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More on Sam Tanenhaus and the Death of Conservatism

In his short and shallow book The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus writes this:

As if by atavistic reflex, conservative opponents of Barack Obama have applied the epithet “socialism” to his ambitious plans. … After Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress, in February 2009, Charles Krauthammer warned, in his Washington Post column, that Obama is exploiting “the current crisis … to move the still (relatively) modest American welfare state toward European-style social democracy.” And Newt Gingrich warned that Obama’s budget amounted to “European socialism transplanted to Washington.”

The politics of consensus would have required Krauthammer and Gingrich to acknowledge an inescapable fact: the public favored Obama’s proposals. But the politics of orthodoxy imposes no such obligation. “Right reason” makes no allowances for public opinion, because the public is so often wrong. Yet this approach is radically at odds with how democracy really works, with its intricately managed modus vivendi. “Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself,” Walter Bagehot wrote in “The Character of Sir Robert Peel,” his classic essay on statesmanship, published in 1856. “Those who desire a public career must look to the views of the living public. … You cannot, may people wish you could, go into parliament to represent yourself. You must conform to the opinions of the electors.”

Where to begin? Perhaps first by pointing out that what Krauthammer and Gingrich said is quite right and that Tanenhaus nowhere in his book makes a persuasive argument as to why they are wrong. Indeed, the prescience of Krauthammer’s warning is clearer than ever.

Second, we have now had an entire summer of public debate on ObamaCare, and the verdict is in: the public, by fairly wide margins, doesn’t like it and doesn’t want it. According to an ABC analysis of the latest polling data, “Perhaps worst for the president, in interviews following his nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress, Americans by 54-41 percent say that the more they hear about health care reform, the less they like it.” In the words of the highly respected economic columnist Robert Samuelson, Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress last week was driven by a political problem: “Support for [health care] ‘reform’ was collapsing.”

With that in mind, will Mr. Tanenhaus—that great champion of conforming to the opinions of the electors—now publicly reverse himself and state, in no uncertain terms, that supporting ObamaCare would be “radically at odds with how democracy really works” and must therefore be opposed? I rather doubt he will. And if he won’t, let me offer a reason: Tanenhaus is precisely what he condemns in his book—an ideologue, a man of dogmatic fixity, a person of knee-jerk liberal reflexes.

Third, Edmund Burke, whom Tanenhaus praises in his book as a means to criticize modern-day conservatives, held quite a different view from the one expressed by Tanenhaus on the “exacting obedience” that public opinion should have on public figures. In the words of Burke, in his speech to the Electors of Bristol:

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,—these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you.

Tanenhaus’s understanding of Burke is as shallow as his understanding of conservatism itself; and Burke, it appears, is merely a convenient club with which to try to beat up conservatives Tanenhaus disagrees with (which is to say, almost every conservative in America ). All of which supports my second point—that Tanenhaus is himself of ideologue.

The idea that Sam Tanenhaus is interested in defining “authentic conservatism,” or even equipped for such a task, is risible. As if to support this observation, Tanenhaus’s book includes an endorsement by that great modern scholar of political theory and conservative thought: Chris Matthews of MSNBC.

Enough said.



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