Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments
By Nathan J. Robinson
St. Martin’s Griffin, 384 pages, $19.99
Nathan J. Robinson’s new book, Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments, presents itself as a practical guidebook in the vein of Saul Alinsky’s 1971 Rules for Radicals, updated for the social-media age. Whereas Alinsky was writing for professional activists engaged in direct action, organization building, and real-life campaigns, Robinson’s target audience are “liberals and leftists who want the ‘ammunition’ necessary to do battle with conservative ideas, whether in public discussion or at the family dinner table.” Robinson provides a quick primer on rhetoric and logical fallacies, best practices for debate, and—the meat of the book—readymade rebuttals to common conservative and libertarian talking points and arguments.
The Alinsky method has been criticized for, among other things, an unambitious “pragmatism” that puts any quick “winnable demands” over ambitious ideological goals. Though demonized (sometimes quite literally) by certain figures on the right, and occasionally embraced by others who employed it to their own ends, the Alinsky method actually defangs social movements by eschewing “rigid” ideologies and redirecting energy into bureaucratic organizations staffed by professional organizers. No wonder, then, that Rules for Radicals is a favorite among liberals who prefer a more bureaucratic, less militant, less radical community organizing (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were big fans).
By comparison, the focus Robinson places on political debate is inherently ideological, but his project is ultimately even less ambitious than Alinsky’s. Robinson isn’t just making the case for a certain vision of politics—he elevates “making the case” for one’s political views to the actual pursuit of politics. Though the book closes with a reminder that “building strong political movements involves far more than words,” and that we shouldn’t let “the intellectual and theoretical aspects of politics distract too far from the practical realities of movement building,” the preceding 300-and-some pages are devoted to readying progressives to battle ideological opponents in the marketplace of ideas.
Political theory and ideas matter—but we should have serious reservations about presenting debate as the paramount political activity. Public intellectuals such as Robinson, the founder and editor of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs, might be able to argue that their own political discourse amounts to important political activity. There is an even better case to be made for everyday people engaging friends, family, acquaintances, and, especially, coworkers in constructive political dialogue. But the kind of political sparring Robinson has in mind is rarely carried out in break rooms or on shop floors, but over holiday dinners and social media.
Aside from voting and maybe attending the occasional protest or rally, the primary way most people “engage” in politics is through passive media consumption and online posting. Encouraging them to expend even more time and energy on frivolous hashtag activism will only leave participants feeling more outraged, frustrated, and atomized.
In Responding to the Right, Robinson both refutes right-wing arguments and makes the case for progressive alternatives. He positions conservatism and libertarianism not only in opposition to left-wing politics, but also to rationality as such, asserting at one point that “the right’s core beliefs cannot be maintained by a rational human being.” They are simply “ignorant and fallacious.”
The author isn’t interested in determining why someone might hold such “mistaken beliefs,” only in proving them wrong. He cites Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind as an example of left-wing thinking with a misguided focus on trying to “psychoanalyze” conservatives to determine their motivations, which Robinson suggests is fraught, given that we can’t read others’ minds. But you don’t need to psychoanalyze individuals to determine why they might prefer to conserve and promote existing power structures and social relations.
You might expect such a material analysis to come easy to a self-professed socialist, but Robinson has a troubled relationship with the cold logic of the Marxist tradition, to which he pays lip service when pressed but which he ultimately rejects as authoritarian, devoid of moral urgency, and mistaken in many of its core tenets. Robinson favors a fuzzier libertarian socialism and anarchist analysis, which are better suited to his brand of utopian progressivism.
If Robinson’s new book is an update on Alinsky’s, we could similarly view his previous, Why You Should Be a Socialist, as his own reboot of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” which saw socialism as a path to—paradoxically—radical individualism. Wilde imagined a world without capitalism where all people—free from work, poverty, and duty—can spend their days pursuing creative passions and personal interests. It was the original case for “fully automated luxury communism,” and Wilde the prototypical “radlib,” a bourgeois rich kid turned bohemian layabout directing socialists away from solidarity and class politics and toward an aesthetically radical individualism, conveniently to the interest and benefit of creatives such as himself. (Wilde even slipped in a quick abolish-the-family: “Socialism annihilates family life, for instance. With the abolition of private property, marriage in its present form must disappear.”) Robinson, who on the Current Affairs podcast once lamented how Marxism “killed utopian socialism,” picks up the torch. (His trademark dandyism and put-on English accent are so on the nose here that you might think he is goading us.)
