“The Report of our Death was Greatly Exaggerated.”
So whatever happened to the death of conservatism? Wasn’t it supposed to be long gone by now, crumbling within its sarcophagus, a dim memory of a discredited past? Didn’t we start hearing authoritative rumblings about its impending doom around the time of the last set of midterm elections, in 2006, when disillusioned ex-conservatives like Francis Fukuyama and soi-disant types like Andrew Sullivan began tuning their cellos of lamentation and discontent? Wasn’t that also approximately when disaffected conservative writers were proclaiming, in the pages of the Washington Monthly, that “It’s Time for Us to Go”? The talk was so deafening that I was moved to argue with it back in January 2007 in these pages in an article entitled “Is Conservatism Finished?” I concluded with some gingerness that it was not, but my conclusion came nearly two years before the most liberal candidate to run for the presidency in nearly half a century won a resounding victory.
In the wake of that election, the liberal conviction about the demise of the left’s intellectual opposition mutated into an inarguable presumption. The neoconservative branch of the conservative movement found itself in especially dire straits. One would have thought its principal figures would henceforth be banished to pass the rest of their days in dark and lonely places, condemned to while away the balance of time poring fruitlessly over the collected works of Leo Strauss in the original Aramaic.
Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times wrote a long article in the New Republic that was turned into a tome rather too thin to serve as a headstone, notwithstanding its blunt title: The Death of Conservatism. George Packer made the grand announcement in the pages of the New Yorker of “the complete collapse of the four-decade project that brought conservatism to power in America.” And even though these morticians’ declarations began to look questionable only months after Obama’s inauguration, when a resurgent populist right began making itself loudly known across the country, such pronouncements have continued unabated. Indeed, with conservatism on the verge (at this writing) of a great and perhaps unprecedented political comeback, the dream of killing off the intellectual opposition through the unilateral declaration of its demise has proved amusingly durable. In the words of the late Senator Ted Kennedy—whose actual death at the end of last year seemed a symbolic indication of the ideological troubles ahead—“the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
The most deathly minded recent example, however, would have to be C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook’s Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea1 , a fervent analysis that has been endorsed by figures ranging from Glenn Beck on the right to Thom Hartmann (a host on the now-defunct left-wing talk-radio network Air America) but that owes more to Ayn Rand than to Ted Kennedy. It rehearses with a bit more detail than usual the familiar argument that neoconservatives are all the children and grandchildren of Strauss, a scholar and teacher who held posts at the New School and the University of Chicago, wrote books about political philosophy, and has been dead for 37 years now. To be a neoconservative and a Straussian, we have been told by far right and medium left alike, is to be a Trotskyist in a tailored suit, and a faithful adherent to the secret plan to take over the nation and the world through the deployment of ideological armies that will run actual armies.
If you are unfamiliar with this particular conspiracy theory, here is an entertaining place to check it out. With chapter titles such as “The Path to Power,” followed by “The Road to Nihilism” and “The Long Trek Back to Plato,” and chapter subheads such as “From Leon to Leo” and a concluding “Could It Happen Here?” Thompson and Brook pretty much cover the waterfront and find evidence of Straussian infiltration in every cargo container and every rat hole. Somehow, though, it begins to occur to the reader that there is something odd in pronouncing an obituary upon a movement you believe represents such a clear and present danger. That is, unless the obituary is an expression not of a fact but of a wish.
Although no formal obituary darkens its pages, Benjamin Balint’s Running COMMENTARY: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right2 makes its own subtle gestures in the direction of the graveyard. The book is far more friendly, intelligent, and elegantly written, and having been informed by the author’s term of employment at this magazine possesses some of the virtues and defects of any insider account. There is copious detail, even about familiar episodes, since unprecedented access was granted to the magazine archives. But there is also a persistently elegiac tone meant to convey the sense that Commentary’s best days are irrevocably behind it.
The early magazine had derived its power and energy from the critical “outsiderness” of American Jewish identity, Balint says. But when the magazine moved to a more conservative and pro-American stance, and redirected its sense of “outsiderness” toward the misjudgments of the reflexively liberal American Jewish community itself, it lost its guiding star. There might be something to this argument, if one believes that the chief point of being a Jew is to be an outsider—though the precise point of Commentary from its founding was that to be a Jew is not to be an outsider but rather a full participant in American life without any simultaneous loss of Jewishness.
