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Conservatism And A Tale Of Two Kristols

Having just published a book on the future of liberalism, I was immediately attracted to Sam Tanenhaus's essay on the future of conservatism. Two questions are worth asking. Is conservatism really in as much trouble as he claims? And if it is, will liberalism make a comeback? My answers are yes and yes.

Although Tanenhaus has written something of an obituary for conservatism, he is in many ways too kind; he spares his readers the names of Sarah Palin and John Boehner.  The fact that one of them might have been elected to high national office while the other presides over a caucus willing to plunge the country further into darkness in the name of Republican party unity suggests that however serious the periodic crises within conservatism since the 1950s, the one facing the movement in the last couple of years is the most serious one ever.

The deterioration of conservative dogma lies in the movement from Kristol to Kristol. Irving may have been more of an operator than a philosopher, but he understood that liberals had lost an anchoring in real-world conditions, and through The Public Interest, he urged conservatives to fill the vacuum. This was conservatism's best bet. Unable to solve the problem of how to prevent change in a country that changes all the time, Kristol's urged a conservatism, based, as Tanenhaus correctly notes, on a respect for civil society, neighborhood, and family. Conservatives could not deal with the problem of capitalism. But they could respond to its effects. Against the left's romanticism, the right would speak to the gritty reality of everyday life.

Bill Kristol, by contrast, is a political philosopher and not a social scientist. He does not begin with real life and attempt to devise small-bore policies to meet it. He begins instead with a vision of an ideal world and urges grandiose plans to realize it. The younger Kristol's romanticism was most obviously on display in his enthusiasm for war; he would emulate Lord Byron's fervor, not Carl von Clausewitz's caution. But even in domestic policy, Bill Kristol is perfectly happy to kill popular programs such as health care rather than adopt them along conservative lines to alleviate the trying conditions under which actual people live.

Bill Kristol's willingness to ape the romanticism of the left has created an opening for liberals to claim the territory once staked out by Irving Kristol. Tanenhaus, along with Andrew Sullivan, recognizes this by finding shades of Burke in Obama. Intellectually this is not quite right; Obama really is a liberal. But temperamentally both are correct. Simply by not being crazy, Obama has available to him the support of most of the country. Conservative self-destruction has cleared such a wide path for him that he would foolish to upset any apple carts. Sometimes I think even Burke would have voted for him.

Will conservatives eventually return to what Tanenhaus calls "their honorable intellectual and political tradition"? Maybe, but I doubt that the Republican Party will anytime soon. The movement is in charge of the party for now, and the movement is uninterested in moderation, caution, and tradition. Here's a test. Bill Kristol has a new perch, this time at The Washington Post. If he simply repeats his Palin performance and latches onto the next media star, conservatism will remain dead for some time to come. If he instead rejoins the party of ideas, and especially the ideas touted by his father, conservatism will begin its long march back to respectability.