What's Killing Conservatism?

The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus, Random House, 123 pages, $17.00

Four days after Barack Obama's decisive victory in November 2008, I attended a conference at Yale University titled "The Next American Conservatism?" The conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute organized the conference in advance of the election -- in the face of oncoming doom, as it were -- to try to figure out what sort of conservatism might rise from the ashes. But although the intellectuals on the program seemed to take for granted that conservatism as we know it is dead, none of them ventured an opinion as to why it died, whether it deserved to die, or what was, or should be, next.

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and Week in Review as well as the author of an acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, offers his postmortem in an elegant little volume. Tanenhaus would not have been surprised that the participants at Yale did not even attempt meaningful speculation. "Today's conservatives," he writes, "resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." When a volcano erupts in your face, it is difficult to be reflective.

Tanenhaus' book is an account of the life of modern conservatism -- its birth, youth, adulthood, and senescence. He is a fine writer who recounts the tale knowledgeably and well. The story opens in the 1930s, when conservatives were trying to find an answer to the New Deal. According to Tanenhaus, the Old Right had no answer to give: Not only did it lack policy alternatives; it could not explain "why and how the world had changed." The Old Right had come out of "a pastoral land of rural communities and small towns," and it was bewildered by "an urbanized industrial nation with ever-more-complex constituencies -- the teeming ethnic populations in northern cities, the increasingly organized and disciplined labor unions."

Thus a New Right emerged. According to Tanenhaus, its central argument originated with James Burnham. In 1941, Burnham, a former Trotskyite, wrote an international bestseller called The Managerial Revolution, an exercise in futurology in which he predicted that the Axis would win World War II, after which three superpowers would dominate the world -- Japan, Germany, and the United States. (The book's thesis inspired George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Burnham also argued that "in terms of economic, social, political, and ideological changes from traditional capitalism, the New Deal moves in the same direction as Stalinism and Nazism." The New Right adopted Burnham's equation of the New Deal with totalitarianism as the centerpiece of its ideology.

Burnham was a curious guru to follow. He was, after all, a flop as a prognosticator; World War II and its aftermath did not turn out quite as he had predicted. And equating the New Deal with totalitarianism was a strange foundation for a new ideology, considering that the New Deal worked, and its policies, especially Social Security, became widely popular. Yet New Rightists -- from William F. Buckley Jr. to Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, and George W. Bush -- could not entirely reconcile themselves to Social Security and never stopped wanting to eliminate or privatize it. Early New Rightists saw Social Security as somehow akin to a gateway drug that first destroyed self-sufficiency, then created dependence on big government, and finally resulted in a totalitarian state. Later New Rightists simply denounced it as redistributionist. By contrast, Robert A. Taft, who was the most prominent conservative before the rise of the New Right, favored Social Security.

Associating the New Deal with totalitarianism, therefore, could not alone account for the rise of the New Right. In explaining its success, Tanenhaus emphasizes the centrality of the New Right's grievance with the Establishment -- or the "Eastern Establishment," as conservatives like to call it. New Rightists perpetually believe that the Establishment, whether out of malice or mindlessness, is allowing American greatness to decline. We are Rome, the Huns are at the door, and instead of summoning strength, determination, and righteousness, we are wallowing in self-indulgence, decadence, and denial.

Although Tanenhaus does not make the points exactly this way, three critical features of the New Right's antipathy to the Establishment may nevertheless be gleaned from his narrative. First, as the New Right sees it, the Establishment is truly untrustworthy. Some liberal leaders are naive; but others might be disloyal. This was what Joseph McCarthy preached. It was the theme of None Dare Call it Treason, a 1964 book by little-known author John A. Stormer that became a cult classic of the New Right, selling 7 million copies. And it was also the raison d'être of the John Birch Society, whose leader, Robert Welch, declared that "the chances are very strong that Milton Eisenhower [the president's brother and a college president] is actually Dwight Eisenhower's superior and boss within the Communist Party." William F. Buckley Jr. deftly gave the conservative movement a patina of respectability by repudiating Welch and the Birchers, whom he labeled as kooks, and by drawing a distinction between McCarthy, whose personal flaws he acknowledged, and McCarthyism, which Buckley claimed was necessary to save the republic. The theme of untrustworthy leaders endangering the nation persists despite the end of the Cold War. It is why some fret that President Obama is a secret Muslim who pals around with terrorists.

Second, distrust of the Establishment is connected to questions of class. McCar-thy said that the traitors had "the finest homes, the finest college education and finest jobs in government." New Rightists saw Alger Hiss as the quintessential example of the privileged traitor whom the Establishment refused to condemn, despite damning evidence. The modern conservative movement has always seen itself as a populist insurgency, and liberals misapprehend it when they see the movement as an unswerving ally of big business.

Third, and most important, because the Establishment was ensconced at the highest levels of government, New Rightists came to see government itself as an enemy. This is what lies at the heart of modern conservatism's hostility to government. In line with an older tradition in the GOP, the modern Republican presidents not connected to the conservative movement -- Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush -- respected constitutional processes and governmental structure, implementing laws enacted by Congress even when they disagreed with them. But Tanenhaus argues that each of three modern Republican presidents with close relationships to the modern conservative movement -- Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush -- felt no such obligation and indeed carried out plans (in the Watergate affair, Iran-Contra, and secret surveillance and torture policies) that they deemed "too urgent to be trusted to the traditional channels of government."

Because the modern conservative movement has always seen the republic in peril and itself as the only reliable savior, it came to place allegiance to the movement and its ideology above all else.

Tanenhaus argues that a watershed event occurred in 1993 when Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole began to routinely deploy the filibuster to frustrate majority will. Tanenhaus quotes Alan Ehrenhalt's judgment that this "amounted to an unreported constitutional usurpation." "But," observes Tanenhaus, "to Dole it looked different. He was the appointed guardian of the movement, charged to assert its ideology, its 'fundamental difference of philosophy.'" Although Tanenhaus does not mention them, the same instincts arguably impelled the excesses of Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and the Supreme Court's intervention in the 2000 presidential election.

The modern conservative movement did not fully control government during the Reagan administration. Democrats remained largely in control of Congress, and Reagan had a streak of pragmatism often concealed by his rhetoric. Tanenhaus recounts conservative dismay with Reagan's budget deficits, his friendly tête-à-têtes with Gorbachev, and his "what's Good for General Motors approach" of allowing American business to trade with the Evil Empire.

Tanenhaus suggests the conservative movement finally imploded because, in its senescence, it abandoned the conservatism of Burke, who highly valued prudence and civil responsibility. On this I disagree. The modern conservative movement abandoned Burke at its inception. Its ideology has not changed. What changed was that the movement finally came into full power under George W. Bush. Its ideology was well-suited for political growth but incapable of governing. A movement disdainful of government believes it does not matter who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A movement convinced it alone possesses wisdom and virtue believes it patriotic to mislead Congress about reasons for taking a nation to war. And once in power, when decisions have consequences, a movement that cherishes ideology so much that it will adjust facts to fit philosophy, rather than vice versa, will eventually find reality impinge with volcanic-like force -- and be buried in the ash.