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The Death of Conservatism


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ISBN13: 9781400068845
ISBN10: 1400068843
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Sam Tanenhauss essay “Conservatism Is Dead” prompted intense discussion and debate when it was published in The New Republic in the first days of Barack Obamas presidency. Now Tanenhaus, a leading authority on modern politics, has expanded his argument into a sweeping history of the American conservative movement. For seventy-five years, he argues, the Right has been split between two factions: consensus-driven “realists” who believe in the virtue of government and its power to adjust to changing conditions, and movement “revanchists” who distrust government and society-and often find themselves at war with America itself.

Eventually, Tanenhaus writes, the revanchists prevailed, and the result is the decadent “movement conservatism” of today, a defunct ideology that is “profoundly and defiantly unconservative-in its arguments and ideas, its tactics and strategies, above all in its vision.”

But there is hope for conservatism. It resides in the examples of pragmatic leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan and thinkers like Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr. Each came to understand that the true role of conservatism is not to advance a narrow ideological agenda but to engage in a serious dialogue with liberalism and join with it in upholding “the politics of stability.”

Conservatives today need to rediscover the roots of this honorable tradition. It is their only route back to the center of American politics.

At once succinct and detailed, penetrating and nuanced, The Death of Conservatism is a must-read for Americans of any political persuasion.

About the Author

Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the Week in Review section of the Times. From 1999 to 2004 he was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he wrote often on politics. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. Tanenhauss previous book, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

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OneMansView, October 2, 2009 (view all comments by OneMansView)
Pseudo-conservatives are not dead (3.75*s)

This book is precipitated, first, by the loss of the last presidential election by the inglorious Republicans, or pseudo-conservatives, but also by the disappearance of any semblance of true conservatism from national politics. Two things about the book: regardless of the ridiculousness of this brand of Republicanism, their demise is greatly exaggerated; secondly, the entire concept of “conservatism” is beset by misrepresentations.

The author’s admission that most of us are both liberal and conservative helps little. Gordon Wood in “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” made the essential point that the formation of the United States was a liberal undertaking. We rejected kowtowing to kings, priests, feudal lords, etc. We emphasized equal liberty for all (initially, white men) and created a political community based on the participation of the common man to greater or lesser extent. We accept that “We, the People” will decide what measures will be undertaken by our government. We don't automatically accept old thinking and old ways of doing things, usually reinforced by social elites. It is totally nonsensical to speak of anti-government sentiment in a democracy when it is actually our responsibility to participate in gov and address our issues and advance the cause of ourselves, if not mankind.

The author makes an invidious comparison between the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man versus our supposedly conservative, practical founding. Of course, he has to acknowledge that our own Declaration of Independence speaks of the equality and rights of men. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution attempted to rein in democracy, which actually testifies to our democratic instincts. Applying political labels is almost impossible. Were the Whigs, the forerunners to the Repubs, in their advocacy of gov intervention, liberal or conservative? Were the Jacksonians, forerunners to the Democrats, in their destruction of the Bank of the US and pro-Southernism, radical or conservative? The fact is that elements of preservation and change are part of any political era and of all parties.

But the fundamental change since the Age of Jackson that pertains to today’s conservative versus liberal arguments, which the author neglects to note, is the rise of the mega-corporation and a corporate elite. Their penetration and control of our government and culture has been so complete as to be virtually undetectable. The legal order, the very nature of work and employment, the flow of information – all of these are orchestrated by corporations with an interest in profits, not a just or democratic social order. Traditional society and our mores have been far more affected by the push of huge businesses than any other factor. It is from this elite element that intense anti-gov rhetoric flows, while receiving massive amounts of gov services, if not outright welfare. Through their propaganda efforts, they have managed to convince sizeable segments of our society, evangelicals and working people, to name some, that adverse social and economic developments are due to gov excess. Of course, many others are closely tied to the self-interests of corporations.

Unfortunately, corporate capitalism, especially in its laissez-faire mode, has shown a great deal of instability through the years. The major depressions of 1877, 1893, and the early 1930s are only the tip of the iceberg. We, the People have been forced to contend with the social destructiveness of capitalism through the only entity that has any power to contain their excesses, namely, government. This is where the labeling starts. When Progressives or New Dealers attempted to deal with corporate excess – this is “liberalism.” When corporations want to continue their privileged place in society with no changes despite obvious social negativities – this is conservatism. When a party attempts to sway our society to actually live up to emancipation laws adopted over one hundred years ago or to keep evangelicals out of public affairs – this is liberalism. But to continue to ignore our founding principles concerning equality and keeping gov religion-free is conservative. Can both of these positions have equal legitimacy?

The author’s examples of true conservatives are Edmund Burke and Disraeli. Curiously, neither was anti-government, per se. Burke was against the excesses of the French Revolution, though it’s hard to see the appeal to Americans of a philosopher comfortable with monarchy – that’s in opposition to our founding principles. The author notes that some so-called conservatives of recent vintage, such as Reagan and Nixon, despite their rhetoric, were very practical in their approach to gov, with Nixon even advocating a guaranteed income. They were not knee-jerk no-change agents. One might ask again, when a political party or person is acting in the best interests of the nation as a whole, what exactly is the difference between liberal and conservative? It is hard to argue against debate in a democracy. Hopefully, it is all reasonable, transcending liberal and conservative.

The author refers to the current Republican party as “movement” conservatism. In actuality, it is a radical libertarian party completely in thrall to the rich with an agenda of preserving/conserving the privileged position of corporations and their elites in American society. And they have managed to drag along millions of people who are upset with developments in the nation but who are too blind to see that it is these very corporations who have contributed most to their woes and complaints. Who, other than business elites, gratuitously downsize, ship jobs overseas, invite in millions of visa workers, cause a near economic collapse, produce salacious entertainment products, etc?

The notion of the “death of conservatism” is quite ambiguous. The author does not clarify what it means to be conservative in a liberal, democratic order that specifically calls for the equality and rights of all men. Hopefully, a conservative is not one who supports the existence of elitism that is at best indifferent, or worse opposed, to the implementation of our fundamental principles. Secondly, the GW Bush presidency was a disaster for the nation economically and internationally. But there is not much evidence with which to contend that the corporate agenda is much diminished. The so-called liberal party has imposed few additional constraints on corporations despite their tendency to self-destruct and their acceptance of large amounts of taxpayer money. Only in times of highly skewed thinking, could the conservative demonization of liberals and gov continue nonstop despite the propping of the teetering corporate order. Given the corporate hegemony of our social and political order, rather than death, it is far more likely that the misconstrued “conservative” Republican Party will rise sooner than later.

Despite the brevity of the book and its vagueness, it does invite thinking about the nature of our politics – long overdue. For that reason, it is recommended.
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Product Details

Tanenhaus, Sam
Random House
Conservatism -- United States.
Political Ideologies - Conservatism & Liberalism
History & Theory - General
General Political Science
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.50x5.78x.73 in. .65 lbs.

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History and Social Science » Politics » General

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