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Alive and Kicking

Reports of conservatism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

11:00 PM, Feb 24, 2009 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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What seems to lie behind this line of analysis is an attempt to discredit the whole reign of conservative-influenced governance that began with Ronald Reagan. The brilliance of the approach is that it does so without ever mentioning the concrete political record and accomplishments of the period, but speaks instead of putative characteristics of various ideas, as if these ideas alone, and not the acts taken by conservative leaders, are what govern the world. This objective becomes even more evident in a long article recently published in the New Republic by Sam Tanenhaus entitled "Conservatism is Dead." With Tanenhaus the "end of conservatism" genre reaches its full development, in which, as so often occurs in the evolution of literary forms, elegance and refinement have replaced vigor and simplicity. Writing with conspicuous erudition, Tanenhaus gives an account of conservatism that fleshes out in much greater detail the previous narrative. The difficulties with modern conservatism, he argues, appeared at exactly the moment that it became a movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The intellectual figures involved in creating this movement built it by "organizing cultural antagonisms"; they defined conservatism "not by what it yearns to conserve, but by what it longs to destroy," e.g., tenured radicals, the media elites, activist judges, experts. The whole movement was predicated on turning things back and expressed a "revanchist" attitude. It was "ideological." Like Lilla and Dionne, Tanenhaus reverses what a surface political history of the Reagan era had indicated and reveals a truth that all missed: that conservatism was going downhill from the moment it appeared to be going uphill.

Nothing in this modern American conservative movement, Tanenhaus argues, would have been comprehensible to the originator of genuine conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke favored a way of thinking that was based "not on a particular set of ideological principles, but rather distrust of all ideologies." Burke's thought represents the only authentic conservatism (good conservatism) while the conservatism we have come to know, which Tanenhaus derides as "what passes for the conservative movement", is bad conservatism. Indeed, it is not conservative at all, but "profoundly and defiantly un-conservative--in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision." It is un-conservative, because it is "ideological" and, oh yes, "revanchist."

Tanenhaus expresses even more sadness than Lilla about what has happened to conservatism. His wish is not merely to learn from conservatism, but to rescue it. He is a crusader. He wants to purge the entire conservative movement of today and have it renounce "ideology," as he says liberals wisely did in the 1980s. His revived conservatism, echoing some unspecified period of the past, would "serve the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times." Such a blood and guts appeal, charged with so compelling a vision, would presumably allow conservatives to win the hearts and minds of the millions of voters whom the modern conservative movement has forsaken. Or perhaps Tanenhaus does not want conservatism actually to vie to govern, but to recover its "honorable intellectual and political tradition" of being the house servant of liberalism.

For all of his commitment to the cause, Tanenhaus would seem to be a most dubious champion of conservatism. Set aside his understanding of Burke, who could get downright revanchist when it came to excoriating "university professors," "publicists," and "speculators." The more central question would be why an American conservatism should aspire to be entirely "Burkean" in Tanenhaus's sense. Conservatism, even on Burkean grounds, respects prescription, and the roots of this country are not entirely Burkean. America was founded, at least in some part, on what one historian famously called "ideological origins." Among the sources on which American conservatives have drawn are Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, figures whose thought some might not describe as Burkean. (The greatest "pure" Burkean of the nineteenth century, Rufus Choate, denounced the Republican Party in the 1850s for its ideological tendency of revering the "glittering generalities" of the Declaration of Independence.) While no conservative movement could exist without a Burkean voice, that voice is--and has been--only one part of the American conservative choir.