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Tanehaus

The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus.

As far as obituaries go, this is a fairly lengthy entry, not to mention premature. And as far as histories go, it’s more than slightly incomplete, not to mention wrong-headed, tendentious and unfair. Beyond these quibbles, there’s a lot more cause for complaint about this recent and yet already amazingly outdated little book.

The death of conservatism? How about the “state of conservatism.” Or the “decline of conservatism?” Or perhaps even the “defeat of conservatism?” But death? At last report, that’s still a fairly permanent condition.

“State of,” “decline of,” and even “defeat of” would all have been legitimate phrases to be inserted prior to the word “conservatism” in a book title published virtually any time between the November 2008 elections and mid-2009. This obituary was published in the late summer of 2009—or at a moment when Tanenhaus’s chosen title was already irrelevant. Today it is an embarrassment.

Of course, like all good eulogists, Sam Tanenhaus claimed to be saddened by the demise of the beloved. In this case, however, the tears that he was shedding were less for the cause that he was trying to bury than for the country that had somehow managed to survive its terrors and excesses. On this score, Tanenhaus seemed to be standing the usual role of the eulogist on its head. Instead of praising the departed and comforting the living, he condemned the deceased as he worried about what was to come. With conservatism dead and buried, it seemed that America was on the verge of becoming a one-party state.

It must be conceded that Tanenhaus did his best to pretend to be worried about such a possibility. But before long it was apparent that he had crocodile worries to match his crocodile tears.

To be sure, Sam Tanenhaus proved unable to shed any tears over the demise of what he alternately labeled “movement conservatism” or “ideological conservatism.” And because he very much wanted this brand of conservatism to be dead, he was quick to declare that it in fact was dead.

Don’t look now, Mr. Tanenhaus, but the nails are being pushed up even as the daisies have barely taken root. This is the sort of thing that can happen when an instant historical snapshot gets interrupted by, of all things, history. President Obama might be excused for not being aware of what was just around history’s corner, fixated as he has been on the glorious future that awaits us all. But what about Sam Tanenhaus, biographer and historian? Surely, he should have known that what is—or seems to be—can be very fleeting indeed.

But wait a minute here. Does Sam Tanenhaus really believe that conservatism actually is dead? Not on your life. Near the end of his eulogy/autopsy the biographer of conservative icon, Whittaker Chambers, managed to execute an abrupt about face. Having buried conservatism without bothering to praise it, he reversed field to revive it, redefine it, and then finally offer praise for what he presumes American conservatism ought to be.

Hints of things to come can be found in his treatment of Whittaker Chambers in these pages. It seems that the ex-spy who fingered Alger Hiss is to be less remembered—and less praised—for his exposure of Hiss than for his repudiation of Joe McCarthy and for his dual endorsement of the welfare state and those Republicans who had learned to make their peace with it.

Joe McCarthy, you see, wasn’t just any old conservative. Rather, he was Sam Tanenhaus’s prototypical “movement conservative,” or the very sort of conservative that Tanenhaus alternately hoped was dead and was intent on killing off just to make sure. Would it spoil things too much to tell Mr. Tanenhaus that Senator McCarthy is long gone?

Actually, Tanenhaus began his eulogy not with Joe McCarthy and his “ism,” but with the Old Right that objected to FDR and the New Deal. Was Albert J. Nock a “movement conservative?” Hardly. What might he have had in common with Joe McCarthy? Very little. In any case, Sam Tanenhaus doesn’t bother telling us what that very little might have been.
For that matter, what either man shared with George W. Bush somehow escaped Tanenhaus’s attention as well. Things like that can happen when establishing links and issuing indictments dominates one’s line of thought. In Tanenhaus’s case the argument goes something like this: Bush 43 owed his nomination and election to movement conservatives. His presidency then “failed,” and deservedly so, because of his “rigid” attempts to enact the “movement ideology.” Here Tanenhaus does get down to specifics of sorts by way of attributing Bush’s failures to his “aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated Wall Street-centric market; and the harshly punitive ’culture war’ waged against liberal enemies.”

