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Conservatism Turned Upside Down
Sam Tanenhaus’s critique of conservative reason
16 October 2009

The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus (Random House, 123 pp., $17.00)

In 1987, a friend invited me to hear Noam Chomsky speak at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. After a student activist introduced him as a “radical,” Chomsky took the microphone and said, “I’m not a radical—I’m a conservative.” Placing himself in the tradition of eighteenth-century statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke, Chomsky branded Ronald Reagan a “Jacobin” for undermining Burkean rule of law.

In The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus performs a similar inversion. He deems Jimmy Carter more conservative than “radicals” like Reagan, Barry Goldwater, or George W. Bush, and he finds Barack Obama “more thoroughly steeped in . . . Burkean principles . . . than any significant thinker or figure on the right today.” As these claims pile up—FDR and gay marriage turn out to be conservative, too—movement conservatives may wish to stand athwart Tanenhaus, yelling, “Stop!”

Yet his strange formulations sheath an articulate and timely critique of conservative reason. Like the man who passed Julius Caesar a note on the Ides of March, Tanenhaus bears a text of warning—and in such cases, it’s wise to read the message carefully.

Building on a February 2009 New Republic essay, Tanenhaus divides conservatives into two polar types. Around one pole glide Burkean Realists, committed to reasonable reform. They scorn ideology, cherish institutions, and redistribute wealth to meet “human want.” At the other pole dance Movement Insurrectionists, hell-bent on undoing the New Deal. They worship principles, subvert institutions—and define themselves, not by what they want to conserve, but by what they want to destroy.

Tanenhaus spends a third of the book, from FDR’s 1933 rise to Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, interpreting the Insurrectionists’ alleged appetite for destruction. He traces this dark force to what he calls the movement’s “central argument”: “The New Deal moves in the same direction as Stalinism.” We then take a slow, rubbernecking drive through the burning cities of the liberal Utopia, climaxing with Richard Nixon’s 1968 capture of a new consensus. The last chapter spotlights Irving Kristol’s attack on cultural elites and contends that George W. Bush fulfilled, rather than betrayed, movement ideology. A coda urges conservatives to listen to the “other side”—as liberals did after 1988—but laments that the Right seems unprepared to reinvent itself.

Tanenhaus has read widely and he writes well. A skilled intellectual rock tumbler, he polishes quotations from Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, or from Walter Bagehot’s “The Character of Sir Robert Peele,” and then arranges them agreeably in a kind of Zen garden. Ridiculing, by their own eulogies, the liberal priest-kings of the 1960s, Tanenhaus deftly glosses, for instance, a passage by Theodore H. White, who wrote for Life “an extended ode to the Johnson administration’s brain trust in language so rapturous it reads today like satire.”

Yet Tanenhaus is as tough on conservatism as on liberalism, maybe tougher. He diagnoses problems that others have seen; by my count, conservatives have published 24 books of self-criticism since the Reagan years, and none expresses great fondness for the religious Right. Tanenhaus refreshingly worries less about Christian fundamentalism than about the more general dangers of anger, to which he deems long-embattled conservatives prone. He also reminds us that while Americans approved scaling back the Great Society, we feel differently about the New Deal, which spreads wealth around. Most important is that Tanenhaus places the causes of movement decline “in the realm of ideas and argument,” where he sees partisan punditry displacing fact-based policy analysis.

The book’s proportions, however, leave Tanenhaus little room to discuss the movement’s purported demise. He telescopes the last three decades into seven pages. The Red Scare loyalty probes get half a chapter; Reagan’s first term, a paragraph. Receiving the least information where we most need it, we’re left unsure whether to rule conservatism’s death a suicide or homicide. Some may suspect that Tanenhaus prematurely tagged the toe.

Toward the allegedly dead he takes a tone of refined estrangement. He seems to view movement types somewhat as a Boston Brahmin might regard a muddy-shoed Walt Whitman who appeared in his drawing room, naturally without knocking. Tanenhaus’s likening of Republican ideologues to Jacobins; his linking of “self-motivation” to new money and to sweaty, jostling jobbery; his passing references to “small towns, with their cracker-barrel politics,” and to “middle managers” on “the sunstruck frontier”—in all of this one catches a whiff of the laundered handkerchief, monogrammed ADAMS.

