Magazine | October 5, 2009, Issue

Sherpa Conservatism

Sam Tanenhaus thinks the Right is dying because he wants it to play dead

If you work the google-machine on the Internet with a modicum of diligence, you’ll uncover a few websites dedicated to an intriguing remedy for all that ails the GOP and the conservative movement: Zombie Reagan. The idea is really quite simple — reanimate the Gipper through supernatural or some other means and all of our problems will be solved. Sure, we’ll have to amend the Constitution to get rid of term limits, but on the bright side Zombie Reagan could be president forever. 

There’s a metaphor — or two — to be made of this, I’m sure. Some might think the zombie is an amusing way of highlighting the Right’s obsession with recapturing the Reagan magic. Others might offer biting commentary on the paucity of non-brain-eating candidates on the right. But I think there’s a better moral: Conservatives have been declared dead for so long — brain-dead, intellectually dead, philosophically dead; living but in love with “dead revolutions”; over, kaput, moribund, and so on — that one has to take notice of the fact that, for a bunch of dead guys (and gals), we’re pretty energetic. And what do you call dead things that are still, to borrow a phrase from Elvis (himself rumored still to be alive on an island somewhere), taking care of business, in a flash? 

Once again, the stench of death stings the nostrils of the liberal establishment. Sam Tanenhaus — the veritable incarnation of the liberal establishment, editor of both the book-review and week-in-review sections of the New York Times — has doffed his coroner’s cap to issue a lively autopsy of the conservative movement, in the form of a book titled simply The Death of Conservatism. Every Thanksgiving after the turkey had been cooked, carved, and eaten, my late father would turn to me and, gesturing at the carcass, ask: “Jonah, do you think if we collected the greatest scientists in the world they could save this bird’s life?” Tanenhaus’s prognosis is no less bleak. “Today’s conservatives,” writes the hugely successful biographer of Whittaker Chambers and, soon, William F. Buckley Jr., “resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.” That’s us, fried to a crisp and fossilized. 

Much has been written about Tanenhaus’s book already. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a book that unites more factions of conservatism than Tanenhaus’s tome, about which the apparently universal consensus is that it is completely, totally, and in every way imaginable unpersuasive. Not bad or uninteresting, mind you; just unpersuasive, like a wild-eyed witch-doctor ooga-boogaing about why he should be allowed to remove your spleen. It’s all heart-felt, passionate, even artistic, but you’d want a second opinion. In order to make his case, Tanenhaus offers a series of incredible (as in not credible) assertions about the political landscape that leave the reader asking, “Were we watching the same movie?” For instance, in Tanenhaus’s telling, George W. Bush was a doctrinaire, dogmatic, true-blue, radical right-winger who bullheadedly refused to work with the political opposition on centrist policies. Not only that, during Bush’s tenure all of the discredited ideas of the “revanchist” wing of the Republican party — those would be the ideas advanced in this magazine, in case you were unclear — were fully deployed, and failed. “During the two terms of George W. Bush, conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity.” 

That Bush was a proud promoter of “compassionate conservatism,” explicitly rejecting Buckleyite conservatism; that he massively expanded entitlements and worked with Teddy Kennedy on education; that he signed campaign-finance reform, supported amnesty for illegal immigrants, and was utterly mute about racial quotas: None of this counts in Tanenhaus’s estimation. Ditto that Bush signed the first stimulus bill and backed the first bailouts of this economic crisis. That this magazine sharply disagreed with Bush on these issues and others in no way immunizes us from the charge that we spent eight years serving as a revanchist PR machine for the White House. Oh, and in case you didn’t know: William F. Buckley was a Disraelian pragmatist willing to work with liberals and sagely resigned to the modern welfare state. 

Don’t be alarmed by that Twilight Zone vibe you’re getting. It’s perfectly normal. In fact, it’s intended. At an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, I told Tanenhaus that his description of things had a decidedly “otherworldly” feel to it. He responded by pleading “Guilty as charged” and saying that otherworldly writing was a great tradition among intellectuals, or some such, and that he did not shirk from the accusation one bit. It almost sounds like he’s saying his narrative is fake-but-accurate.

