Envy, photo by azarius


Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, discusses the roots of conservatism:

People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for the people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small…. “All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism … the party of the loser.”

Losers blame their loss on liberals, who have opened the doors of opportunity to people doomed by prejudice in earlier generations.

The New York Times aimed this article at the upper class in the city:

“Early admission to top colleges, once the almost exclusive preserve of the East Coast elite, is now being pursued by a much broader and more diverse group of students, including foreigners and minorities.”

Six seniors from Brearly were denied early admission to Yale.(!) Tuition at the exclusive girls school on the upper east side is $38,600 (plus, I assume, a sizable donation), but the school does provide tuition assistance to 20% of its students, which enables it to “attract and retain a group of girls who reflect the socio-economic diversity of New York City.”

It seems stupid to say it, but that is a real loss, and I don’t doubt that their parents are genuinely concerned for their daughters. (Take a look at the comments on the article for some less charitable views.) Apparently a lot of kids outside the East Coast are applying early decision, which the reporters describe as “democratization” of the process. Opening a process to new groups dilutes the success ratio of a group which once got almost all of the goodies.

I started law school in the Summer of 1972, just as women began applying in larger numbers. I seem to remember that there were 20 women in my class of 200. That means 20 white guys that would have been accepted in a prior generation were not admitted. Assuming that these were the least strong candidates, you might think that the only effect was to improve the skill level of lawyers in Indiana. But these women weren’t at the bottom of the pool of candidates. Ten, as I recall, graduated in the top twenty. Someone white guy graduated 20th in the class instead of 10th. That makes a real difference in the alternatives available to that person. It matters all the way to the top: only the top two or three grads are considered for the prestigious federal court clerkships that can lead to marvelous careers even for graduates of non-elite law schools, so women cut out two guys.

The problem is just as severe at all levels of society. Once upon a time, a father could help his son get a job at the factory or on the police force. Suddenly black men demanded those prize jobs, and insisted that they be treated fairly in the selection process. As a society, we agreed, and used government to enforce fair procedures for selection process. That was a real loss for fathers who could no longer help, and for sons, whose opportunities decreased. The overall benefit accrued to society, with stronger and more competent men and women in important jobs. The losses fell on a few.

It is fairly easy to sympathize with people about economic and even status losses. It is nearly impossible to sympathize with those concerned over dominance issues. Men who insist on being the dominant authority in their households are just as repulsive as those who insist on telling race jokes or belittling LGBT people. About all we can say is that we humans aren’t that far removed from bear-baiting, and we still have fans of dog-fighting and equally brutal activities.

Not everyone resents democratization. The 20th man in my class might think that it was just as likely that ten guys, better at school than he, could have been accepted, in which case things would have worked out just the same. Or, he might think that this is a meritocratic society and he gets his just desserts. Or, he might think that in a capitalist society, we all compete on equal ground, regardless of race, creed or gender, and he has to compete against everyone. I like to think that most of us don’t resent the success of others, but a sizeable portion of people, as Robin documents, do resent that success if it seems in some way to come at their expense.

Rich conservatives exploit this resentment as a tool in their fight for their own power. As Robin says, the conservative party consists largely of these people. Rich conservatives can’t bear the loss of even a shred of their money or the status they think they deserve (think Donald Trump). Non-rich conservatives bray that Obama has taken their country away from them. The fundamentalists are angry that their values and their men have lost their dominance. How these groups hang together is a mystery to me. Resentment makes strange bedfellows, I guess.

It does, however, explain why no one likes Mitt Romney. He is demonstrably not a loser. He won the parent lottery, the education lottery, and the make-a-lot-of-money lottery. He didn’t win the acting lottery, and he does a miserable job of pretending to be just like the Republican base, a man cheated of something he deserved by a changing society.

No wonder conservatives despise him: he isn’t one of them, and they know it.