As George Owell noted in 1946 after six years of observing his fellow British “Progressives” being all over the place on who they thought would win World War II, “Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”
That mindset continues to this very day. (And no ideology has a monopoly on it, needless to say.) In the investment world, witness Business Week’s now infamous “Death of Equities” cover in 1979, about five minutes before President Reagan’s tax cuts and Paul Volcker’s tight money policy strangled inflation and reignited the Dow Jones.
The accelerating pace of change (to borrow a word that’s more than a little tarnished at the moment) , makes such forecasts much more difficult, particularly for authors. Back in January of 2008, Noemie Emery wrote an article appropriately titled “Lead Time: It Isn’t What It Used To Be” for the Weekly Standard. “Things change so fast nowadays”, Emerly wrote, “that by the time a book about current affairs hits the market, the reality it is describing may well have ceased to exist:”
The first sign of this trend appeared after the 2004 election, when books were commissioned describing the newly re-elected President George W. Bush as a master strategist, who had established a model of dominance for the next generation. These books appeared near the end of2005, just in time for Katrina, and Bush’s big slide in the polls. On a similar note, a flood of books were published a little bit later about how the Republican party was in for a period of permanent dominance, with titles such as One Party Country, suggesting the entire country was about to turn red. These came out shortly before the slide that led to the loss in the 2006 midterms, after which pundits declared that if there was a one-party state, it would be run by the Democrats. This was before the 2007 session, in which the Democratic leadership lost all of its battles, and saw its approval ratings sink into the teens.
Only to rebound sufficiently to drag Barack Obama over the finish line last November. And having done so, the trend of projecting leftwing dominance into infinity began once again. In early February, Newsweek screamed “We Are All Socialists Now”, and numerous pundits declared the GOP irrelevent.
And then the Tea Partiers and Town Hall protestors arrived, and started to put the GOP back together again, from the grass roots up.
But not before Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times’ Book Review and Week in Review sections sent his latest book, The Death of Conservatism, off to the publishers, as James Piereson writes in the New Criterion:
The liberal analysis of conservatism that was passed down from the 1950s and 1960s has caused endless confusion about what conservatism in America is and is not. It is never a good thing for any philosophical movement to permit itself to be defined by its adversaries, but this is more or less what happened to conservatism in the post-war period, as liberals sought to define it in such a way as to guarantee its failure or ineffectiveness. For one thing, they created a combination of traps and paradoxes for conservatives that gave added meaning to Rossiter’s concept of “the thankless persuasion.” On the one hand, conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation (at least in the eyes of liberals), were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo. Thus, self-styled conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order—and, of course, “real” conservatives would never do that. So it was that conservatives who wished to reverse liberal victories became radicals or extremists. Conservatives, moreover, could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. Not surprisingly, they viewed a popular conservatism as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives, in short, could only win power and influence by betraying their principles, and could only maintain those principles by accepting their subordinate status. Thus, in the eyes of the liberal historians, conservatism could never prosper in America because, if it did, it could no longer be called conservatism.
Rossiter published the first edition of his book in 1955, barely a year after William F. Buckley Jr. launched National Review, thereby launching as well the modern conservative movement. A supporter of Senator McCarthy, ardent foe of the New Deal, and critic of Ivy League colleges, Buckley did not meet the requirements for conservatism as had been laid down by the liberal historians. In their eyes, Buckley was an extremist, as were most of the writers (like James Burnham, Max Eastman, and Frank Meyer) whom he recruited to his new fortnightly magazine. Buckley’s quixotic project to build a conservative intellectual movement was not supposed to succeed and even less was it expected to grow to a point where conservatives might be in a position to challenge liberals for intellectual and political influence. Yet it is undoubtedly true that the most far-reaching political development in the United States over the past half-century has been the rise of conservatism from its designated role as “the thankless persuasion” to its status by the turn of the millennium as the nation’s most influential public doctrine. This did not happen by accident, but rather because conservatives succeeded where liberals had failed in ending the Cold War, rejuvenating 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 all those claims that there is something “un-American” about conservatism, that it is forever doomed to minority status, and that it must always play second fiddle to liberalism. Nevertheless, despite everything that has happened since 1954 when Buckley announced his new magazine or since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president, there are many who still hold fast to the old myths about American conservatism.
