The Case for “Retreatism” in the Trump Era

tags: conservatism, David Brooks

The growing divisiveness of American politics has energized the left and right, but is causing political centrists to become ever more enervated and despairing. A plaintive is increasingly heard in writers like New York Times columnist David Brooks and New York magazine essayist Andrew Sullivan. Both are conservative writers who hug the political center, their worldview shaped by the brief period of American triumphalism from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, an era where it was possible to believe that the political spectrum was going to narrow to the minor differences between Bill Clinton’s triangulation liberalism and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Now, Brooks and Sullivan find themselves in a very different political universe, where Trumpian Republicans openly embrace ethnic nationalism while the left forthrightly advocates democratic socialism and identity politics....

Over the last century there is a rich tradition of conservative and libertarian intellectuals who, feeling as alienated from politics as Brooks and Sullivan do, decided that their best option was to retreat from the ideological marketplace and cultivate their ideas in privacy. Derided by its enemies as “retreatism,” a term coined by the libertarian Murray Rothbard, this tradition might offer lessons for present day centrists conservatives.

“Isaiah’s Job,” an essay by Albert Jay Nock that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936, is the classic articulation of “retreatism.” An anti-statist man of letters, Nock had been active in politics in earlier decades, publishing the journal Freeman and writing books like Our Enemy, The State, but found himself discouraged by the triumph of the New Deal in the 1930s. In “Isaiah’s Job,” Nock cites the examples of the prophet Isaiah, Plato, and Marcus Aurelius to argue that the superior man places no hope in masses and instead gears his message to the small elite who make up “saving remnant,” which will carry on the work of civilization. Any solid program for political renovation would get watered down if sold to the “mass-man,” he wrote ....

In short, Nock was making the case that progress depends on the elite separating itself from the masses.

In his 1976 book The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, the historian George Nash called attention to the “significant influence” Nock and his essay exerted on the postwar right. William F. Buckley Jr. often cited “Isaiah’s Job” as a touchstone, and reprinted it in an anthology of conservative thought. Libertarians also often turned to Nock’s words for guidance....

Read entire article at New Republic

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