September 18, 2009
After a summer of high-profile partisan battles that have often put Democrats on the defensive, it may seem an odd time to publish a book called THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM. Its author Sam Tanenhaus knows the facts - angry demonstrations, high ratings for FOX NEWS and books penned by conservative authors selling at a breakneck pace - but he stands by his story.
Tanenhaus edits two of the NEW YORK TIMES most influential Sunday sections the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and the WEEK IN REVIEW. He's also the critically acclaimed biographer of two conservative icons: Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr.
To find out if he's issued a premature post-mortem of the conservative movement, Bill Moyers interviews Tanenhaus on the JOURNAL. The answer, Tanenhaus explains, depends on how we define conservatives: "Conservatism has been divided for a long time this is what my book describes narratively - between two strains. What I call 'realism' and 'revanchism.' We're seeing the revanchist side."
Tanenhaus continues to explain what he means by revanchist, "Briefly, these are people who think America has been taken away from them. And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism."
The other strain, which Tanenhaus considers to be the "true conservative" strain, has its intellectual roots in the writings of Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment-era thinker whose REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE is a classic of conservative thought. It is this intellectual movement that Tanenhaus sees dying out in American public life.
>>Find out more about Burke and other thinkers mentioned in the interview in our conservative glossary.
The Conservative Response
Tanenhaus first announced the death of conservatism in an essay in THE NEW REPUBLIC
. Not unexpectedly the response from the right was quick and plentiful. Gary Wills writes
in his review, that though he finds limits to Tanenhaus' framework, he does find it a useful book, calling it a "very original take on the last few decades of American politics, prickly, revisionist, and provocative."
The conservative blogger, Andrew Sullivan, agrees
with Tanenhaus' basic framework, writing of his essay, "The key point in Sam Tanenhaus' new essay, it seems to me, is his distinction between movement conservatism and classical conservatism. My own stab at this was the distinction between a conservatism of faith and a conservatism of doubt." Sullivan continues on to say, "In practice, few people on the American right fit entirely within one camp or the other. But the distinction still matters."
Of course, not everyone received Tanenhaus' ideas enthusiastically. Because Tanenhaus works for the NEW YORK TIMES, a target for some conservatives' ire, some dismissed it entirely, or, as in the case of Roger Kimball, a conservative writer and blogger, they have argued that Tanenhaus simply cannot understand conservatism. Kimball writes
, "It's not just that Tanenhaus doesn't get what conservatism is all about: his immersion in the left-wing echo chamber that is THE NEW YORK TIMES assures that his understanding of recent history will be composed entirely of fact resistant establishment clichés."
Others, like conservative intellectual James Piereson, takes issue with the substance of Tanenhaus' ideas. Piereson writes
in THE NEW CRITERION that Tanenhaus recycles an old critique of conservatism that dates back to the historian Richard Hofstadler's writing in the 1950s and 60s. If conservatives allow this framework, Piereson argues, they are allowing their philosophical movement to be "defined by its adversaries."
Piereson reads Tanenhaus's book as a call for conservatives to unilaterally disarm and "accept the New Deal and the welfare state as 'Burkean corrections' that served to adjust the American economy to modern conditions," which is not something he is prepared to do.
Piereson simply doesn't see the same divide in conservatism that Tanenhaus does, and so doesn't see any part of the movement as "dead." Just the opposite, he writes, "conservatism, moreover, is now a permanent and enduring aspect of American political life, supported by millions of Americans and defended by a large network of writers, journals, and think tanks."
But other conservatives, especially those disaffected with "movement conservatism," do see a divide. Rod Dreher, a conservative columnist and thinker, cites Tanenhaus in a recent column
lamenting the current state of the conservative politics:
Despite what Sam Tanenhaus says, conservatism is not dead. Rather, it's undead. The conservative movement is herking and jerking like a zombie, dedicated to little more than frenetic gestures execrating Obama, and to regaining power. To what end? Given that they're birthing a conservative party whose instincts are dictated by loudmouths, reactionaries and crackpots, and overseen by cynics, it's dispiriting to contemplate.
Where can those who wish to think and debate clearly about a serious politics of the right go? The degenerate form of populism now dominant on the right loves to praise "freedom" but it has no use for freedom of thought, or thinking much at all. In turn, increasing numbers of thoughtful conservatives have no use for it.
Andrew Sullivan, another conservative outside the "movement," agrees: "In contemporary America, the right is now in an almost parodic state of ideology. There isn't just a rigid set of beliefs, indifferent to any time or place (e.g. tax cuts are right in a boom and a recession, in surplus and debt); it is supported by a full-fledged organization or "movement"; this "movement" generates journals and magazines and blogs designed fundamentally to buttress the cause; and the most salient distinction discussed in these circles is between those who are for the cause and those against it (with particular scorn for any dissidents)."
Tanenhaus's article and book fits into a larger debate happening now among conservatives about the future of both their intellectual tradition and their movement and his arguments find parallels amongst many conservative intellectuals unhappy to be defined by the inflammatory rhetoric of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
>>Read more about the ongoing debate within the right.
Sam Tanenhaus was named editor, BOOK REVIEW OF THE NEW YORK TIMES in March 2004 and is also the editor of "The Week in Review" section. Mr. Tanenhaus had previously worked for THE NEW YORK TIMES from 1997 until 1999 as the assistant editor of the Op-Ed pages. He has also written for the BOOK REVIEW and the Op-Ed page, as well as "Arts & Ideas," the "Week in Review" and THE TIMES MAGAZINE.
Between his two positions at THE TIMES, he was a contributing editor for VANITY FAIR from May 1999 until March 2004, where he wrote feature articles on politics and culture.
Tanenhaus's writings have also appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE BOSTON GLOBE, NATIONAL REVIEW, THE NEW CRITERION, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, THE NEW REPUBLIC, FORTUNE, THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, PARTISAN REVIEW, COMMENTARY, CORRESPONDENCE, AND SLATE.
Tanenhaus has also published WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY (Random House, 1997; Modern Library paperback, 1998), which won the LOS ANGELES TIMES Book Prize for Biography in 1997, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1997 and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1998. He is currently writing a biography of William Buckley Jr.
Tanenhaus has lectured and made appearances at the White House, various schools of journalism, including Columbia University, Harvard and Yale, institutions such as the Smithsonian, and various television and radio programs.
Institutions from which Tanenhaus has received grants and awards include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Bradley Foundation. He has also been an affiliated writer at the New York University School of Journalism from September 2002 until June 2003, a media fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a juror on the Pulitzer Prize Committee on Biography in 2000, and has been a member of the Society of American Historians since 1999.
Guest photo by Robin Holland.
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"Conservatism Is Dead,"
By Sam Tanenhaus, THE NEW REPUBLIC, February 18, 2009. The original essay that the book is expanded from.
"What If Tanenhaus Is Right?,"
By Reihan Salam, THE AMERICAN SCENE, February 9, 2009.
"Is conservatism dead?,"
By James Piereson, THE NEW CRITERION, September, 2009.
Conservatism Isn't Dead, It's Just Intellectually Boring,"
By Austin Bramwell, THE NEW CRITERION, September, 2009.
"Zombie conservatives at the schoolhouse door,"
By Rod Dreher, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS, September 11, 2009.
"Conservatives: The Tanenhaus Taxonomy,"
By Garry Wills, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, September 24, 2009.
"Requiem for the Right,"
By Jon Meacham, NEWSWEEK, August 29, 2009.