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A Response to Damon Linker

Damon Linker has taken to the pages of the New Republic to express his opinion of Sam Tanenhaus’s “wonderful little book,” The Death of Conservatism. In the process, Linker decides to dismiss critics of Tanenhaus by referring to some pieces I have written on Tanenhaus. Linker puts it this way:

Take Peter Wehner’s representative remarks about the [Tanenhaus] 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.

There are several things to say in response, perhaps beginning with this observation: I actually recall a time when the New Republic published serious pieces about books that didn’t rely on the wisdom of, or taunts by, Pee-Wee Herman.

As for “relieving [myself] of the burden of self-examination,” I’m actually quite happy to engage in self-examination when it comes to the Bush Administration in which I worked; conservatism and the modern Republican party; and celebrated media figures who are trying to link themselves with conservatism. I’m not against self-examination when it comes to conservatism. What I’m against are shallow and tendentious critiques of conservatism.

As for Linker’s point that Tanenhaus cannot be a liberal because he praised Nixon’s pre-Watergate domestic and foreign policy: many of Nixon’s domestic and foreign-policy achievements were (as Tanenhaus himself concedes) fairly liberal—including wage-and-price controls, affirmative action, an embrace of Keynesian economics, the creation of many new government agencies, and more. So for a liberal to praise Richard Nixon, especially when the true purpose of the praise is to criticize modern-day conservatives, means very little. Even Ronald Reagan is praised by some liberals today, and for the same reason. We’re now told how he was the embodiment of “moderation” and “pragmatism” and always eager to “compromise”—qualities that liberals were strangely blind to when Reagan was actually president and he was a hated figure by the Left. It is similar to how liberals reacted in the Cold War: they were ferocious critics of conservative policies at the time; now that those policies have been vindicated, they would have you believe we were all Cold Warriors.

As a general proposition, a book about conservatism that is endorsed by Chris Matthews, Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer, and Leon Wieseltier is a book whose author is liberal. Tanenhaus is, and he (and Linker) should not pretend otherwise. Being a liberal is a mistake, but it’s not a crime.

Mr. Tanenhaus’s history of conservatism, as laid out in his book, is at points tolerable. What is tiresome is for him to pretend that he genuinely cares about conservatism and its future; that he has appointed himself the arbiter of what authentic conservatism is and is not; and that he wants to convince us that he fears conservatives, if they do not follow the Writ of Tanenhaus, will “spin futilely on their lonely unlit orbit” and continue to offer nothing more than “nihilism.” Sam Tanenhaus is for one kind of conservatism—the kind that will ratify the gains of liberalism.

As for Mr. Linker: he was once “in the center of the theoconservative world,” as his own book jacket describes him, before he turned hard against it. In the memorable words of Thomas More: “Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate — Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front again.”

We can hope–and, in the best theocratic tradition, we can pray–the same thing for Damon Linker.



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