This stance isn’t new. In the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter, Peter Viereck, and Daniel Bell argued that Burkean Realists channel a pale-faced, patrician ethos, while “pseudo-conservatives,” redskins from the heartland, are always firing up Whiskey Rebellions. Tanenhaus makes a kind of palimpsest of this earlier discourse, with Viereck’s 1949 work, Conservatism Reconsidered, almost legible beneath. Though it’s unclear whether he’s read Viereck, the parallels are striking. Both exalt Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, FDR, and the New Deal; both brand right-wing ideologues “Jacobins”; both say that conservatism suffers from “rigor mortis”; both see “rugged individualism” as a Gilded Age con; and both evoke, in their books’ opening lines, Heraclitus, Fragment 60: The end is a beginning, the way up is the way down.

Though Tanenhaus works the theme of beginnings-in-ends nicely, with the touch of a jazz pianist, his version of the movement’s origins is open to challenge. “The New Deal moves in the same direction as Stalinism,” as James Burnham wrote in 1941, has surely been a central conservative argument: one can trace it from Whittaker Chambers’s diatribes against the “revolution by bookkeeping” to Mark Steyn’s attack on Obama’s “socialist future.” Yet Irving Kristol and most neoconservatives urged acceptance of the New Deal in a “conservative welfare state,” as Tanenhaus himself notes. As early as 1952, William F. Buckley, Jr. declared that because America couldn’t fight the Cold War without a Roosevelt-style bureaucracy, “we have got to accept Big Government for the duration.” If conservatism’s two greatest intellectual organizers both embraced the New Deal, how can opposition to the New Deal be conservatism’s central argument?

One can contend, further, that another argument has been more important to the movement: namely, that totalitarianism is evil because it denies man’s spiritual nature. George Orwell trenchantly expressed this idea in April 1940, in his famous passage about the wasp cut in half. “Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul.” In the same month, Viereck indicted totalitarianism “for its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit” and called the “revolt” against this assault “conservatism.” By 1952, this spiritual argument seemed so important to Chambers that he denied any other political idea could be more basic. “Man, without mysticism, is a monster,” he wrote in Witness. The “crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. . . . All the politics of our time . . . will be the politics of this crisis.”

The primacy of this antitotalitarian argument would clarify much that remains fuzzy in Tanenhaus’s account. For instance, if movement conservatism is less about hating the state than about fighting Godless modernism, this might explain why conservatives have always found actual or cultural wars to fight, but have never got around to shrinking or controlling the growth of government (though centrists like Eisenhower and Clinton did). Likewise, if the movement’s vitality owes less to the New Deal than to the Cold War, this might explain why conservatism entered its terminal and “most decadent phase,” as Tanenhaus puts it, only in the 1990s, just as the Cold War ended. Anticommunist exigencies provide, too, an intuitively satisfying answer to Tanenhaus’s central question: Why do conservatives define themselves not by what they want to conserve, but by what they seek to destroy? As National Review editor L. Brent Bozell, Jr. told a right-wing rally in the early 1960s: “I would favor destroying not only the whole world, but the entire universe out to the furthermost star, rather than suffer Communism to live.”

Adjusting this Roosevelt-centric reading, however, does not necessarily remove us from the jaws of Tanenhaus’s general insight. For he contends that “ideological conservatism was from its inception explicitly political”—meaning that conservatism, unlike liberalism, did not derive its policies from ideas, but instead sought ideas to support its policies. If conservatism was not only uniquely political in origin, but has also been a kind of religious crusade from birth, then the movement has the makings of what its critics might call a political religion. Indeed, Tanenhaus repeatedly disparages right-wing Jacobins who cling to “orthodoxy,” show “absolutist fervor,” demonstrate “blind faith,” exhibit “dogmatic fixity,” make “rigid claims of certitude,” and display “intolerance of dissent.” On this view, a religious approach to politics puts conservatives in constant danger of becoming the people Burke warned against.

