Lots of labels are thrown around to define or tag political opponents. Proponents embrace other labels as a badge of honor. And a few labels are so controversial, like Christian Nationalist or Communist, that even those in sympathy with those beliefs shy away from them.
However, the label reactionary is missing in the current political vocabulary. Whether politicians, media outlets, journalists, or political activists, both from the left and right. Conservative and Liberal are the two leading and enduring labels. Depending on your orientation, adjectives are used to acclaim or shackle them. Advocates self-identify as progressive liberals or very conservative. For critics, liberals turn into radical liberals or far-left radicals, while conservatives become far-right or radical-right.
The easiest way to note the relative absence of using “reactionary” would be to watch liberal or conservative-oriented media. Think about how often you hear the word “reactionary” from news analysts and commentators on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News describe politicians, policies, or organizations. It would fall into the range of seldom to almost never.
In literature, this shortage can be measured by looking at the titles of best-selling books. The New York Times Best Sellers list would be the best single source, however, finding a comprehensive list outside of NYT’s closed offices is a daunting challenge.
Amazon Best Sellers ranking provides a quicker, although not as accurate, measurement of book sales. Nevertheless, since Amazon has 65 percent of the online book market share, it’s a decent sampling. Even better, it ranks non-fiction books within categories of interest, such as Political Conservatism & Liberalism.
I reviewed that category’s top twelve sellers from October 21, 2022. The top-ranking list changes daily. Consequently, this list is just a snapshot. Checking three days later, only four of the books surveyed remained in the top 12. On both dates, no book contained the word reactionary in the title. However, the political orientation of almost all the books on both dates reflected a conservative or reactionary point of view, except for either one progressive professor or one liberal journalist
The October 21 book titles contained these words:
- Four books with communism, communist, socialism, or Marxism
- Three books with Liberals, liberalism, or Democrat
- Two books with conservatism
- One book with Radical Right
- One book with fascism
What would make a book have a reactionary perspective? As an adjective, according to the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, the word reactionary describes points of view and policies meant to restore a past status quo ante. For example, Mark Lilla’s s The Shipwrecked Mind sees reactionary as attempting to change the existing socio-economic structure and political order with the intent to oppose liberal policies promoting the social transformation of society. In contrast, Conservatives oppose those same liberal policies but are willing to work within the existing political, economic, and social (PES) infrastructure to change those policies.
All philosophies drift from erudite definitions to widespread usage over time. In that journey, a gap grows between them in how to achieve objectives. However, the core reactionary belief has remained constant, believing that the existing society has become unstable or corrupted through liberal changes over time. The only solution to that dangerous condition is to return to a prior order. That order will provide more security, freedoms, community, or whatever is seen as lacking in the current order.
By applying that definition to reactionary thought, the one-day sampling of Amazon’s listed books reveals considerable popularity in accepting that view. The writers may be deemed dreadfully wrong in their reasoning and their books full of misinformation, but the attractiveness of their vision cannot be denied.
Look at most of the top-selling books listed on Amazon from October 21.
American Marxism by Mark R. Levin, a prominent Fox News Commentator, is typical of others who are very conservative or perhaps reactionary. While not proclaiming themselves reactionary, they emphasize protecting an individual’s freedom to use and accumulate personal property without interference from a larger community impacted by that freedom.
The government is seen as more than a nuisance but a potentially destructive force to individual rights. Levin, like other authors, sees core elements of Marxist ideology cloaked in deceptive labels like “progressivism,” “democratic socialism,” and “social activism.” These movements lead to a Big Government that extinguishes the free market, economic motivation, and individual freedoms.
The UnCommunist Manifesto by Aleksandar Svetski and Mark Moss also identifies liberal changes with Marxism. The authors want to change the debate from a class struggle to “individual autonomy, sovereignty, and responsibility versus the collectivist tendency toward group identity politics, rights, entitlements, and co-dependencies.” It’s not clear how far back they would go in time to get to the right balance, but they don’t fear what they see happening now.
Five other authors noted below were from Amazon’s biggest sellers list on October 21. They blame liberals and the Democrats for ruining our nation’s social fabric and ushering in the loss of liberties; one even sees liberals bringing about a new emergent Fascism. However, none of them embrace or reference the word reactionary.
Candace Owens, in Blackout, says it’s time for a major black exodus from the shackles of the Democratic Party, which has promoted their dependency and miseducation. The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First-Century Fascism by Glenn Beck and Justin Trask Haskins argues that there is an international conspiracy between powerful
bankers, business leaders, and government officials to give them more money and power.
