Sam Tanenhaus

The Death of Conservatism, Part I

VTR Date: May 27, 2009

Biographer and editor Sam Tanenhaus discusses the fate of conservatism in America.


GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
VTR: 05/27/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And it’s fitting, I suppose, that the Editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review should have himself written one of the most provocative and insightful books on contemporary American politics that I’ve read in a long, long time.

Indeed, when Sam Tanenhaus was here a few years ago and we were talking about his much acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers and anticipating – even as we do today – his forthcoming biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., he said to me, “To me politics is a subject of almost novelistic and dramatic interest…I want to know where the stories are…I’m a journalist”.

And now, in his new Random House book, The Death of Conservatism, my guest indeed makes the fate of conservatism in America “of almost novelistic and dramatic interest”.

As a journalist he does tell us “where the stories are”…the most interesting of which is that “In the end,” as he writes, ” Conservatives [as he calls those hard-liners who would tear down and destroy, rather than conserve and build] they got the war they wanted – both at home [the culture wars] and abroad [in Iraq]. Both were repudiated in the 2008 election, with the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the Burkean principles of ‘conservation’ and ‘correction’ than any significant thinker or political figure on the Right today.”

So I want to ask Mr. Tanenhaus, just how he thinks Barack Obama would react to that characterization?

TANENHAUS: Well, I think, he’s a hard man to read in some ways, but I think he would acknowledge that temperamentally he’s probably more Conservative than a Liberal. He’s a pragmatist. He has called himself a “ruthless pragmatist”. Which is an interesting juxtaposition of words. Because we think of pragmatists maybe as being soft sometimes or not having very hard fixed goals. And I think he does have them.

But what he has absorbed more than I think any Conservative of the moment … is the idea of conservatism as a way of looking at the world, as a temperamental matter. The language you use, the way you talk to your opponent, the way you talk to the public if you’re a statesman.

Now, he’s also politically Liberal. He comes out of the, I think the Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson tradition of a kind of interventionist government that abrogates, you know, a fair amount … abrogates a fair amount of power to itself at the same time doing so in the interests of supporting cultural institutions, government institutions and helping people along.

And those are ideas I think most Americans actually subscribe to. What happens is they somehow became demonized in the last generation of politics. So people will call themselves Conservative, when most of their views are not particularly different from Barack Obama’s which is, I think, one reason he was elected.

HEFFNER: When you talk about “demonized” and you seem to say in this really quite fascinating book that the Conservatives are the demonizers, or had become … the Movement Conservatives … and by the way, what do you mean “Movement Conservatives”?

TANENHAUS: Well, that’s a good question. What do I mean by a “Movement Conservative”? I think it’s someone who is … another term I use is “revanchist” someone who’s so convinced that the American society and our government mean to destroy the great values, the traditional values of the nation that almost nothing inhibits them from trying to take it back.

You know I went to a panel discussion, oh, a couple of months ago … it was in the Spring … at Harvard, it was the editors of three very important Conservative journals … the Weekly Standard …

HEFFNER: At Harvard? They went to Harvard?

TANENHAUS: At the Harvard Club … sorry. At the Harvard Club in Manhattan … and in midtown … it was the editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, the editor of Commentary, John Podhoretz, who was hosting the event and the online editor of National Review, Jonah Goldberg. Three very prominent Conservative … what we think of … or normally called “conservative” journalists.

And they were addressing what seemed to them the crisis of Obama’s election and what Conservatives should do to win again and to regain their purchase in American politics.

And at one point, I think it was Jonah Goldberg who said “we have to take America back”. And I thought, “well take it back from whom, exactly. From the almost 53% of the voters who chose the other guy?” (Laugh) That seemed odd to me.

And what also seemed odd and in fact dismaying was … there was absolutely no acknowledgement that the position we’re in today … you know, tremendous economic crisis … the worst … most degree since the Great Depression. A war being fought on two fronts and perhaps in some ways being lost on one or the other of them… a kind of larger spiritual crisis in the country … tremendous anxieties.

There wasn’t one of them who said, “Maybe we should think about the mistakes we made.” It reminded me a little of George Bush. It’s a sense of, of righteousness, of rectitude, of ideological certitude which doesn’t really ever make sense in political terms. Because as the great Conservative … Edmund Burke whom I kind of begin my book with … said, conservatism is, is a kind of compromise, you are trying to ‘conserve’ you want to protect and safeguard the great institutions of the culture, the habits of the culture, the government itself is the guarantor of security and harmony. Society and government go together, you can’t even take them apart. You can’t distinguish one from the other.

These are ideas so far removed from what we hear now said on the American Right that the only conclusion I could draw is these people aren’t really Conservatives.