It is not for me to speak to Commentary’s present vigor or lack thereof in its own pages, since such conclusions would naturally be suspect. But Balint’s book simply ignores the fact that the political and ideological ideas and themes explored at such length and in such detail in Commentary for the past 40 years have remained at the red-hot center of national and international debate.
Consider Barack Obama’s stout assurances during his campaign that he would reverse the neoconnish foreign-policy direction of the Bush administration, particularly in regard to the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Now, two years after the election, President Obama is following, however grudgingly, the Bush precedents he ran against, from the Patriot Act to Guantanamo to Iraq to Afghanistan, even including the assignment of Bush’s finest general, David Petraeus (famously labeled “General Betray-Us” by Obama’s MoveOn.org supporters), to head a significantly augmented Afghanistan operation.
Meanwhile, the administration’s “smart” diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have eventuated, not in the clearly intended isolation of Israel, but rather in a confused retreat by the administration from its once-strident effort to impose that policy of isolation. Alas for him, the president has found that his outreach to the Muslim world has been no help in his pursuit of his grandiose foreign-policy aims. Meanwhile, neoconservative critiques of welfare-state liberalism and Keynesian economics, propounded and finely honed during the 1970s, have once again been deployed against Obama’s reckless and unsuccessful domestic policies. If this be death, then conservatives would be well advised to make the most of it.
But of course, the eulogists are being disingenuous. They are not truly concerned with how conservatism or neoconservatism or Commentary died but rather with the annoying way in which each has managed to live. “There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism,” Tanenhaus concludes, “a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.” Ah, yes. Funny how liberals suddenly come to wax enthusiastic about Edmund Burke when they are in power, and when the principle of stare decisis (which they imagine to be the essence of Burke) works in their favor, and when they want to label “unconservative” those who want to reverse bad precedents. The notion that those who disdain the label of “conservative” are the ones best equipped to define it, while those vulgar souls that embrace it only distort it beyond acceptance, has a long and comic history. The pitch-perfect expression of this spirit came from Dwight Macdonald in 1956 (in this very magazine, in an article embarrassingly titled “Scrambled Eggheads on the Right”), when he dismissed the newly created National Review with a wave of his hand. “We have long needed a good conservative magazine,” Macdonald declared, but added archly that National Review “is not it…it is neither good nor conservative.”
So too Tanenhaus: how wonderful it would be, he suggests, if American conservatives addressed themselves to abstract philosophical explorations of the relation between order and liberty, discussed in still and quiet parlors and dark-paneled meetingplaces, rather than mucking up our public life by speaking audibly and involving themselves inpolitical matters while seeking to enact rival political, economic, and social ideas of their own! Clearly, the British model of an elite grouping of witty and arch curmudgeons and aristocrats of an occasionally deviant tendency that inertly preserves the old order along with a few progressive changes to that order would be far preferable, and more genuinely conservative. But the problem is that American conservatives are today, as they were in 1956, too populist, too majoritarian, too religious, too moralistic, too acquisitive, too middle-class, too reformist, too bumptious.
As Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in a witty 2006 National Review essay called “The Long Goodbye,” conservatives “are always in the dock for betraying their forebears, and they are always found guilty.” And, they add, “the fact that those forebears were found guilty of the same offense does not get in the way of the verdict.” Conservative history thus becomes construed as one parricide after another, in which each successor generation kills the father and ransacks his legacy. “The history of conservatism’s alleged decline is,” they observe, “roughly coterminous with the history of modern conservatism.”