In Defeating Big Government Socialism: Saving America’s Future, Newt Gingrich sees big government socialists entrenched “throughout our systems of government, society, culture, and business, resulting in vaccine mandates, tax increases, rising inflation,” and just about every ill he could think of. In Race Marxism: The Truth About Critical Race Theory and Praxis, James Lindsay calls CRT Race Marxism, using race “as the central construct for understanding inequality” rather than relying on class conflict arising from capitalism.
Lastly, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen criticizes American liberalism, whether it be “libertarianism” or “progressive/modern liberalism,” AKA “liberal,” as allowing the growth of the “most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history.” In other words, converting America’s democratic republic into a statist country.
Are these authors promoting reactionary beliefs? None of the authors identify what era they would like the nation to return to. Nor are they insurrectionists. They are not tearing down the republic and do not go beyond exposing the liberal menace and promoting policies that would stop its growth.
Underlying all their books, however, is a concept that Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto studied in their book,Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. It was published a couple of years before Trump started the reactionary MAGA movement.
Parker and Barreto show how the Tea Party was a reemergence of a reactionary movement in American politics that was like the right-wing reactionary movements of the past, including the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and the John Birch Society. They all fueled a fear that America had changed for the worse. Its members are “reactionary conservatives: people who fear change of any kind—especially if it threatens to undermine their way of life.”
These two authors do “make clear, reactionary conservatives differ in a number of ways from more conventional conservatives.” The latter “realize incremental, evolutionary change is sometimes necessary as a means of preventing revolutionary change. The reactionary conservative doesn’t want to stop at the prevention of change: he prefers to reverse whatever progress has been made to that point.”
That definition is a dividing line between conservative and reactionary. In American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, Andrew J. Bacevich seems to agree with Parker and Barreto in seeing a distinction between conservativism and reactionary thought. He writes that conservativism is not a “reactionary yearning for an irremediably lost past” – it “is not antirational.” Instead, it operates “upon the foundation of the tradition of civilization,” which is “the basis of the accumulated reason, experience, and wisdom of past generations.” In other words, returning to the distant past is not critical to conservativism. However, this view is a core element of reactionary beliefs that energies the MAGA movement to eliminate the last hundred years of unacceptable liberal laws. The MAGA adherents openly advocate that objective. They are not part of a secret movement, so they should openly and honestly identify as reactionaries.
Examples abound of reactionary policies being pushed by conservative Republican candidates this fall. They want to turn back the clock to a time untouched by liberal reforms. They would retreat to a time when there was less fear of being displaced by immigrants or having to live with people who didn’t conform to their moral code or when religion-based laws didn’t have to rely on scientific evidence to justify imposing them on others.
Kari Lake, the Republican Candidate for Arizona Governor, accuses immigrants crossing the Mexican border of bringing drugs and crime into the US, plus they are rapists. Once becoming governor, she would legally declare their increased presence as an invasion. That would allow her to have state law enforcement and military detain, arrest, and return illegal migrants to Mexico. In effect, her orientation leans into reviving the federal quota system that was dropped in 1965. From 1924 to then, immigration quotas severely immigrants from outside Western Europe.
Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance advocates eliminating no-fault divorce laws, which allow people to end a marriage without proving wrongdoing by their partner, including abuse or desertion. Vance equates this policy, enacted in California more than fifty years ago, as abandoning the morality of keeping families whole. Laws should not allow marriages to be dissolved if one spouse is beaten without proving it. The burden is on the victim. This approach returns to a time when women were morally bound to their husbands regardless of their treatment.
North Carolina’s Republican Candidate for the Senate race is Ted Budd, who has expressed support for Texas’ six-week abortion ban. The law makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest and forbids abortion when a “heartbeat” can be heard, which is where the six-week ban comes from. Budd’s position will play well with 35% of the state’s population, who are very religious Protestant Evangelicals. But his stance is not based on reason or science. The medical profession disputes that the heart is beating after about six weeks of pregnancy. Instead, a developed heart forms later in pregnancy. But when laws must conform to religious beliefs, science is the enemy. And that is a long step back in time to take.
None of the above actions are in the conservative tradition of basing decisions on past generations’ reason, experience, and wisdom. Instead, they represent a yearning for an irremediably lost past. Moreover, they result from politics, augmented by immense wealth, influencing the public to turn the clock back.
Liberals should not naively describe these policies and their proponents as just conservative or even very conservative. They are not. They are reactionary. And the proponents of these measures should proudly declare their political agenda as reactionary.
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.
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