Sam Tanenhaus's essay on the death of ideological or "movement" conservatism is unquestionably today's must-read. Herewith a few disconnected, preliminary thoughts on the piece.
1. I eagerly await Andrew Sullivan's post on the essay, since it criticizes (quietly but devastatingly) much of what Sullivan himself has come to detest in movement conservatism and defends, instead, an unideological, pragmatic form of conservatism that sounds very much like Sullivan's "conservatism of doubt."
2. But the very closeness between Sullivan's and Tanenhaus's form of conservatism raises doubts of my own about its viability as a conservative governing philosophy. As David Brooks noted in his largely sympathetic review of Sullivan's The Conservative Soul, "doubt is not a political platform. Hope is." (Obama apparently got that memo.) This is especially true in the United States, according to Brooks, because "the United States is a creedal nation." That's why "almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed." Like Brooks, I admire the conservatism described and defended by Sullivan and Tanenhaus (and Michael Oakeshott), but it's a personal philosophy, a habit of mind or soul, a style of judgment, a disposition or temperament, not a political philosophy. Example: Sullivan, who considers himself a conservative in this sense, strongly supported Obama, whom he also considers to be a conservative. But of course when it comes to policy, Obama is not a conservative at all. He's a liberal. Tanenhaus thus seems to be saying something like: Conservatives need to be more like Obama. If that means they should be cautious, intelligent, reflective, articulate, then it makes a lot of sense. But what about their policies? Isn't that a big part of their problems, too?
3. Which reminds me of the old neocon quip from the late 1970s: "You can't beat a horse with no horse." Translation: You need an ideology if you want to gain (and hold onto) political power. Pragmatism and competence aren't enough. (Unless you're Dwight D. Eisenhower.) That's why conservative John O'Sullivan is right to respond to Tanenhaus's essay with a bit of perplexity about precisely what its author thinks conservatives ought to do now, policywise. I mean, sure: If Obama utterly fails as president, then it might become possible for unideological conservatives to win on a platform of mere competence. But after Bush, and Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber, that seems like a pretty unlikely scenario, regardless of how successful the Obama presidency turns out to be.
4. And speaking of Sarah and Joe, they point to something I think is indisputable at this point: cultural populism has become a dead end for conservatives, and the Republican Party will likely remain in the political wilderness until they wean themselves from it. I hope to expand on this point in a future post.
5. For a different, less pessimistic take on the conservative past and future, Peter Berkowitz's essay on "Constitutional Conservatism" is worth reading. Though I'm struck by the extent to which Berkowitz's lengthy essay and elaborate analysis boils down to saying that the GOP should nominate Rudy Giuliani in 2012. (This also appears to be the barely concealed agenda of David Frum's new website, which is filled with staffers from Giuliani's failed 2008 campaign.) If conservatives as intelligent as Berkowitz and Frum actually believe that this is a viable future for the conservative movement in America, then liberals have very little to worry about.
UPDATE: My friend Russell Fox has some typically original and insightful things to say about the Tanenhaus piece here. As for Russell's dissent from point 2 above, I think we're reading Tanenhaus's line about the American distaste for ideology in different ways. When linked up with Tanenhaus's praise of conservatives (like Disraeli in mid-19th century Britain and the mature Chambers in mid-20th century America) who were willing to make compromises with changes in modern society and culture, I think we're left with pragmatism and caution but little ideological content at all. Instead of standing athwart history yelling, "Stop!," Tanenhaus's ideal conservative would patiently clear his throat before ironically intoning, "Hey, would you mind slowing down a little bit so we can catch up with you before the next round of creative destruction?" That's temperamental, not ideological, conservatism.