Is conservatism dead?

Is conservatism dead?
When in 1962 Clinton Rossiter published a revised edition of Conservatism in America, he gave it the subtitle The Thankless Persuasion. A decade earlier, Raymond English had touched upon a similar theme in an article in The American Scholar titled “Conservatism: The Forbidden Faith.” Their point was that conservatism as a political philosophy runs against the American grain and thus will always play something of an incongruous and subordinate role in a revolutionary nation dedicated to equality, democracy, and restless change. While the conservative case for order, tradition, and authority may be useful as a corrective for the excesses of democracy, it can never hope to supplant liberalism as the nation’s official governing philosophy. As Rossiter put it, “Our commitment to democracy means that Liberalism will maintain its historic dominance over our minds, and that conservative thinkers will continue as well-kept but increasingly restless hostages to the American tradition.” Liberals will always set the tone for public life, he argued, leaving conservatives with the thankless task of fighting liberal reforms and then adjusting to them after they have been adopted.
Rossiter, like other liberal observers of the post-war scene, such as Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Bell, lamented the fact that an authentic conservative movement was difficult to locate in the United States. To be sure, there were some thoughtful conservatives to be found, such as the author Russell Kirk and Senator Robert Taft, but they were eccentrics, who had little in the way of a popular following, and whose views on policy were hardly distinguishable from those of the business community. On the other hand, the new American right that arose in the 1950s to challenge the New Deal and the Cold War policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations did not seem to fit into the conservative tradition at all. Populist in tone and suspicious of leaders from both parties, the new right seemed to have more in common with extremist movements than with conservative parties that traditionally distrusted democracy and defended elites. The radical right, as the liberals called it, was especially frightening because it mobilized huge popular followings behind figures like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and the various fundamentalist ministers who spread their messages through the radio waves. The very idea of a President McCarthy or, more realistically, a President Nixon, was enough to send chills down the spine of any right-thinking liberal. Naturally, those liberals preferred to deal with “real” conservatives like Sen. Taft than with populist figures like McCarthy and Nixon who, because of their popular appeal, actually threatened to topple them from power.
The liberal analysis of conservatism that was passed down from the 1950s and 1960s has caused endless confusion about what conservatism in America is and is not. It is never a good thing for any philosophical movement to permit itself to be defined by its adversaries, but this is more or less what happened to conservatism in the post-war period, as liberals sought to define it in such a way as to guarantee its failure or ineffectiveness. For one thing, they created a combination of traps and paradoxes for conservatives that gave added meaning to Rossiter’s concept of “the thankless persuasion.” On the one hand, conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation (at least in the eyes of liberals), were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo. Thus, self-styled conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order—and, of course, “real” conservatives would never do that. So it was that conservatives who wished to reverse liberal victories became radicals or extremists. Conservatives, moreover, could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. Not surprisingly, they viewed a popular conservatism as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives, in short, could only win power and influence by betraying their principles, and could only maintain those principles by accepting their subordinate status. Thus, in the eyes of the liberal historians, conservatism could never prosper in America because, if it did, it could no longer be called conservatism.
Rossiter published the first edition of his book in 1955, barely a year after William F. Buckley Jr. launched National Review, thereby launching as well the modern conservative movement. A supporter of Senator McCarthy, ardent foe of the New Deal, and critic of Ivy League colleges, Buckley did not meet the requirements for conservatism as had been laid down by the liberal historians. In their eyes, Buckley was an extremist, as were most of the writers (like James Burnham, Max Eastman, and Frank Meyer) whom he recruited to his new fortnightly magazine. Buckley’s quixotic project to build a conservative intellectual movement was not supposed to succeed and even less was it expected to grow to a point where conservatives might be in a position to challenge liberals for intellectual and political influence. Yet it is undoubtedly true that the most far-reaching political development in the United States over the past half-century has been the rise of conservatism from its designated role as “the thankless persuasion” to its status by the turn of the millennium as the nation’s most influential public doctrine. This did not happen by accident, but rather because conservatives succeeded where liberals had failed in ending the Cold War, rejuvenating the American economy from the “stagflation” of the 1970s, and restoring order and fiscal health to the nation’s cities. Such achievements should have discredited all those claims that there is something “un-American” about conservatism, that it is forever doomed to minority status, and that it must always play second fiddle to liberalism. Nevertheless, despite everything that has happened since 1954 when Buckley announced his new magazine or since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president, there are many who still hold fast to the old myths about American conservatism.
