Sam Tanenhaus

Will the Tea Get Cold?

VTR Date: June 16, 2012

Sam Tanenhaus discusses notions of the death of conservatism.


GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
AIR DATE: 06/16/2012
VTR: 04/12/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the title we’ve given our program today, “Will the Tea Get Cold?” is the title the New York Review of Books gave to a recent review of several volumes about the archconservative Tea Party in contemporary America.

The author of that review is the distinguished editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, and my guest today — Sam Tanenhaus, historian and biographer of American Conservatism…particularly much so in the persons of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley.

Now, several years ago Sam Tanenhaus and I spoke at length here about the supposed “Death of Conservatism”, and I would like to ask my guest today if he thinks we were prescient then…or only premature… … or just plain wrong.

TANENHAUS: (Laugh) Well, Dick, it always comes back to the same question, “What do we mean by ‘Conservatism?”. I think a kind of classically oriented Conservatism that is based on the principles of, of an ordered society … of a kind of harmony among different peoples and also of serious political programs that acknowledge changes in the culture and in the economy … in what we call a post-industrial economy … and tries to develop programs to meet those issues. I think that Conservatism we’re not seeing too much of any more.

Now, there’s another kind of Conservatism, too, what some of us call “Movement Conservatism”, and that’s really a kind of insurgent, populist protest against the ideas of governance, the value of government, and against what’s seen by the adherents of their members of the movement … a kind of liberal domination of the culture, which I described in The Death of Conservatism and which I think we’re seeing very much around us now. So in that sense the, the death of Conservatism as a proposition may have felt a bit premature, but the, the lines of argument I try to set forth now as a, a discussion of what has happened to Conservatism in America I think is actually being validated in this election.

HEFFNER: Well, what do, what do you call what’s happening these days? What do you call the Tea Party then?

TANENHAUS: Well, that’s a really good question. You know, a great historian Gary Wills wrote many years ago … he said, you know it almost doesn’t make sense to talk America and use the terms Liberal and Conservative, but they’re the only terms we have, you know. Everybody else uses them, we have to do it, too.

So I guess we call the Tea Party Movement and its leaders and supporters and adherents … Conservatives of a kind.

But you know, Bill Buckley … William Buckley had a useful phrase he learned … used a long time ago … in the very first issue of National Review when he explained what the magazine was about. This was published November, 1955 and he used to term to describe himself and his colleagues … Radical Conservatives … so maybe that’s what they are.

HEFFNER: You mean, now, we’ll revise that term.

TANENHAUS: Well … maybe … or … yes … or, or revive it, you know. Maybe what we’re looking at is a radical kind of Conservatism.

HEFFNER: Well, how do you explain then the conflation between some of the older Movement Conservatism in the form one might have said … two years ago, or so … of Mr. Romney … with conflated … with what we have talked about now with the Tea Party people.

TANENHAUS: You mean how do we take a figure like Mitt Romney who seems somewhat more moderate …


TANENHAUS: … and have … well, I think that’s, that’s the, the identity crisis that is dividing the Republican Party right now. I mean if you … here we have the recent departure announced … sudden departure of Rick Santorum … who through the primaries did have the allegiance of some very strong factions in the Republican Party mainly situated in the Bible Belt and the Deep South.

And that part of the Republican Party and the Conservative Movement is still very uneasy with Mitt Romney … remember early on it was anyone but Romney. And now what seems to have happened … and we’ve seen it before … is that the winnowing process in the end yields a candidate who is more to the center than the philosophical base of the party itself. And has to spend a fair amount of time explaining himself and patching up those differences.

You know, we forget in the 2008 election … John McCain did something really unusual. Which was to run further to the Right after he got the nomination …

HEFFNER: You’re right.

TANENHAUS: … than before. This is highly unusual. As you know, Dick, you’ve studied a great deal of history … the tradition, the convention or the “norm” is for a candidate to appeal to his base during the primaries and then move toward the center once the national election begins.

The general election, well what happened to McCain was … he had not locked up that base … that’s one reason he brought Sarah Palin on to the ticket, to make an appeal to them … that drove away many centrists … Romney could find himself in a similar situation where he spends a fair amount of his time and fortune still trying to persuade Conservatives that he’s one of them. And every time he does that he reinforces the perception among Democrats and maybe independents that he isn’t, really, the moderate figure they want.

In other words, Romney is caught within this conflict that’s dividing the Republican party and still seems unresolved.

HEFFNER: Which way do you think he’ll go in that? Will he follow the McCain route?

TANENHAUS: It’s so impossible to know. You know elections don’t repeat one and other identically. It’s really hard to tell. Because Romney’s record … as Governor of Massachusetts was quite moderate, but he served only a single term.

