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Just as with stupidity and daintiness, “conservative is as conservative does.”

Title: The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus

Motivation: Widely noted book by a well-known political commentator.

Completed: June 2, 2012 (#37)

Recommendation: Would have been more compelling prior to the 2010 mid-term elections…

While his conclusions are no doubt uncongenial to contemporary conservatives, Mr. Tanenhaus has produced a noteworthy critique of the Grand Old Party and, more broadly, the “Conservative Movement.”

Mr. Tanenhaus’s point of departure, as with any thoughtful discussion of conservatism, is Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

In his most celebrated work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a series of bulletins on the insurrectionists and their English supporters, Burke made no sustained effort to justify the ancien régime and its many “abuses.” Nor did he propose a counter-ideology. Instead, he warned against the destabilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind. The Jacobins—in particular Robespierre, who proclaimed a “despotism of liberty”—and more moderate figures, too, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions and institutions of what Burke called “civil society.” With “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians,” they placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed. They deemed France “incapable or undeserving of reform, so that it was of absolute necessity the whole fabric should be at once pulled down, and the area cleared for the erection of a theoretic experimental edifice in its place.”

By contrast, Mr. Tanenhaus argues, the Republican Party of the 1990s and today bears greater resemblance to the Jacobins, espousing a revanchist ideology that shares little with Burkean temperance and prudence:

The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than of the American Revolution. They routinely demonize government institutions, which they depict as the enemy of the people’s best interests. But to classical conservatives the two entities, government and society, are mutually dependent. Burke drew no meaningful distinction between the state and society—that is, between the formally established institutions of government and those institutions rooted in patrimony, custom, and habit. The two were coterminous, at times almost interchangeable. “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants,” he wrote, adding a few sentences later, as if following a single arc of thought, “Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves … [T]he restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule.”

There is an unsettling kernel of truth to much of Mr. Tanenhaus’s critique, and conservatives would be well advised to take up this short book to wrestle with his arguments. That said, there is a great deal of weirdness in the author’s view of the Conservative Movement and its post-war history. A case in point:

And yet it was in this period that conservatism entered its greatest phase, a decade-long period, from 1965 to 1975, during which the familiar dynamic between orthodoxy and consensus underwent a remarkable reversal. The liberal sun, even as it steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchanted and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition—blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left—shaped a new consensus.

Beautifully written, but come again? Bracketing this supposed Golden Age—and clearly excluded from it on Mr. Tanenhaus’s reading—are the candidacies of Sen. Goldwater in 1964 and President Reagan in 1976 and 1980. From 1965 through 1975, the Republican Party was dominated by a disgraced moderate who imposed wage and price controls and his ineffectual and unelected one-term successor. Sen. Goldwater—for all his bombast—placed conservatism on the political map and ignited a revolution that led, eventually, to the apotheosis of the Conservative Movement in the Reagan era. Surely the Nixon/Ford years were the darkest years in GOP history, albeit brightened by some foreign policy coups?

Mr. Tanenhaus recognizes this reality, as later he writes as follows:

Despite his reputation for being a hard-liner, Safire adds, Nixon was “a progressive politician, willing and even eager to surprise with liberal ideas, [and he was] delighted with the comparison” to Disraeli, a conservative who had governed innovatively, outflanking liberals.

William Safire’s description of President Nixon is fair. Love him or hate him, President Nixon was cut from a different sort of cloth—a more progressiveliberal cloth—than the likes of Presidents Reagan or Bush the Younger. Does it follow, therefore, that the “greatest age” of conservatism coincided with the most liberal Republican president since the Second World War?

Mr. Tanenhaus unfortunately confuses descriptive and normative evaluations of the Conservative Movement. It is perfectly legitimate for a political opponent of President Reagan to recognize that he represents the apex of a certain mode of conservative thought. President Obama has regularly done so, including, famously, in his 2008 campaign. Descriptively, the years 1932 through 1945 were surely the Golden Age of national socialism, just as the years 1661 through 1715 were the Golden Age of monarchical absolutism, but to recognize these facts does not imply that one must subscribe to the Nazi or ancien régime program as a normative matter.

Mr. Tanenhaus appears to have a substantive preference for so-called “RINOs” (“Republicans in name only”), which is a perfectly reasonable position for a man of the Left to adopt. Conservatives tend to prefer Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Joseph Lieberman to the alternatives, too. However, just as it would be odd to claim that Sen. Lieberman’s appearance at the 2008 Republican National Convention on Sen. McCain’s behalf is the high-water mark of American progressivism, it is simply weird to claim that the presidents most abjured by conservatives are in fact the greatest exemplars of conservative philosophy.