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On The Death of
Conservatism

By Josh Lerner

“When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” - Lucius C. Falkland  

 

There have been many fascinating reviews and rebuttals of Sam Tanenhaus’s latest book, an interesting, if deceptively polemical work, entitled The Death of Conservatism. Most of these rebuttals, particularly the wonderful one written by John Podhoretz in the September 2009 issue of Commentary, chastise the book for ignoring the political realities of the day. Podhoretz focuses on the electoral and political success of conservatism, as it is currently constituted in the past 25 years: successes that range from welfare reform to the inability of self-proclaimed liberals to win the presidency in well over 40 years. Podhoretz, rightly, attacks the apparent short-sightedness of the eulogy for the American Right and given the seismic political shift of the last 6 months against the very ascendant liberalism Tanenhaus is accused of supporting, one can conclude that he was on to something. Instead, Podhoretz proclaims that the movement has been “jolted back to life the way political and ideological tendencies usually are: by the actions of its opposite number.”

            Fair enough, but Tanenhaus has stated that the focus of his work is not on the success or failure of conservatism as a political force, but rather as an intellectual movement: how lively and interesting are those who think about the big questions within the movement and how does this compare to those outside the movement.  The question must be asked: is intellectual conservatism really as dormant as Tanenhaus suggests it is, and, if so, is this due to the influence of what Tanenhaus calls the revanchists, members of the movement who are “more devoted to orthodoxy than to compromise”? Or is it Tanenhaus’s own ideological baggage and desire to see conservatism enter a dormant point intellectually that drives his narrative?

            Tanenhaus is an idiosyncratic figure himself. He’s the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and has written for many of the de rigueur publications of the New York intelligentsia (The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, etc.). He is, by all accounts, a fairly unremarkable liberal; although he does attempt to maintain his “journalistic neutrality” by remaining unaffiliated and unregistered with any political party—an antiquated, if somewhat refreshing, attempt at objectivity. His liberalism is somewhat less pronounced than those other prophets of conservative doom, like Frank Rich or Paul Krugman, and the way in which he has run the New York Times Book Review has been far more even-handed, in respect to the publications reviewed and the disposition of the reviewer, than previous iterations have been. So, one must give credit where credit is due.

            For an openly liberal commentator, Tanenhaus is certainly very familiar with the ins and outs of the conservative movement. Tanenhaus cannot be summarily dismissed as an outsider with malicious intent; he wrote a particularly charming biography of Whittaker Chambers, the star witness in the Alger Hiss trial and a founding father of National Review and the modern conservative movement, and is in the process of finishing a massive biography of William F. Buckley. In fact, Tanenhaus has a very peculiar relationship with the conservative movement, stating during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute of all places that, although he disagrees with most of what is said by conservatives, “they are the only vibrant American political philosophy of the last 40 years.” Listening to Tanenhaus, what is readily apparent is that he is both fascinated by, and an admirer of, conservative ideas (or, at least conservatives in theory or history books). At the same time, he has almost nothing positive to say for the conservative movement in and of itself.

            Tanenhaus, however, does not get a free pass on the accusation of a premature eulogizing of political conservatism: although he focuses on the discussion of the intellectual degradation of the movement, his book is dotted with lines chastising members of the conservative movement, like Charles Krauthammer and Rush Limbaugh specifically, for “ignoring public opinion” in their continued opposition to President Obama’s attempts to, as Krauthammer himself puts it, create a “European style social democracy.” Tanenhaus is aghast that these “so-called conservatives” would so directly flaunt the “prudential wisdom” of the democratic process—which in his mind means a European social welfare state—which, retrospectively, probably seems a bit premature (given the latest poll numbers on health care reform or cap-and-trade). This is, unfortunately, a problem that Tanenhaus repeatedly partakes in throughout the book: bizarre assertions of the political defeat of conservatism and, therefore, the Republican party, coming less than, when the bulk of this book was written, six months since the inauguration. But what can one reasonably expect from the editor of the New York Times Book Review? I will give Tanenhaus credit for attempting to transcend his acknowledged political bias, but parts of the book read as if it were written in a Pauline Kael alternative universe.

