13 February 2009

"Movement Conservatism" (1955?-2008?)

Every time the Republican party loses an election, someone comes along to declare either the party or the conservative movement dead. The latest coroner is Sam Tanehaus, a sometime historian of the movement, who writes his obituary for the latest New Republic. He's really writing about a phenomenon that dates from the 1950s which he and other critics (including writers for The American Conservative) call "movement conservatism." The movement's birth is usually linked with the appearance of National Review magazine and identified with the influence of founding publisher William F. Buckley Jr. Dating it only back to 1955 also serves to dissociate the movement with Joe McCarthy, who had lost his influence by then. Tanehaus argues that this form of conservatism lost its real conservative nature once it became an ideological "revanchist" movement dedicated to destroying rather than reforming the existing political order.

Conservatism as we understand the term, as something fundamentally anti-revolutionary, dates back to Edmund Burke at the end of the 18th century. Burke didn't think a complete, radical ("from the root") revolution could every amount to anything if it purposefully abandoned the wisdom of previous generations. He had a notion that societies evolved organically through successive reforms, and that revolutionaries who in a sense wanted to start all over again were misguided. Burke wasn't a pure reactionary. According to Tanehaus, he believed that "governments were obligated to use their powers to ameliorate intolerable conditions." While a member of Parliament he supported the American Revolution because he agreed with the argument that the colonists only sought the "rights of Englishmen." He opposed the French Revolution because it set out to abolish the monarchy and replace traditional institutions with rationalistic innovations. Tanehaus suggests that Burke would reject any call for a complete counter-revolution dedicated to overthrowing reforms of the recent past. Taking Burke as the standard of conservatism, Tanehaus argues that the American movement failed to be conservative whenever it set about trying to eliminate institutions of the New Deal, most recently in George W. Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. True conservatives, Tanehaus claims, accommodate themselves to the existing order as they find it while upholding consistent principles, and don't believe in rolling back progress. That doesn't mean endorsing everything the New Deal stood for, but it does oblige you to consider whether killing it would do more damage than you think it's already done.

Tanehaus also argues that American conservatives jumped the shark in their extreme hostility to social programs. He points out that the 19th century conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli believed in social reforms as a pragmatic way to forestall social unrest. Otto von Bismarck in Germany did much the same thing once the Second Reich was established in 1871. American conservatives of the late 20th century were for some reason less willing to compromise their sink-or-swim individualism. Tanehaus speculates that this may be because the U.S. lacks the aristocratic tradition of noblesse oblige, and it's worth noting that "movement conservatism" has always seemed to be more a movement of rising entrepreneurs, people convinced that they deserve everything they have and that those with less must deserve less, than of established wealth. I don't think Tanehaus acknowledges this enough, though. Any history of modern American conservatism has to account for its strident obsession with "freedom" and the conspiracies against it, and no one calling for a new conservatism can do so without suggesting something to be done about that obsession, which is itself profoundly unconservative in any philosophical sense.

The New Republic cover story comes shortly after The American Conservative published an article by William F. Buckley's brother complaining that conservative thought has become "Dull. Derivative. Predictable. Lacking in zip and sting and mordancy." He thinks that American conservatives need an infusion of fresh ideas, including greater environmental consciousness and a more adversarial attitude toward the business as well as the political establishment. But the further you go in the article, the more Reid Buckley seems to be calling for a different version of the revanchism Tanehaus deplores. He wants conservatives to get behind the reestablishment of prayer in schools and for a constitutional amendment identifying the U.S. as a Christian nation "born and bred.," as well as, yet again, the end of Social Security. He complains that Republicans have too often compromised with the liberal state ever since the 1950s. It's an odd article to see in the Conservative, a magazine that usually recognizes and criticizes ideologies disguising themselves as conservatism. But it's one thing to see the mote in a neocon's eye, I suppose, and another to acknowledge the old beam of traditional moralism in your own. Buckley has nothing to offer a forward-looking movement.

All obituaries of conservatism are exaggerated. Conservatism will always be a force in social or political life as long as someone says that one thing can't be done or that another thing shouldn't be done. In its most basic form, it's a philosophical attitude rather than an entity advocating for some particular interest group. There are conservatives in Communists regimes and Islamic republics, though American conservatives won't recognize them as brothers. Conservatism has always been a dubious label because it begs the question of what will be conserved. There may well have been a historical phenomenon that lasted from the 1950s to nearly today that can be described in an death notice like the one Tanehaus has written, but we won't really know what we're talking about until we give it a different name.

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