Blogs > Cliopatria > Joseph A. Palermo: Review of Sam Tanenhaus's The Death of Conservatism

Oct 10, 2009 2:14 am


Joseph A. Palermo: Review of Sam Tanenhaus's The Death of Conservatism



[Joseph A. Palermo is Associate Professor of History, CSU, Sacramento.]

Sam Tanenhaus, a senior editor for the New York Times, has written a useful book about modern conservatism and its discontents. It is a short intellectual history tracing the pedigree of ideas that have informed conservative (and liberal) thought over the past couple of centuries focusing mainly on the last fifty years. Tanenhaus breezily sifts through the ideological highlights giving readers a primer on the tenets of conservative thought.

Using snippets from Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other icons of the Right, Tanenhaus takes us through the John Birchers, Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the Gingrich revolution, all the way to Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and the "noisemakers and pyrotechnicians" that dominate conservative talk radio. Tanenhaus fills this slender, lightly sourced volume with well-chosen texts that illuminate the revanchism of the contemporary Right and how far today's conservative movers and shakers have drifted from their true intellectual roots. "Today it is almost taken for granted," Tanenhaus writes, "that the American Right is intrinsically hostile to both governmental and social institutions, seeing in each a purveyor of false values that imperil the 'true America.' " (p. 20) And as a result of adhering to this rigid ideology, in Tanhenhaus's view, "conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." (p. 7)

Tanenhaus is a brilliant and masterful writer but this venture into intellectual history is not devoid of weaknesses. As is the case with other histories of ideas, Tanenhaus gives his readers disembodied voices plucked from their historical contexts where the nexus of thought and action, theory and praxis is either broken or simply ignored. This tendency is best illustrated when Tanenhaus contrasts the ideas informing the conservative/right and the liberal/left.

One example is his seeming embrace of the Tom Brokawian thesis of 1960s "excesses" leading to the discrediting of the Left. Using a useful metaphor that recurs in the book, Tanenhaus writes: "The liberal sun, even as steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchantment and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition -- blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left -- shaped a new consensus." (p 66) This observation may be true on the surface but it doesn't explain why or how these "countercultural enthusiasms" developed in the first place.

The African-American civil rights movement touched a sensitive nerve deep in the American psyche that laid bare the contradictions about "freedom" and "equality" that a generation of people had internalized. As the movement matured from its integrationist roots in the South to grapple with the deeper problems of economic inequality in the North (as the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. illuminates) the thoughts and actions of the movement changed and became more radicalized (meaning they focused more on the "root" of the problem). Tanenhaus discusses the "Moynihan Report" on the black family sympathetically without acknowledging that what got Moynihan in trouble was his emphasis on "pathologies" found in the black family and tracing this "sickness" back several generations to slavery. (The historians Herbert Gutman and Eugene Genovese, in very different ways, demolished the sloppy premises of the Moynihan Report years ago.) My point here is that in 1960 if one were to tell John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy that by the end of the decade all three of them would be gunned down and blacks would tear apart 200 cities in rebellious rage they never would have believed you. Their evolving thoughts on the issue of race relations changed through the actions they witnessed and participated in. No countercultural "excesses" there.

Similarly, Tanhenhaus's discussion of the intellectual context of the Vietnam War leaves much to be desired. There were plenty of Americans who felt that their government was guilty of "excesses" by sending 58,000 Americans to their deaths, killing over 2 million Vietnamese, and dropping more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were used by all sides in World War Two. Like the civil rights movement, as the Vietnam War dragged on and became ever more violent and costly it produced a new set of oppositional ideas that arose from the thoughts and actions relating to the movement to end that bloody war. Here Tanhenhaus's argument could have benefited greatly by including at least a few snippets of text from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. They were the two figures of the 1960s that best embodied what Tanenhaus sees as a fusion of Burkian pragmatism and governmental activism to provide for a better society and protect (conserve) what is good about America. The fact that both these men were assassinated only added to the perceived "excesses" of the era. Tanenhaus barely mentions the effects these killings had on Americans in the late 1960s.

Finally, there was also a set of liberal/Left ideas that emerged from the cauldron of thoughts and actions relating to civil rights and the peace movement that comprised a new awakening to injustices by other subaltern groups: Latino farmworkers, women, gays and lesbians. One can argue that once the second wave feminist movement took off in the early 1970s that everything the Left did was "excessive" because it brought politics into the bedroom and the kitchen and the workplace. The conservatives were really just a bunch of reactionaries when it came to the women's movement and especially the LGBT movement -- and continue to be so to this day. No need to turn to Edmund Burke to explain this phenomenon.

Tanenhaus might have also grappled with how Ronald Reagan actually did more damage to modern conservatism than any other figure. I know it sounds counterintuitive but what Reagan did in the 1980s is combine profligate government spending with a 1960s-style hedonism that emphasized getting rich, living in the moment and let the devil take the hindmost; get what you can now and consume like crazy; greed is good. Reagan, like George W. Bush (who was the farce who followed the tragedy), left the country weaker with huge trade imbalances and a battered middle class. There's nothing "conservative" about that.

And then there's the Cold War to which Tanenhaus gives short shrift. The Soviet Union did not threaten U.S. national security in the way the conservatives always claimed. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, etc. were just used as bogey men to scare the public into turning over more of their tax dollars to the military-industrial complex and elect Republicans. The current tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan are the latest examples of this falsehood. If the Pentagon cannot protect the lower 48 then why have a defense department and a permanent war budget? No, the conservatives sold the country a bag of goods about the "Communist threat" and no amount of eloquence from William F. Buckley, Jr. or others can change that fact.

Tanenhaus has written a thought-provoking book that I highly recommend but I believe it is far to early to declare the "death of conservatism." The reason I believe Tenhenhaus's conclusion is terribly premature is that conservatives' ideas don't matter. The only thing that matters is power. And they still have power. They have corporate-backed think tanks; they have corporate-backed astroturf groups; they have their own 24/7 media outlets; they have armies of lobbyists and oodles of campaign cash; and they have foot soldiers from all walks of life dedicated to furthering their cause. They have the legions of anti-abortion activists. They have the NRA. And so on, and on. But above all, their ace in the hole is that conservative ideas serve the most powerful interests in society.

Conservative ideas will continue to percolate to the top and be widely disseminated in our political discourse because they reinforce the status quo. Even today, with the Republicans out of national power and the total failure of the Alan Greenspan/Milton Friedman free-market utopia that is the lifeblood of the conservative movement, we hear calls for deregulation, "free trade," and privatization (and staying in Iraq and Afghanistan forever). Even when the Republicans are a satellite orbiting the majority party in power their ideas resonate because they are the ideas that serve corporate capital (and always will).

As a historian I believe that events will determine whether we've entered a new thirty-year "cycle" of liberal dominance or if we're just witnessing a replay of the early 1990s. There's simply too much unfinished business for the Democratic Party and liberals these days to proclaim the "death of conservatism."




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