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Sam Tanenhaus’s Bad Advice

I wanted to add my thoughts on Sam Tanenhaus, author of a new book, The Death of Conservatism—one that COMMENTARY’s own John Podhoretz skillfully dismantles in the current issue.

In a recent interview with Newsweek’s editor Jon Meacham, Tanenhaus takes to lecturing conservatives on what they need to do to avoid marginalization. As best as I can tell, Tanenhaus wants conservatives simply to make peace with liberalism, in all its particulars. In his (tendentious) words, “A declaration of ideological warfare against liberalism is by its nature profoundly unconservative. It meets perceived radicalism with a counterradicalism of its own.”

For one thing, notice that liberal radicalism is “perceived”—while conservative radicalism is assumed.

Second, Tanenhaus is attempting to portray conservatism as inherently unable to roll back liberalism. In his “From the Editor” entry, John points out that in his book Tanenhaus approvingly quotes Garry Wills as saying, “The right wing in America is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of ‘conserving’ an actual order it does not want to conserve.” This formulation, as John points out, is both clever and fatuous. It does not represent conservatism, including the Burkean strand.

The liberal professor Alan Wolfe has written:

Two kinds of political acts require no wisdom at all, and Burke rejected them both. One is an implacable conservatism that defends everything that exists, because such a point of view never requires that we make distinctions or evaluations. The other is an uninhibited radicalism that throws out everything that exists because it assumes, even before reflection, that anything old is outmoded. . . . Wisdom consists in knowing what is good and ought to be retained and what is problematic that needs to be changed.

Burke himself put it this way:

When the useful parts of an old establishment are kept, and what is superadded is to be fitted to what is retained, a vigorous mind, steady, persevering attention, various powers of comparison and combination, and the resources of an understanding fruitful in expedients are to be exercised.

Elsewhere Burke writes, “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.” When it comes to liberalism, Tanenhaus seems interested only in a “disposition to preserve.”

Tanenhaus also says in his Newsweek interview: “Rush Limbaugh’s stated hope that Obama will fail seems to have become GOP doctrine. That is the attitude not of conservatives, but of radicals, who deplore the very possibility of a virtuous government.”

This statement is silly. For one thing, Obamaism is not synonymous with “virtuous government.” For another, Limbaugh has made it clear any number of times that he wants Obama to fail based on the assumption that Obama is promoting an across-the-board liberal agenda—which has certainly been the case on the domestic side. I would also bet a steak dinner that when Ronald Reagan was president, Limbaugh believed the federal government was acting in a more “virtuous” manner than Mr. Tanenhaus did. Limbaugh supported the federal government at a time when Tanenhaus was, I think it’s fair to assume, opposed to what it was doing. Whether or not government is virtuous depends on what government is doing, the goals it is advancing, and the principles it embodies.

In addition, Tanenhaus, in attempting to deflect the charge that he isn’t a “true conservative,” says, “I’m not registered with either party and never have been.” To which I would respond by asking, So what? The fact that Tanenhaus doesn’t register with a political party can’t hide the fact that he is, through and through, a liberal. That isn’t a crime, and Tanenhaus doesn’t even believe it is a mistake. But he should set aside the pretext that he is somehow “objective.” He is not, and he should not pretend he is.

The Economist had a review of The Death of Conservatism and described it as “essentially an appeal for unilateral disarmament by the right masquerading as a fair-minded report on the state of the battle.” That sounds right to me. I would only add this: a pretty good rule to follow is that conservatives should ignore the counsel of people who possess a sneering disdain for conservatives and conservatism. They are not, in the words of Madison, “loving critics.” So when these individuals profess deep and earnest concern that the right, in not following their advice, could be marginalized for a generation of more, ignore them. A lot of people have wise counsel for the right. Sam Tanenhaus is not one of them.


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