Sam Tanenhaus has now reprised the old arguments about conservatism and tried to bring them up to date in his newly published jeremiad, The Death of Conservatism.[1] Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a justly acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, argues that the conservative movement collapsed under the presidency of George W. Bush, and that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 marked the beginning of a new liberal era in American politics. Tanenhaus is not altogether certain as to the causes of this collapse, at times suggesting that conservatives undid themselves because they were corrupt and unprincipled in their pursuit of power and at others suggesting that they lost the support of the American people because of their devotion to right-wing “orthodoxy.” The one thing about which he is certain is that he dislikes conservatives—intensely and unremittingly so, judging by the rhetoric deployed in this book. Tanenhaus says at various points that conservatives are out to destroy the country, that they are driven by revenge and resentment, that they dislike America, and that they behave more like extremists and revolutionaries (“Jacobins”) than as genuine conservatives. In this sense, he has resurrected the liberal literature about Sen. McCarthy and “the radical right,” and sought to apply it to contemporary conservatism as if nothing of importance had happened in the meantime. All of this is nonsense, of course, and given some of the author’s previous writings, particularly his biography of Chambers, one had reason to hope that he would have produced something more elevated than the partisan assault against conservatives that he has packaged in this book.
Tanenhaus argues that conservatives failed because—well, because they did not act like conservatives at all but rather as extremists and radicals out to destroy everything associated with modern liberalism. The paradox of the modern right, he says, is that “Its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly un-conservative.” According to Tanenhaus, conservatives have been divided since the 1950s between their Burkean inclinations to preserve the constitutional order and their reactionary or “revanchist” impulses to tear up and destroy every liberal compromise with modern life. “On the one side,” he writes, “are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America’s pre-New Deal ancient regime, a return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of pre-modern family values.” In recent years, he concludes, the “revanchists” have gotten the upper hand over the Burkeans, and have thereby run the conservative juggernaut over a cliff and into irrelevance. In an entry that gives the reader a flavor of some of the exaggerated rhetoric contained in the book, Tanenhaus writes that, “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”
These “exhumed figures” are presumably free-market economists and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Amity Shlaes, whose books have been critical of the New Deal, neo-conservatives who supported the war in Iraq, and social conservatives who have opposed abortion, easy divorce, and gay marriage. In Tanenhaus’s view, genuine conservatives would accept the New Deal and the welfare state as “Burkean corrections” that served to adjust the American economy to modern conditions. Nor would “real” conservatives have supported a war in Iraq that was based upon a utopian ideal of bringing democracy to the Middle East. He also thinks that conservatives should accept gay marriage as an extension of family values to a new area. The reason conservatives have not followed such advice, he says, is that their attachment to orthodox doctrine trumps the practical advantages of finding areas of accommodation with adversaries. In a most un-Burkean way, he says, they have allowed ideology to prevail over experience and common sense. Thus, as he suggests, the right is the main source of disorder and dissension in contemporary society and the instigators of the long-running culture war that has divided the country.
Employing this framework, Tanenhaus arrives at surprising judgments about some prominent conservatives—for example, that Ronald Reagan was a “real” conservative because, despite his rhetoric, he made no effort to repeal popular social programs but accepted them as an integral aspect of the American consensus. This is gracious on the author’s part, though it is a judgment that few liberals will accept simply because they are certain that the only reason President Reagan did not repeal many of those programs is because Congress would not permit it. After all, one of Reagan’s favorite sayings was that “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Reagan, like every other major Republican office-holder of recent decades, including George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, was constrained in this area by a mix of congressional politics, interest groups, and public opinion. Tanenhaus also says that Buckley, while starting out as a “revanchist” in the 1950s, turned into a Burkean in the 1960s by his acceptance of liberal reforms, especially in civil rights.
This, one may assume, will turn out to be the broad story line of the authorized biography of Buckley that Tanenhaus has long planned to write, though there are some obvious problems with it. For one thing, Buckley never took back anything he said or wrote during the 1950s about McCarthy, Communism, liberalism, or higher education, nor is it evident from anything he said or wrote that he regretted taking those positions. It is perhaps true that Buckley became somewhat less polemical in style with the passing decades, but it is difficult to discern any change in principles that would justify the conclusion that the Buckley of 1968 and thereafter was a different kind of man from the one who launched National Review.