So he has a surprisingly thin resume. Maybe not so surprising, George Bush didn’t have a very long one, neither did Barack Obama, maybe this is how our candidates emerge now, with less of a record to support. But Romney has invested so much capital in every sense in proving his conservative bonefides maybe he’ll think that’s bought him room and time now to make a broader appeal to the public.

But I wish I could answer that question. I’d be a lot smarter and I, I’d be much more successful in the world if I could predict that one. I have no clue. What do you think?

HEFFNER: Well, I’m much less in tune with what’s going on in the world, but I, I have this funny feeling, Sam, that we haven’t … as many people have watched the debates that were going on with the rise and fall of the different Conservative candidates within the Republican Party, I don’t think we listen. I don’t think we, as a people, have been listening at all. I don’t see how it could be possible to have listened to all of the conflicting statements and still to think that we have viable candidates.

Not what went on in the pre-convention or that still goes on to some extent in the pre-convention. How could Governor Romney make the bet that he could say certain things now when he had said the opposite not that many years ago …. just a few years ago.

How could he say things now that he will assume that in the campaign itself he will turn the other cheek, he will turn in another direction. Do you think we Americans are paying that much attention, intellectually?

TANENHAUS: Ah, I would guess we’re not. I mean … the sort of conventional wisdom is that much of the electorate doesn’t pay attention until just weeks before the general election, so people like us who may hang on every word really form a pretty small segment of the population.

And if it will be decided by independents and centrists … those are terms that get confused and, are, I think, worth talking about.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

TANENHAUS: Well, there’s a general impression, I think, that anyone who is not affiliated with a particular party or doesn’t have a strong feeling about either the parties or particular candidates … at a time … you know, as the election nears … is someone who is making up his or her mind. I think that’s true for some people.

But there are others who are not really that interested. They’re not sifting through ideological differences, or philosophical differences … they’re just not really paying attention at all. And when the decision gets made, when they decide whom to vote for … or … assuming that they care enough to vote … it may be on the basis of a criteria and judgments or emotional responses that have almost nothing to do with the ideologies of the candidate.

And I think what we tend to do is lump them together. Let me … there’s an interesting thing in a book I bet you know … it’s called The Hidden Persuaders Vance Packard’s book … a kind of sociological …

HEFFNER: You’re going back to my time.

TANENHAUS: … well, it’s a sociological study, kind of comic, but also a very penetrating about the advertising industry … published in 1957 and you may remember he has a number of pages on the use of “depth” research … what we’d call market research …


TANENHAUS: … on what were then called “switch” voters. The Eisenhower campaign did this in either ’52 or ’56, I’m not sure which.

Switch voters are voters who might switch from one party to the other. And so they brought them into rooms with a, you know, one-way mirror … and all the rest and measured their response … the kinds of things we do now in focus groups.

And what they found was they could predict, very well, I think a 97% to 98% which candidate these switch voters would choose on the basis of reactions to images of the candidate, what does his wife dress like, what kind of clothing does she have … this one has a moustache and I don’t like the moustache … this kind of thing.

And it’s not to denigrate those decisions, because those can be the cues whereby you assess someone as a person or leader. And so … well, look at elections we’ve seen recently … if someone performs well in a debate or poorly in a debate as we saw in the Republican nomination … that, that sequence of debates … there was 20 or 21 debates in the winter and early spring … candidates were rising and falling it seemed on the basis of a single poor performance in a debate. And now this is with … among voters who are paying close attention … right …. it’s part of their Republican base. And they’re saying “Well, Rick Perry couldn’t remember what that third … right … government agency is or department that he would eliminate. What’s his problem.” And suddenly he plummets in the polls.

So, in a sense we’re reacting to candidates not necessarily many of us … not necessarily because we agree or disagree with what they say, particularly since by the time we get closer to the election, both President Obama and Governor Romney are probably going to be making statements geared very much toward the center of the electorate that won’t be especially ideological or extreme. We’re going to base it on our impressions of them.

And so that is a different kind of a voter from the one who says, “Well, I kind of liked the Tea Party at first, but now I see some inconsistencies in the arguments … they say they’re against big government … the things I wrote about in the New York Review … they say they’re against big government, but in fact they all want more Social Security and, you know, Medicare … it seems inconsistent, or are they really anti-immigrant and I don’t feel that, you know, I connect with that. They seemed to have strayed from their principles.

Yes, there are some people who will vote that way or who react to President Obama the same way. “I thought he was a pragmatist, now he seems like a Great Society Liberal” or “I thought he was a great Liberal, but he seems too much a pragmatist”. Yes, there are some people who will vote that way, there are many others who are going to vote on the basis of entirely different impressions.

