Tomasky on Tanenhaus

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Michael Tomasky essentially asks, So what if Sam Tanenhaus’s arguments about John Calhoun and modern conservatism don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny? What matters is that there are a bunch of racist Republicans. I think Tomasky overestimates the extent of racism among Republicans. But leaving that debate to one side, surely he can see that celebrating entrepreneurship (even excessively) isn’t the same thing as insulting black Americans. Tanenhaus doesn’t see that difference. He reduces every expression of American conservatism to racism while denying that’s what he’s doing.

Tomasky’s second point is that Jonah Goldberg and I can’t really object to “extremist name-calling” given the titles of our books. But I would have no problem if Tanenhaus wrote a book about Republicans called The Party of Calhoun. The question would be whether the contents of the book did a compelling job, or at least a halfway decent one, of making the case for the title. If those contents didn’t justify the title but at least hung together as a case, then I’d say he put a too-provocative title on a strong argument. The problem with the Tanenhaus article is that he does not make his case: He doesn’t define his terms, he doesn’t adduce much evidence, he just strings together associations and assertions.