Robinson is correct that many of the foundational tenets of Marxism are simply wrong. The labor theory of value, for example, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and leftists still waiting for capitalism to collapse under its own internal “contradictions” any day now—a century and a half on—bring to mind the unshakeable conviction of a doomsday cult. But the Marxist tradition, at its best, helps us understand the trajectories of history and society as the logical outcome of material conditions. By comparison, Robinson’s libertarian socialism is a fundamentally moral politics. The vulgar Marxist tries to understand how the world works. Robinson is most concerned with how the world should work, which isn’t something that can be settled through reason alone. Conservatives and others have their own competing visions for society rooted in a different moral logic that Robinson doesn’t take nearly as seriously as he pretends.
While Robinson acknowledges the moral framework underpinning his politics, he nonetheless maintains that his political positions (and his alone) are simply the natural product of careful reasoning. But the claim, along with the pretense of taking right-wing arguments seriously, is undermined by the inconsistency with which he applies his rational analysis. Responding to the Right is full of the kind of bias the book critiques. Robinson calls out conservatives for selective omission of contradicting information, leaving out the other side of the story, or attacking the weakest or strawman versions of arguments—but he himself does all of this routinely. Likewise, he fails to hold progressives to the same standards of logic and fair debate he imposes on conservatives.
For example, he acknowledges no contradiction between his contention that bakers aren’t actually forced to bake wedding cakes for LGBT clients, since they could simply opt out of the market entirely, and his articulation of the leftist principle that workers are actually forced to sell their labor under capitalism lest they starve. He decries right-wing figures who employ ludicrous hyperbole and false or misleading analogies, such as the likening of “cancel culture” to literal violence. But, in this condemnation, he fails to acknowledge that social-justice mantras like “silence is violence” or the progressives characterizing “microagressions” as violence do exactly the same thing. Though he blasts conservative commentator Ben Shapiro for “lying with statistics” when falsely claiming that 40 percent of transgender people commit suicide, Robinson fails to mention that trans rights activists first popularized and routinely cite the same erroneous figure for their own purposes.
This kind of subtle hypocrisy and bias render the project a predictable exercise in partisanship, less rationalism than rationalization. The uneven hand suggests that Robinson sometimes starts with his position and works backwards to fashion the particulars of the argument. He has written a polemic masquerading as unbiased rational analysis.
This doesn’t mean his positions are always wrong or bad. Robinson may have a penchant for the utopian, and his partisanship forces him to defend even the most ridiculous excesses of leftist culture-warring, but many progressive policies would benefit American workers and families by rebuilding social safety nets hollowed out by fifty years of bipartisan neoliberalism. However, Robinson simply didn’t arrive at any of his positions through reason alone. They arise from his own values and interests, which are often in conflict with those of conservatives and libertarians. Downplaying these fundamental differences precludes serious analysis of right-wing moral reasoning, but such analysis isn’t the purpose of the book. Robinson would rather dismiss his opponents as irrational sophists who, having somehow arrived at “objectively incorrect” positions, can be properly excluded from political discourse.
Politics is a battle of competing interests and values, not just competing ideas. Robinson argues passionately and—to me—convincingly about the infeasibility of a true “equality of opportunity,” but he isn’t going to win over libertarians (or even many liberals) who are fundamentally opposed to the kind of radical egalitarianism he proposes, nor will he have much luck convincing capital to relinquish power or adopt redistributive policies. There is no squaring egalitarianism with a belief in the “natural and just” existence of hierarchies, multiculturalism with the desire for societal homogeneity or cultural preservation, abortion rights with certain religious beliefs, open borders with protectionism, or a host of other competing or even irreconcilable values and interests.
A more honest, effective, and helpful critique of right-wing politics would take the cultural values and economic interests that underlie the right’s arguments seriously without dismissing them as fundamentally irrational. Doing so leads Robinson into a highly partisan “rationalization-ism” that functions a lot like the “facts don’t care about your feelings” or “DESTROYED by FACTS and LOGIC” rhetoric he criticizes right-wing media figures for.
“Both sides” would do well to admit that it isn’t just “feelings” or poor reasoning that divide people, but intractable disagreements and conflicts of interest that won’t be definitively solved through rational debate, but only through ongoing political contestation that transcends mere words.