September 15, 2009


-ESSAY: Is conservatism dead?: A reply to Sam Tanenhaus's new book, The Death of Conservatism (James Piereson, September 2009, New Criterion)

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.

As we've mentioned previously, the problem with the Tanenhaus thesis is that W was exactly the sort of Burkean he calls for, the Ownership Society a Third Way adjustment to the reality that modern liberal democratic polities demand a social welfare net. It is certainly fair to say that the House GOP made itself electorally irrelevant by reacting against President Bush, just as Democrats drove themselves from power by reacting against Bill Clinton and Labour is about to cede power back to the Tories due to their ideological pique at Tony Blair's Thatcherism. Similarly, a pretty simple choice confronts Barrack Obama, who ran to John McCain's Right on taxes and barely mentioned anything else: he can follow the Clinton/Blair example and be a Burkean conservative coming from the Left or he can be of the Left and Thelma and Louise his way towards that cliff.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2009 10:44 AM
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