Thus, the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter, who borrowed from the Marxist Frankfurt School critique of “authoritarian personalities” to conceive of something he called “the paranoid style in American politics,” referred to the postwar conservative movement as “pseudo-conservatism”—a betrayal of the real thing that preceded it. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was said to have betrayed the orderly conservatism of Senator Robert Taft with the wild, libertarian, populist, and vaguely fascistic strain he was bringing into American politics. Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” marked him as a Stalin manqué. Ronald Reagan, according to the account of Kevin Phillips, betrayed mainstream conservatism by pressing a Sunbelt agenda that was little more than “apple-pie authoritarianism.” The elder George Bush sold out to the fiscal policies he once derided as “voodoo economics” and further sullied his cause with a lowdown campaign against flag-burning and the ACLU. The younger George Bush betrayed the wise prudence of his now-venerated father, particularly in the Middle East. And so it goes.
Note that every man in this series was reviled in office, and every man (save the younger Bush, of whom the memory is still green) would come to be respected once he was far from the levers of power. For becoming an annoyance to Reagan and a proponent of gay rights, Goldwater was lionized. For having opened the door to China and having created beloved liberal institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, Richard Nixon was washed clean (somewhat) of his stain. For having brought to an end the Cold War that liberals now retrospectively claim to have fought just as hard as he, Ronald Reagan has been granted his due. For having spent so much time building a worldwide coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, the elder Bush is praised by Democrats and liberals who opposed the effort to begin with.
This history of rearview-mirror respect must lead any honest observer to conclude that something else is at work in the analyses of those who are always at the ready to declare that the conservatives of their day are wanting in comparison with their forebears.
If the pattern holds, we can expect in 30 years or so to read accounts of the lively and energetic self-organizing Tea Party movement in the first and second decades of the 21st century—which will cast the nasty putdowns we are reading now into the dustbin of history without any requirement that those who issued those putdowns be held to account for them. No one will know of Mark Lilla’s ludicrous description in the New York Review of Books of Tea Partiers as enraged “Jacobins” operating as a “libertarian mob,” nor will they be reminded of J.M. Bernstein’s account in (of course) the New York Times in June of “the ease with which [the Tea Party movement] succumbs to the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods.”
Bernstein placed the Tea Party on the psychiatrist’s couch and came away with a diagnosis of psychopathology. These poor people are terrified by the way that reality challenges their “deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency” and refuse to accept “the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action.” They sound very similar to the central Pennsylvanians whom candidate Obama described in a San Francisco fundraiser, pathetic souls who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Bad as such condescension is, what is worse is the realization that in decades to come, when the Tea Party is safely consigned to the past, those who participated in it may well be spoken of as examples of a pristine American spirit of public-spiritedness and healthy civic engagement, compared to which the then-present iteration of conservatism will be said to pale in comparison.
Then again, maybe not. History never repeats itself exactly, and there is one thing that has changed decisively, or is in the process of changing, which may render this cycle obsolete. What has truly been dying is not conservatism but the intellectual and media environment in which expressions of conservatism can be easily drowned out by the insinuation of a well-publicized psycho-slander coming from an authoritative and monopolistic source. The irrepressible force of the Internet, and its effects in diminishing the importance of the “legacy” media—i.e., the major television networks, major newspapers, and major newsweeklies—has been and is rightly compared with other communications revolutions of the past, such as the invention of movable type, which broke down hierarchical and centralized sources of information-gathering and production, opening them up and producing large democratizing changes. It is hard to imagine that the vast expansions of government power that have occurred in the past 80 years would have happened as easily in the kind of decentralized communications environment that exists today. In this respect as in others, the Obama administration has found it very hard to follow in the path of the New Deal or the Great Society.
In American national politics, this democratizing phenomenon first revealed itself clearly in the 2004 presidential election. Two striking examples come to mind. The first was the vehement, uncontained rage of media figures like Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Mark Shields of PBS and the sweeping condemnation of the New York Times and Washington Post toward the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their campaign against John Kerry’s presidential candidacy through the challenge they offered to his account of his own Vietnam-era heroism. Indeed, the mainstream media were allied as a single person against the Swift Boat Vets’ allegations, but the presence of so many sources of uncontrolled information meant that their campaign did not prevent the Vets from being widely believed.
The moves by Kerry’s campaign to stifle discourse—threatening booksellers, bullying publishers, filing lawsuits, seeking regulatory restraints—were all too indicative of a reflex to control speech and thereby deprive a democratic society of the oxygen it needs to thrive. Those of us who live and work in universities have been all too familiar with this reflex, which has been more triumphant than not in the academy, to the enduring detriment of academic discourse. But it is now much harder to control and stifle journalistic and nontraditional media of expression—and becoming harder all the time.
