Is Conservatism Dead?
Is conservatism dead? Sam Tanenhaus has recently published an essay in The New Republic arguing that conservatism is indeed dead, at least the conservative “movement” as American politics has known it. He seeks to reinvigorate American conservatives to “recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition.”
The Bookman is no friend to ideology, conservative or otherwise, and there is something to be commended in such a piece. But it remains to be seen whether Tanenhaus correctly identifies the tradition he calls conservatives to recover, and what such a recovery might mean. To further the discussion invited by his provocative essay, we have asked a number of distinguished commentators to consider whether conservatism has a future and if so, in what form.
Like Groucho Marx, Russell Kirk shunned joining any club, movement, or “ism” that would have him as a member. It is significant that Kirk entitled his great book not The Conservative Movement, not Conservatism, but The Conservative Mind.
The Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan conservative-libertarian coalition, or movement, of the late 20th century, is shattered and obsolete. Of course any movement, even when it produces boons as big as the Reagan era’s accomplishments—greater freedom, security, and prosperity—is not a Permanent Thing.
“Conservatism” as an “ism” was incapable of squaring the circle, of bringing about “fusion” of factional contradictions into a coherent intellectual whole. But the nonideological conservative mind, seeking not power but truth, is alive and well. The conservative mind and soul gravitate toward natural law, piety, and the other permanent things.
Mr. Tanenhaus presents very little that was not discussed more searchingly in 1986 by contributors to the Intercollegiate Review symposium “The State of Conservatism”—which Russell Kirk warned was “enfeebled, intellectually and in backing, at the very hour of its popular ascendancy.”
At the same time, despite the superficial similarity of some phrases in the two presidents’ speeches, Mr. Tanenhaus is wrong to equate Reagan’s foreign policy with that of the junior Bush. Read young Bush’s two jejune, utopian National Security Strategy documents and compare them with the sober, realistic National Security Strategy Reagan promulgated in 1988.
Mr. Tanenhaus perceives prudence in Whittaker Chambers’ remark half a century ago assailing the “literary whimsy” of conservatives who failed to accept that “the machine has made the economy socialistic.” Well, not quite. The machine age now is obsolete, replaced by electronic and digital information technology, which, while morally neutral and not a permanent thing, offers liberating opportunities of retrieval, study, communication—and whimsical transcendence of dreary socialism—for conservative minds.
Mr. Duggan is a former journalist, Reagan administration diplomat, and speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush.
Sam Tanenhaus says movement conservatism is dead. In reality, it has never been more alive. Despite perhaps some recent belt-tightening, ISI, National Review, The Heritage Institute, Young America’s Foundation and dozens of lesser movement institutions today boast more donors, more recruits, and more available sinecures than ever before. The conservative movement has become a permanent feature of the cultural and political landscape. It can no more be pronounced “dead,” than, say, Stanford University or Time Magazine.
What Tanenhaus really means, of course, is that the movement’s ideas are false and its influence harmful. To explain himself, he spins a narrative both far too long (for a magazine article) and far too short (to cover fifty years of political and intellectual history, with digressions along the way on Burke, Disraeli, and Herbert Croly). That narrative won’t convince anyone, nor is it intended to; it is, rather, a construct. Let us skip it and get right to Tanenhaus’s points.
First, Tanenhaus argues that the movement does not embody “classical” conservatism, defined as a situation-dependent defense of existing institutions. Tanenhaus did not need a lengthy essay to prove this point. Movements by definition have programs for change; when those programs are accomplished, they then stumble around for more—as, for example, the conservative movement self-consciously stumbled around for more programs to pursue after the end of the Cold War. A movement that seeks not to change other institutions but to preserve them is an oxymoron. Tanenhaus archly hints at the incompatibility of movement conservatism with conservatism proper when he calls Robespierre a “movement ideologue.” Yet it is rather late in the day—one may say “revanchist”—to be objecting to the name that the movement happens to have adopted for itself back in the mid-1950s. Until a consensus unites behind a less misleading term, the movement’s ideology will continue to be known as “conservatism.”