Don’t look now, because if you’re anticipating that Tanenhaus has actually found a thread that joins the likes of Albert J. Nock and Joe McCarthy and George W. Bush, none is to be found. It must be obvious to everyone except Sam Tanenhaus that the administration of George W. Bush did far more to expand government entitlements than reduce them. But Tanenhaus refuses to be bothered by the obvious. Movement conservatism in its death throes somehow managed to give the country big government conservatism and “little more than nihilism.”

Not that this movement was without a fatal flaw from the outset. That flaw, according to Tanenhaus, was its all-consuming desire for power. In fact, Tanenhaus wants his readers to believe that movement conservatism, alone among American reform movements, has been driven by nothing more than a dream of amassing and wielding power. Never mind that conservatives of many stripes, conservatives dead and alive, have long sought political power in order to limit the reach of the federal government, not extend it. Never mind that statist liberals try to conceal their lust for power behind humanitarian rhetoric. And never mind that the modern civil rights movement, which may well have been born without an urge for power, refuses to die because it has grown quite accustomed to wielding it—and to do so by virtue (?) of hurling irresponsible charges of racism at its enemies.

If Sam Tanenhaus is blind to the left’s drive for power, he is also blinded by his tendentious misreading of history. By his reckoning, the American Right is not the heir of the American revolution, but rather a direct intellectual descendant of the French Revolution. And it is that because movement conservatives have long refused to do what Whittaker Chambers pleaded with William F. Buckley that they must do, namely put ideology aside and face “historical reality.”

Here Chambers’s biographer puts his previous subject to use both to discredit an early version of movement conservatism (McCarthyism) and remind us of a missed opportunity for conservatism generally (namely acceptance of the “historical reality” that is the modern welfare state. (Never mind what Chambers might have to say about the ever-expanding nature of this state during the presidency of one Barack Obama .)

All this when Tanenhaus might have resurrected Chambers to remind us of the steadfast role that conservatives played in the Cold War. For that matter, Tanenhaus might also have extended a measure of praise for those conservatives, movement and otherwise, who successfully prosecuted the Cold War during those years when the McGovernite wing of the Democratic party was sprouting/evolving into its only wing.

Tanenhaus might even have drawn a partial pass if he had offered the smallest of plaudits to another beneficiary of “movement conservatism” and his not-so-small role in the death of the Soviet Union. That, of course, would be Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, Reagan doesn’t even qualify for a left-handed plaudit for the “Reagan Revolution” that failed to significantly reduce the size of the federal government. Would Chambers have applauded that acceptance of “historical reality?” Who can know for sure? But given his larger argument Tanenhaus certainly should have praised the wisdom of what amounted to a conservative preservation of the Great Society and its aftermath.

Instead, Reagan is dismissed as just another Republican president who was forced to kow-tow to the devil that was “movement conservatism.” On this score, Tanenhaus finds it more than curious, in fact downright revealing, that the three GOP presidents (Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43) most beholden to this devil could—and no doubt in Tanenhaus’s mind should—have been impeached and removed from office for their power-driven excesses.

No, if there was a heyday for this devil it was not the Reagan presidency, but the decade between 1965 and 1975, or the wilderness years in the aftermath of another “death of conservatism” moment in recent American history, namely the state of the Republican party following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 election. That this was also the same decade that bracketed the years of Nixonian excesses Tanenhaus somehow lets pass.

To his credit, Tanenhaus does concede that these were also the years of intellectual and political preparation for 1980, not to mention a time when liberalism was beset by its own preoccupations with ideological orthodoxy.

The latter story might have been a cautionary one for Tanenhaus. After all, liberalism didn’t exactly die during or after its embrace of its own version of orthodoxy. For that matter, it didn’t even go through a near-death experience. And today liberals have not only returned to power, but they have done so full of ideological fervor. Not that Tanenhaus would notice any of this, intent as he is on both denying that liberals actually desire power and on redefining modern liberalism as something else.

And what might that something else be? If you think you know what’s coming, guess again. No doubt you’re thinking that Tanenhaus is about to hide himself and all liberals behind the catch-all dodge that goes by that catch-all term “progressive.” Not so. His liberals in this Age of Obama turn out to be . . . conservatives—and not just ordinary conservatives, but Burkean conservatives at that!