This is not, formally speaking, a review of Tanenhaus’s autopsy. He has been sufficiently raked over the coals by others (see especially James Piereson in The New Criterion, Peter Berkowitz on National Review Online, and Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books). But the gist of his argument is easy enough to lay out. According to Tanenhaus, real conservatives are “Beaconsfieldian” (an adjective derived from the fact that Benjamin Disraeli, famed conservative pragmatist, was the earl of Beaconsfield) and Burkean. Such conservatives value stability and acceptance of the existing order. They prefer gradual progress achieved via supple accommodation with social change. But today’s conservatives, says Tanenhaus, are angry, mean, closed-minded, resentful, extremist, radical, and at times deranged “Jacobins.” Tanenhaus’s catch-all for such adjectives is the word “revanchist.” “On the one side,” Tanenhaus observes, more in sadness than in anger, “are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America’s pre–New Deal ancient regime, a return to Cold War–style Manichaeanism, or the revival of pre-modern family values.”

It is a bizarre effort. Richard Nixon is a Beaconsfieldian hero, but so too, says Tanenhaus, was William F. Buckley after Whittaker Chambers got to work on him. Recall, though, that Buckley loathed Nixon’s domestic policies and that Nixon reportedly said in 1965 that “Buckleyites” were a threat to the Republican party even more menacing than the Birchers. As Garry Wills observes, Buckley hardly became Gergenesque after Chambers allegedly ensorcelled him. And just for the record, conservatism (as opposed to the GOP) has never had greater or more plentiful resources than it now has in its magazines, think tanks, electronic-media outlets, and activist organizations. 

Tanenhaus says that the high-water mark of good conservatism was roughly from 1965 to 1975. Not coincidentally, this was also the low-water mark of its political power, when conservatives critiqued the Great Society but lacked the power to do more than heckle. Good conservatives (or Burkean or Beaconsfieldian ones; for Tanenhaus the terms are interchangeable) should know their place and gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward “progress” and happily carrying the extra baggage for progressives in their zealous but heroic quest for the summit. And any conservative who doesn’t accept his role as Tenzing Norgay to liberalism’s Edmund Hillary will have nasty adjectives like “revanchist” hurled at him by Tanenhaus. 

It has been ever thus. That is the amazing thing about the book and its reception among Tanenhaus’s liberal peers. Sold as a constructive criticism of the Right, the book is blurbed by, in order, Chris Matthews, Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer, and Leon Wieseltier, famous one and all for their love of and respect for the right kind of conservatism. It’s the same old wishful thinking, dressed up as clear-eyed analysis. 

Within months of National Review’s founding, the verdict was already in. Commentary (then liberal), Harper’s, and The Progressive each pronounced judgment on National Review and the “conservatism” it represented. And that judgment? This newfangled mush (Dwight Macdonald’s piece was titled “Scrambled Eggheads on the Right”) was extremist, deranged, and of course inauthentic. We would love a real conservatism to wrestle with, liberals lamented, but this ain’t it. National Review’s yahoos suffered from psychological defects and had thrown in with this faux-conservatism to “make up for some kind of frustration” in their private lives, in the words of John Fischer, the editor of Harper’s; Buckley, Meyer, Burnham, et al. were “the very opposite of conservatives.” Macdonald lamented that the “pseudo-conservative” NR paled in comparison with the work of Albert Jay Nock’s Freeman. (Nock was a brilliant, cape-wearing anti-statist who proudly boasted of his distaste for trying to persuade anybody of anything; ever since, he has been much beloved of liberals for this very reason, as I discuss in an essay about him in the May 4 issue of NR.) As Buckley wrote of the attacks in 1956, “All three journals seem to resent the mere existence of National Review.”

Others didn’t much care whether Buckleyite conservatism was authentic, because it was — wait for it! — dying. “The New American Right,” Murray Kempton assured everyone, “is most conspicuous these days for its profound state of wither.” This of course was just a few years after Lionel Trilling had proclaimed conservatism not so much dead as unborn, insisting there were no conservative ideas in circulation anywhere in America.

