“conservative intellectuals recognize no distinction between analysis and advocacy, or between the competition of ideas and the naked struggle for power.”
– from The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus
Bill Moyers: Is Conservatism Dead?
An interview with Sam Tanenhaus
“We want our country back!” is a cry often heard these days coming from the tea-party set and fringe conservatism. […] In the interview, Mr. Tanenhaus says that far from signifying a resurgence of conservative ideals, the Tea Party protesters and shock jocks like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spell the doom of the conservative movement.
This exchange at the start of the interview is rather telling.
BILL MOYERS: So, if you’re right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?
SAM TANENHAUS: I’m afraid they’re radicals. Conservatism has been divided for a long time — this is what my book describes narratively — between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We’re seeing the revanchist side.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?
SAM TANENHAUS: I mean a politics that’s based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that’s been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for ‘revenge.’ It’s a politics of vengeance.
[…] Demographics are political destiny, especially in the near-term. […] According to the US Census Bureau, the dominance of non-Hispanic whites, who today account for two-thirds of Americans, will be whittled away, falling steadily to less than half in 2042 and just 46% by 2050. In the opposite trajectory, those who describe themselves as Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Native American will increase in proportion from about a third now to 54% by 2050.
Projections by the Census Bureau suggest that the Hispanic population will increase from 15% of the population today to almost a third by 2050, almost tripling in size from 47 million to 133 million. By contrast, the non-Hispanic white population is expected to remain relatively steady numerically, barely rising from 200 million to 203 million. And given current trends by 2030, the white population in the US will actually start to decline in numbers for the first time in US history.
While some of this conservative angst is based on racist and xenophobic attitudes, much of it is also based on declining economic fortunes. And here is there is a serious disconnect, perhaps attributable to manipulation by GOP elites or perhaps due to sheer ignorance. Conservative politics and ideology, tied mostly to Republican administrations, have tended to espouse unregulated, unfettered, free markets and a tax structure that favor that top 10% of Americans and especially the top 1% income segment at the expense of the bottom 90%. This conservative crowd expresses skepticism, if not an irrational fear, of government even though history shows that policies espoused by progressive administrations, tied mostly to Democratic administrations (though I’d include both the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations in this lot) that expanded the role of government were the ones that expanded the middle class and introduced social safety programs that benefit most Americans.
One of the most overlooked realities of the American political economy is that while GOP preaches unregulated, unfettered, free markets, in truth, the GOP has used government as an ATM for the rich and powerful.”
The New York Review of Books: Podcasts
September 10, 2009
Garry Wills on the Death of Conservatism
Garry Wills speaks with Hugh Eakin about the end of the age of Buckley, the rise of right-wing radicalism, and the crisis facing the American conservative movement.
The New York Review of Books
“This is a matter of more than sheer law-abidingness with him. He sees two types of what is called conservatism at work. “Movement conservatism” is revanchist—issuing, for example, an “urgent call ‘to take back the culture'”—and revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary), in wanting untrammeled executive power when its candidates are in office. It prizes ideological purity above accommodation, even when that means fighting the government from within the government. This movement is mislabeled conservative. It does not preserve the given order, changing it to make it work better. That is the work of “true conservatives” like Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, who actually conserve instead of overthrowing.“
The New Republic
“Burke’s conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies.[…] Instead he warned against the destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics, beginning with its totalizing nostrums.”
“At the same time, Burke recognized that governments were obligated to use their powers to meliorate intolerable conditions. […] “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” Burke warned. The task of the statesman was to maintain equilibrium between “[t]he two principles of conservation and correction.”“
“[…] most intellectually sophisticated founders of postwar conservatism were in many instances ex-Marxists, who moved from left to right but remained persuaded that they were living in revolutionary times and so retained their absolutist fervor. In place of the Marxist dialectic they formulated a Manichaean politics of good and evil, still with us today, and their strategy was to build a movement based on organizing cultural antagonisms. […] But, if it’s clear what the right is against, what exactly has it been for? This question has haunted the movement from its inception in the 1950s, when its principal objective was to undo the New Deal and reinstate the laissez-faire Republicanism of the 1920s. […] To Chambers, an avid student of history, this trend toward government reliance was a function of the unstoppable rise of industrial capitalism and the new technology it had brought forth. Chambers put the matter bluntly: “The machine has made the economy socialistic.” And the right had better adjust. “A conservatism that will not accept this situation, he wrote, “is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy.”“
“The right, which for so long had deplored the politics of “class warfare,” had become the most adept practitioners of that same politics. They had not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement–the Reagan Revolution–above their civic responsibilities.In 1995, the time of Gingrich’s ascendancy, Kristol buoyantly spelled out the terms of revanchist strategy: “American conservatism is a movement, a popular movement, not a faction within any political party.[…]” Kristol does not consider whether purists might be expected to maneuver at all or even to modify their views–for the good not only of the party but also the larger polity.
Kristol went on, in this essay, to extol the contributions of two movement subgroups, the neoconservatives and the evangelicals. It was of course this alliance that most fervently supported George W. Bush during his two terms and remains most loyal to him today.
By their lights, they are right to do so. Bush, so often labeled a traitor to conservative principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors–including Ronald Reagan. Few on the right acknowledge this today, for obvious reasons. But not so long ago many did. At his peak, following September 11, Bush commanded the loyalties of every major faction of the Republican Party.”
“And then there was Iraq, the event that shaped Bush’s presidency and, by most accounts, brought both him and the movement to ruin. It was also the event most at odds with classic conservative thinking. It is customary even now to say that the architects of the Iraq occupation failed because they naively placed too much faith in democracy. In fact, the problem was just the opposite. So contemptuous of the actual requirements of civil society at home, Bush’s war planners gave no serious thought to how difficult it might be to create such a society in a distant land with a vastly different history. Those within the administration who tried to make this case were marginalized or removed from power.”
“Tanenhaus does end with arguing that “What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders…is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology.” But it seems to me that what he is articulating here is not an attack upon ideology in general–upon the uniting of a political philosophy or at least the constituent elements of such with a practical road map of how to, perhaps, bring that philosophy to bear on actual political life–but upon ideology in a more cramped sense: ideology-as-groupthink, where the principles that are believed–and because they are believed, ought to be regularly tested and discussed and cautiously experimented upon–are instead reified into peer-group enforced dogma, where dissenters aren’t part of the common project, but enemies. At its worst, that’s what the Bush administration brought us (as did, as Tanenhaus notes, Nixon’s). In rejecting that, I don’t think Tanenhaus is rejecting all that which would be required of a “governing philosophy”; on the contrary, I think that, by making much of Disraeli and the early neocons like Moynihan, Bell, and Kristol (in his early 60s incarnation), Tanenhaus is advocating a conservatism which acknowledges that way capitalism has required civil society and the state to become interdependent in a way that a simple socio-economic world did not. In this sense, Obama’s current struggles over the stimulus package are “conservative” not just because of some supposed Burkean mentality that lays behind his thinking about it, but also because it’s an attempt to bring the state to bear on reviving the economy nationally, thereby securing ways of life which Americans have come to depend upon.”