TANENHAUS: They’re radicals. And that’s what we’ve come to, oddly, is a radical phase in American politics. And that’s partly what this little book is about.

HEFFNER: Yes, I, I must say that’s what fascinated me so much about the book. You call it a “little book”, but it is so crammed full of ideas, particularly this idea that you just related to now … that these aren’t Conservatives, they’re quite radical, they’re destroyers, not conservatizing people.

TANENHAUS: Well, and what’s interesting about that is something the book does is to chart the rise and fall of Conservatism. And there’s a fair amount about the rise and, and when Conservatives reached it’s great moment and here I make a case … a little different from some others … that the great Conservative period was not the Reagan years, it was actually the late 1960’s, I think, when conservatives become the defenders of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the politics of stability”.

The most important thing we needed was to keep the culture and the society together. And that it was actually the politics of the Left that seemed to be threatening this sense of order.

And that was when great Conservatives like William Buckley, who had begun as flamethrower suddenly emerged as a great Burkean, someone who wants to compromise with the other side. He suddenly realizes it’s up to Republicans to defend the great institutions in society. That “statism” which had always been the sort of bogyman of … among Conservatives because they equated the Liberal welfare state with Communism and Socialism … suddenly Conservatives like Bill Buckley realized it’s up to them to defend this state.

And what this meant was they were re-thinking their basic premises, their first principles. That’s what Conservatives aren’t doing today. A few of them are…But very few and I really don’t understand it. I don’t understand why they call themselves Conservative. Why not just say, “We’re Radicals of the Right”? And then I think we’d all … we’d understand it a little better.

HEFFNER: Radicals of the Right? Do you think that would be acceptable?

TANENHAUS: No. (Laughter) It wouldn’t be, of course. Ahem, what we think of as Conservatism … Movement Conservatism is based on a very extreme idea of what America and politics ought to do.

And as I point out, it really goes all the way back to the New Deal. The language that the Republican National Committee recently used, when they decided not to brand the Democratic Party as “the Social Democrat Party”, but instead to accuse them of leading the country on the march to Socialism, is exactly … verbatim … what Herbert Hoover said about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

That’s the “revanchist” side, something has been taken away from us, our country isn’t ours anymore. These other people have somehow high-jacked it and what this does is to lead to a conspiratorial politics.

Now where the Right was able, effectively and persuasively to make this case, was during the early years of the Cold War, another period, as you know, I’ve written about a fair amount.

It was people like Whittaker Chambers and Buckley and in a very extreme and destructive way, Joseph McCarthy, who pushed the issue of Communist subversion onto the table where everyone could look at it.

Now what was falsely claimed by many was that a Democratic President like Harry Truman wasn’t alert to the issue. Of course he was. He saw it translated into something else, a fight between the Executive Branch and Congress over who would supervise the staffing of Executive agencies and such.

But once Conservatives were able to say “We have evidence people inside the government are our enemies … the enemy within … there are subversives there … the Alger Hisses”. Then they actually got some purchase on the debate. The mistake the Liberals made was … not all of them, again, just some and some in power … was to repudiate that argument entirely. And to claim that anyone accused of being a Communist or a subversive must therefore be innocent by virtue of the accusation.

And what happened is a lot of bad people flipped through. And so it looked as if the Liberals … and one wing of the Democratic Party was not meeting this issue head-on … they were evading it.

But where the real breakthrough came, was, as I said, in the 1960’s when there were really two wings of youth politics that … and you’ll remember this very well … that had a kind of romance and attraction to it … it was the New Right and the New Left.

What most of us remember is the New Left, the Abby Hoffmans and Tom Haydens, the Black Panthers, the SDS, the Weather Underground and all the rest … Weathermen … these very radical student protesters on campuses, demonstrators who wanted to improve and change American society, but seemed to detach themselves from what I call “normative politics” of elections, campaigns, rallying around the people who were in office and running for office.

Instead they made them the enemy. And they were … and they became, in the phrase of the times, “Anti-American”. The Right though just as extreme in its views … these are people like the John Birch Society or the Young Americans for Freedom stayed within the bounds of, again, “normative politics”.

They got involved in election campaigns, they were the foot soldiers in Barry Goldwater’s campaign for President in 1964. And the one great contribution, I argue, that the, the New Right, this young Right made was to channel passions back into our political institutions.

So that was when the Right emerged as yes, perhaps an extreme ideology, and its great tribune became Ronald Reagan, the views were probably … his views were probably different, more extreme than those of most of the country, but he also seemed to personify the belief in American ideals and values. That was enough for a lot of the country to support him. Personally, if not always his policies.

