The uncertain state of modern conservatism
The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus, Random House, 2009. $17, 144 pp.
In 1962, legendary ABC News anchor Howard Smith ran an hour-long segment titled “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” Smith proclaimed Nixon, who had just lost the race for Governor of California only two years after narrowly losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy, to be politically finished. Six years later Nixon would capture the White House.
American politics is lit with these stories of self-reinvention and political turnarounds, yet Sam Tanenhaus, in The Death of Conservatism, decrees a political obituary for the entire conservative movement. Tanenhaus, who has once called himself “a chastened liberal,” traces the conservative movement from its roots in Edmund Burke to its modern leaders like William Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan, and finally its death: the 2008 presidential election. Ultimately, Tanenhaus’s obituary comes much too soon, and proclaims an end to a movement that is very much alive.
The book follows from an essay Tanenhaus wrote in The New Republic in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election, and it is the ascendancy of Barack Obama which overshadows the author’s argument. Obama’s victory, Tanenhaus argues, was not so much a positive referendum on liberal ideology as it was a negative referendum on eight years of the Bush administration. “During two terms of George W. Bush,” he writes, “conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity.” Tanenhaus holds up the resounding failure of the Bush administration and its policies, as evidence of conservatism’s demise and rejects the role of a new liberal energy in that election.
Tanenhaus’s definition of conservatism is central to his concise book. Tanenhaus divides conservatism into two groups: ‘revanchist’ conservatives and realist conservatives. Revanchist conservatism is rooted in the politics of revenge and extremism, and the author argues that this wing of conservatism has overtaken the realist wing and suffocated true conservative principles. The issue arising from this division of conservatism is that Tanenhaus lumps the Bush years among the revanchist aspect of the party. Yet Bush was seen in the conservative wing of the party as an ideological betrayer, especially on the growth of government and deficits and immigration.
“In each instance [of conservative losses], crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory,” Tanenhaus writes. “Today it is impossible to make this case.” The future Tanenhaus sees for the conservative movement is a bleak one, in which the intellectual base of the party, found in “journals like Commentary, National Review, and The Weekly Standard,” slowly deteriorates until it becomes a “mouthpiece of the Republican Party at its most revanchist.” For Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times Week in Review, this claim is all too predictable, and his critiques of his conservative counterparts sound far more partisan than analytic, often relying on finger-pointing at conservative celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh.
“Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii,” Tanenhaus writes, “trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.” This grandiose statement is typical of Tanenhaus’s literary flair -but today’s conservative landscape is no Pompeii. Although conservatism has paled next to the energized progressivism of Obama, it is far from the ghastly death Tanenhaus diagnoses. A quick examination of conservative leaders today finds plenty of vital signs. Tim Pawlenty remains a popular conservative, while Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are considered among the leaders of the Republican Party despite their heterodoxies on key ideological points like abortion. The conservative movement today is more steeped in realism and compromise than Tanenhaus acknowledges.
Tanenhaus is not entirely off-base. The uncompromising extremism of the Bush administration, rooted in men like Dick Cheney, John Bolton and John Ashcroft, and a hard-line neoconservative foreign policy, has certainly passed, and perhaps this is the obituary Tanenhaus meant to write. But the movement itself is still alive, and will continue to be for quite some time. Movements and leaders are never finished in America-they are just waiting to make a comeback.