BOOK REVIEW: 'The Death of Conservatism' Isn't As Good an Idea As It Might Appear to Liberals, Says Sam Tanenhaus
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net Book Critic
I confess that I know who is a conservative less surely than I know who is a liberal. -- William F. Buckley Jr., 1963
Not much has changed in the 46 years since the late conservative icon and founder of National Review magazine made that statement, judging from a slim new book by Sam Tanenhaus, "The Death of Conservatism" (Random House, 144 pages, $17.00).
Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of Buckley (1925-2008), quotes Buckley in his new book, which expands on an article Tanenhaus wrote for The New Republic shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama this past winter. The essay, "Conservatism Is Dead," prompted intense debate -- a debate that is sure to continue with this book-length expansion.
"The Death of Conservatism" comes with a bibliography, but no index, forcing the careful reader to make extensive handwritten notes. This is probably a good thing, since Tanenhaus crams a lot of facts and opinions into a small book. He supplies a brief history of the American conservative movement and asks the question: "why does the contemporary Right define itself less by what it years to conserve than by what it longs to destroy?"
For 75 years, he writes, the Right has been split between two factions: consensus-driven "realists" who believe in the virtue of government and its power to adjust to changing conditions, and ideologically driven "revanchists" who distrust government and society, and often are at war with America itself.
Tanenhaus includes among the "realists" Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Buckley and Whittaker Chambers (Tanenhaus is the author of an acclaimed biography of Chambers), but New York Times columnist and Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has just written that we might include Richard Nixon in that list (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/opinion/31krugman.html?th&emc=th).
Starting with the caveat that he considers Nixon the worst person -- other than Dick Cheney -- to control the executive branch, Krugman says that "the Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren’t as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system’s ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable."
Krugman continues: "As many people have pointed out, Nixon’s proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today. In fact, in some ways it was stronger. Right now, Republicans are balking at the idea of requiring that large employers offer health insurance to their workers; Nixon proposed requiring that all employers, not just large companies, offer insurance. Nixon also embraced tighter regulation of insurers, calling on states to 'approve specific plans, oversee rates, ensure adequate disclosure, require an annual audit and take other appropriate measures.' No illusions there about how the magic of the marketplace solves all problems."
It's also important to remember that Nixon expanded the government with such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 -- something that would be unthinkable to faux conservative politicians like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their like.
Tanenhaus explores issues raised by Krugman and argues that conservatives shouldn't tie all their fortunes to the Republican Party, which in the past eight years of Bush-Cheney has trashed traditional conservative values, including the importance of competence in governing the nation -- something important as we now observe the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Among the points Tanenhaus makes in his important book -- important for liberals, libertarians, conservatives, independents and people like me who think labels are for ketchup bottles:
* Tying themselves to the GOP, as conservatives did during the Bush-Cheney years, resulted in the 2008 presidential loss. The nation, in electing Obama and Biden, rejected "the hard-edged, accusatory policies" of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney.
* There is no authentically conservative reason to oppose health care reform (see the Krugman reference to Nixon). "This is an opportunity for Republicans to demonstrate that they can govern responsibly by joining the majority, precisely as they did in 1964 when they helped pass the landmark civil rights bill."
(It's ironic to note that conservative but consensus-building U.S. Sen. Everett M. Dirksen, R-IL, was a leader in the passage of the bill, while a current liberal icon, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, opposed the bill, along with segregationist Southern and other legislators. Dirksen (1896-1969) was also a sponsor of the 1968 Open Housing Act.)
* Conservatives need to serve as a counterbalance to liberals (many of whom call themselves "progressives" these days) who might interpret the election of Barack Obama as an opportunity to abandon the centrist policies of presidents like Bill Clinton and "veer off into 'left-liberalism,' becoming the party of LBJ instead of FDR. (I personally think Lyndon B. Johnson's administration was in many ways a continuation of FDR's, especially in acts like the passage of Medicare in 1965.).
* The unilateralist, America-centric foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney years was a failure. Why are conservatives like Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and John McCain trying to reestablish it in Iran even as more temperate Republicans like Richard Lugar and Henry Kissinger have praised Obama's restraint, Tanenhaus asks.
* Conservatives in the GOP need to transform it into a "big tent" party like the Democrats, embracing gay marriages and/or civil unions. Tanenhaus says that a generation ago, gays exemplified "alternative lifestyles." Now, he says, they want to join the mainstream and uphold family values. What serious-minded conservative would oppose that?
Well, as Krugman notes in the above referenced op-ed: "Part of the answer is that the right-wing fringe, which has always been around — as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, 'crazy is a pre-existing condition' — has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence."
In his concluding chapter, where he quotes Buckley, Tanenhaus makes the same point: "Classical conservatives have all either deserted the Right or been evicted from it...The converts of yesteryear -- [James] Burnham and Chambers, [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan and [Irving] Kristol -- have been succeeded by writers and thinkers like Mark Lilla and Michael Lind, Francis Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria, David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, who have defected in the opposite direction, fleeing the cloistered precincts of the Right."
It may be too late to save the Republican Party. We may be at a point similar to that in the early- to mid-1850s when the Whig Party died and the Republican Party was formed from its remnants. Maybe it's time for conservatives and libertarians of both major parties to form a new party. I think Tanenhaus doesn't believe in such a drastic solution, believing that the Republican Party can be saved. In any case, "The Death of Conservatism" is an important book for readers of all political persuasions, especially those who consider themselves independents.
About the author: Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times book review and also the paper's Week in Review section. From 1999 to 2004 he was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His previous book, "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography" (Random House, 1997) won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.