Commentary Magazine

The Life of Conservatism

Sam Tanenhaus has just published a short book entitled The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus, who is the editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the paper’s Week in Review section, is a very intelligent man and a very good -writer; the author of a splendid biography of -Whittaker Chambers, he has been working on a similar volume about William F. Buckley Jr. for a decade or more. His new work, which is an outgrowth of an article he published earlier this year in the New Republic, assumes a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone as it engages in a rhetorical autopsy of the American conservative moment.

American conservatism is dead, Tanenhaus reports, because it lost its connection with its own essential modesty; its proper role was to act as a counter to “liberal overreach,” of which there was plenty in the 1960s and 1970s. Once it sought to advance policies of its own, and attempted to devise a philosophical justification for those new policies, it was done for.

Given that Tanenhaus locates the seeds of conservatism’s demise in an article written by Irving -Kristol in the year 1975, in which Kristol purportedly abandoned “realism” for “revanchism,” one might wonder whether Barack Obama and his followers might themselves wish to secure a few such seeds. After all, they did grow into hardy perennials whose central presence in American political and intellectual life cast a grand shadow for more than three decades.

It is worth recalling that, between the publication of Kristol’s supposedly suicidal article and the publication of The Death of Conservatism, the conservative party’s presidential candidates resided in the White House for 20 years, with the liberal party occupying the Oval Office for only 12, and then owing to candidates who ran to the Right. Only in 2008 did an unapologetic and unrestrained liberal secure his four-year lease, a mere 40 years after the ignominious departure of the last unapologetic and unrestrained liberal, Lyndon Johnson.

Tanenhaus likes his American conservatism pessimistic and cosmopolitan, world-weary and laden with a sense of its own fundamental incapacity to prevent liberalism’s ultimate triumph. A self-confident American conservatism is, by his definition, not properly conservative at all. In some sense, he is right. If one takes the term literally, conservatism is inherently defensive, in that it seeks to forestall change. Tanenhaus approvingly quotes Garry Wills, the leftist who began his career working for Buckley, 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 is a clever formulation on Wills’s part, but a factitious one. For what American conservatives refused to accept, and properly so, was that the liberalism of the 1960s and afterward had become the established “order.” The key insight of American conservatism in the 1970s was that the “order” liberals sought to impose on the United States—internationally, economically, socially, and culturally—was a rejection of the American promise rather than a fulfillment of it, and so it had to be challenged, argued against, and overcome.

In the same fashion, for Tanenhaus and others, the resounding victory of Barack Obama in November 2008 seemed to be the final stake in the heart of the political tendency they had come to detest so much during the years of George W. Bush. In their eyes, the previous decade had been a time of wild right-wing overreach, and at last the nation had decided it had had enough. Tanenhaus uses the example of William F. Buckley Jr. and Buckley’s confused response to the war in Iraq as his prime evidence that conservatism met its maker last year—for if the man who all but willed the modern conservative movement into existence could not make sense of the most important act of a conservative Republican presidency, how could anyone else?


Certainly American conservatism is in a parlous condition, and certainly it is in that condition in part due to overreach. By 2005 the Right was suffering from an all-too-predictable arrogance born of the false assurance that a few successful election cycles were the harbingers of a transformed -future—rather than what a few election cycles of success actually suggest, which is that there will be an energetic counterassault by the losers and a reaction by the electorate to the false -arrogance of the winners.

Still, American conservatism is no more dead than liberalism was in 1981, when Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency, and the corpse is no colder than Bill Clinton’s was when the Republican Revolution of 1994 brought the fiery backbenchers of the Right into the red-hot center. For just as Karl Rove’s notion of a permanent Republican majority was a prime case of the wish being father to the thought, so is Tanenhaus’s conviction that a full-throated, unapologetic, even aggressive conservatism has met its end.

It probably would have remained in critical condition this year, what with the rapturous and ongoing Obama honeymoon and the fact that Democrats -secured a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in June. But it was jolted back to life the way political and ideological tendencies usually are: by the actions of its opposite number.

The hyperactive onrush of spendthrift legislation, the enthusiasm for a direct government role in the automobile industry, the assertion of central authority in Washington over the compensation levels of executives in the financial industry, and finally, a mad dash into health-care nationalization before a genuine national debate over the specifics could take place—all these efforts to revive and renew the self-same Great Society liberalism that first gave nascent American conservatism its purchase brought about its early awakening from the trauma it suffered last November.

The response of liberals and Democrats, who are shocked and surprised by the return of a serious opposition, is to argue that the crowds showing up to confront their members of Congress about the various health-care proposals yet to cohere in a single bill are illusory (a ginned-up phenomenon bought and paid for by corporatists) or evil (note the use of words like thugs, jackboots, mobs, Nazis).

I remember these sorts of dismissals from earlier in the decade. They were exactly the sort that gave comfort to the Right when the Left was building up a head of steam in the run-up to the Iraq war, in the months that followed the deposition of the Saddam Hussein regime, and then throughout the election year of 2004. The Right’s refusal to see the rise of leftist populism for what it was—a leading indicator of the resurgence of political passion on the opposing side and the harbinger of the triumphant returns in 2006 and 2008—was another sign of the self-congratulatory arrogance that helped lead to its downfall.

The thing is, no downfall is permanent in a democracy. Politics is not static, though at any given moment it may appear to be. This is the great analytical fallacy to which pundits and thinkers fall prey. Actions matter. Ideas matter. Decisions have consequences. People are not paying attention in real time, the way pundits do, but they do get a sense of things over time, and there is more unease about Obama than anyone might have predicted.

Conservatism appeared dead when Tanenhaus published his article in February, but The Death of Conservatism is coming out at a time when Obama has descended from the Olympian heights to the mortal level, capable of causing himself unnecessary injury (as when he accused a cop of “acting stupidly” for the sin of arresting a friend of his) and proving unable to make a clear argument for his most ambitious political program.

As the rueful author of a 2006 book entitled Can She Be Stopped?: Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States Unless..., I have more than a little sympathy for Tanenhaus’s titular predicament. My book was published at a time when conservative tomes were dying on the vine and anti-Bush literature sold like hotcakes. As I write these words, Tanenhaus’s own New York Times Book Review features anti-Obama screeds in the #1, #2, and #4 positions on its nonfiction bestseller list. There isn’t a single pro-Obama or anti-conservative volume anywhere in the top 35. That doesn’t mean Obama will fail in his quest to secure major health-care legislation, or that the Democrats will meet with calamity at the ballot box in 2010. But it does mean the fight is on, and the arguments have only just begun.

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