The Slaughterhouse

Laughing Gas

With The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus establishes himself as one of America’s premier comic geniuses in the field of political commentary.

By From the October 2009 issue

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The Death of Conservatism
By Sam Tanenhaus
(Random House, 118 pages, $17)

With The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus establishes himself as one of America’s premier comic geniuses in the field of political commentary. There’s a guffaw waiting for you on almost every page. And like a good showman, he saves the very best for the very last.

The Death of Conservatism is in a familiar genre: liberals telling conservatives what conservatism really is, or how to be truly conservative, or, sometimes, how to win elections. It’s what the New York Times and the Washington Post do after Republicans lose an election. It’s difficult to tell whether liberals really don’t understand conservatives and conservatism, or whether they are just gloating after winning an election but pretending to be “responsible.”

Predicting the past is difficult. Predicting the future, in writing, can be folly. But that is the hook for The Death of Conservatism. “We stand on the threshold of a new era that has decisively declared the end of an old one. In the shorthand of the moment this abandoned era is often called the Reagan Revolution.…This moment’s emerging revitalized liberalism has illuminated a truth that should have been apparent a decade ago: movement conservatism is not simply in retreat; it is outmoded.” Conservatives, Tanenhaus writes, offer only nihilism.

In the amber of those lines you can hear the champagne corks popping on election night last year. The One has come; conservatism has gone; all will be well in the world (repeat three times). We know better now, as Obama’s job approval rating sinks in the polls and people already talk of a Republican resurgence in 2010. Even Tanenhaus knows better: “Of course conservatism has fallen on hard times before….” Yet he can’t resist this book.

Liberals often have problems identifying conservatism: it is common for them to conflate conservatives with Republicans, or Wall Street tycoons, or big business as Tanenhaus does. But conservatives have struggled for years—decades—with Republicans (Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Lindsay, Goodell), Wall Street tycoons (Corzine, Bloomberg), and big businesses (pick any three—or three hundred).

Tanenhaus gives good marks to Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, and George H. W. Bush because they “respected the established boundaries of constitutional precedent, even if it meant carrying out actions imposed by hostile congressional majorities and adversarial courts.” Not for them standing athwart history. He even calls Bush and Clinton genuine Burkeans and “the modern era’s two true conservative presidents — and the two best.” Ha ha ha. The Democratic Party’s recent history, he says, is “choosing centrist, explicitly non-ideological presidential candidates” like—are you sitting down?—Barack Obama. Ha ha ha. LOL

You gotta admit: that is funny.

Tanenhaus says the right defines itself by “what it longs to destroy: ‘statist’ social programs; ‘socialized medicine’; ‘big labor’; ‘activist’ Supreme Court justices….” Well, yes. And why? Partly because conservatives don’t accept Tanenhaus’s analysis of Roosevelt’s New Deal, “the boldly regulatory measures Franklin D. Roosevelt took to tame the furies of a ravaged economy through the proliferation of federal agencies and programs….” Ha ha ha ha.

There were two problems with Roosevelt’s actions. In his review in the New York Times Book Review (which Tanenhaus edits) of The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s book on Roosevelt and the Depression, David Leonhardt wrote, “[Roosevelt’s] economic meddling failed to accomplish his larger goal of ending the Depression.” (Tanenhaus doesn’t agree: “Rooseveltism worked,” he writes.) FDR’s programs also drastically curtailed people’s freedom (e.g., among other actions, FDR outlawed the ownership of gold).

Much of the Roosevelt program still exists—which is why modern conservatives are still standing athwart history yelling Stop. And now Tanenhaus’s centrist hero, Barack Obama, is hitting the Roosevelt road again, trying to socialize American medicine.

Tanenhaus puts “socialized medicine” in quotes presumably to mock conservatives who call Obama’s proposed health plan “socialism.” Yet he quotes with approval Whittaker Chambers (whom he considers a true conservative for accepting the regulatory economics of the New Deal as the basis for governing in postwar America), who wrote to William F. Buckley: “The machine has made the economy socialist.” If Whittaker Chambers can use the term, why can’t conservatives? The answer is, Obama’s plan for 17 percent of the economy is socialism, and Tanenhaus knows Americans don’t want socialism.

But Chambers was a pessimist: he thought by leaving Communism he was leaving the winning side. In that he was wrong. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, as he set out to do, and not, as Tanenhaus writes, by mere negotiation and compromise, but by outspending the Soviets on military hardware.

For Tanenhaus, conservatism is a mix of his understanding of Burke (maintaining equilibrium between conservation and correction) and Disraeli (advocating “policies the public demanded even though they might contradict the conservative leader’s own ideological certitudes”).

But what is the American public demanding now? Health care? Tanenhaus writes, “Obama’s plan to extend health coverage to the nearly fifty million Americans who lack it is pure Disraeli.” Ha ha ha ha. It is? Polls don’t indicate Americans are demanding Obama’s health plan—which is why, in desperation, the Democrats changed its name to KennedyCare. When that doesn’t work, what’ll they try next: JesusCare?

Tanenhaus says the American right “has missed the most salient fact about America today: the nation has entered a conservative phase, perhaps the most conservative phase since the Eisenhower years.” Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. That is funny.

Supreme Court justice David Souter, Tanenhaus writes, “may well endure as the most authentic conservative in the Court’s modern history.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha!. Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho. Isn’t that rich?

“Culturally, too”—this is the best part, saved for the very last page—“these are conservative times.…[C]onservatives should savor the embrace of ‘family values’ by the nation’s homosexual population, who seek the sanctuary—and responsibilities—of marriage and childrearing.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. HA HA HA HA HA! (Weep!) Ho ho ho ho ho! HO HO HO HO HO! HA HA HA HA! As the children say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Ha ha ha ha ha. Ho ho ho ho.

What Tanenhaus does not seem…ha ha ha ha ha (sorry)…

What Tanenhaus does not seem to understand is that the right defines itself not just by what it longs to destroy, but by why it wants to destroy it. The right seeks to extend freedom—a word I do not recall seeing a single time in this book! (It’s not in Tanenhaus’s comic vocabulary, I guess.) Tanenhaus assumes (ha ha ha ha—sorry) that all the New Deal’s statist interventions and depravations of freedom are here to stay—that accepting the entire New Deal, even extending it, is to be on the winning side of history. Conservatives don’t agree. Not to understand that is to have absolutely no clue what conservatism is all about. Even so, don’t miss this book. It’s a gas.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.