Tanenhaus uses the terms revanche or revanchism promiscuously throughout his book, plainly as instruments for tarring conservatives as destructive reactionaries, but its use in this context is exaggerated and inflammatory to the point of irresponsibility. “Revanchism,” drawn from the French word for “revenge,” originated as a term to describe European nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that sought to restore lost territory or prestige through new wars of conquest and occupation. Though originally applied to movements in France that aimed to recapture territory seized by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war, the term more accurately applies to the nationalist parties that arose in Germany in the 1920s dedicated to the overthrow both of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles. Revanchists reject liberalism and democracy in favor of nationalism and strong-man rule, and surely cannot be said to endorse the ideals of liberty, limited government, and the rule of law that form the core of conservative thought. The repeated use of this term in the American context is thus hard to justify, as much so as McCarthy’s charge that American liberals of the 1950s were “crypto-Communists.” Tanenhaus condemns conservative writers who draw parallels between the New Deal and fascism, but carelessly suggests parallels between American conservatives and European fascists—one of the more unsavory aspects of a book filled with unsavory allusions and implications.
The argument that contemporary conservatives are reactionaries or revanchists is wrong on its face. The market school of economics cannot be dismissed because it is critical of the New Deal or of Keynesian policies, nor are free-market thinkers reactionary in any sense of that term. Tanenhaus does not inquire seriously into the reasons why conservatives are uneasy with the welfare state, why some see in it a threat to liberty and others an encouragement to the breakdown of the family and self-government. The market revolution of the last thirty years, moreover, contributed greatly to world prosperity over that period, to the fall of Communism, and to much else that was beneficial besides. It may be true that the current economic crisis presents a challenge to market thinking, but it certainly does not vindicate central planning or the welfare state, and there is nothing about that challenge that justifies the conclusion that market economics is dead. As we shall shortly learn, the path back to prosperity will lead through free and flexible markets.
Nor does the intervention in Iraq, whatever its ultimate outcome, support Tanenhaus’s case. That intervention, after all, was endorsed not only by conservatives and neo-conservatives, but also by every Democratic candidate for president in last year’s election, save for Barack Obama (who was a member of the Illinois legislature when the war began). President Bush, in addition, justified the war on liberal or Wilsonian grounds, so that if the war discredited anything, it was the liberal ideal of achieving collective security through the promotion of democracy. One may argue that such an approach is misguided or impractical, or even that it is inconsistent with conservative principles, but it is not possible to say that it is revanchist. As for the culture war—well, most conservatives would be glad to have it over with, if only cultural liberals and radicals would call a halt to their provocations. The historical record is clear that the first shots fired in every engagement of the culture war came from the left in the form of school busing, the abortion decision of the Supreme Court, the Mapplethorpe exhibition, political correctness on the campus, and (now) gay marriage. Indeed, what many call the “religious right” came into existence in the late 1970s in response to the Carter administration’s effort to deny tax exemption to religious schools on the grounds that they were segregated. Absent liberal provocations, there would have been no culture war and probably no “religious right” to wage it.
Tanenhaus, taking no prisoners on any side, even rebukes his own editors at the New York Times for signing up William Kristol to write a weekly column for the paper during the 2008 election campaign. The editors were no doubt trying to demonstrate an element of fairness and balance in an election year, an obviously impossible task in view of the overflowing stable of writers at the paper who dislike conservatives and Republicans as much as Tanenhaus does. Kristol, however, at least according to Tanenhaus, “cheapened this valued space [sic] into a shabby storefront for the Republican presidential campaign.” That charge is false as it applies to Kristol, who wrote about many subjects besides the election during his brief tenure at the paper, and even criticized Senator McCain at more than one point during the campaign. If we reverse the party labels, however, the judgment is accurate when applied to the work of other Times columnists, such as Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, and Frank Rich, who even outdid the paper’s news pages in propagandizing on behalf of the Democratic ticket.
