The Death of Conservatism?

by Steven F. Hayward

A good time was has last night at AEI kicking around Sam Tanenhaus and his new book The Death of Conservatism. Sam acquired a lot of street cred with conservatives for his magnificent biography of Whittaker Chambers a decade ago, and I remember him telling Brian Lamb on Booknotes at the time that he considered himself a “chastened liberal.” It is tempting to say that with Death, he has become unchastened.

Sam is genuinely interested in conservative ideas but has a lot of bile for the conservative movement (I wonder if, to paraphrase an old cliche, he likes conservatism, but doesn’t like conservatives), though his account is incomplete and peculiar in many ways. I suggested to him that some parts of his book sounded like they came from a parallel universe where Spock has a goatee and Captain Kirk is a raving lunatic (oops, sorry — forgot about the ban), such as his suggestion that Justice David Souter was the most authentic conservative on the Supreme Court because of his interest in searching history for ways to improve the Court’s jurisprudence. (If only this had been true!)

I’ll have a complete treatment of Sam’s book in a forthcoming issue of the Claremont Review of Books, so I won’t go on further right now. But I think the best summary and critique of the book is that it is an approving and un-ironic restatement of G. K. Chesterton’s great aphorism that it is the job of progressives to go on making mistakes, while it is the job of conservatives to prevent mistakes from being corrected.  

Jonah was there, and let out a good blast; perhaps he’ll weigh in. Also, I think C-SPAN is going to run the whole thing some time this weekend.

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