'Death of Conservatism' bemoans state of U.S. politics
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009
10/25/09 at 4:10 AM
The epigraph Sam Tanenhaus chose for his book "The Death of Conservatism" is a quote from Tulsa native and Washington, D.C., insider Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "God preserve me from ideologues."
It's a statement that should be taken to heart whenever the subject of politics comes up, because it's the ideologues — think of it as a polite term for "extremists" — who are responsible for a good portion of the problems that plague our society.
Tanenhaus, who has written a biography of Whittaker Chambers and is working on a biography of William F. Buckley in addition to editing the New York Times Book Review, lays out his reasoning as to why American conservative politics has lost its way in an expansion of an essay he published last year in The New Republic.
In short: conservatism — real conservatism, the sort of political philosophy espoused by Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli — has over the last 25 years been overtaken by what Tanenhaus calls "movement (or ideological) conservatism."
Unfortunately, the only idea at work in movement conservatism is "the question of power (how to obtain it, how to wield it, how to keep it) — to the exclusion, at times, of all other considerations," he writes. And the presidency of George W. Bush was where "conservative ideals were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity the aggressively unilateral foreign policy, the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive 'culture war' waged against liberal enemies."
Tanenhaus writes that the Bush presidency was a failure "not because it 'betrayed' movement ideology but because it often enacted that ideology so rigidly."
The bulk of Tanenhaus' slim book is an overview of how American conservatism reached this sorry state of affairs. He begins with Burke, whose "Reflections on the Revolution in France," written in 1790, was — in Tanenhaus' words — a warning "against the destabilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind."
The idealists of Burke's day, Tanenhaus writes, "With 'the delusive plausibility of moral politicians,' placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed." Burke, on the other hand, thought that the better way was "the continual adjustment and recalibration of the existing order" — in other words, conserving what Burke called "the civil society."
But today, movement conservatism "define(s) itself less by what it yearns to conserve than by what it longs to destroy: 'statist' social programs; 'socialized medicine'; 'big labor'; 'activist' Supreme Court justices; the 'media elite'; 'tenured radicals' on university campuses; 'experts' in and out of government," Tanenhaus writes.
Tanenhaus provides an effective capsule history of conservative politics from the days of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt through surprisingly sympathetic portraits of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Not surprising is the emphasis given to Chambers and Buckley, as these are men whose lives and actions Tanenhaus knows intimately — and who, granted, are flashpoints in the conservative movement.
In the end, Tanenhaus says, "most of us are liberal AND conservative: we cling to the past in some ways, push forward into the future in others, and seek to reconcile our most cherished notions and beliefs with the demands of unanticipated events."
It's an airily hopeful conclusion — and one that isn't likely to come to fruition in American political life anytime soon. After all, as politicians, pundits and radio talk-show hosts have discovered, it's much easier to gather together an angry mob than it is to assemble a group of peaceable citizens.
The Death of Conservatism
By Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, $17
James D. Watts Jr. 581-8478