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Sam Tanenhaus’s 'Original Sin'

This month in The New Criterion, I have a short note about “Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People,” Sam Tanenhaus’s tendentious and interminable article in a recent New Republic about how awful and racist the GOP is and why they will never, ever be able to redeem themselves until they give up on being nasty conservatives and start thinking just like — well, just like Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and therefore a man who has the right (i.e., the approved left-wing) opinions about everything.

As I observe in my note, what makes “Original Sin” so odd is what I call its “historical legerdemain.”

When it comes to racism, the elephant in the room for Democrats is the unhappy historical fact that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery in the nineteenth century, the party of segregation for much of the twentieth century, and the party of multicultural neo-segregation today. Tanenhaus does not put it quite like that, but his essay slyly acknowledges the first two items. When it comes to contemporary realities, however, he argues that conservatives, by opposing identity politics and supporting the ideal of limited government, have slid under the wheels of history. The changing demographic complexion of America, he says, has consigned the GOP to bitter irrelevance. Searching for an intellectual paterfamilias for this drama, he settles on Lincoln’s great antagonist John C. Calhoun. The reasoning goes something like this: Calhoun supported states’ rights and limited government. He worried about the tyranny of the majority. He also supported slavery. Conservatives support states’ rights and limited government, they worry about the tyranny of the majority, ergo they are racists.

Not much of an argument, is it? In many ways, Tanenhaus’s piece is reminiscent of  his earlier exercise in ill-informed polemical logorrhea, The Death of Conservatism, which, like “Original Sin,” started life as a bloated article in The New Republic before darkening a few acres of wood pulp in its appearance between covers and on remainder shelves across the country. James Piereson treated that opuscule to at least some of the withering criticism it deserved in The New Criterion. That book disappeared without trace since the 2010 mid-term election did for his thesis what Cato’s denunciation helped do for Carthage.