Like the liberal writers of the 1950s, Tanenhaus wants to see a conservative movement that accommodates rather than opposes liberalism, and thus one that will accept its role as subordinate to the dominant liberal tradition in American life. He acknowledges that there is an important role for conservatism, but it must be a “genuine” conservatism that preserves but does not seek to overturn liberal gains. In any event, he says, conservatives will have little choice but to accommodate to liberal leadership because the election of 2008 has effectively ended the era of conservative dominance in American politics. Much as liberals had to accommodate to conservatives after Reagan’s election in 1980, conservatives will now have to accept the newly dominant status of reform liberalism, or else accept the consequences of being turned into “the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight.”
Tanenhaus first laid out his theme in a long article in The New Republic published in the breathless aftermath of Obama’s inauguration when it was all too easy to imagine that liberals had scored a permanent knockout over their conservative adversaries and when many entertained hopes that the new president might bring about a wholesale transformation in the conduct of public affairs—a “revolution in the consciousness of our time,” as Norman Mailer put it in 1960 in describing the hoped-for consequences of John F. Kennedy’s victory. The excitement generated by Tanenhaus’s message (Conservatism is dead!) justified a rapidly written expansion of the essay.
The book now appears months later as these extravagant hopes have given way to more sober assessments of what it is truly possible to achieve within the American system, and as President Obama’s poll numbers have come back to earth in response to the public’s wariness about his ambitious proposals. Various opinion polls point to a resurgence in the popularity of conservative principles and policies, while pundits are now forecasting a Republican comeback in the forthcoming elections in 2009 and 2010. The polls offer no support for the claim that conservatism is dead among American voters or that the 2008 election represented a long-running realignment in the fortunes of the two major parties. One may confidently assume, if the past is any guide, that a conservative Republican will succeed President Obama in 2012 or 2016, and that Republicans will recapture one or both houses of Congress before Obama completes his tenure in office. Three of the books currently topping the Times best-seller list (as yet unreviewed by the Times) are conservative titles. It thus appears that Tanenhaus, in pronouncing the death of conservatism, has made the mistake of forecasting a trend on the basis of a single event. His obituary seems less compelling—and ever more exaggerated—with every passing month.
It is certainly true, as Tanenhaus says, that conservatism as a political doctrine has its flaws and weaknesses, which are magnified when it is judged in the immediate aftermath of a lost election or in isolation from alternative approaches to public life. When judged in relation to liberalism, however, modern conservatism takes on a more favorable outlook. Many of the sins Tanenhaus attributes to conservatives—overly zealous attachment to principle or ideology, unwillingness to adapt to change, impatience with popular opinion—are on display as much or more among liberals. If Tanenhaus or anyone else wishes to see liberalism in action, he might venture on to an elite college campus where only liberal and leftist views are permitted peaceful expression, or out to Sacramento or up to Albany where liberal Democrats, long in control, have spent their states into near bankruptcy. The liberal faculty and public employee unions that control those institutions and jurisdictions have not exactly distinguished themselves for their far-sighted and open-minded leadership. As for New York and California, the public employee unions that control the Democratic party, and thereby the state governments, have exploited the prosperity of recent decades to build up huge government establishments that will no longer be affordable in the forthcoming era of austerity, especially as taxpayers and businesses flee to other states like Texas and Florida that have followed more conservative paths. As California and New York unravel, voters will undoubtedly turn to conservatives to restore levels of growth and prosperity sufficient to fund their social programs and educational systems. Liberals will come to understand that in order to fund their programs, they will have to tolerate conservatives and conservative policies. That will be a hard and painful lesson for liberals to learn. If conservatism is dead, in short, then so is liberalism, and much else besides.

Conservatism, moreover, is now a permanent and enduring aspect of American political life, supported by millions of Americans and defended by a large network of writers, journals, and think tanks. There is, however, a more important reason for its enduring appeal among Americans. Conservatism in America deploys the principles of tradition, reason, and orderly change in defense of liberal institutions—the Constitution, representative government, liberty and equal rights, the rule of law. It is generally the conservative, not the modern liberal, who emphasizes the inspired example of the founding fathers, the words of the Constitution, and the sacrifices made to build free institutions. If it is true that liberals want to overcome the past, or apologize for it, then conservatives want us to remember, to learn, and to build constructively upon it. That may be a challenging task in a culture of short memory, but it is far from a thankless one.