So, for those … if you’re the candidate aware that, you know, that’s where the outcome may hang in the balance, I really don’t think you worry so much about whether you … something you said when you ran against Teddy Kennedy in 1994 contradicts something you said in a debate with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in early 2012 … I think they don’t worry about that so much. But I could be wrong. I often am.

HEFFNER: Makes you worry about the American electorate.

TANENHAUS: Ahemm, well it doesn’t make me worry, it may make you worry. I think it’s … human nature is … look there, there is something … here’s, here’s a different approach to all of this … which you may not agree with. Former student of Richard Hofstadter may be appalled by this. Although he was the first to see this … to write about how politics had become a form of entertainment that … of, of drama … ritualized spectacle and drama.

You know he wrote in that great early essay on, on Joe McCarthy. But my point here is … the point I really want to make is that “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be paying … or don’t need to pay all that much attention to all the twists and turns … the small chess moves … that decide a Presidential election.”

Maybe in the end … you know, there’s the famous expression “We get the President we deserve”. That people who are following their instincts … they look at one candidate or another and they say, “I think this one has good judgment. This one will get us through a crisis. Or, I trust him. I like him”. Well, maybe that’s not the worst way to do it.

HEFFNER: What are you … going back to “Will the Tea Get Cold?” do you think they’ll cool off? Do you think the Tea Party people … if you can identify Tea Party people … will cool off of the feelings they’ve had about Obama, for instance … because so much of this was anyone but Obama … not just anyone but Romney.

TANENHAUS: Yeah. That’s a really great question. And embedded in it, Dick, is a really important point … we don’t always know who the Tea Party people are. That the numbers of citizens who are active Tea Party members and a New York Times poll showed this a couple of years ago … seem to be about at most one-fifth of the public … it’s probably smaller now. And one of the books that I discussed in this essay on the Tea Party … by the two Harvard scholars … Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson says that actually the total number of activists is some five or six hundred thousand people … as I point out in the piece … that’s smaller than your typical Congressional district.

So the number of activist, people who are, who are organizing meetings or sending out mass e-mails or really getting closely involved in the vetting process for candidates and such, that’s a pretty small group.

Now there’s a bigger group that’s listening to the message and I think that is the Tea Party message. And always we have to remember there is no Tea Party, there’s just a phenomenon we call the Tea Party. That is there are many, many groups with different names.

But the message of being skeptical of government spending and being kind of pro-business and anti-tax, well that morphed pretty quickly into some other areas as these scholars show.

It turns out that many of those allied with the Tea Party who said they were getting involved in politics for the first time, represent a tiny fragment … that there are others who have been involved in politics since the Goldwater movement of 1960s. Some of them have been Republican operatives. Remember Dick Armey, you know who was a Senate Majority Leader in the Clinton years is the head of one of the big Tea Party organizations.

So … it’s … we have to parse out who all those different people and groups are. Already the rhetoric, it seems to me has cooled down to some extent. We’re not hearing as much of the really vitriolic anti-Obama language that we did in those first months.

Remember the, the placards that, you know, showed him … you know resembling the Joker on Batman or some that were, you know, overtly racist … which probably … a small percentage … but there they were and we all saw them. And were concerned. I think, you know, most Americans would be.

But over time some of that has ebbed. And what we’ve seen instead is … that if you’re going to generalize, which is always a risky thing to do … about who the typical Tea Party member might be. It’s going to be someone … ah … male or female … 65 years old, if not older … probably White … very likely from the Bible Belt or the Deep South … now we see possibly evangelical as well. It’s starting to look like the Republican base that grew familiar in the 1980s and then ‘90s. It’s looking more like that now. And this group we’ve seen before.

HEFFNER: Race and religion. You seem to be dismissive of the notion of race.

TANENHAUS: Oh, no, no. I think … I think it’s there, I think it’s just more complex … race.

HEFFNER: Complex?

TANENHAUS: Yeah. Well, here’s the thing. Ahem, it … because race in our political history is complicated. It’s one thing for Strom Thurmond in 1948, when he ran as the Dixiecrat candidate, the states right candidate … to declare himself a defender of segregation and an opponent of any sort of civil rights program. And actually win four states in the Deep South.

It’s a somewhat different, although not tremendously different thing for Barry Goldwater in 1964 to seek out those same votes, get those same four states, plus Georgia and then his home state of Arizona … and otherwise replicate Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign … at, at least as far as, you know, the votes and support went. Because Goldwater himself had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Okay, that’s one thing.