            But as to his central contention about the state of intellectual conservatism: what is the proper role of intellectual conservatism, and how can we tell when it is flourishing or floundering? Tanenhaus proposes a fascinating dichotomy of conservative thought: the aforementioned revanchists on one side, and the Burkean (at least on Tanenhaus’s reading of Burke) realists on the other. Without getting too mired in the details of what each element is, it can be safely stated that the essential characteristic of the realists is that of the conservative impulse in the already existing liberal regime; it exists to temper and provide the balance to counter “liberal overreach.” Realists, as Tanenhaus sees them, act to reach out to liberals on issues in which we, as sensible Americans, all agree on, and work to provide a stable and sustainable consensus on the issues of the day. The virtues of the realist are prudence and modesty; the realist recognizes where the political zeitgeist of the day resides, and opposes what reforms to the system would risk its destruction. In an entirely unironic sentiment, Tanenhaus declares that the great virtues of conservatives are their unwillingness to change; they are best served when they believe that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change,” a quote he (bizarrely) approves of. According to Tanenhaus, this is Burkean statesmanship at its finest: conservatives act as the moderating impulse to the great liberal progression, pushing back against liberalism when it over reaches.

            But, just as realists provide Tanenhaus with his great intellectual heroes, the revanchists act the part of the boisterous villains, the rowdy and intemperate disrupters of our great consensus. They are radicals who, far from wanting to maintain the current order, are rather bent on destroying and refashioning it after their own visions. In many ways, Tanenhaus seems to despise the revanchists for behaving ideologically; he resents conservatism as an answer, rather than just a corollary, to liberalism. But where does this revanchist spirit come from? Tanenhaus recognizes the absolutes postulated by these men as not terribly dissimilar to that of their polar opposites, scientific Marxists. This is because, as many of the newly christened converts to conservatism were themselves ex-Marxists “they retained their absolutist fervor, replacing the Marxist dialectic with a Manichaean politics of good and evil.” How dare conservatives, Tanenhaus all but says, have an intellectual movement entirely separate from the liberal consensus; how dare they establish political principles to go with an antipathy towards imprudent change.

            From here, Tanenhaus weaves a very interesting, if often rough, history of the intellectual conservative movement in America, primarily between the end of the Second World War and 1975, the year he claims intellectual conservatism began its decline. To the surprise of no one with at least a glancing familiarity with his work, Tanenhaus credits two men as the ultimate embodiments of every thing that is right about the conservative movement, men who can authentically spout realism because of their impeccable conservative credentials: Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley.

            Buckley at his best, according to Tanenhaus, provided conservatism with both an authenticity and an intellectual joie de vivre. He created waves, certainly, but he was never one—at least in his “golden years”—to actually threaten the existing intellectual structure. Buckley, Tanenhaus later admits, is far too complex a figure to pigeonhole into one role or another: his “standing athwart to history yelling Stop!” is essential realist politics, but Buckley, especially post-1975, became too ideological for Tanenhaus. This, of course, is an exercise in selective memory; Buckley certainly made huge waves when he attacked the “myth” of academic freedom in God and Man at Yale, and when he defended the practices of Joseph McCarthy in McCarthy and His Enemies, both occurring during these so-called “golden years”. Certainly, there is an element of Buckley as the quaint or peculiar conservative that Tanenhaus seemed to admire (Buckley was suave and cultured—the epitome of the wonderful dinner party guest—and Tanenhaus, it can be inferred, admires Buckley for being the same kind of intellectual as he is, the sophisticated aristocrat), but even more, it was the hopelessness of what Buckley represented. Particularly in its early years, National Review was much more focused on critiquing policy rather than creating it. When it started to try and change things in a constructive way is when it became far too ideological. Buckley, ultimately, does not provide Tanenhaus with the proper measuring of realism: for that, he would have return to an old favorite of his, a man of impeccable conservative credentials who also saw conservatism as a series of compromises: Whittaker Chambers.

            To Tanenhaus, Chambers embodies all of the elements of the realist conservative: he is weary of change, skeptical of any great reforms projects, and entirely pessimistic about the fate of both democratic capitalism and a free and virtuous United States. He waxes poetic about the inability of the right to fight the left on equal grounds because those very grounds of the intellectual movement have changed so rapidly. According to Chambers, the “regulatory economics of the New Deal had become the basis for governing in postwar America” and that conservatives not only would not, but could not “provide a comprehensive alternative.” Chambers laments that “any conservatism that does not accept this is not a political force or even a twitch: it is a literary whimsy.”