It was not then the case, nor is it yet true today, that it doesn’t matter what the Times says, or what Time, Newsweek, and the major TV networks do. The full-court press of advocacy for Obama in the 2008 election reminded us of the power of mass-media orthodoxy. But the increasing prominence and energy of the alternative media, and the steady decline of the credibility and economic viability of the older media, help explain why Obama’s stratospheric popularity proved to be so short-lived.
Another highly significant episode in the 2004 presidential campaign was precipitated when CBS News’s Dan Rather presented the country with documents purporting to cast doubt upon President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard less than two months before the public was to go to the polls. In a pre-Internet era, it would have been very difficult to contest Rather’s claims, and the presidential election might well have been thrown to Kerry. What ensued, however, was a lesson in the information-aggregation power of the Internet. Ordinary bloggers all over the country immediately got to work on the problem. They were not experts, and did not know one another. Unlike the staff of CBS News, they were not part of any certified community of the competent. But they brought to the task a set of idiosyncratic skills and experiences that, when united and focused on a single problem, yielded astonishingly swift and conclusive results. By means of blogs, they were quickly able, in an entirely spontaneous and undirected way, to assemble and test conclusive evidence that the documents were forgeries.
The episode was less important for what it indicated about Rather’s particular political biases than for the proof it provided of the imperative need to subject such media to a level of accountability to which they had never before been held. Indeed, an indication of how profoundly the environment has changed arose during the recent debates over health-care reform, in which it was alleged by a reporter from the McClatchy wire service that white Obamacare protesters had subjected African-American Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, James Clyburn, John Lewis, and Andre Carson to racial abuse as they walked through a crowd of protesters on March 20 of this year.
The allegation of racism was specifically intended to stifle debate on the key domestic ideological question of the moment—should the government grow in such size that it will engulf the private health-care system? The nature of the American polity is at issue, and there is something very telling in the slanderous effort to discredit the voices of ordinary citizens raised in opposition to its radical revision.
In a previous era, without the help of the Internet and cheap portable video cameras, such an utterly toxic charge would have been next to impossible to refute. But thanks to the dogged efforts of Scott Johnson of the Power Line blog, among others, and the profusion of videotapings made available by individuals who were present, the noxious allegation was rendered completely incredible. In Johnson’s words: “We believe that the congressmen’s story was a fabrication intended to defame the Tea Party movement and distract attention from the resistance to Obamacare. Not a single video corroborates it…. And no independent journalist or other eyewitness has stepped forward to vouch for the congressmen’s story.”
Each such act of accountability is a blow for better and more responsible democratic discourse. Freer and more responsible discourse, which renders easy defamation emanating from putatively “expert” sources more difficult and more limited in its effects, cannot help but be good for conservatism. Given that American conservatism is grounded in a belief in self-government as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and given specific political shape in the Constitution, the fact that unaccredited citizens uncovered the lies in these two cases speaks volumes about the enduring importance of the conservative worldview, at its most vibrant and bumptious.
There is a great deal of genteel moaning in the air about civility, or the lack thereof, in American political life today. One can certainly sympathize with some of it, in the abstract. And yet too often the real object of such talk is the suppression of dissent rather than the improvement of debate, by disparaging the opposition as “uncivil.” That misses the very point of civility and its reason for being. The core value of civility is the concept of a fundamental respect for the opposition’s right to be heard. One of the most blatant violations of the canons of civility in recent years has been the persistent effort to defame conservative policy prescriptions, groups, and movements as toxic, pathological, and unworthy of public standing. We are seeing it happen once again in the sneering treatment of the Tea Party by reporters, pundits, and politicians, as well as, most lamentably, by the president of the United States himself. This is just another example of the persistent compulsion on the part of American liberals to write self-aggrandizing and self-defeating obituaries for ideas that remain stubbornly, persistently, and vigorously alive.
1 Paradigm, 256 pages.
2 PublicAffairs, 305 pages.