When race evolves, racial tensions evolve in a more complicated way … and I wrote about this in, in The Death of Conservatism … once the civil rights trouble migrated from the South up to the North and then across the country … so there were, you know, uprisings in Watts in Los Angeles in 1965 or riots in Newark and New York City, Rochester, New York and also anxieties about housing, jobs, labor unions, something that, of all Presidents, Richard Nixon tried to solve. He introduced Affirmative Action and labor hiring policies in Philadelphia.

When … once it becomes that kind of issue, you can say well, these are racial problems … absolutely. But it’s not, it’s not the legalized, enforced, de facto racism of the old South, it’s the conflict among competing ethnic groups; it’s fears about who goes to school, where … who gets what job … who is going to be admitted to college … right … you know, who gets preferential treatment if that’s what it is.

So then the issues take on a more complicated, kind of tonality. And I think at that point, rather than say, “Well these are Tea Party racists who hate Barack Obama” … you can say that and there’s, there’s probably some element of truth to it. I’m not sure it explains as much as it might, if you … as it would if you step back and say, “All right, this is a country that has not solved its racial differences and disagreements”. There’s no question about it.

On the other hand, an African American got almost 53% of the vote in 2008. He pulled it from all sectors of the country. We’re in a different place.

Now, are there still racial animosities, is there still hatred of a Black man who’s President. Yeah, there probably is. But does that define the perspective of many voters who don’t like Obama, who maybe did vote for him in 2008 and are changing their minds … or, or who were exhilarated like the rest of us when he took office in 2009 and how those astronomical poll numbers … remember those first weeks, or when Time magazine showed him looking like Franklin Roosevelt on the cover.

Well, I think then it gets a little more complicated. Religion’s another matter. I think you’re, you’re really on point with religion. I think religion is a, is a bigger part of our politics …

HEFFNER: Why so?

TANENHAUS: … still … than we realized. Well, that’s a … that’s a really good question and its one I’ve been thinking about for the next piece I hope to complete for the New York Review of Books.

I think it’s religion that became the vehicle of the culture wars that the Conservative Movement has been so much about, really, since its origins, ahem, in the 1950s. That is to say, part of Romney’s problem … I think we should look at the Republicans for a moment … the epithet of a Massachusetts moderate … I just realized this recently … the emphasis falls on Massachusetts as much as it does, I think, on moderate …

HEFFNER: Because it’s quite a symbol.

TANENHAUS: It’s a symbol of a lot. Right, you know what it is … of a liberalism, of the Kennedy’s, of Harvard and Cambridge … also the state … you know, where Edward Brooke was elected from. You know the first US African American Senator elected by popular vote … really … in history … the first since Reconstruction to hold office … it’s a more complicated mix of politics, but at any rate … but it’s also very secular. And Romney’s Mormonism doesn’t help him there, of course. Because evangelicals, many of them do not even accept … acknowledge that Mormonism is a, is a form of Christianity, they call it a cult and all the rest.

But, if you look at the breakdown, Dick, in the primaries … Santorum … after Louisiana, which he won big … said … but he was already getting pressure to leave the race, because of his damaging Romney so much.

And Santorum said something like “We have won more states than any Conservative candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1976”, which is interesting … he didn’t say 1980. ’76 was when Reagan challenged the unelected, but incumbent Gerald Ford and nearly beat him, took it all the way to the Convention. Which is why Santorum said that. He … he … and he implied that he would continue fighting and, of course, he did finally withdraw from the race and, you know, we think we know why, it’s probably because he saw the writing on the wall in Pennsylvania.

If he lost his home state, he would lose a great deal of his authority and credibility. But there’s still the fear within or, or awareness in the Republican Party, I think, that Santorum strongly connects to that base.

Well, what do we know about them? There’s some remarkable statistics … with what … as many as seven or eight out of ten voters in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries which Santorum won … are evangelicals. Even in a conservative state like South Carolina, the percentage of evangelicals rose something like from 55% to 64%. That is a growing, powerful movement.

In 2000 … after the 2000 election … Karl Rove and company crunched the numbers very closely and estimated that some four million evangelicals who … they expected to vote for George Bush, hadn’t voted at all, because they hadn’t been mobilized and organized.

So, that religious part of the Republican Party, that … that’s where you see the arguments … where we don’t seem to be re-fighting … re-litigating Brown v. Board … we’re re-litigating the Scopes trial.

HEFFNER: But … guess what I’ve got … a guy in front of me who’s saying our time is up. So we have to stop here …

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … and which is the way I’m going to get you to come back when we can discuss this further and the next New York Review of Books review of books on this subject. Sam Tanenhaus, thanks so much for joining me today.

TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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