            But here we again see one of Tanenhaus’s bizarre blending of electoral politics and intellectual movements. Chambers opposes overturning the great political consensus of the New Deal partially because it cannot be done, but also partially because it would undermine the newly created social order. And yet, this realist compromise did very little to prevent the further degradation of what American conservatives would hold near and dear during the 1950s. This accommodationist stance, as embodied by the Eisenhower administration (an administration Tanenhaus lauds for its realism), could do little to prevent the overreaches of the Great Society. And, as a political organ, accommodationism has not shown itself to be any more politically viable as an electoral tool than adversarial conservatism (compare and contrast the accomidationist Republican party of the 1960s to the far more combative party of the 1990s). But again, this is Tanenhaus making an unnecessary step towards talking about the electoral side of conservatism. Although it is significant that he often confuses intellectual vitality with electoral viability, it does not mean we should disregard his discussion on the state of intellectual conservatism. Even if Tanenhaus is a flawed messenger, his message is still quite important.           

            The general thesis of the book can be summarized simply: the conservative movement collapsed under the presidency of George W. Bush, and that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 marked the commencement of the new liberal era in American politics. A collapse partially caused by the corruption and an unprincipled pursuit of power amongst self-proclaimed conservatives and partially caused because said conservatives lost the support of the American people due to their devotion to right-wing “orthodoxy.” 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. Later on, he does back away from the political prognostications here and reiterates that he is primarily focused on the state of intellectual conservatism, but how much of that has to do with the developments of the last six months I cannot answer.

            If Tanenhaus isn’t speaking solely to electoral politics, but rather to intellectual vitality his theory doesn’t hold up too well either. His narrative on the history of intellectual conservatism has some real idiosyncrasies—he speaks of the rise of the neoconservatives in the 1960s and 70s as a moment when “the right held out its hand and compromised with the moderate left”, when most historians of the movement (let alone those who participated in this great intellectual migration) see it as the complete opposite: the moment when great thinkers of the left (at least the anticommunist left) began to shift rightward until they could describe themselves as nothing else but conservatives. The examples he cites, naturally, are some of the more moderate neoconservatives, particularly Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and yet even there his narrative suffers, because it was not with the left that these two men (or any other prominent neoconservatives for that matter) had the greatest impact, but rather on all forms of moderates, pragmatists, realists, and, ultimately, conservatives.

            But what must not be forgotten is that the intellectual makeup of the neoconservative movement was revanchist to the core. Tanenhaus himself he cites a particular essay by the oft-described “Godfather of neoconservatism” Irving Kristol The Republican Future, as the moment where conservatism stopped being incrementalist and dispositionally opposed to change and became reformist and radical. What’s remarkable is that this essay, and much of Kristol’s writings at this time, was written with the expressed purpose of making the Republican Party—as the modern political instrument of conservatism—a “modern and competitive party.” Kristol exhorts conservatives to think “in terms of shaping the future,” not just in vague political niceties or abstractions. Fine, all that stuff seems relatively reformist. What confuses me about the Tanenhaus thesis is that this essay is as much a call to conservatives to ground their philosophical principles in concrete political goals (reforming welfare as opposed to outright ending it) and at the same time, use these principles to ground the actions of the party that must ostensibly represent it (the Republicans). Tanenhaus seems to object most violently to the notion of the symbiotic relationship between principles and politics when it comes to the conservative side. What he finds irritating about Kristol’s essay is that Kristol demands conservatism modernize politically so that it can become useful intellectually. Tanenhaus would much rather conservatives be, in the words of Jonah Goldberg, like Alfred Jay Nock, interesting eccentrics whose only use is making one’s social gatherings far more interesting (as Nock himself most certainly did: he did have both a long black cape and a pearl handled cane).

