The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus

The Death of Conservatism.. For Now would have been a more apt title for Sam Tanenhaus’ book, but any editor worth their salt would have lopped that dangling ellipse of prevarication right off. It has the zing and jab of the political potboilers that increasingly crowd the bestseller lists and display tables at airport newsstands. But the boldly declarative title doesn’t do justice to the nuanced argument that lies behind. This is a book that doesn’t describe the end of an ideology so much as it explains the ideology’s current state of tail-eating suicide as a low point in a long historical trajectory of ups and downs.

As the editor for the New York Times Book Review, you would expect Tanenhaus to be a more vitriolic critic, standing there with knife and fork at the ready to carve into the fat, wounded carcass of modern conservatism. But there’s a careful elegance to his writing and thinking in this slim, gracefully argued book that harkens to a time when the back-and-forth of political discourse consisted of more than the thumbing of noses and calling of names.

The average citizen can look over today’s landscape of shrieking radio and cable demagogues and their addled-seeming suburban Christian militia-lite followers and conclude rather easily that American conservatism is doing little but seeding its own destruction. Fortunately, the tone of The Death of Conservatism is not so much harping and victorious as it is concerned, and more than a little disturbed.

Early in the book, Tanenhaus describes being at a Harvard Club panel luncheon of prominent conservative magazine editors in the spring of 2009 where, even in the aftermath of a trouncing electoral defeat of their agenda, none of the party faithful in attendance provided any hint that they could deal with that setback in an adult manner. Rather, Tanenhaus describes how instead “you heard the urgent call ‘to take back the culture’ (but from whom, exactly?)” and did their best to avoid the existential crisis facing their movement:

What these conservative intellectuals said wasn’t just mistaken. It was meaningless, the clatter of a bygone period, with its ‘culture wars’ and attacks on sinister ‘elites.’ There was no hint of a new argument being formulated or even of an old one being reformulated. More disturbing still, not one of the three panelists acknowledged that the Republican Party and its ideology might bear any responsibility for the nation’s current plight. None urged the party and its best thinkers and writers to reexamine their ideas and methods. Each offered instead only the din of ever-loudening distraction, gratingly ill attuned to the conditions of present-day America.

It’s a sad spectacle that Tanenhaus details, one that we’ve all seen repeated with dismaying consistency during the hollow debates over health care reform and other topics, where even the slightest breath out of the Obama White House is treated as some Trotskyite broadsheet, printed with ink made from the blood of American patriots. This wasn’t always the case. In the not-so-distant past, conservative leaders had an ability to critique the politics of their liberal foes. “Today’s conservatives,” Tanenhaus notes gloomily, “resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”

In many ways, the current conservative hysteria over Obama’s centrist liberalism resembles most closely the antipathy (little remembered in the popular memory today) that F.D.R. faced in the 1930s. The difference being, as Tanenhaus points out, that in the case of F.D.R.’s policies, those declaiming them as socialist were (in way those saying the same about Obama’s) at least partially correct.

The success of the New Deal’s government interventions into the economy set the stage for a mainstream liberal orthodoxy — characterized by the steady flow of intellectuals and technocrats from Ivy League universities to offices in Washington — that dominated the American decision-making process through the postwar years. Then in the mid-1950s came a fellow called William F. Buckley and a little magazine called National Review. In those fiercely combative pages, Buckley put forth the argument (sadly long since sucked dry of meaning by his ever-less-coherent followers and imitators) that government wasn’t the answer to every problem, and in the process given conservatives a voice just a tad more inspiring than the paranoid mumblings of Joseph McCarthy.

As Tanenhaus writes it, the intellectuals of National Review might have launched the familiar-sounding jeremiads against Northeastern elites so often repeated today, but they also bucked Republican orthodoxy time and again. This is particularly true in Buckley’s publication of pieces by the great Whittaker Chambers, who not only defended liberal thinkers like John Kenneth Galbraith but also provided an elegant dismantling of the dangerous lust for power in the philosophies of (modern movement conservatives’ great love) Ayn Rand. It was a journal of conservative ideas, not just politics, something sadly missing in today’s orthodoxy-mad right-wing circles.

Tanenhaus clearly enjoys taking potshots at historical clichés, and it makes his book all the better for it. The argument that Eisenhower and Clinton were not only the modern era’s two true conservative presidents but also “the best” is brazen and, though not entirely convincing, worth a second look. But his reexamination of Nixon’s role in American conservatism is particularly fascinating. Instead of raking Nixon over the coals once again, Tanenhaus argues that once in office he became a much more centrist figure than critics tend to give him credit for. Besides creating institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, Nixon — in a move that Tanenhaus compares convincingly to the collaborationist philosophy of Disraeli — worked with Daniel Patrick Moynihan to (unsuccessfully) launch a huge government subsidy plan for the working poor. Both of these programs would give modern conservatives heart attacks at their very mention. But like Reagan, also more of a compromiser than is widely remembered, Nixon’s true legacy tends to be forgotten in what Tanenhaus calls “the distorting glow of nostalgia”.

After describing the Nixon / Buckley years in such careful detail, Tanenhaus skips rather too swiftly through the intervening years. It may have been the best approach for the author, as a lengthy entropic spiral makes for much less interesting reading than the early glory years of a thriving movement. Taking more time to show how we came to the current state of conservative intellectual impoverishment would have helped explain the sounds of angry desperation booming from that side of the aisle. What Tanenhaus does describe is depressing enough, as the Reagan-Bush years create a sense of arrogance in the once insurgent conservative movement. In the 1990s, intellectual apathy turns self-destructive as right-wingers became “inverse Marxists”, hunting for the disloyal to be purged.

But in any case, what Tanenhaus has authoritatively done is show that, yes, the tides of American conservatism are at low ebb, but that this state of affairs should not be expected to last. Nor should liberals (as prone to premature gloating as their rivals) even want it to happen. Democracy can’t thrive in a vacuum and the national debate would be nothing but enriched should a thoughtful conservatism return to the table. “There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism,” Tanenhaus writes. “A conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.”

RATING 9 / 10