Second, Tanenhaus charges that movement conservatives are trying to reverse the constitutional revolution of the Roosevelt years. Yet movement conservatives have long acknowledged that, as Tanenhaus observes, no constituency exists for smaller government. Far from refusing to accept this reality, they have devised strategies for reducing the size of government in the face of popular resistance. For years, for example, they have championed tax cuts as the one small government reform popular with voters. (Some now wonder whether tax-cutting was counter-productive.) In the 1990s, they began to argue that the Republican Party, through various “ownership society” reforms, should try to reduce not the supply of government but rather the demand for it. In any case, contrary to Tanenhaus’s warnings, movement conservatives have sought little more than incremental changes through ordinary political means.
Finally, Tanenhaus blames movement conservatives for inflaming the culture wars. (This complaint is inconsistent with his earlier fear that movement conservatives haven’t yet reconciled themselves to the New Deal. The leading theorists of right-wing culture war politics—Tanenhaus fingers Willmoore Kendall and Irving Kristol—in fact rejected the weary elitism of those who pined to dismantle the regulatory state.) Here a little perspective is called for. As those who have actually studied the question have found, very few people care one way or the other about culture war conflicts. The “culture wars” pit not a conservative “people” against a liberal “elite” but rather one elite against another, each of which competes for power in the hope of foisting their programs on an indifferent populace. Tanenhaus’s alarm—he calls Newt Gingrich the “movement’s Danton”—is almost comically overblown. That one side does not magnanimously concede victory to the other does not portend anything more ominous than that politics will continue.
Sam Tanenhaus often understands movement conservatism better than movement conservatives themselves. In his latest, however, he exaggerates the movement’s flaws in a misguided effort to discredit it entirely. He should have taken his own advice to heart: rather than call for a counter-revolution that would abolish the movement as we know it, he should adjust to the movement as a now-ineradicable reality of American politics.
Austin Bramwell is a lawyer in New York.
“Conservatism is Dead” is uncharacteristically maladroit essay from Tanenhaus. He gets the broad strokes right but all the nuances wrong. Certainly the case that American conservatism is insufficiently Burkean has been better made by Peter Viereck and Jeffrey Hart.
Tanenhaus argues that George W. Bush’s foreign policy owed as much to the “‘rollback philosophy’ of the cold war years” as to neoconservatism. Yet old cold warriors like James Burnham gave up on rollback years before Bush arrived on the scene, and those few who lived long enough to see him take office rejected his foreign policy. Tanenhaus himself has speculated the Goldwater would have opposed the Iraq War. And he knows better than anyone that William F. Buckley Jr. came to regret our Mesopotamian misadventure.
Yet the rollback philosophy lived on. Like the doomsday machine in “Dr. Strangelove,” once switched on it could not be turned off, even by its creators. Here the doomsday machine is an ideology. Tanenhaus is correct that it should not be called “conservatism.” Its true name is elusive. Rightism? Fascism?
Whatever the case, an appreciation of Benjamin Disraeli provides no inoculation against this fever. Bush, after all, came into office with a program of “compassionate conservatism.” He signed into law the greatest entitlement expansion since Lyndon Johnson. If being a Disraelian means extending the welfare state in the name of conservatism, which is what Tanenhaus makes it mean, then Bush was an American Disraeli.
The remarkable thing about the conservative movement has been its knack for acquiring the worst qualities of each of its constituencies: the apocalypticism of the ex-Communists, the philistinism of the businessmen, the leveling passions of the populists, the self-righteousness of the religious right. These groups have admirable traits—analytic rigor, economic productivity, republican instincts, faithful and orderly lives—yet the movement perpetuates only their worst.
Let us hope, then, that Tanenhaus’s obituary for the movement is accurate. America has produced great Burkean conservatives who had little or nothing to do with the movement. They had names like George Kennan, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet. John Lukacs is perhaps the last of them. Maybe after the movement, Burkean conservatism will flourish again.
Daniel McCarthy is senior editor of The American Conservative.
American conservatism has undoubtedly suffered steep ups and downs in the post-World War II period. Indeed, it seemed on the edge of extinction after the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, after Ronald Reagan’s failure to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, and after Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” victory in 1992, but each time it rose from the ashes like the fabled phoenix.
Today liberal pundits and historians are at it again. Amnesiac as ever, they are saying that in the wake of last November’s election, American conservatism is headed for the ash heap of history. They are joined by some confused conservatives who mistake the Republican defeats of 2006 and 2008 for repudiations of conservative ideas.
I believe and I predict that conservatism will emerge from the present crisis as it has in the past with renewed strength and momentum. Why? Not because of divine intervention or because the political pendulum will swing back to the Right in a generation or so.