So it seems that conservatism didn’t really die after all. At least Sam Tanenhaus’s good conservatives didn’t, because they are still with us. Hey, they rule us. But that’s another story, and one that Mr. Tanenhaus is not about to tell.

And just who are these good, Burkean conservatives. Here Tanenhaus does finally name names, even if he doesn’t offer reasonable reasons. Among the living, his favored trinity is composed of Bill Clinton, David Souter, and Barack Obama. And among the dead Whittaker Chambers and Dwight Eisenhower would likely top his list. In fact, while holding out hope that Obama will one day join them, Tanenhaus ranks Eisenhower and Clinton as the two “most successful conservative presidents” of modern times.

Ike qualifies because he channeled Chambers as Buckley did not. Without so much as meeting the author of Witness, President Eisenhower managed to take Chambers’s advice by accepting the New Deal and de-railing Joe McCarthy. And Clinton? His reluctant signing on to welfare reform may well qualify as a conservative act, but, if so, Tanenhaus isn’t about to argue that this decision defines his conservatism. For that matter, he doesn’t bother to explain Clintonian conservatism at all.

Tanenhaus is equally vague on Souter, but he does contend that the recently retired justice “may well endure as the most authentic conservative in the Court’s modern history.” This surely will be news to conservatives, authentic or otherwise. If Tanenhaus’s judgment has something to do with Souter’s back-handed endorsement of capitalism in the Kelo decision, again he doesn’t say. For that matter, he doesn’t so much define “authentic conservatism” as presume that it means accepting whatever currently passes for whatever big government liberals hand over to us as “historical reality.”

And President Obama? Apparently, he is an authentic conservative because, like FDR before him, he seeks to “salvage the free market.” Really? Maybe it has something to do with destroying the market in order to save it. On a different front, the president is accorded the conservative tag, because he is attempting to move the country beyond the “meaningless chatter” of those “bygone culture wars.” Bygone? How could they be anything other than that, since Tanenhaus himself has declared that gay marriage is consistent with “family values?” On the subject of abortion Tanenhaus is silent, but one supposes he wouldn’t have much trouble making a family values case here as well.

What it all seems to boil down to is this: if Richard Nixon could declare that “we are all Keynesians now,” the biographer of the anti-communist who helped make Mr. Nixon a national figure seems intent on announcing that we are all Burkeans now. At least all those who matter are. And besides, those who don’t matter, meaning those once dreaded and dreadful “movement conservatives,” are dead and gone anyway. Or at least Sam Tanenhaus thought they were.

One more question remains. Would Edmund Burke recognize Barack Obama as a comrade in arms or an ally in any way at all? Only if Burke’s “little platoons” can be found among the vast hordes of bureaucrats and functionaries that the president has already unleashed and hopes to keep on unleashing. One guesses, however, that Burke would find his true compatriots among the boisterous platoons and tea partiers who gathered to protest Obamacare at town hall meetings across the land and who are organizing to defeat Democrats in the 2010 elections.

Writing before the events of the late summer of 2009, Sam Tanenhaus cannot be accused of ignoring what he could not have known. But given what he thinks he knows he likely would have missed the significance of it all. After all, as far as he is concerned, anyone living or dead in post-New Deal America can qualify as a Burkean conservative by simply accepting the modern state and its inevitable accretions, whether gradual or gargantuan or both.

And if anything like a war, whether of the domestic cultural or international bang-bang variety, should loom, what then? Mr. Tanenhaus doesn’t have an answer for that question, content as he apparently is to take comfort from knowing (or at least pretending) that those nasty “movement conservatives” are no longer around to make matters worse. It’s certainly beyond him to imagine that they might actually make things better.

What’s also beyond Sam Tanenhaus is the other Whittaker Chambers. That would be the Whittaker Chambers who sought to warn his fellow Americans that all is not right with the west and that enemies do lurk both among us and abroad. These, after all, are historical realities as well, even if Sam Tanenhaus has done his best to pretend otherwise.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Excellent review. It illustrates how the meaning of conservatism is in the eye of the beholder (though it shouldn't be) and thus the paramount importance of understanding the nature of authentic conservatism.

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