Saturday, October 17, 2015
The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More than once I've been accused of being a conservative. That seemed strange, given that I marched against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, cast my first presidential ballot for George McGovern, and proudly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I was briefly a member of both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Friends of SNCC. But a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus at a used book store, and realized I was guilty as charged. And that I was still a liberal.
I probably wouldn't have bought the book if it hadn't been for the author's name. I went to high school with his older brother Michael, who's now a psycholinguist at the University of Rochester, and I was curious to read something by Sam, whom I'd seen but never met. The book came out in 2009, to wide acclaim, though some critics have suggested that the reviews might not have been so positive had Tanenhaus not been the New York Times book review editor at the time.
More recently it's been dismissed as false prophecy because of the Tea Party victory in the 2010 elections. But after a rereading, I'm convinced that while Tanenhaus was premature in declaring the death of what he calls “movement conservatism,” his analysis holds up.
“What we call conservatism today,” Tanenhaus writes, “would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who in the late eighteenth century set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the 'organic' unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.”
In his most well-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke, writes Tanenhaus, “warned against the destablilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind. The Jacobins—in particular Robespierre, who proclaimed a 'despotism of liberty'—and more moderate figures, too, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions of what Burke called 'civil society.”
Burke sympathized with the American revolutionists, says Tanenhaus, because they, “unlike the French rebels, didn't seek to destroy the English government; on the contrary, they regarded themselves as faithful adherents of English law and justly accused England of having violated its own political and legal traditions by unlawfully imposing measures like the Stamp Act without allowing the colonists to make their dissenting case in Parliament.”
American conservatism since World War II, says Tanenhaus, has been a debate between “realists who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions” and “revanchists* committed to a counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America's pre-New Deal ancien régime, the return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of premodern 'family values.'”
Tanenhaus gives us a brief but very readable history of modern American conservatism from the New Deal era to the 2008 election. Conservatives railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but, “[t]he complication was that Rooseveltism worked.” After FDR's successor, Harry S Truman, was elected in his own right, the Republican Party faced a choice in 1952 between the revanchist faction represented by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and the realists, who persuaded General Dwight D. Eisenhower to seek the nomination.
We learn about the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his intellectual defender, William F. Buckley, along with several thinkers of the postwar conservatism, including James Burnham, a former Trotskyite who had soured on Marxism after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, and Buckley's brother-in-law and classmate L. Brent Bozell. Whittaker Chambers, another ex-Communist (and the subject of a Tanenhaus biography) is portrayed as a moderating figure in the movement, who “embraced a genuinely classical conservatism.”
Tanenhaus reminds us of the young conservatives who formed the Young Americans for Freedom, who worked tirelessly for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but whose memory has been eclipsed by the rise of left-wing groups such as Students for a Democratic Society. Goldwater's landslide defeat, writes Tanenhaus, ushered in conservatism's “greatest phase, a decade-long period, from 1965 to 1975, during which the familiar dynamic between orthodoxy and consensus underwent a remarkable reversal. The liberal sun, even as it steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchanted and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition—blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left—shaped a new consensus.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, had more to do with the rise of conservatism than the counterculture. Political thinkers such as Kevin Phillips, whose 1968 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was a blueprint for Nixon's 1968 victory. While Nixon made the Party of Lincoln acceptable in the Deep South, Democrats could not recover from the debacle in Chicago, and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy's refusal to make anything more than a reluctant endorsement of their nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Still, the election was a close one.
Nixon's presidency ended in resignation and disgrace, dividing conservatives, but, as Tanenbaum writes, “Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections. The single defeat, in 1976, was remarkably narrow, given the circumstances: an unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who barely survived a challenge in the primaries—by Reagan, the Right's new tribune...”
And when Reagan finally came to power, movement conservatives had a problem, or, as Garry Wills had written earlier in The Confessions of a Conservative (1979): “The right wing is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve.” Reagan, while declaring government “the problem,” failed to rein in the growth of government, as did his designated successor, George H. W. Bush, which brought about what Tanenhaus calls conservatism's “most decadent phase.” Tanenhaus compares Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated the GOP's 1994 “Contract with America” triumph, with the French Revolution's Danton.
The contract's “reforms”—term limits, purging of moderates from committee chairmanships—would have “mystified” classical conservatives who saw institutional traditions as Congress's great strength writes Tanenhaus. “Meanwhile , Gingrich, and the House's Robespierre, Tom DeLay, tried to delegitimize a popular president, Bill Clinton, and assembled a shadow government of lobbyists who gained increasing influence over the legislative business of Congress.”
Tanenhaus cites a 1995 article “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” by Michael Lind in Dissent: “In 1984, the leading conservative spokesman in the media was George Will; by 1994, it was Rush Limbaugh. The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the eighties were foreign policy and economics; by the early nineties thy had become dirty pictures and eviant sex.” Tanenhaus goes on to say, “They not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement above their civic responsibilities.”
George W. Bush, writes Tanenhaus, “so often labeled a traitor to movement principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors—including Reagan.” Deregulation, the $1.3 million tax cut, the plan to partially privatize Social Security, faith-based initiatives, the “war on terror,” and the mission to “democratize” Iraq were all in line with movement conservatism. And by 2008 we were in the midst of the Great Recession.
The Death of Conservatism was published in 2009, after the Obama landslide of 2008, but before the Tea Party resurgences of 2010 and 2014. And as a prognosticator, he was off by at least a few years. Movement conservatism is alive and well, but it seems headed toward another disaster—a government shutdown, or perhaps a default on the national debt. At this writing, all of the Republican presidential candidates, including the so-called “moderates” such as Ohio governor John Kasich, are clearly in the revanchist camp. And the frontrunner is none other than Donald Trump, whose politics seem a parody of right-wing extremism.
“Most of us," concludes Tanenhaus, "are liberal and conservative: we cling to the past in some ways, push forward into the future in others, and seek to reconcile our most cherished notions and beliefs—'prejudices' in Burke's term, 'animal faith' in [George] Santayana's—with the demands of unanticipated events... There remains in our politics a place for authentic conservatism—a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.”
The Death of Conservatism is short—only 123 pages, including the bibliography. It lacks footnotes and an index, which would have been helpful. But those are minor points. It's a valuable resource for anyone—liberal, conservative, or both—to understand the nuances of American postwar conservatism. And perhaps because it failed to predict the rise of Tea Party revanchism, you can buy a used copy for a penny on Amazon. Or, I should say, a penny plus the $3.99 shipping and handling charge.
*Revanchism, from the French revanche (revenge), refers specifically to the French movement in the 1870s and '80s to regain Alsace and Lorraine, which were lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War; and generally to any right-wing movement which aspires to regain something lost or perceived to be lost.
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