When, in 1962, Clinton Rossiter published a revised edition of “Conservatism in America,” he gave it the subtitle, “The Thankless Persuasion.”
His point was that conservatism will always play an incongruous and subordinate role in a revolutionary nation dedicated to democracy, equality, and restless change. While the conservative case for tradition and authority may be useful as a corrective to the excesses of democracy, it can never hope to supplant liberalism as the nation’s official governing philosophy.
As Mr. Rossiter put it, “Our commitment to democracy means that Liberalism will maintain its historic dominance over our minds, and that conservative thinkers will continue as well-kept but increasingly restless hostages to the American tradition.” In saying this, Mr. Rossiter joined a host of liberal writers of that era, such as Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell and Lionel Trilling, who were convinced that liberalism would always set the tone for public life, leaving conservatives with the thankless task of fighting liberal reforms, then adapting to them once they have been passed.
These dogmas should have been laid to rest by the conservative resurgence that came into its own in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and then was solidified by the policy achievements that followed.
By the turn of the millennium, conservatism had supplanted liberalism as the nation’s most influential public doctrine. This did not happen by accident, but because conservatives succeeded where liberals had failed in ending the Cold War, rescuing the American economy from the “stagflation” of the 1970s, and restoring order and fiscal health to the nation’s cities. Such achievements should have discredited those claims that there is something “un-American” or antiquated about conservatism. Yet, as we are now discovering, old prejudices die hard.
Sam Tanenhaus has now reprised the old arguments about conservatism in his newly published jeremiad “The Death of Conservatism.” Mr. Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a justly acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, argues that the conservative movement collapsed under the presidency of George W. Bush and, moreover, that President Obama’s victory in 2008 marked the beginning of a new liberal era in American politics.
Mr. Tanenhaus is not certain about the causes of this collapse, at times suggesting that conservatives undid themselves because they were unprincipled in their pursuit of power and at others that they lost the support of the American people because of their devotion to right-wing “orthodoxy” regarding free markets, family values, and the war in Iraq.
The one thing about which he is certain is that he dislikes conservatives — intensely and unremittingly so, judging by the rhetoric deployed in this book. Mr. Tanenhaus says at various points that conservatives are out to destroy the country, that they are driven by revenge and resentment, and that their ideas are out of place in contemporary America.
Mr. Tanenhaus argues that conservatives failed because — well, because they did not act like conservatives at all. The paradox of the modern right, he says, is that “Its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly unconservative.” According to Mr. Tanenhaus, conservatives have been divided since the 1950s between their Burkean inclinations to preserve the social order and their reactionary or “revanchist” impulses to tear up and destroy every liberal compromise with modern life.
He argues that conservatives should embrace the New Deal, the Great Society and the welfare state as Burkean accommodations to modern conditions and the demands of public opinion. In trying to roll back the welfare state, conservatives (he says) have revealed themselves as impractical reactionaries.
Mr. Tanenhaus first laid out this theme in a long article in the New Republic published in the breathless aftermath of Mr. Obama’s inauguration. The book now appears months later as these extravagant hopes have given way to more sober assessments of what the new administration can actually achieve and as Mr. Obama’s approval rating has come back to earth.
Pundits now forecast a Republican comeback later this year and in 2010. The polls offer no support for the claim that the 2008 election represented a long-running realignment in the fortunes of the two major parties.
One may confidently assume, if the past is any guide, that a conservative Republican will succeed Mr. Obama in 2012 or 2016, and that Republicans will recapture one or both houses of Congress in the meantime.
It thus appears that Mr. Tanenhaus, in pronouncing the death of conservatism, has made the mistake of forecasting a trend on the basis of a single event. His obituary for conservatism seems ever more exaggerated with every passing month.
It may be true that the weaknesses of conservatism as a political doctrine are magnified when judged in isolation from competing approaches to policy and governance. When judged in relation to liberalism, however, modern conservatism takes on a more favorable outlook.
Many of the sins Mr. Tanenhaus attributes to conservatives — overzealous attachment to principle or ideology, unwillingness to adapt to change, impatience with popular opinion — are on display as much or more among liberals. If Mr. Tanenhaus wishes to see liberalism in action, he might venture on to an elite college campus where only liberal and leftist views are permitted peaceful expression, or out to Sacramento, Calif., or up to Albany, N.Y., where liberal Democrats have spent their states into near bankruptcy. It would not be difficult, based upon those examples, to write a manifesto on “the death of liberalism.”
The flaw in Mr. Tanenhaus’ thesis is that it fails to see that conservatism is now a permanent aspect of the American political landscape. Conservatism in America deploys the principles of realism and continuity in the defense of liberal institutions and ideals — in particular, the Constitution, liberty and limited government, and equal rights under the law.
Conservatives are suspicious of the welfare state, not because they oppose accommodations with modern life, but because they see in it a threat to liberty and limited government.
In their view, markets and choice offer better ways of adapting to change while preserving the ideals of liberty and limited government. Conservative views are thus no more out of date or reactionary than are the Constitution and the institutions of market capitalism. The defense of those institutions may be a challenging task, but it is far from a thankless one.
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation. The article is adapted from an essay that appears in the September 2009 issue of the New Criterion.