Whereas the Left moved farther and farther away. And there was a kind of reversal of positions. Suddenly it was the Left that was attacking government. That became wedded to what I call “orthodoxy” as opposed to “consensus”, which is the other big theme in the book.

HEFFNER: What happened to those wonderful old Conservative Americans from generations ago … truly Conservative persons who didn’t seek to tear down, but rather to maintain, to sustain … the Burkeans in your reckoning.

TANENHAUS: Well, that would be politicians like Rockefeller and the elder Romney, George Romney, who was actually quite different from his son … William Scranton … Pennsylvania. Colin Powell is, is, is one of them, still. George Schultz, who worked for Reagan.

And then also the thinkers. I, you know, mentioned Chambers, Buckley … James Burnham who was a very brilliant, almost kind of sinister figure in some ways. But very perceptive about the way American politics worked and a forgotten, or half- forgotten genius named Willmoore Kendall, who was the mentor to Garry Wills, who I think is, still, the great Conservative of our time.

I think Garry Wills is the most important living American Conservative thinker, even though most people think of him as being on the Left. And he does not.

But at any rate … what happened to them? They were driven out by the activists on the Right.

HEFFNER: So the “Death of Conservatism” is the death of the old Conservatism?

TANENHAUS: Yes, it’s the death of two things. It was the … it’s the death of the Burkean and Disraeli and Conservatism. It was killed by the Right and now we’ve seen the death of Movement Conservatism with the Bush years. And the Bush years are very important …

HEFFNER: But why do you say the death of that … stream of conservatism?

TANENHAUS: Well, it, it, it’s with us, but …

HEFFNER: They were there at the Harvard Club with you.

TANENHAUS: They were … preaching to themselves. You know I say in the book that the Right now preaches only to the Right. They have lost their place in the mainstream of our politics.

That is to say we’ll hear a great deal of talk about the base and we’ll hear how important evangelicals still are and we, we hear this every day. Every time Newt Gingrich or Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh or Bill Kristol opines about politics you’re absolutely right, you are hearing the old Movement Politics … Liberals are the enemy, Obama is a Socialist, if not a Fascist, the Democrats are enslaved to special interest groups.

Yes, we are hearing this all the time. The difference is (laugh) it’s not having much impact. It’s, it’s not being bought by the country. And one reason, as I say in the book, is they’ve missed the bigger story, which is, the country itself is quite Conservative now. Gay people want to get married. Who … (laugh) … you’re as old as I am … I’m in my final …

HEFFNER: I’m what …


HEFFNER: I beg your pardon … you saying … “if you as old as you are …

TANENHAUS: Yes. Well, someone who remembers the activist movement among gays and lesbians and its identification with an alternative lifestyle … realizes they sound Conservative. And if they actually want to join the broader institutions of the culture, they’re actually reinforcing and fortifying those institutions, which is exactly what Edmund Burke wanted.

Edmund Burke supported the American Revolution. And you know a great deal about the American Revolution because he thought the colonists not only had a grievance … remember he didn’t like them because they were slave holders.

But they had a legitimate grievance. They thought they should … according to English law … be able to state their case against excessive taxation. They wanted to belong to the larger structure. How can you, as a Conservative, object to that?

Same with something like gay marriage. It seems to me the only legitimate argument you can make … now as far as religions acknowledging it … that’s separate.

What individual religions do in individual faiths is not something that a member of the civil society, which is a big term of Burke’s … in America needs to worry about.

In Burke’s day you did because there was an official state religion, which we don’t have. So we set that aside. We look at the issue of something like civil unions. And here you see that what gay people are … ask is the same protections as everyone else. And they’re really saying “we believe in the institution of, of marriage. We would like to raise children, we would like to adopt children and raise them”. Somebody has a problem with that?

The only problem I can imagine is if you could prove statistically that heterosexuals are declining marriage because homosexuals are pursuing it. Then you could say, “Well, the institution’s being weakened because there are so many fewer homosexuals and so many more heterosexuals … if only homosexuals are getting married then we don’t have a viable institution. But we know that’s not happening. Nobody’s deciding not to get married.

In other words it’s, it’s unconservative to oppose that and not … to oppose the civil unions and not to recognize that this is a sign that the supposedly marginal, fringe elements in our culture want “in”. They want to be included. Who is … how could you have a problem with that if you’re a Conservative?

HEFFNER: Where would Whittaker Chambers be now intellectually in terms of the death of conservatism?

TANENHAUS: What a great question because he’s so complicated.

Chambers, as you know, went through various extremist (laugh) phases. I mean he was a courier for the Soviet Union in the thirties. Then, at the time of the Hiss case and in its aftermath, he was very angry at the Liberal intelligentsia who had defamed him. Not all. But some.

