The Schmittian Turn In The Conservative Movement

As far as the dominant faction of the conservative movement is concerned, “the People” has always meant the white America of identitarian conservatism. It is their will that counts.

Adam S. Sieff
Nov 4, 2016 · 6 min read

In February, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, leaders of the Republican Party declared that the next Supreme Court Justice should be determined by “the will of the People.” At the time, and in the months since, nearly every commentator understood this to mean that the next President should get to select Justice Scalia’s replacement.

But that understanding begged the question: “who is ‘the People’?”

This week, we were reminded. Heritage Action, the architects of recent Republican foot-dragging, yesterday endorsed a blockade of any nominee a Democratic president might put forward. They were not the first to do so, and the announcement was celebrated in many conservative circles. Most reaction from commentators, meanwhile, has centered on accusations of hypocrisy, given that a Clinton Administration (at the time of this writing) appears likely.

But I don’t see it that way. The Republican position has actually remained strikingly consistent once you recognize that “the People,” as far as the dominant faction of the conservative movement is concerned, has always been the white America of identitarian conservatism. It is their will that counts; their lives; their subjectivity. They, who are the legitimate sovereign, and not any usurper or infiltrator, will select the next Justice, pass general statutes, fill executive vacancies, and govern, generally.

To understand why this position is democratically defensible to its proponents, none of whom would describe their actions as anti-democratic or illiberal, you have to understand that democratic thought in the conservative movement has taken a Schmittian turn.

Carl Schmitt and Democratic Legitimacy

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was a German legal and democratic theorist famous for his critique of moral liberalism, and infamous for his radical defense of the Third Reich’s democratic legitimacy. To him, politics was defined by a distinction between identity groups — “friend” and “enemy” — and specifically, the ever present possibility of mortal combat between them. He believed these groups formed organically and viscerally — an individual simply recognizes, at the deepest level of his or her being, who is us and who is them — and he believed this tribal sorting occurred as a matter of fact, that it was just part of the human condition.

Schmitt’s ideas about democratic legitimacy flow from this identitarian grouping. Specifically, he believed democratic structures were only legitimate to the extent they projected the identity of the recognized political community into the state and its laws:

Democracy rests logically on a series of identities: the identity of the governed and governing sovereign and subject, the identity of the subject and the object of the state authority, the identity of the people with their representatives in parliament, the identity of the state and the current voting population, the identity of the state and the law, and finally, an identity of the quantitative (the numerical majority or unanimity) with the qualitative (the justice of the laws).

In his conception, democracy does not require parliamentary procedures, due process, rule of law, or even popular elections. What matters is realizing “the will of the people.” About this Schmitt was clear:

[T]he will of the people is of course always equal to the will of the people, whether a decision comes from the yes or no of millions of voting papers, or from a single individual who has the will of the people without a ballot.

The People, of course, meant members of the recognized identity group. Failure to facilitate their will was tantamount to the total dissolution of sovereignty — what today an imbecile demagogue might call, “losing our country.”

Sarah Palin and the Rise of White Identity Politics

Though conservative white identity dog-whistling dates back to Lee Atwater and the Southern Strategy, the specifically Schmittian turn in identitarian conservatism might be more recently traced to the presidential election of 2008. During that race, Governor Sarah Palin spoke to the silent intimidation, defensiveness, and bitterness that many disaffected working class white voters were feeling. Invoking a classic form of demagogic charismatic leadership, her trick was to invert the dominant moral order in an appeal to galvanize white America’s marginalized and left-behind.

“Blessed are the Heartland, for the Heartland shall inherit the Earth.” Or as she actually said:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.

Her defense of the “real America” is well-remembered for its controversy, but it is also significant as prelude to the rise of Schmittian identitarian thought and the hardening of conservative political identity as a specifically white identity.

Before that point, one might have placed the intellectual heart of the American conservative movement somewhere between the economics department at the University of Chicago and the National Review’s editorial offices, with the Moral Majority and the Family Research Council playing supporting roles. But Palin gave voice to a kind of white resentment and identity politics that had been previously cabined to dark corners of the internet and deep-south County Central Committee rooms.

Palin not only served as a mouthpiece for white America’s grievances, but her position on the Republican ticket required the party apparatus to validate and popularize those grievances. Consider this: before Palin’s candidacy introduced white identity politics into mainstream conservatism, it would have been impossible to imagine the standard-bearer of the business-like Republican Party bragging about his support among the “the poorly educated.” Palin turned conservative values on their head and enabled white identity politics to become the bedrock of political conservatism. Eight years later, “the poorly educated” became “the “smartest people, the most loyal people” exactly because the units of conservative measurement had changed: conservatism had become white identity politics.

Completing The Turn: White Identity Politics in Action

If Palin’s brief symbolic leadership of the Republican Party was the clarion call that began the conservative movement’s distillation down to its white identitarian core, it was the presidency of Barack Obama that caused conservatives to fully reconceptualize politics in the essentially Schmittian terms of friend and enemy.

The 2008 election must have been stunning to those who inhabited Palin’s idyll. Maybe some gave President Obama a chance, but before long, it must have been difficult for many marginalized white Americans to identify with a President and First Lady who praised immigrants, defended Islam, purposefully advanced the careers of racial and sexual minorities, played basketball with pro athletes, told people to eat differently, ridiculed religious superstition and gun culture, and didn’t like to venture too far from big cities. Indeed, it must have been difficult for them to identify with a country whose values appeared to be evolving so rapidly in that direction.

It was in this bunker of alienation that the nature of politics changed for grassroots white conservatives into something more akin to Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction. We see it in the birther conspiracy, which directly challenged the President’s legitimate authority to execute the powers of his office on the basis of his “otherness,” as well as during the aftermath of Benghazi and other terror events, in which conservatives have repeatedly and openly suggested that the President actively betrayed the republic as a foreign agent of terror — the very identification of enmity

Having adopted an essentially Schmittian concept of the political, it was only a matter of time before conservatives arrived at an essentially Schmittian democratic theory based on identitarian will. And so here we are today, with conservatives threatening to deny Democrats undisputed constitutional powers on grounds that their exercise of those powers would necessarily betray the identity of the republic. “The will of the people is of course always equal to the will of the people.”


Contra Schmitt, of course, politics is and can be much more than a clash of clans with competing claims to virtue and legitimacy. Politics can be a collective act of authorship and self-determination; of asserting and encountering one’s individuality, while also transcending that individuality through the contestation and orientation of the values and aspirations that stage a pluralistic political community. In short, politics can be emancipatory, and not just preservative: the key to human freedom, not just survival.

I believe Barack Obama understands that, and I sense that most young people understand that, too. I hope, soon, the Party of Lincoln — our greatest emancipator — recalls it as well.

Adam S. Sieff

Written by

attorney / vice chair @acslaw / board @layoungdems / political & legal theorist / @stanfordlaw and @columbia alum

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