Lessons from conservatism’s ‘death’

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker

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).

There is also no analysis of Roe v. Wade. It is apparently beyond the comprehension of Sam Tanenhaus that there were conservatives, and not a few liberals, who found it deeply troubling and undemocratic that the Supreme Court had declared abortion legal. Tanenhaus, champion of a Burkean politics that takes into account the changes of a dynamic society, has nothing to say about how 3-D ultrasounds and other scientific advances might inform not only one’s conscience but one’s reason about the evil of abortion. In a book that reaches back through the history of 20th century politics, he doesn’t speculate about what FDR or JFK would have thought about the abortion issue. He never notes that Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Al Gore were all once pro-life. He’s too busy marking the nefarious movement conservatives trying to drag the country back to the Stone Age.

As for the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground and the entire New Left, well, they were a brief spasm of radicalism that sparked and then dissipated. Tanenhaus notes that the New Left got going when JFK was still alive, then he writes this:

“Kennedy, in other words, had loosed generational forces but could not contain them. The next wave of liberals became, in many cases, leftists swept by the tide of protest away from the established centers of power, and away from government itself.”

I had to read that sentence three times to make sure it actually said that. According to Tanenhaus, while conservatives slowly gained power in the years between Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and the ascent of Ronald Reagan, the New Left simply disappeared. The left-wing radicals did not move into academia, politics or Hollywood. Thus, a sane, middle-of-the-road liberalism, as exemplified by Lyndon Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and even Richard Nixon (who pushed affirmative action, the EPA and universal health care), was — and is — assaulted by the dreaded Revanchist Right. These conservative Neanderthals are not people who worry about a $14 trillion deficit, or gay marriage, or Islamic radicalism, or the breakdown of the family. They are reactionary know-nothings fighting yesterday’s wars. Of course, as liberals move further and further left, the conservatives just seem — to them — more and more insane. Thus Michele Bachmann, “the queen of rage.”

In the past few months, more than one conservative friend has told me that it’s simply impossible to win playing whack-a-mole with the left. They tell me that liberalism is now a religion, an emotion-based movement that shares the traits of the Old Right — paranoia, illogic, rage. But the recent Tea Party victory in the debt-ceiling debate changed the game to such a degree that even Sam Tanenhaus should notice. Surely the editor of The New York Times Book Review can admit that America can’t keep borrowing and spending money without consequence. Tanenhaus, after all, is a liberal who finally admitted the guilt of Alger Hiss.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.