Enough to kind of exile him from, sort of a charmed circle of the New York and East Coast intellectual elite where he really belonged. A literary man, talented writer, true intellectual, read and spoke many languages.

But then he came around. Once all that was behind him he looked at the New Right, as it was emerging through apprentices like Bill Buckley who came to him really seeking guidance. And he said, “No, you’re getting it wrong. That what you think of as extremist, namely the New Deal, is the way the country is going. And if you don’t see where the country is going, you’ll never prosper as a movement.”

Where would Chamber stand now? What would he think of say the Iraq War? Well, in my book I quote this very remarkable, almost totally forgotten manifesto that Benjamin Disraeli wrote when he was very young, called Vindication of the English Constitution.

And in it he has a brilliant critique of the exportation of democracy … why it doesn’t work. That institutions have to proceed democracy, which, by the way … was the argument … people … we should think of as Conservatives … Francis Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria both made before the Iraq War.

So Chambers would look at that now, I think, and have his doubts, just as his acolyte William Buckley had doubts about Iraq very early on. He was never persuaded that that war made sense. Neither was George Will, another true Burkean Conservative in our time.

What would Chambers do? Well, Chambers we also know had a secret history as a homosexual for, you know, many years and it’s not something one entirely overcomes. In his era, it was seen as a kind of illness that one could be cured of. But I think we view it differently now. It’s hard for me to imagine Whittaker Chambers not being (laugh) sympathetic toward homosexuals who want to be included in, in the larger society. It was part of the, the torment in his own life. So why would he not favor that?

Also, like Bill Buckley, he admired intellect, he admired verbal skills. These are two, you know, very pronounced traits with Barack Obama. And I think he would sense … again … one hates to speak for the dead, especially the complex, many faceted dead … but it’s hard to imagine his being uncomfortable with a President like Obama and his Administration.

Now that doesn’t mean he would agree with Nancy Pelosi … you know, on every issue because there are, you know, competing … factions within the Democratic Party, too, and we don’t want to say the Democrats in toto have everything right and the Republicans have everything wrong.

To my mind it’s all about negotiating the differences. What Chambers called the “politics of maneuver”, you know. And which Buckley came to see was, was the real answer. That what you do is figure out where you stand. Figure out where the other side is. See what it is you agree about and work toward that end. That is consensus, the convergence of different views.

I don’t think Chambers would have had a problem with that. One final point to make about that is Chambers saw very early that Eisenhower was a really skilled and accomplished President. The Right hated Eisenhower. National Review was founded in 1955 in large part to read Eisenhower out of the Conservative Movement. Those are Bill Buckley’s words, the 29 year old Bill Buckley.

Now I make the case that Eisenhower was one of the two great post-war Presidents. I think the other was Bill Clinton (laugh) actually. I think these were the two great Conservative Presidents of our time … of the modern age.

And, so if Chambers was that receptive to Eisenhower’s brand of governance, well that gives you … that puts you on a different line. You get from Eisenhower to Rockefeller … remember Colin Powell briefly flirted with running for President … it’s a very different kind of Republican politics. That’s the Republican politics we need again and a very tiny number are clinging to it. They’re almost all in the Northeast, where there are no true Republicans any longer … you know Movement Republicans, they don’t exist. That’s why there are no Republicans in the House in the Northeast.

The Republican Party drove them all out. Newt Gingrich is responsible for much of that. It’s astonishing to me that he’s being seen as a serious political figure now. He’s the most destructive politician in the last generation.

HEFFNER: We have just about a minute left and I want to ask you whether you think … you’re really convinced … let’s put it that way …


HEFFNER: … I gather that the old Left/Right … the radical Right that they’re well on their way to disappearing.

TANENHAUS: Well, yes. As … as a potent force in our politics …yes.

HEFFNER: And as a destructive force?

TANENHAUS: They can do some damage. Absolutely. They still control the Republican Congress which is a very powerful instrument. That’s why Obama, I think, so carefully built his Democratic majority, because he’s aware. Look what happened with the stimulus bill.

Remember when … I wrote about this in the book … you know, when Reagan was elected and proposed massive tax cuts Democrats were shocked. They had a very large majority in the House. They went along with it anyway. They bowed to the will of the electorate. The Republicans won’t do it.

HEFFNER: Okay. I said we had almost no time left and then I asked you a leading question.

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: So I hope you’ll stay where you are and we’ll do another program.

TANENHAUS: Absolutely. I’d love to.

HEFFNER: Sam Tanenhaus thanks for joining me on this Open Mind.

TANENHAUS: My pleasure.

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.