ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (March 2010): The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
When Ali Kokmen gave me a copy of this book, I was suspicious because it’s only 118 pages long, basically an extended version of the author’s New Republic article by the same title, but at that length, I figured I may as well give it a gander. I suspect Tanenhaus wrote it as quickly as J. Michael Straczynski wrote last year’s action film Ninja Assassin (two days, reportedly) — but he’s New York Times books editor, so rather than sound too skeptical, I’ll just say, may we all one day be so influential that we can dash something off like this and have it sell.
In one form or another, the thesis is always popular with the left that the right is at its best when it stops behaving conservatively and gets “realistic” (i.e., liberal). Tanenhaus’s premise is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement could be very useful counterweights to liberal excess if only they weren’t so prone to abandon pragmatism and behave in rigidly ideological ways. The epigram in the front pages is Pat Moynihan’s “God preserve me from ideologues.” But is there a Republican Party that behaves in rigidly ideological ways, presumably eliminating government to create a society guided by unalloyed free markets and tradition? I must have overlooked that party while instead observing the train wreck of the real Republican Party for the past three non-ideological, pragmatically-mushy decades — a party that wouldn’t know “ideology” from a hole in the ground if not for some idealistic young low-level congressional staffer occasionally slipping a phrase from some philosopher or historical figure into a speech or two.
Tanenhaus admits briefly in Chapter 1 that the George W. Bush years were not, in the minds of real conservative ideologues, a test of “small government” conservatism — but like Thomas Frank, Tanenhaus somehow evades the implications of that crucial point by the non-sequitur of saying, well, the public doesn’t want small government anyway, so…the massive government growth of the past decade is as close as you’ll ever get to shrinking government…so… somehow this was a period that counts as a disastrous trial-run of small-government principles. Really? This convinces intelligent people? Or do they just write their books and columns too quickly for the feeling of guilt from intellectual chicanery to fully sink in?
Consistent fellow that I am, I’m actually sympathetic to real Marxist anarchists who say the statism of the Soviet Union was not the kind of communism they had in mind — but at least over there, the politicians claimed to be following Marx, so anti-statist Marxists might arguably bear some responsibility for making the regime seem morally acceptable. Did the Bush administration even claim that it was shrinking government in accordance with the principles of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, et al? If not, how did the ideas of those economists get implicated in the train wreck at all, save by those desperate to find some excuse to discredit them (much like Naomi Klein literally blaming everything from torture under Pinochet to massacres under Red China on distant connections between those regimes and Chicago School economic thinking, like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon)?
Tanenhaus really has to tie himself into knots to maintain his thesis that the GOP flourishes when it abandons ideology. You can’t point to principled National Review as the backbone of an American political epoch, as he does, and at the same time claim it’s evidence for your ideology-doesn’t-succeed thesis. He also claims repeatedly and condescendingly that conservatism triumphs when engaged in reality, not when pushing “movement conservative” principle — yet he admits Goldwater and Reagan were great victories, and so he has to remake Reagan as an unphilosophical pragmatist, dismiss Gingrich’s 1994 successes, call Nixon’s criminal excesses ideology-fueled (???), etc. Tanenhaus must attribute successes to pragmatism and failures to conservative ideology at every turn, even when it means unconvincingly calling Reagan a pragmatist and Nixon an ideologue — sometimes mere pages after describing them the other way around, as strategically needed to explain away Reagan missteps or rare Nixon successes.
Tanenhaus spends pages praising Nixon, in essence for being unprincipled — but then somehow manages to pin Watergate on “revanchism” and ideology, as if (A) selling out to the Chinese and Soviets, expanding the welfare state, creating the EPA, and effectively creating affirmative action were wise, pragmatic deeds that advanced realistic conservatism, while (B) condoning burglary was the result of too much high-minded philosophy. Ridiculous. One begins to suspect that only a New York Times editor could vomit out this short, unfootnoted, inaccurate rant and get it slapped between book covers — but then again, Thomas Frank probably has a similar volume in the works.
Throughout, Tanenhaus makes the common mistake of writers overly focused on Washington and its politicians: gauging success in purely electoral or at most political terms without really addressing the broader impact of policies on national life (remember those 300 million other Americans not directly involved in Washington politics?). If the “evidence” for Nixon’s success, for instance, is mainly just his reelection, we should not even bother with books on changes in economic conditions or lifestyles, let alone changes in ideology and political philosophy — we should just declare whoever won the last election a model for us all (hail Obama!). Looking at the real-world fallout beyond DC reveals the nightmarish effects of, for instance, Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls, perhaps the closest thing to a deathblow the free market has ever been dealt by any American politician (and, not coincidentally, the inspiration for dissident free-marketeers to bolt the GOP and start the Libertarian Party). Imposing wage and price controls was neither a pragmatic success nor an act of conservative principle. It was simply wrong.
And the real insight of conservatism and libertarianism, after all, is the recognition that there is far more to life than politics and far more to the U.S. than Washington and elections (thus the successes of markets, tradition, and anarchic initiative, whether individualist or cooperative, and the chronic failures of regulation and government spending). Since Tanenhaus begins by lamenting that conservatives do not fully accept the usefulness and permanent value of government, it is unsurprising that he ends up thinking that whatever tactic wins the political horserace is thereby morally vindicated. It’s the leftist equivalent of an amoral businessman saying of an act of fraud, “Hey, it got me rich, didn’t it?”
Tanenhaus presumably thinks that signs of a resurgent libertarian-conservative movement focused on basic economic and constitutional principles, primarily the Tea Parties, are a sure sign of disaster, but luckily there are plenty of us who recognize it as the right’s — and the economically-connected globe’s — best hope at this late, debt-wracked juncture.
P.S. If you want evidence that conservatism isn’t dead, don’t look to Tanenhaus for guidance, look to politicians with the foresight to address Tea Party rallies, like my friend Dan Greenberg (now running for Arkansas state senate, with a primary in two months, and actively blogging) and to folks like the New York media-ensconced conservatives and libertarians you’ll meet if you come to our St. Patrick’s Day (6:30pm) gathering of the Manhattan Project at the bar/restaurant Merchants NY East in two days. The road to victory is not paved with mush but with philosophy (and alcohol).