Come to think of it, we seem to recall a fair amount of “delegitimization” of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush during their presidencies. Back then it was mostly liberals who said that the Constitution was becoming a dead letter. Nor is a desire to repeal legislation a monopoly of the Right. Watch what’s happening to the Defense of Marriage Act. Overturning the will of electoral majorities has been the stock in trade of liberal legal activism for decades. Conservatives do sometimes express nostalgia for a better time. Then again, so does Tanenhaus’s New York Times colleague Paul Krugman in writing about New Deal America. The “nullifiers” of the Tea Party, Tanenhaus writes, would have plunged us all off the fiscal cliff. So would Senator Patty Murray, the liberal Democrat from Washington State who spent much of last year arguing that we should go off the fiscal cliff. None of them, of course, qualifies as a “nullifier” because the term has only partisan content.
Echo, echo: “It is not a coincidence,” Tanenhaus writes, that all this nullifying has been going on under a black president. The old Marxist phrase is almost always a sign of argumentative laziness; it insinuates a causal connection that the author cannot forge honestly. Yet there is some truth to the remark in this case: Of course it is not a coincidence. A black, liberal president was bound to put white liberals on hair-trigger alert for racism and induce them to imagine it.
Perhaps Tanenhaus just has a bad case of tinnitus. Or perhaps he has found in Calhounism and nullificationism a way to tar as racist in origin anything he dislikes about conservatism. He is trying to delegitimize not just any number of elected officeholders but millions of his fellow citizens. His essay may seem to offer just the liberal moral self-congratulation with which every conservative is familiar, combined with a dash of post-election triumphalism. But there is something else at work too.
In a seemingly irrelevant and somewhat otherworldly tangent, Tanenhaus claims it is a “cherished myth” on the right that conservatism was out of favor in the Fifties, when NR was founded. This is part of Tanenhaus’s peculiar romantic nostalgia for a conservatism that he could admire for its proud irrelevance. (It was also a theme of Death of Conservatism.) He writes, “For most of these writers, conservatism was more a matter of disposition — a belief in order, tradition, the revival of humanist values — than of developing or sharpening a political program.” Ah, yes! If only conservatives would leave political programs to liberals and get back to the vital and important work of developing their humanist values.
That’s the goal here: to make conservatism, weakened as it is right now, disappear as a political force. And if it takes a dressed-up smear to nullify conservatism as such a force, Tanenhaus is apparently ready for the occasion.