The Corpse Is Still the Life of the Wake

by John O'Sullivan

There’s much that is wise and provocative in Sam Tanenhaus’s “Conservatism Is Dead” essay, as one would expect from a sympathetic biographer of Whittaker Chambers and (let’s hope) Bill Buckley, but it seems to me to suffer from a few disabling weaknesses.

The most important weakness is that, at the end of Sam’s long tour of post-war American conservatism, it’s not at all clear what conservatives are supposed to do in the way of government policies. Oh, sure, they have to embrace Burkean wisdom and Disraelian paradox and be prudent, moderate, cautious, and so on. But what does that mean in terms of health, education, the budget, foreign policy, etc.?

I’m not asking for a laundry list here, but one sign of a serious political philosophy is that its specific prescriptions should flow from its general principles with something like naturalness. We ought to be able to guess quite readily what a conservative government would propose to solve particular problems.

I get very little sense of what Sam thinks American conservatives should be doing in the future except, perhaps, acting more like President Obama. That’s fine, but I shall need more experience of this administration before I conclude that Sam has hit upon a new conservative governing philosophy.

What hints we do get of the practical implications of Sam’s argument are not wholly soothing. He praises Disraeli’s willingness to adopt greater government intervention to solve the problems of mid-Victorian society–helping labor unions, social welfare, “a policy of sewage.” Is this praise for Disraeli’s praiseworthy freedom from ideology? Or praise for the virtues of government action? For Disraeli intervened when the masses of people were poor, social problems large, and the government very small indeed. A century later the labor unions liberated by Disraeli were the over-mighty subjects tamed by Thatcher.

Circumstances alter principles as well as cases, as Burke never tired of pointing out. Today’s social problems are definitely not the result of small government–though they may be the result in part of inefficient and ill-directed government. And to forestall an obvious objection, the current financial crisis illustrates that fact that neither government nor market has yet solved satisfactorily the problem of agency–i.e., who manages the manager, who regulates the regulator. Government itself cannot provide an answer to that.

[A related point: Sam quotes Chambers as arguing that “The machine has made the economy socialistic” and therefore “a conservatism that will not accept this situation is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy.”

If Chambers was right about that at the time--which is arguable--the time was itself significant. He wrote when society seemed to be an agglomeration of large institutions--"Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business, etc.” Since then “the machine” in the form of the personal computer has become the agent of a much more decentralized economy and business structure. That in turn made possible the entrepreneurial and small-business revolutions since the 1980s. Social problems are still with us, of course, but they don’t seem to flow from a conservative refusal to adjust to the technical inevitability of statist solutions.]

The second large weakness in Sam’s piece is that his criticism of the ideology of late conservatism–for instance, its hostility to New Class liberal elites–fails to examine whether there is any real-world evidence for their arguments. Such themes are treated as mere ideological constructs designed to win over particular blocs of voters. Yet, surely, it is at least theoretically possible that people such as Irving Kristol actually believe what they argue. They certainly produce some evidence for their beliefs–the evidence demonstrating the liberal bias of the mainstream media is overwhelming. If they think that elites are abusing their power to damage the democratic solidarity of American society, they have an obligation to raise the matter. And if they are right in their analysis, this should be a matter of concern to everyone. It’s not simply an ideological tic.

Sam’s third weakness is that his scattering soil on the casket of conservatism . . . well, in the words of Lady Bracknell, “Is this not somewhat premature?” The corpse is still the life of the wake. Republicans lost the last election with a solid 46 per cent of the national vote. Far from disintegrating since then–and Sam’s argument seems to have expected such an implosion–the Republicans have annoyed their opponents by their cohesive opposition to the stimulus passage. Their decision may prove to be a mistake and lead to collapse later. But we won’t get the first signs of an answer until the mid-term elections of November 2010.

I will go back and re-read Sam’s piece. There was much else I enjoyed and learned from, and some I agreed with. But I am still looking for signposts for conservatism on the way forward. And Sam needs to say more than “I wouldn’t start from here.”


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