As the conservative movement grew, liberals kept complaining that the Right didn’t have the good sense to know it was dead or futile or fake. True conservatism was the “thankless persuasion,” in Clinton Lawrence Rossiter’s phrase. The good conservatives were like Tanenhaus’s Sherpas, gladly shouldering their burden of the New Deal. The bad conservatives were jabbering radicals trying to turn back the clock. 

In 1964, one of those radicals won the nomination of the Republican party, an amazing feat for a movement that was idealess and dying just a decade earlier. Goldwater lost the election, in part because the liberal establishment insisted he was a crypto-Nazi psychopath. And right on cue, liberals once again insisted that conservatism was dead. James Reston wrote in the New York Times that Barry Goldwater “not only lost the presidential election . . . but [lost] the conservative cause as well.” Walter Lippmann insisted that Goldwater’s loss had debunked the myth of conservatism once and for all. National Review’s Frank Meyer saw things differently. Liberals may have dubbed the movement “extremist, radical, nihilist, anarchic,” but nearly 40 percent of voters opted for the first authentic conservative since Calvin Coolidge. As historian Lee Edwards puts it, “Meyer’s implication was clear: You can build a powerful political movement on a foundation of 27 million true believers.”

In 1966, under Goldwater’s leadership, notes Edwards, Republicans saw major gains in the House (47 seats) and healthy ones in the Senate (three seats). Two years later, Goldwater handily won reelection to the Senate. That same year, Lyndon Johnson declined even to face the voters and Richard Nixon won the presidency (with the reluctant backing of NR). After Watergate, liberals once again tried to say that Nixon’s failure had proved conservatism’s failure, as if the two were one. By the late 1970s, The Nation started running sorrowful pieces about how mean the “New Right” was being to real (i.e., Beaconsfieldian) conservatives like John Anderson and Edward Brooke. Jimmy Carter ran for president assuring voters he was no left-wing Democrat and, having failed to make good on that promise, greased the skids for Ronald Reagan. And once again the same liberal apoplexy about how “radical” Reaganites weren’t “real conservatives” filled the op-ed pages and the airwaves.

And the beat went on. “When conservatives repeatedly declare that George [H. W.] Bush’s failures as president are the result of his having spurned their ideas and movement, they are harboring illusions born of their fleeting success under Ronald Reagan,” John Judis assured readers of The New Republic in 1992. “In fact, the conservative movement that carried Reagan to victory barely exists any longer . . . and the ideas associated with it have become obsolete, discredited, or heavily in dispute among conservatives themselves.” That’s not all balderdash, but it’s worth noting, at a minimum, that the Democratic president elected in 1992 did a great deal to solidify the Reagan Revolution (a point Tanenhaus himself concedes). And then he was followed by another Bush. 

Many reviewers suggest that Tanenhaus simply misinterpreted Obama’s victory as the death knell of conservatism. There’s some merit to the criticism, but it misses the larger point: that this is what liberals always do. The march of the conservative movement has forever enjoyed backup percussion from liberals banging their spoons on their highchairs as they insist that what they see can’t be real, makes no sense, and cannot last long. The conservative movement is just a long line of dead men walking, Zombie Reagans for as far as the eye can see. Indeed, the greatest source of conservative success might not be the strength of our ideas or the dedication of our adherents. It might be simply that a conservative movement cannot long fail in a center-right country when the center-left is determined not only to underestimate but fundamentally to misapprehend what it is about. When liberals chalk up tea-party protests and the like as racism, it is a slur, but it’s also a wonderful sign that they won’t even consider thinking seriously about their opposition. 

Even more striking is the rapid half-life of Tanenhaus’s prognostication. In 2008, as in 1964, an irascible senator from Arizona lost to a candidate promising that all things are possible if the noocracy of liberalism is given free rein. When Chris Matthews was reading Tanenhaus’s manuscript, Obama was FDR and Lincoln rolled into one. Visions of new New Deals and even Greater Societies danced in liberals’ heads. Now, less than a year into Obama’s presidency, “Yes, we can” has met with millions saying “Oh no you won’t” — and in reply the Left offers its usual insults of “fascist” and “racist.” Conservatism and the Republican party are hardly victorious, but they’re also hardly dead — and they never were.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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