump? The point of Linker’s essay is to argue that Trump is fundamentally different from Reagan, and that Republicans today who are trying to chart a post-Trump course have to distort their own history badly to find continuity between them that points a way forward. Trump is obviously very different from Reagan in a host of ways—but I think the truth is that you can plausibly understand Trump as a thorough repudiation of Reagan and as his lineal descendant; both perspectives have real merit. People are still arguing about Reagan’s legacy, and trying to claim it for whatever their distinctive brand of politics might be, because of his capacity to embrace contradictory impulses and ideas under that big right-wing tent. Some of those impulses and ideas have clear continuity with the Trump era. Others have been explicitly repudiated by Trump and the changes he effected in the GOP.
On the question of capaciousness, though, I think the evidence is clear that as an individual Trump represented anything but. What his intellectual defenders imagine when they look at him and the shift he inaugurated, though, is indeed something new, a kind of big-tent for reaction. It would have room within it for people who would likely describe themselves as left-wing conservatives—people like Michael Lind, say. It would also have room for the kinds of right-wing liberals particularly exercised by the threat from the illiberal left. The big tent that would contain the bundle of contradictory impulses is fierce opposition to the future as progressives understand it.
I suspect that might be enough to win an election—maybe even many elections. What I doubt is whether it can provide a governing agenda and a legacy. The thing about the future is that it is coming whether you organize your politics around it or not. I don’t consider myself much of a progressive because I don’t like pretensions to prophecy. I don’t presume to know what the future will look like, and I certainly don’t presume I will like it. But reaction has always struck me as a politics of fantasy, and an unappealing fantasy at that. In a democracy, anyway, you have to offer people a future. The alternative to a disturbing future can’t be the past; it has to be a better future, differently conceived.
I’ll go with Linker this far, though. The zombie Reaganism that predominated in the GOP pre-Trump was, in a very profound sense, contrary to Reagan’s own spirit. If that’s starting to shake loose, to the point where Republicans are able to argue about his legacy, that ought to be a healthy thing. I’d be more sure it was if it didn’t look like what will replace it is an even more pernicious zombie Trumpism.