Regular readers might have noted that I very seldom use the term ”conservative” to refer to Republicans and others who hold sharply right-of-center political views. That’s because I think the term “conservative” in most cases is misleading. I explained this in one of my earliest posts, in which I argued that the GOP has become a party of the radical right. Radical rightists never call themselves “radical”; unwilling to admit to their radicalism, they call themselves ”conservative.” But I don’t see any reason for the rest of us to go along with that propagandistic deception. So, I tend to use the terms “right-wingers” or “rightists” when I discuss contemporary “conservatism.” (Of course, there are still plenty of genuine conservatives left in the GOP, but they’re no longer its driving force.)
Another term that I use with some frequency is “reactionary.” Younger readers, especially, probably find this usage a bit strange; the fact is, “reactionary” is a term that has gone out of fashion. I think that’s a shame. It’s more relevant now than ever.
A dictionary definition of “reactionary” typically includes words along the lines of “tending toward a former and usually outmoded political or social order or policy.” In practice, it has usually been used pejoratively—almost no one would willingly describe himself as reactionary. It used to be a fairly commonly used epithet by liberals and leftists to disparage their adversaries on the right for desiring to undo progressive policy achievements. President Harry Truman castigated the Republican-dominated 80th Congress as reactionary. (Somewhat inconsistently, he also called it “do-nothing.” Conservatives can be content to do nothing, but reactionaries cannot be. ) I can recall the then liberal (1964) New York Post referring to Sen. Barry Goldwater as “reactionary in the extreme.” Even Republican President Dwight Eisenhower once referred in private to the “reactionary wing” of his own party.
But practically nobody other than your favorite blogger says “reactionary” any more. Why not? The short answer to that question, I think, is that the left has lost confidence that it represents the more or less inevitable forces of progress, of the future. The historic project of the left has been to tame capitalism, to make it more humane, more just (or less unjust), more responsive to broadly shared values like environmental preservation, and less prone to destructive instability. (For the far left, the project was to abolish capitalism altogether, but adherents of that view are hard to come by these days.) All of those objectives—let’s call them “social democratic” objectives–have required active government, to provide for an adequate social safety net and to regulate private business in the public interest. And, broadly speaking, most western countries witnessed the growth of state intervention in the economy, along with the progressive albeit uneven realization of social democracy, during the course of the 20th century.
For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, that broad trend foundered during the course of the 1970s. It pretty much ground to a halt during the 1980s, most notably with the accession to power of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. The success of the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” served to cast doubt on the inevitability of social democracy. Free market orthodoxy gained new respectability, and “reform” often became associated with rolling back social democratic policies, liberating corporations to do their thing with less interference from the state. The future no longer lay clearly with the social democratic project. But if you don’t own the future, how can you call your opponents “reactionary,” which basically means backward-moving? According to Google N-gram, the occurrence of “reactionary” in English language books, which peaked in Harry Truman’s day, declined by over 60% between 1970 and 2000.
I believe that the achievements of social democracy need to be preserved and expanded if we care about having a decent society. If the future is with the free-market fundamentalists, it’s a dystopian future, one which must be firmly rejected. The Trump administration and its allies in Congress are poised to launch a new, wide-ranging assault on social democracy—dismantling Obamacare, eviscerating Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security, weakening public education, restricting the rights of labor and neutering environmental and other regulatory curbs on the excesses of big business. This is not a conservative agenda. It is radical and reactionary. We need to say so.