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The Death (and Life) of Conservatism

One of the best lines in Sam Tanenhaus’s wonderful little book on The Death of Conservatism comes in its opening chapter. Surveying intellectual life on the right in the opening months of the Obama administration, Tanenhaus concludes that too many conservative intellectuals “recognize no distinction between analysis and advocacy, or between the competition of ideas and the naked struggle for power.” Quite so, as one can see from the response (or non-response) of the right to Tanenhaus’s own book.

Tanenhaus is a tough critic of the conservative movement, but he is also a deeply informed one. He knows its history and shows considerable sympathy for some of its ideas. To be sure, his vision of conservatism—like Andrew Sullivan’s—is by contemporary American standards quite heterodox. Tanenhaus believes, for example, that the best and most truly conservative presidents of the modern era are Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton. That hardly places Tanenhaus in the mainstream of conservative thought today.

And yet Tanenhaus makes his counter-intuitive case with elegance and rigor, drawing on the ideas and policies of dozens of writers and public figures—including Edmund Burke, James Burnham, Whittaker Chamber, William F. Buckley, and Michael Oakeshott—whose conservative credentials are unimpeachable. An intellectually serious conservatism would jump at the chance to engage with an author who uses its leading lights to argue that the movement has gone seriously astray. But that’s not what contemporary conservatives are doing. When they aren’t ignoring Tanenhaus’s book, they’re doing what they do best: policing orthodoxy.

Take Peter Wehner’s representative remarks about the book, published on Contentions, Commentary’s group blog. A former assistant to Karl Rove in the Bush White House, Wehner is a master of deploying the rhetorical trick that contemporary conservatives use to convince themselves that they’re always right. At bottom, it amounts to a high-minded version of the old Pee-Wee Herman taunt, “I know you are, but what am I?” There are countless examples. A handful of liberals stupidly describe conservatives as fascists, so Jonah Goldberg responds by writing several hundred pages about the threat of liberal fascism. (Get it?) Liberal Jews frequently congratulate themselves for their secularism, so Norman Podhoretz produces a book in which he claims that Jews treat liberalism as a religion. (Clever!) And Sam Tanenhaus defends a moderate version of conservatism against the ideological thinking that dominates the right and Wehner responds by saying that “Tanenhaus is precisely what he condemns in his book—an ideologue, a man of dogmatic fixity, a person of knee-jerk liberal reflexes.” Oh, what a wily man you are, Peter Wehner, turning the tables on him like that and relieving yourself of the burden of self-examination. That was a close one! (Liberals, meanwhile, will be quite understandably perplexed by Wehner’s suggestion that a man who generously praises Nixon’s pre-Watergate domestic and foreign policy, as Tanenhaus does, is actually a liberal “through and through.”) 

None of which is meant to suggest that Tanenhaus’s book is without problems. Far from it. But it’s very much worth reading and pondering, and for precisely the reason that the ideological right wants to dismiss it. By taking conservatism seriously while also passing severe judgment on its contemporary manifestation, the book helps us to raise our sights from the ideological battles of the present moment to achieve the critical distance that makes dispassionate understanding possible. Terrified that self-criticism will weaken its will to combat an ever-lengthening list of enemies, the right now views critical distance as a danger to be avoided at all costs. The rest of us, thankfully, need accept no such practical restrictions on our thinking.

Now to some of those problems. To begin with, Tanenhaus’s aversion to ideology is so complete that he comes close to rejecting the very distinction between left and right. In its place, he substitutes a measure of intensity: there are ideologues of various stripes, including movement conservatives, who embrace and promulgate orthodoxies (bad); and then there are liberal and conservative pragmatists who respond to the challenges of the moment by building consensus for measured reform (good). Tanenhaus favors moderation, in other words, and has little interest in, and is even a little suspicious of, principled arguments about the proper scope of government, which is the major ideological fault-line in our politics. When conservatives seek to temper the excesses of ideological liberalism and pursue modest public projects of their own, Tanenhaus admires them. But when they set out on right-wing ideological crusades, as they did under Bush II, he criticizes them harshly.

This is a defensible position—indeed, it is close to my own. (I prefer to call it liberalism, but perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, since such a moderate version of liberalism might be indistinguishable from an equally moderate version of conservatism.) And yet the two-fold task Tanenhaus has set for himself—not only telling the story of the death of (ideological) conservatism, but also making a case for another (temperamental) form of conservatism that actually existing conservatism has only rarely exemplified—sometimes produces a terminological and conceptual muddle. In Tanenhaus’s universe—unlike the one inhabited by the rest of us—Eisenhower, the pre-Watergate Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Barack Obama are genuine conservatives. Meanwhile, the policies of the ideologue George W. Bush were somehow both the apotheosis of conservatism and its negation. The reader is left wondering whether it really makes sense to insist on using a single term to describe such a wide range of outlooks.

Still, we get the point. More problematic is Tanenhaus’s effort to defend the claim advanced by his title. Is (ideological) conservatism really dead? I submit that it’s supremely unconservative (in Tanenhaus’s temperamental sense) to presume that it is. Barack Obama won a significant victory in 2008. If he and his party succeed in enacting something like his proposed agenda and he wins re-election in 2012, then we might have good reason to suppose that the country has moved beyond the conservative disposition that so thoroughly dominated its politics from 1980 through 2008.

But the sobering fact is that it’s still possible that Obama and the Democratic Party will fail in their efforts to consolidate the realignment that began last November. If they do fail—if the country turns decisively against the president and his party in 2012—it will be in part because of the resilience of conservative ideology. Far from being dead, ideological conservatism will have proven its enduring capacity to express, provoke, and mobilize populist anger and resentments. That has been ideological conservatism’s great strength—and its path to political power—for over forty years now.

Liberals and temperamental conservatives like Sam Tanenhaus can and should be working to prevent the pattern from repeating itself. But before they can do that, they must resist the temptation to engage in wishful thinking. Ideological conservatism remains very much alive on cable news and talk radio, and among significant numbers of citizens in the South, Midwest, and Intermountain West. As long as that remains the case, it will be poised for political resurrection at a moment’s notice.