I’ve been prodded to read and comment on this Sam Tanenhaus essay pronouncing conservatism dead. Tanenhaus is a smart guy who knows quite a bit about the conservative movement, much more than most liberal writers. But I’m not terribly impressed by his eulogy for the right. Uncharacteristically, Tanenhaus makes little effort to understand conservatives on their own terms. Instead we get embarrassingly tendentious liberal cliches like this:
Today, the situation is much bleaker. After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal “elites.”
This completely airbrushes out the “responsible” center-left’s initial support for the Iraq war, the fact that the biggest “deregulation” relevant to banking was signed into law by Bill Clinton, the left’s own role in the “harshly punitive ‘culture war'” (which side imposed their will on the electorate via the courts?), and of course any distinctions between Bush’s crony capitalism meets Sarbanes-Oxley meets bailouts and the laissez faire wild west of Tanenhaus’ fevered imagination.
Then there’s this:
There is instead almost universal agreement–reinforced by the penitential testimony of Alan Greenspan and, more recently, by grudgingly conciliatory Republicans–that the most plausible economic rescue will involve massive government intervention, quite possibly on the scale of the New Deal/Fair Deal of the 1930s and ’40s and perhaps even the New Frontier/Great Society of the 1960s. All this suggests that movement doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.
But the reason the wingnuts of the conservative movement gained power in the first place was because the mangerial liberalism of the New Frontier/Great Society ultimately did not solve problems that confronted millions of Americans at the time: stagflation, social unrest, family breakdown, crime, concern about the United States’ power. I’m obviously not arguing that Bush proved equal to the challenges of his time either, but it is telling that liberals don’t have anything more to offer than warmed-over versions of the programs that helped throw them out of power in the first place. Is liberalism dead too?
Of course, Tanenhaus doesn’t even acknowledge the problems liberalism failed to solve. The “culture war” is presented as if it reflected nothing more than resentments of the “liberal elite.” Clinton’s work on welfare reform is just “collaborating” with the Republicans. The closest we get to an acknowledgment of liberal failure is a lament that “liberals unwittingly squeezed themselves into the stereotypes conservatives had invented.” For an essay recommending a less ideological conservatism, a pragmatic application of Disraeli and Burke, Tanenhaus has more to say about ideological politics than he does about right or wrong, good policy and bad policy, and problems or solutions.
I’ll post more later on some areas where I think Tanenhaus is closer to the mark.