Opinion

Lessons from conservatism’s ‘death’

In a couple weeks, America will mark an important anniversary: the day that this country was attacked by an arrogant, uncomprehending enemy. I speak, of course, of the September 1, 2009 publication of the book “The Death of Conservatism” by Sam Tanenhaus.

Still vaporous from the 2008 Transfiguration of Obama, Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of a biography of Whittaker Chambers, declared in 2008 that conservatism had expired.

Reading “The Death of Conservatism” today is every bit as funny as you’d expect. Doing so, I found myself playing a game — I would read a sentence, then mentally replace the terms “conservatism” or “right” with “liberal” or “left” and see which made more sense:

Conservatism is … glaringly disconnected from the realities now besetting America.

Even as the collapse of the nation’s financial system has driven a nation of 300 million to the brink of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, conservatives remain strangely apart, trapped in the irrelevant causes of another day, deaf to the actual conversation unfolding across the land.

[Conservatives] continue to intone the stale phrases of movement politics.

For many years the Right, in its position of dominance, felt no need to think hard, least of all about itself.

Indeed, by changing a few words Tanenhaus could republish “The Death of Conservatism” as “The Death of Liberalism.” But his belly-flop points to a much deeper and more serious problem — the warped and dishonest liberal view of history. According to Tanenhaus, conservatism, as inspired by the likes of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Whittaker Chambers, needs to return to the realism that its great leaders once demanded. It needs to acknowledge human progress and the fact that government can be an aid to human flourishing. Thus Whittaker Chambers’s advice to William F. Buckley and others to give up trying to overturn the New Deal and focus instead on battles that can be won. Conservatism, writes Tanenhaus, has been a battle between those who wanted to preserve basic American liberties and traditions yet could also adapt to important changes, and a “revanchist” wing that not only dug in but tried to overturn established advances in human progress. According to Tanenhaus, after the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama as messiah, all that remained of the right was the revanchist wing. And you could hear its death rattles as the inaugural crowds wept and cheered at the coming of Obama.

The mistake Tanenhaus makes is common among liberals. He simply refuses to engage with any conservative ideas and refuses to admit that since the 1960s there has been any movement towards revanchist radicalism on the left. To Tanenhaus, there is a straight line from FDR to JFK to Barack Obama. The words “George McGovern” do not appear in “The Death of Conservatism.” There is very little talk about welfare reform. Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda are not mentioned. Tanenhaus notes with approval that William F. Buckley drove the Birchers and other nuts out of the conservative movement in 1966; he never considers that the Democratic Party had a similar problem on its hands that it never resolved (tonight’s special guest on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”: Al Gore).