Book Calls for the Return of Classic Conservatism

Posted September 4, 2009 at 5:35pm

Sam Tanenhaus is not predicting the end of the Republican Party.

He is, however, proposing that conservatism as this country knows it may be changing forever. This point, as well as an overview of the past and a look to the future of conservatism, is the focus of the New York Times Book Review editor’s new book, “The Death of Conservatism.—

“I don’t worry so much about conservative politicians, so much as conservative intellectuals,— he said in an interview. “That’s where the decline is.—

Tanenhaus describes two types of conservatism in his book: the classical conservatism of Edmund Burke and the American “movement conservatism,— which is an ideological fight against “permanent government— which began with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (D-Minn.) and continued to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) investigations of President Bill Clinton. Tanenhaus writes that while presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have been strongly tied to movement conservatism, presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush have not been.

Tanenhaus asserts that the end of “movement conservatism— began with the 2006 elections and was solidified by the 2008 elections. He notes that this is a definitive rejection because, unlike under previous presidents, George W. Bush was able to completely implement a platform of movement conservatism.

“During the two terms of George W. Bush, conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with a dogmatic fixity, though few conservatives will admit it,— he writes. “Just as few seem ready to think honestly about the consequences of a presidency that failed not because it betrayed’ movement ideology but because it often enacted that ideology so rigidly.—

This is the second of two deaths, Tanenhaus says. First, classical conservatism was killed by movement conservatism. Now, movement conservatism is “on life support,— he says.

The decline of the classic, intellectual right, Tanenhaus says, is bad for both liberals and conservatives. He notes that liberals and conservatives used to have reasoned, policy-based arguments. This is one reason he wrote his book.

“All that seems gone,— he said. “It seemed a good moment to remind everyone — conservatives and liberals alike — that there was a time when conservatives and liberals quarreled in a very true way.—

The book is relatively short, with five chapters spanning only 118 pages. This is not for lack of content. Tanenhaus manages to be concise, presenting a complicated history in a way that is easy to digest.

One of the most interesting points Tanenhaus makes is in the conclusion. He discusses the wild splintering of the Republican Party. Some Republicans, he notes, are moving rapidly toward the center:

“In the first months of the Obama presidency, the moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, advised others in his party to do what the people want you to do rather than getting stuck in your ideology.’—

Tanenhaus elaborates that Jon Huntsman Jr., a moderate Republican and former governor of Utah, “found he had more in common with the Obama administration than with his own party.—

In a contrasting element, Tanenhaus also notes that some Republicans — including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — have continued to embrace the fundamentals of movement conservatism, sometimes to extreme levels.

“Texas’s governor, Rick Perry, even talked of seceding’ from the Union, the crowning reductio ad absurdum of movement protest ostensibly undertaken in defense of American values.—

Ultimately, Tanenhaus remains hopeful that a classic conservatism can again rise as the opposite of the modern left. He hopes his book will cause people of all political stripes to review the history of American politics. This is clear from how he defines his success.

“If it serves that function, if some people read [the book] and go back and read some history,— he said. “If it helps people take a step back from emergencies of the moment and look at some history.—