03 November 2009

"The Death of Conservatism": A Premature Burial?

Sam Tanenhaus is seen as some sort of authority on American conservatism because he wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who testified against Alger Hiss and became an anti-communist guru in the 1950s. So when Tanenhaus writes a book-length (barely) obituary for the conservative movement it theoretically commands attention. The book is actually an obit for what's often called "movement conservatism," which is what most modern Americans think of when they use the c-word. But Tanenhaus is one of those writers who claim that the "movement" was never authentically conservative.

Like many such writers, he holds up Edmund Burke as the standard of conservative thought. As more scholars are pointing out these days, Burke was not anti-government or even anti-"big government" in the American sense. He was conservative because he opposed radicalism; he opposed the French Revolution because it proposed to start from scratch on the basis of reason alone instead of building on and improving the work of centuries past. For Burke, Tanenhaus claims, reform is the essential conservative activity, and he set no ideological tests for the legitimacy of reform measures. Burke once wrote: "As the liberties and restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule." That sounds at odds with most of what passes for American conservatism today, whether most American conservatives can comprehend the sentence or not.

Tanenhaus portrays his hero Chambers as a Burkean conservative. In practice that meant that he differed from many who came to idolize him on what to do when Republicans regained power in the 1950s. While Chambers advised accommodating the reforms of the New Deal as a permanent fact of American life, many "conservative" Republicans were what Tanenhaus calls "revanchists." They wanted to undo the New Deal, just as they wanted to aggressively subvert Communist regimes around the world. This made them radicals from the Burkean standpoint and, at their worst in the 1990s, they could be accused by Tanenhaus of being interested only in destruction. Fortunately for the country a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, ignored the revanchists and retained New Deal programs. For this, Tanenhaus praises Ike as one of the two most successful conservative Presidents of the later 20th century. The other was Bill Clinton, whom Tanenhaus praises for reforming Great Society programs while fending off the "Contract With America" agenda of undoing the welfare state.

2008 marked the death of movement conservatism, according to this coroner's report, because Republican dogma, in spite of John McCain, had finally lost any relevance to the crises facing the nation in the wake of the financial panic. Republicans can only recover, Tanenhaus claims, when they come to terms with the actual state of things and what Americans actually want, even when these things conflict with their precious dogma. But as I write today, with the movement licking its chops in anticipation of vindicating victories across the country and predicting a reconquest of Congress next year, I question the author's diagnosis. He may have underestimated the atavistic fears and fresh anxieties at large in the country that leave Americans still susceptible to revanchist fearmongering or outright lies. He may also have underrated the movement's capacity for adaptability, or at least a knack for adopting a populist guise to exploit a mass subconscious suspicion that all the country needs is a good purge of the weak, the sinful or the Other to get back on its feet.

Intellectually, I might even question Tanenhaus's history and his indictment of "revanchism" as a heresy. Those he calls revanchists might, after all, think of themselves as "restorationists," and even Burke himself, one suspects, would have welcomed a restoration of the French monarchy after the Jacobins abolished it. What's a Burkean conservative to do, after all, if he thinks that the radicals have taken over? If radicalism is wrong, how far can he accommodate it until principle obliges him to raise the banner of counter-revolution in the name of restoration? Counter-revolution may appear as radical as revolution itself from an objective perspective, but it probably looks like a moral imperative to those engaged in it. This is just my way of saying that using Burke against movement conservatives won't get Tanenhaus very far, especially given how unlikely it is that many in the movement at this late date have read Burke. As Tanenhaus himself notes, movement conservatism isn't so much a spinoff from Burke or any European conservative tradition as it is a reactionary outburst of the American entrepreneurial class. It is less interested in the state's obligations to its citizens than in an idea of "freedom" that can only be measured by the amount of money individuals can make. Tanenhaus can complain that it isn't conservative in his sense of the word, but he only proves himself naive if he thinks that the word is anything more than a brand name for the movement. His own effort to rebrand the movement and declare it dead is almost certainly in vain.

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