The University Bookman has posted a number of intelligent responses to Sam Tanenhaus’ “end of conservatism” essay. The New Republic itself has also continued the discussion, most interestingly in my view with Andrew Bacevich’s contribution (though I obviously have a more positive take on Ronald Reagan than Bacevich). All this reminds me that I promised to return to the subject and talk about some areas where I think Tanenhaus has a point.
1. The popularization of conservatism as a mass movement has a downside as well as an upside. The upside for conservatives is obvious, so I won’t bother to restate it here. The downside is the oversimplification of conservatism: the reduction of conservative principles to slogans that can fit on a bumper sticker, the fact that conservative thinkers have harder time gaining an audience than conservative entertainers, and the emergence of conservatives as a marketing niche. Something valuable was lost in the transition from Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet to Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.
The bumper-sticker problem wouldn’t be serious if it merely applied to the conservative rank-and-file, people of conservative inclination who are too busy with real life to think systematically about politics. Pat Buchanan spoke about “conservatives of the heart” who “don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke” but “share our beliefs and convictions.” The trouble is that some of the oversimplified conservatives are opinion leaders and Republican elected officials. The similiarities between Reagan and George W. Bush that Tanenhaus brings up are superficial, but I have no doubt that Bush thought he was following the Reagan model as closely as Tanenhaus did.
2. The emergence of conservative identity politics. As Republican politicians have done progressively less for various conservative groups, like social conservatives, they’ve gotten louder in their insistences that they are people just like them red state folks. As 2004 turned to 2008, it became the worst of all possible worlds: conservatives weren’t getting anything in terms of government policy but this attitudinal conservatism helped mobilize the other side (and offend some moderate fellow travelers of the right). I like Sarah Palin, but the Republican establishment marketed her in a way that was intended to manipulate conservatives, not heed them.
3. There are ideological conservatives who don’t have a conservative temperament. This is a development that would have horrified Kirk, who believed in a conservative cast of mind but also considered conservatism the “negation of ideology.” Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and John McCain are just three Republican leaders who might have been better served by having the conservative temperament and not just broad agreements with certain conservative think-tank white papers.