The Corner

The one and only.

Tanenhaus on Conservatism


Like John O’Sullivan below, I take Sam Tanenhaus very seriously, and I always learn from what he writes. But I have to say I found his latest New Republic piece terribly incoherent. Much could be said about it, but here are just a few scattered thoughts below the fold:

Tanenhaus describes a cycle over the past five decades in which the left and the right each suffers a defeat for being too rigid, retools and reconnects with the middle of the country while the other is in power, and then regains power when the other grows too rigid. But at the end he suggests, without much argument, that this time the cycle is over and the right has lost permanently. Meanwhile, he seeks to contrast contemporary political conservatism with both what he calls the “classical” conservatism of Burke and Disraeli and the intellectual (and almost anti-political) conservatism of Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers, which he says he admires. He argues that contemporary conservatives are too confrontational, too ideological, and too wedded to the market and industrial capitalism to really be conservatives and therefore that the movement is dead.

I admit I may simply be missing his point, but the only coherent positive case I find in the piece is that conservatives are only true to themselves when they play nice with liberals, and at all other times they are nasty ideologues. Tanenhaus suggests that every time the right is confrontational against the left it betrays its “Burkean” roots, and only when it is explicitly accomodationist is it playing its proper role. In this view, conservatism is accommodation—it is pure gradualism, with no concern for where we are gradually headed. But that is not classic conservatism, or Burkeanism. It’s true Burke believed political change should occur gradually, building on what works about the existing order to address what doesn’t work about it. But the reason was that it should avoid undermining the foundations of future progress, which were political order, family stability, and social peace. The trouble with the welfare state and with aggressive progressivism is precisely that they do undermine these foundations (and often intentionally so, because they see them as unjust)—that is what Burke found so disconcerting about the French Revolution after all. And his response was not to accommodate it.

Burkeanism does not mean accomodationism toward a fundamentally non-accomodationist political opponent. On the contrary. Burke was after all not only the father of modern conservatism but also the father of modern partisanship, and not by coincidence. His political works are not written in the supremely serene tones of Brookings Institution policy analyses—they are written with passion and with zeal, and they are very adversarial. They are also written mostly in a defensive tone—and I think this is something Tanenhaus misses about contemporary conservatism: it takes a defensive posture and sees the left as the aggressor, especially in social policy and in economic policy. It sometimes seeks to go slow, and sometimes to go back, but in neither case does it see itself pursuing fundamentally novel ends. Conservatives try to use politics to defend the private sphere—that is, both the family and the market—from politics, while liberals tend to use politics to try to reshape the private sphere—again, both the family and the market. That means the left is fundamentally aggressive in the political sphere and the right is fundamentally defensive. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.

On the question of the market, moreover, I think Tanenhaus grossly underestimates the deep connections between conservatism and capitalism. He takes their alliance in American politics in the last fifty years to be a peculiar and distorting innovation. But here again, he would do well to go back to Burke (a good place to start would be his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity—a militant screed against government wage subsidies.) No less an authority than Adam Smith wrote: “Mr. Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.” No doubt the social disruptions unleashed by economic dynamism pose a serious problem for defenders of social stability—a problem that has given form to modern conservatism from its earliest incarnations, and shapes its relationship with the welfare state; a relationship which is much more complex than Tanenhaus suggests. But capitalism and conservatism have also been allies for far longer than Tanenhaus seems to argue.

His peculiar gloss on the origins of conservatism and on Burke allows Tanenhaus to describe Barack Obama as “a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.” He offers little in the way of explanation of this (I think inexplicable) view, and little, also, to support the conceit of the piece, made explicit in its title (which, to be fair, may not have been Tanenhaus’s choice): “Conservatism is dead.”

Conservatism is certainly in one of those periods of regrouping that come (and rightly so) after election defeats. But it is hardly dead, nor is it very well described in Tanenhaus’s essay.