Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and Week in Review, author of many books and articles including a January 2009 offering in The New Republic entitled Conservatism Is Dead — An intellectual autopsy of the movement and its cleverly repackaged follow-up: The Death of Conservatism (which might have been subtitled “Same autopsy, more words”) is clearly, as these credentials would suggest, a man of remarkable erudition and prescience.
Consider this forthright pronouncement in the 2009 article and ask yourself it’s any coincidence the names “Tanenhaus” and “Nostradamus” are so similar.
What conservatives have yet to do is confront the large but inescapable truth that movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead.
Truly eerie when someone reads your mail like that but before we proceed let’s consider at least one conservative’s attempt – in the aftermath of the mid-term elections – to “confront the large but inescapable truth.”
I wonder if I can get that in a ring-tone, but I digress.
Tanenhaus’s prognostications which have echoed through the months – if not the centuries or even a whole lot of months – have been an important cornerstone to the “wicked witch is dead” munchkin dance as practiced by so many on the Left – perhaps none so effectively as James Carville.
Curiously, Carville wasn’t asked about this last Tuesday on Good Morning America, proving yet again that George Stephanopoulos as an interviewer really can’t hit the broad side of a barn, but in fairness there may have been a gentlemen’s agreement not to discuss this until Tanenhaus got back to them to explain what happened.
One would hope he will get back to them soon because, despite his long (okay very long) and elegant case for Conservative demise – so persuasive in fact that I found myself checking my own pulse – there appears to be a boatload of new and returning Republican Congressmen and Senators who are feeling just fine.
In reviewing his own arguments Tanenhaus might want to reconsider his reading of the electorate:
Voters don’t want [the size of government] reduced. What they want is government that’s “big” for them–whether it’s Democrats who call for job-training programs and universal health care or Republicans eager to see billions funneled into “much-needed and underfunded defense procurement,” …
Or his central thesis – a very old and hackneyed idea concealed within multiple layers of historical half-truths and linguistic cotton batting – that modern conservatives are in fact just angry old white men (though I concede the term “revanchist” sounds much more appealing) intent on rolling back progressivism (which he sees as a good thing), which ipso facto makes them both irrational and quixotic.
The story of postwar American conservatism is best understood as a continual replay of a single long-standing debate. On one side 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, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.
Or finally his vision of a new type of conservative, probably bearing a suspicious resemblance to David Frum or David Brooks, who will rise out of the ashes of the soon to be extinct old guard.
What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology. And the only ideology one can meaningfully renounce is one’s own. Liberals did this a generation ago when they shed the programmatic “New Politics” of the left and embraced instead a broad majoritarianism.
I really have to stop tape here for a minute. I mean … huh? Liberals shed what? This one sentence, quite by itself, should qualify Tanenhaus for a lifetime supply of the antidepressant of his choice. This, to paraphrase Vonnegut, can only be the product of bad chemicals.
Enough said, on to the stirring conclusion.
Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition. At its best, conservatism has served the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times. There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism–a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.
Lord have mercy, can’t you almost hear Barack Obama saying that? Let me translate: “we won, you lost, lie back and enjoy it.” This is pretty much the actual role Tanenhaus sees for any conservatives still standing who are sensible enough to lay down their weapons.
Unhappily, and doubtless unfathomably, for Tanenhaus conservatives neither laid down their weapons nor were obliging enough to die. In fact millions of Americans who didn’t quite get the argument about changing demographics and/or Edmund Burke seem to have taken rather a liking to them, or at least a preference to the philosopher kings Tanenhaus obviously prefers.
However, like the end-of-the-world cults who constantly adjust their prognostications as the dates pass I have every confidence Tanenhaus will shortly issue an amended prediction – in book form of course so he can score another interview with NPR — probably subtitled “Same autopsy, different dates, really, really, really dead this time.”
It is likely however that he will find himself sitting on a rock (perhaps thumbing through a copy of his dying newspaper to pass the time) and staring up at the sky with a substantially reduced crowd around him.
(Cross-posted at NewsReal Blog.)