American conservatism will play a pivotal role because of the conscious acts of individual men and women operating on fundamental principles such as limited Constitutional government, free enterprise, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional American values based on our Judeo-Christian heritage, and a strong national defense.
Through the power of its ideas—linked by the priceless principle of ordered liberty—and the successful political application of those ideas, the conservative movement has become a major and often dominant player in the political and economic realms of our nation. So it was, is and shall be so long as the American people choose the road to liberty.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author of some twenty books about the leading individuals and institutions of American conservatism.
In the current cover story for The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus arrestingly and persuasively suggests that plain conservatism may yet be the biggest casualty of the death of movement conservatism. His long “autopsy” reveals a deeper conviction, however, that plain conservatism can and should flourish—if oriented by the “Beaconsfield position” of Burke, Disraeli, and the later Whittaker Chambers. But if the coroner and his report are correct, more than an autopsy will be needed. Harmful as it is, conservatives will not regain their health by ripping out the heart of ideology and burying it in a box at the foot of a tree. Though ideological conservatism be doomed as any ideology, conservatives are ill-advised to forswear conservative movements.
Tanenhaus begins with a typical account of movement conservatism’s pathologies. Its elites have promoted real yet phony “civil warfare.” An “aggressively unilateralist foreign policy,” a “blind faith” in a market ruled from Wall Street, and a “harshly punitive ‘culture war’” against “liberal ‘elites’” are marketed as if reality could justify them. Actually, society has abandoned those practices—in no small part because hegemonic militarism, market deregulation, and the myth that only elites are culturally liberal have all been discredited in fact. Unwilling to cede political power in a changing society, reactionary elites conscripted common folk, opposed to change that destroyed cultural authority, into sustaining that power. Now, their borrowed time has run out.
When Tanenhaus cuts deeper, however, he complicates this easy narrative. Foreign and market policy concern little of the internecine warfare between ideological movement conservatives and their classical Beaconsfield foes. For both factions admit or champion the necessity of internationalism abroad and the free market at home—unlike a third, less popular or publicized strain of conservatism. More importantly, conservatives of this third strain most stridently reject the idea that cultural change is necessarily open-ended, progressive, and inevitable. Classical and movement conservatives alike, by contrast, concede—at a minimum—that we live in “a culture of continual novelty.” Yet they hesitate to consider that cultural change itself may have been commodified as a shared psychological and economic imperative. Without it, the toil of modern life may not be worth the trouble. Novel lifestyles and novel experiences, on demand, are perhaps the only possible reward commensurate with the strange burdens of boredom and stress that characterize American life.
This phenomenon is the cause of the spread of the culture war across classes, and of the spread of cultural liberalism across classes that provoked it. The pragmatic Beaconsfield strategy of adaptation to change can flourish in many social setting, but in one dedicated to cultural novelty as a matter of principle, it cannot even survive. Quoting Bill Kristol, Tanenhaus makes it appear as if all critics of the “new class” must have been market ideologues against redistributing “the power to shape our civilization” into the hands of “government.” But any conservative who conceded that the ideology of commodification had conquered culture, low and high, became stuck that instant conserving an order they did not want to conserve. Embarrassingly, to exclusively champion unlimited markets and limited government was to abandon traditionally conservative cultural authority to the ‘progressive’ pleasures of transactive novelty.
Thus the frightened stampede toward social conservatism—an ideology, like any, that purports to comprehensively standardize and synthesize non-political convictions and commitments with political objectives; thus the awkward fit between movement conservatism, as Tanenhaus describes it, and the social conservatism it turned to promote; thus the easy charges of rank cynicism and stilted pandering aimed at movement conservatives. The problem is clear enough. Through the market, the left has been able to offer the possibility of cultural novelty on demand; through the state, it has peddled the right to it. Through the politicization of public questions of sexual ethics, it continues to transform all declarations of possibility into rights claims. How, if not by fighting fire with ideological fire, is the right to respond? Tanenhaus admirably invites conservatives to explode ideology—with its central myth that religious convictions, cultural commitments, and political objectives can be purified into a programmatic and comprehensive creedal unity. But he cannot explain how post-movement conservatives can successfully oppose movement liberalism, which effectively instrumentalizes economic and political policies that advance our cultural pathologies in such a way as to celebrate them.
James Poulos is the former Political Editor of Culture11.
Posted: February 10, 2009 in Symposia.
Did you see this one?
Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2008)