            What is really odd about his discussion of conservative intellectual vitality is his exclusion of the great Chicago economists, the Classical liberals/libertarians, and the Straussians in the conservative intellectual tradition. His grand intellectual narrative makes almost no mention of any of these groups, a very telling omission, because each one of them would probably be considered revanchists in Tanenhaus’s system, and all were first rate intellectuals whose influence far exceeded even the most major of figures in Tanenhaus’s book (save for Buckley, Kirk, and Kristol). Whether it was Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, Allan Bloom, Ludwig Von Mises, Robert Nozick, etc. all these figures were both exceedingly influential inside the movement and none could be considered reformist conservatives. Of course, perhaps it was the fact that these men made their great intellectual contributions far from the island of Manhattan that causes Tanenhaus to ignore them. I doubt if Leo Strauss or Milton Friedman would make a particularly good dinner guest at one of the many WASP parties Tanenhaus would like conservatives to be confined to, but this may be unfair to Tanenhaus. He may just think the only intellectuals worth talking about live in New York City. Even then his exclusion of these men is rather unforgiveable.        

Each one of those in the aforementioned groups had a clear understanding of what constituted a good or a bad regime (or at least what constituted traits of desirable and undesirable regimes). Each had little consideration for the sort of political realism Tanenhaus lauds as the intellectual backbone of conservatism, and none of them are particularly interested in conserving something for the sake of conservation. It is undeniable that these men were giants intellectually both within the conservative movement and in academia generally. And yet, they are not even mentioned in the book. Friedrich Hayek, the iconic classical liberal and author of The Road to Serfdom (and another intellectual giant all but excluded from Tanenhaus’s narrative), called himself a Burkean, but it is rather the Whig reading of Burke as an aristocratic democrat, not Tanenhaus’ proto-Hegelian reading, that Hayek modeled himself after. The multiple readings of Burke provide an interesting purview into the differing use of Burke as a justification for whatever political ideology one wishes to represent. Hayek’s reading is, largely, one of Burke as Burke viewed himself. Tanenhaus views Burke as a product of his time and decides that it is the temporal nature of Burke’s thought, rather than the principles governing his thought, that is significant. It is an absurd reading of Burke, in the sense that it makes Burke the defender of all traditions for the sake of defending tradition, ignoring the nature of the very tradition Burke represents: Burke as a milder, courtlier Hegel.          

