Friday, February 13, 2009

Where Next? Conservatism is Dead

You really do have to read Sam Tanenhaus's essay by this title in the New Republic. It's a brilliant account and analysis of the rise and fall of movement conservatism in the U.S.

In the tumultuous history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement's first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then "condemned" by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movement's first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right's next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the "draft Goldwater" campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the insurgent challenge by Goldwater's heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan's crusade positioned him to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative "revolution" that remade our politics over the next quarter-century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory.

Today, the situation is much bleaker.

Tannenhaus hopes that the final demise of Bush will create a new opportunity

There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism--a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.

His view of authentic conservatism he regards as Burkean

What passes for conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke, who, in the late eighteenth century, set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the "organic" unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies. In his most celebrated writings, his denunciation of the French Revolution and its English champions, Burke did not seek to justify the ancien regime and its many inequities. Nor did he propose a counter-ideology. Instead he warned against the destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics, beginning with its totalizing nostrums.

And he is not blind to the fact that the Democrats have just elected a guy who seems to fill this sort of description.

In the end, movement conservatives got the war they wanted--both at home and abroad. It ended, at last, with the 2008 election, and the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.

As always the Atlantic bloggers are essential reading. Andrew Sullivan is of course a dissident conservative of long standing and concurs at length here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that, to hear Tanenhaus and Sullivan tell it, it would appear that many of us lefty pinko social democrats are classical conservatives too.

This is a conservatism that has militancy and radicalism, not liberalism, as its antitheses. It seems to say very little about specific policy, but a lot about how to think about policy. Martin Luther King was despised by the right-wingers of his time, but by these lights, he was likely more conservative than the people who opposed him. Moreover, Obama would be, almost certainly, a conservative. As, I think, would I.

But party coalitions are built around issues these days--not ways of thinking about issues. It's more policy, than philosiphy. Like I said, in that Burkean sense, I don't have much problem calling myself conservative. I just happen to be pro-choice, to believe government should, and can, help people, to be pro-science, and perhaps most importantly, to have a visceral disdain for bigots and people who try to manipulate bigots to suit thier ends. That goes for small town elitist, gay-bashers, and Mooslim haters.

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