Sam Tanenhaus has now reprised the old arguments about conservatism and tried to bring them up to date in his newly published jeremiad, The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus, the 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 that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 marked the beginning of a new liberal era in American politics. Tanenhaus is not altogether certain as to the causes of this collapse, at times suggesting that conservatives undid themselves because they were corrupt and unprincipled in their pursuit of power and at others suggesting that they lost the support of the American people because of their devotion to right-wing “orthodoxy.” 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. Tanenhaus says at various points that conservatives are out to destroy the country, that they are driven by revenge and resentment, that they dislike America, and that they behave more like extremists and revolutionaries (“Jacobins”) than as genuine conservatives. In this sense, he has resurrected the liberal literature about Sen. McCarthy and “the radical right,” and sought to apply it to contemporary conservatism as if nothing of importance had happened in the meantime. All of this is nonsense, of course, and given some of the author’s previous writings, particularly his biography of Chambers, one had reason to hope that he would have produced something more elevated than the partisan assault against conservatives that he has packaged in this book.
Tanenhaus argues that conservatives failed because—well, because they did not act like conservatives at all but rather as extremists and radicals out to destroy everything associated with modern liberalism. 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 un-conservative.” According to Tanenhaus, conservatives have been divided since the 1950s between their Burkean inclinations to preserve the constitutional order and their reactionary or “revanchist” impulses to tear up and destroy every liberal compromise with modern life. “On the one side,” he writes, “are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America’s pre-New Deal ancient regime, a return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of pre-modern family values.” In recent years, he concludes, the “revanchists” have gotten the upper hand over the Burkeans, and have thereby run the conservative juggernaut over a cliff and into irrelevance. In an entry that gives the reader a flavor of some of the exaggerated rhetoric contained in the book, Tanenhaus writes that, “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”
But what ideology does Tanenhaus himself operate from?
As we mentioned in a previous post, apparently the head fake du jour to explain away the New York Times’ leftwing ideology is “urban modern.” We’re not ideological, we’re pragmatic! So it’s not surprising that Brent Baker of Newsbusters spotted a classic “do fish know they’re underwater?” moment from Tanenhaus:
Catching up with a great catch in last week’s Weekly Standard “Scrapbook” section, the September 7 issue highlighted an example of how it takes a worldview that sees liberals like Barack Obama as “consensus”-oriented/“explicitly nonideological” centrists — and Republicans as “ideologically committed” conservatives — to work at the New York Times. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the newspaper’s Book Review and Week in Review sections, in his new book, The Death of Conservatism, proposes on page 23:
The primary dynamic of American politics, normally described as a continual friction between the two major parties, is equally in our time a competition between the liberal idea of consensus and the conservative idea of orthodoxy. We see it in the Democratic Party’s recent history of choosing centrist, explicitly nonideological presidential candidates (Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama), as contrasted with the Republicans’ preference for ideologically committed ones (Goldwater, Reagan, George W. Bush).
The unnamed Weekly Standard writer scoffed: “The sophistry here is breathtaking. Tanenhaus not only conflates his own political preferences with the American ‘center.’ In order to prove that only the Democratic party nominates ‘centrist, explicitly nonideological’ men for the presidency, Tanenhaus (1) puts Obama – Barack Obama! – in the ‘centrist’ camp, and (2) totally ignores Democrats Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Al Gore, as well as Republicans Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain.”
Although to be fair, I’m not exactly sure how LBJ and Jimmy Carter qualify as “urban modern” myself. But Stacy McCain has the best response to such blinkered claptrap:
A concern for debunking liberalism’s prestige — the persistent notion that liberal ideas possess a presumed legitimacy that conservative ideas do not — is why I wrote “How to Think About Liberalism (If You Must)”:
The simplest way to define conservatism is this: The belief that liberalism is wrong.
Once you conceive of ideological combat in these terms — and I urge you to read the whole thing — then you lose patience with soi-disant “conservatives” whose two basic instincts are cringe and flinch.
By God, stand up on your hind legs and fight! Grab some liberal pet idea by the scruff of the neck and pound the crap out of it. Destroy the prestige of liberal ideas, and attack the prestige of liberal spokesmen, so that it is they who are compelled to cringe and flinch.
Pussyfooting around, concerning yourself with civility and respectability — the Marquis of Queensbury rules that liberals insist conservatives respect, while they’re rabbit-punching us and kneeing us in the groin — is a tactical error that will inevitably lead to defeat.
Who knows what will happen come 2010, but in the meantime, one sure sign of recent success? “It Has Begun… Far Left Says Van Jones Was ‘Swiftboated’”, Jim Hoft writes. As Jim adds, that’s absolutely correct: “The truth about John Kerry’s past took him down. Likewise, the truth about Van Jones’ radical past took him down as well.”