            But it isn’t just Burke that Tanenhaus takes a quasi Hegelian vision of: his entire narrative of societal change is extremely historicist. By recognizing the liberal consensus as the element of society that is worthy of conserving, Tanenhaus embraces the progress narrative, where liberal policies are inevitably leading to a perfectible society and there are very few things that can prevent this ultimate coalescence. In the progress narrative drawn up by Tanenhaus, the realist conservatives act as a moderating factor, something that allows this great progress to come together in a much more prudential and considerate way. The reason the revanchists are so lamentable in Tanenhaus’s account is that they disregard the progress narrative: working instead to create their own historical narrative and, in doing so, threaten the very notion of progress in and of itself. For Tanenhaus, it is clear that history is advancing with a progressive inevitableism, and that reformist conservatives are destabilizing this narrative. Progressive inevitablism is the pathology found amongst those who believe in a perpetually ascendant liberalism that leads them to believe that very little, if anything, can or should stop the march of progress. It is the eschatological side of modern liberalism. This creates an intellectual dissonance within Tanenhaus’s own work that forces him to regard any deviations from this narrative to be intrinsically flippant or deleterious. If the reformists are serious conservatives, then Tanenhaus’s narrative falls apart.    
            The underlying assumption in Tanenhaus’s book is that conservatism is only intellectually vibrant when it is working on enhancing some element of grand progress, when conservatism ignores or wholly disregards this, progress is thwarted. The danger of the historicist narratives are that they all presuppose a knowable end: that history must, inevitably, be leading somewhere, and that somewhere is knowable in the here and now. The certainty of the historicist narrative is what makes it such a tempting one; by providing an intelligible framework with which every event and idea throughout history is explained, it provides certainty and comfort to the intellectual class. It is the belief that all of what has happened in the past culminates in the present situation of man, and that the future can only build upon this framework. The temptation towards self-importance and the inevitability of one’s ideas makes progressive historicism the opium of the social theorist. It is the linear reading of history that makes this such a powerful idea. Tanenhaus’s progressive inevitablism is a secular version of the Christian idea of Providence with the important distinction that Christian fatalism culminates with the End of Days, while the secular idea of progress envisions a perfect future ahead. Like the Christians, the way one deals with those acting in direct opposition is very clear.
            If we are to break this down into ideological terms, the progress narrative can be seen as recognizing both the perfect state of justice, and the absolute ends by which that state can be accessed. The underlying assumption in the liberal version of the progress narrative (there are such things as conservative progress narratives, but these are built on pessimism and millenarianism, not intellectual hubris) is that this perfect state is achievable through the proper level of political intervention into society, and that the ultimate standard by which intervention is judged is a heuristically derived egalitarianism. Because this change is by its very nature political, the liberal recognizes that they, as political actors, must be the agents of human progress. It is why the progress narrative has so much power and is a reflexive part of American liberalism; it knows no limitations to the end of the just state except those actors who oppose progress.            
            Tanenhaus compromises the usual nature of the progress narrative by extolling the virtues of conservatives as a mild correction to liberal excess. However, one shouldn’t mistaken Tanenhaus’s supposed temperance with anything resembling conservatism; he believes that the conservatives serve an instrumental purpose in the furthering of progress, because ultimately a more measured progress is still progressive. It is the conceit of the Third Way in politics. Tanenhaus, like many American liberals (but usually not leftists and especially not Marxists), believes in essentially a pragmatic politics, something informed by “political realities,” not orthodoxies or ideologies. He believes that there is a general historical narrative that acts independently of ideology and that this political conceptualization is either aided or impeded. But, unlike other progressives, Tanenhaus at least concedes that a conservative impulse is part of this great narrative. What he cannot comprise on, however, is the notion of narrative destroyers as, essentially, pernicious forces of radical reaction. It is why, to Tanenhaus, the revanchists must be Jacobins and cannot be true conservatives.     Conservatives that he likes—or at least readings of conservatives he likes—accept their role as part of this cosmic narrative. The reason a figure like Whittaker Chambers is so agreeable to Tanenhaus is not that there is anything about Chambers as a thinker that he finds ennobling, but rather that Chambers was unable to shake away the Marxist historicism, the dialectical materialism, he possessed even after he, in the words of Tanenhaus, “replaced his Marxism with Christianity.” Underlying much of what Chambers wrote—or at least what Tanenhaus cites—is a belief in the predestination of the collapse of democratic capitalism: history is inevitably leading to the downfall of our cherished system, therefore, as conservatives, all we can hope to do is delay the inevitable. It is no mistake that when Chambers left Communism behind, he quipped that he had now “joined the losing side.” What Tanenhaus finds endearing about Chambers is that he is willing to go quietly into the night and offer only the mildest push back against the great progress.    
            Ultimately what Tanenhaus dislikes about modern conservatism is that it both rejects its role as philosophically and politically subservient to liberalism and wants to establish and behave like a modern ideology. It is no mistake that once conservatism began to proactively provide solutions to society’s problems, not just correct liberal overreach, that it started to win both elections and, concomitantly, policy fights. So when Tanenhaus says he “respects conservatism and admires its intellectual vitality” he is speaking not of what most people would consider the conservative movement in America, but a quaint dialectic about progress and reaction. He is fine with conservatives as long as we know our role and don’t get too uppity.          
            But Tanenhaus is right in one very important way: it is not enough for conservatism to just be one of many ideologies; it must also appeal to the pragmatic opposition to change. It must be both an ideology and a disposition; it must stand athwart to history yelling “stop!” and tell history where to go. The American public will never be overwhelming ideologically conservative. An ever-present political pragmatism overrides ideological concerns for most Americans. What Americans do have is a natural fear of overarching and radical change, something that both the “reformist” and the “revanchist” dispositions can, and will, address (if there’s any doubt to this, one need look no further than the latest polling on the Obama healthcare reform bills currently circulating through Congress). If anything, the recent kerfuffle over healthcare has revived the electoral sprit of conservatives and their moderate allies. The same independents that made up the bulk of the Obama coalition some 15 months ago are now fleeing the alters of “Hope and Change” as rapidly as they arrived. And the political tide turns again, showing that an electoral demise is only as long as the time between elections. So, if conservatism can remain ideologically consistent and provide a good counterweight to the liberal program, while not veering too far from the natural reflexive reactionism of the American people, we can get the most out of both worlds. For conservatism to continue as the “dominant intellectual movement in American politics,” it must be able to embrace both the arguments of the realist and of the revanchist.