The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
(New York: Random House, 2009)
RICHARD J. BISHIRJIAN is President and Professor of Government at Yorktown University and an Editorial Advisor of Modern Age.
Sam Tanenhaus, like most children ofhis generation, was told to be good, orthe Bogeyman would get him. Fifty yearslater, Tanenhaus brings to his colleaguesat the New York Times the good news thatthe Bogeyman is dead. Whether he reallybelieves that the Bogeyman of conservatismhas died cannot be known. This littlebook is an example of the use of magicalrealism to create a speculative golem withthe words "Conservatism is Dead" on itsforehead. Tanenhaus's arguments in TheDeath of Conservatism are so strained andhis analysis so submerged in graceful writingas to be invisible, that a careful readermust conclude that Tanenhaus's Bogeymanmay not be really dead. In fact, thereis evidence that conservatism, like FreddyKrueger, is quietly planning to strike backin the 2010 off-year elections.
Let's begin at the beginning.
Tanenhaus has spent most of his careerat the New York Times. Most intellectuals,including this conservative, grew uprelishing the prospect of reading the NewYork Times. Especially on Sundays, beforehernias became a problem, we would heftthe Times off the shelves of local vendorsand devour the news pages while savingfor last the "Week in Review" and theSunday Magazine. Unlike the WashingtonPost, whose business section is written bysocial workers, the New York Times actuallyreported on business. But behind theprinted document was an ethos of sixtiesleftists, Woodstock attendees, pot smokers,Pete Seeger fans, and an anti-bourgeoisdress code of Levis, sandals, long hair, andan attitude that America's enemies had apoint. They're still there at the New YorkTimes and still wearing jeans and sandals,their hair long, though their midriffs aresubstantially wider.
So why is Tanenhaus writing conservatism'sepitaph? Why does he even care?Unfortunately, like Gary Wills, John KennethGalbraith, and a long list of other liberalsbefriended by William F. Buckley,Sam Tanenhaus was invited into the innersanctum of conservatism's premier journal,National Review, and the salon of Patand Bill Buckley. That Bill Buckley wasdomiciled much of the time in New Yorkenhanced the likelihood of his encounterswith the Left, but instead of stiff-armingthem, he did the Christian thing and tookthem in, befriended them, and they inturn bit the hand that fed them canapés.Bill Buckley's death spared him this lastindignity—a zealous attack on conservatives,Bogeymen all.
But let us first praise Tanenhaus beforewe cite the liberal cant he should know notto utter after years of rubbing elbows withBill and Pat and nibbling brie, but justcan't seem to shake off.
It is to Tanenhaus's credit that he cansmell, and accurately report, the decadence in the premier journals that used tobe called "conservative." He might evenhave quoted Frank Meyer who loved thephrase "whited sepulcher" to describe liberalpromises. Today's whited sepulchersare Commentary magazine, National Review,and the Weekly Standard. Commentary andthe Weekly Standard reflect a phenomenonmore often found in Hollywood wherethe sons and daughters of 1950s film stars,producers, and directors make successfulcareers. John Podhoretz and Bill Kristolhave benefited from their fathers' successand have become journal editors in theirown right. National Review, reflecting thefirst influence of the "corporate Right,"threw off its former traditional conservatismand became, Tanenhaus writes,"mouthpieces of the Republican Party."They "recognize no distinction betweenanalysis and advocacy, or between the competitionof ideas and the naked strugglefor power." In this one respect, Tanenhauscomes close to telling the truth: conservatismhas received a nearly fatal blow due tothe apostasy of National Review.
What Tanenhaus seems to be sayingis that these worthies are ideologues.Here he introduces the icon of EdmundBurke, who railed against the applicationof abstract reason and abstract solutionsto matters requiring prudential reasoning,and later he brings to his argumentthe measured—today we'd call it "moderate"—conservatism of Whittaker Chambers.Chambers is a favorite of Tanenhaus,who published a biography of Chambersin 1999. Chambers, Tanenhaus observesapprovingly, told Bill Buckley that theRight has no program and that the Americandependency on government was "afunction of the unstoppable rise of industrialcapitalism." Between Burke andChambers on the one hand and Kristol,Podhoretz, and National Review's Lowryon the other, Tanenhaus sees the betrayalof a great intellectual tradition.
Conservatives who read National Review'sDavid Frum's attack on traditional conservativesand the malignant attack on M.Stanton Evans's study of Joe McCarthy willfind it hard to disagree with Tanenhaus.We're dealing with propositional reasoningand a modern variant of millennialism thatis the hallmark of ideologies. Collectively,and with a little assistance from PresidentGeorge W. Bush and gnostic White Housespeechwriter, Michael Gerson, this crowdchampioned a war motivated by the religiousimpulse to create a New Jerusalem inthis world. In doing so, they destroyed theRepublican brand and handed the reins ofAmerican government to an unadulteratedideologue.
So much for where Tanenhaus's analysisseems to be right. Unfortunately, forTanenhaus, like the European Left, thereare no enemies on his Left. The death hewishes to report is the death of conservatism,not the freak revival of Wilsonianidealism given new life by the failed presidencyof George W. Bush. Tanenhaus hasthe temerity to describe the Bush Administrationas "the most conservative in modernhistory." Those are words that couldonly be written by someone without a trueunderstanding of his subject. Of course,Tanenhaus's subject isn't the real conservatism.His true subject is the latest manifestationof the booboisie that so exercised H.L. Mencken.
What conservatism really is hasn'tseeped into Tanenhaus's consciousness. Hewrites: "whether or not racist themselves,[conservatives] were not morally repulsedby racial prejudice, which to them wasconsonant with their preferred ideal of ahierarchical society." If Tanenhaus wereto attend some conservative Tea Parties,town hall meetings with Congressionaltime-servers, the annual Right to Liferally in Washington, or the many Christian gatherings where current affairs arediscussed, he would not have written ofconservatism's "preferred ideal of a hierarchicalsociety." Hell, at the pinnacle of ourcurrent hierarchy stands the liberal intellectualEstablishment in whose ranks SamTanenhaus stands tall. For Tanenhaus atrue conservatism that honored its Burkeanprinciples would be supportive of governmentprograms despite evidence thatthe Great Society and President Obama'sfederal stimulus initiatives do more harmthan good.
The Death of Conservatism is a little book,a mere one hundred twenty pages of text,and rightly so because Tanenhaus's idea ofconservatism whose death he reports is afigment of his imagination. While readingthis work I was reminded of Dutch,Edmund Morris's biography of RonaldReagan commissioned by Nancy Reagan.Morris hadn't a clue about his subject,Reagan's conservative philosophy, or evenhis motivations, so, in the school of magicalrealism that is country cousin to modernideologies like communism, socialism,and modern millennialism of Podhoretz,Kristol, and Lowry, Morris invented a fictionalDutch to carry the storyline to itsbittersweet conclusion. For today's "modern"writers, when the facts don't fit theconclusion they have in mind, they recreatethem in such a way that the fictionalfacts fit.
Americans seem not to have grasped thesimilarity of the skills of magical realists inliterature and the murderous acts committedby flesh-and-blood revolutionary ideologues.Americans cannot comprehend thelibido dominandi that drives the speculativecreation of what Eric Voegelin calls "secondrealities." So Tanenhaus's ideologicaltrashing of conservatism is given respectfulpraise and not the denunciation it sorichly deserves. If you doubt that Tanenhaushas pulled off a bait-and-switch,watch "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, whereTanenhaus is introduced lovingly as theauthor of that great book, The Death ofConservatism.