The picture darkens further when we ask whether even Burke offers a way out. In seeing him as a kind of savior, Tanenhaus is in good company: ever since 1953, when Russell Kirk produced its intellectual coat of arms, conservatism has been “what Edmund Burke wrote.” This is the equivalent of Arthur Danto’s institutional theory of art—art is whatever the art world says it is. But it’s also a cop-out. Instead of analyzing conservatism in an Aristotelian way, instead of asking how we use the term in real life, we just describe Burke. In the process, don’t we risk fleeing into what Tanenhaus calls an “alternative universe”? If conservatives are “glaringly disconnected from the realities now besetting America,” as Tanenhaus says, why is the solution to be more like a man who wore a powdered wig? Liberals have problems of their own, but, to their credit, they don’t sit around debating whether Hillary Clinton or John Edwards is the “real Rousseauian.”

Burke’s admirers will say that his framework applies far beyond his original argument. But calling the New Deal a “Burkean correction,” as Tanenhaus does, may be a stretch. Indeed, from Burke’s case against seizing Church property, J. G. Pocock distills the very “creeping socialism” argument used against the New Deal. Tanenhaus does not quote Burke’s claim that “it is very possible to subvert the whole Frame and order of the best constructed States by corrupting the common people with the Spoil of the superior Classes.” But one has to squint fairly hard to see in such statements anything compatible with the New Deal.

More convincing than his Burke-claiming exercise is Tanenhaus’s call for consensus. He talks a lot about consensus. It’s a tricky concept, shading easily into populism, conformity, and mob rule. Yet The Death of Conservatism nudges us helpfully back toward a conservatism that courts the vital center—measured roughly as the distance between barstool-and-barbershop expectations and the actual state of the world. For instance, in the late 1970s, a “reasonable citizen” might have expected that America would free its citizens held hostage in Iran; in the 1980s, that he could walk out of a restaurant in midtown Manhattan without being assaulted by a homeless person; and in 2008, that he could put money in the bank one day and not fear that it would be gone the next. The widening gaps between these expectations and realities created the openings that Reagan, Rudy Giuliani, and Obama broke through.

Where conservatives thought and governed within these gaps from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Tanenhaus argues that we now often speak and operate outside them. The Welfare Reform and Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, and Giuliani’s transformation of New York City, would seem the last cases of conservative policy ideas self-evidently addressing these gaps. If these great successes hold any lesson, perhaps Republicans should be developing a coherent national agenda based on the concepts of personal responsibility and of quality of life. That conservatives haven’t recently connected with a consensus suggests, to Tanenhaus, that we are losing the ability to listen.

But this book may pin back more ears than it pricks up. Comparing conservatives to corpses may not be the best way to persuade them. Just as one wonders whether Viereck really aimed to change movement minds when he attacked them in a 1962 New Republic piece, so Tanenhaus seems, in the end, something of a solipsist—learned and likable, but talking mostly to himself.

Those who do hear Tanenhaus may be unsure whether to weep or cheer. His title proclaims conservatism “dead,” but his text asserts that “the nation has entered a conservative phase, perhaps the most conservative since the Eisenhower years.” He really means that movement conservatism has died, while Burkean realism has flourished. Yet if movement types aren’t true conservatives but radicals, then what has “died” is not true conservatism but a radical insurrection. On Tanenhaus’s own terms, this should be a cause for rejoicing, not for lament.

His lament is nonetheless useful, framing issues for the fresh articulation of a center-right worldview. The need for this articulation has seldom been greater; ever since Obama’s victory, and even more since the meltdown of the financial system, the media have come to regard Rush Limbaugh, Joe the Plumber, and Glenn Beck as leading conservative philosophers. Amid the din and flux of this political redefinition, The Death of Conservatism probes problems that can’t be explored in sound bites. What is conservatism? When did it become a movement? What is its central argument? Who framed its thought? Do its principles trump, augment, or implement civil consensus? Tanenhaus may give some wrong answers, but he gets the questions right.

Mark Riebling directs the Book Program at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA.

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