First, a minor but important point for understanding the history of conservatism. Tanenhaus states that Edmund Burke, “the great originator of modern conservatism,” did not “propose a counter-ideology.” That is false. Tanenhaus admires the Burke of Reflections on the Revolution of France — or, as I call him, the “platitudinous Burke,” not because Burke is platitudinous, but because writers who summarize the lessons of Reflections so often make him sound that way. Tanenhaus is no exception: Burke, he says, distrusted all ideologies, opposed “extremist politics of any kind,” and was horrified by “totalizing nostrums.” Who could argue with that?
Well, Edmund Burke for one. By the time he wrote the Letters on Regicide Peace, Burke had become much more reactionary. There can be no peace with France, Burke argued, for what ruled there was not a state or a government but an “armed doctrine . . . inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace and war may best contribute to their subversion.” Burke compares the French republic to a nuisance which every neighboring country had the right — indeed, Burke argues, the duty — to destroy. He estimates that fully one-fifth of the English public were “pure Jacobins,”objects of eternal vigilance; and when they break out, of legal constraint.” Further, Burke argues, the Jacobins were corrupting ordinary manners, so as both to harden the hearts of Frenchmen and relax their morals, with the result that it was impossible to reach any agreement with them. In short, at the end of his life, Burke was preaching not compromise, prudence and adjustment but unrelenting war against an abstract enemy. A counter-ideology was exactly what Burke ended up proposing. His conservatism was just a passing phase.
Second, Tanenhaus’s gloss on Burkean conservatism — which, borrowing from Whitaker Chambers, he calls the “Beaconsfield position” — is highly tendentious. According to the Beaconsfield position, conservatives should embrace a “just, necessary, expedient” politics of giving the public whatever policies they demand. Thus, Benjamin Disraeli, the eponymous Earl of Beaconsfield, outmaneuvred the Liberal Party by coopting its agenda. Similarly, Nixon, whom Tanenhaus regards as the greatest modern conservative President, implemented more liberal programs than any president since FDR. The Beaconsfield position, in other words, holds that conservatives should do whatever it takes to get and stay in power, even if they find the means distasteful.
The “Beaconsfield position” is certainly one possible conservative strategy. However, it is not the only one. Sometimes, aggressive compromise may be necessary. At other times, however, a better conservative strategy is simply to do nothing, or perhaps to dismantle the programs that are wreaking the most havoc. Tanenhaus — not surprisingly — wants conservatives to be like Disraeli and Nixon. But conservatives may also be like Coolidge or Harding. Only some of the time, and perhaps only rarely, does conserving the legitimacy of existing institutions require co-opting the liberal party’s agenda.
Finally, Tanenhaus is wrong that the conservative movement has become unwilling to compromise its ideology. Tanenhaus himself cites all the evidence, even if, inexplicably, he draws the opposite conclusion.
For example, Tanenhaus agrees that Ronald Reagan made no effort whatsoever to limit the size of government. Reagan himself, he writes, “proved less an ideologue than his champions, often to their dismay.” In negotiating with Gorbachev a peaceful end to the Cold War, for example, Reagan had ears as deaf as adders’ to the movement’s howls of protest. Yet, awed by Reagan’s diplomatic success, movement conservatives now quietly admits that they were wrong and Reagan was right.
The sole evidence that Tanenhaus actually comes up with that the Reagan administration was ideologically rigid is that, in its first term, it did not increase spending on anti-poverty programs as rapidly as spending on the rest of government. But Tanenhaus himself accepts the neoconservative critique that Great Society programs often did more harm than good. In any case, that Reagan, a movement conservative hero, sold out the cause of small government in all but one area proves the very opposite point that Tanenhaus wishes to make.
Tanenhaus strains even more painfully to fit the facts to this thesis when he gets to George W. Bush. He concedes that Bush enacted a new entitlement (the Medicare prescription drug bill) and amassed huge budget deficits. A betrayal of limited government? No, writes Tanenhaus, for Ronald Reagan himself had strengthened Social Security and Medicare and presided over an explosive growth in federal spending. In other words, Reagan betrayed movement orthodoxy, but Bush betrayed it even more. The movement has embraced both as its own (though not, in the case of Bush, without a later case of buyer’s remorse). Pace Tanenhaus, the trend in the movement has been towards compromise.
That’s just the most glaring contradiction. Elsewhere, Tanenhaus complains that Republicans voted against the Obama stimulus bill, even though “free market gurus conceded that the federal government must seize command of a ravaged economy.” In other words, movement intellectuals — those “free market gurus” — tried to move Republicans to the center. Bush did launch a campaign to “privatize” social security, but never set forth his proposal in detail and quickly abandoned the effort as soon as it became clear that the public wouldn’t support it. The broader concept of an “ownership society,” of which individual Social Security accounts were to be a part, is itself a concession to the reality that the voters don’t actually want government cut. Bush did push tax cuts through Congress, but also a Keynesian one-time tax rebate that movement conservatives detested. Movement intellectuals have since become increasingly skeptical of tax cuts and now routinely deride the “starve the beast” hypothesis that tax cuts indirectly reduce the size of government. Republican politicians, by contrast, continue to see tax cuts as one of their few winning issues. On tax cuts, again, the movement has if anything been pushing the GOP to the center.
Tanenhaus makes a better case when he assails the Iraq war and Bush’s “unilateralist foreign policy.” But the Iraq war was not exactly an example of fidelity to stale movement orthodoxy. Before 9/11, hardly anyone was arguing that Muslim extremists had been waging a more-or-less coordinated 30-year war against the United States, that we needed to “drain the swamp” through dramatic military action, or that the United States should humiliate some Muslim government or other in order to prove to Muslims that the United States is the “strong horse.” These ideas, though they did have precedents, were improvised in response to 9/11. For years after 9/11, the movement argued passionately that all Bush’s perfidies could be forgiven so long as he was right on the most important issue of the day, namely, the War on Terror. In other words, the movement favored its exciting new take on the latest challenges over its humdrum older dogmas. You could say that 9/11 made the conservative movement feel young again. Once again, Tanenhaus’s evidence proves the opposite of what he intends.
In short, there is nothing in Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism to convince the purist who believes that the problem with the conservative movement is that it has betrayed its principles. I am not a purist myself — I have no objection in principle to government intervention in the economy, I think “originalism” in constitutional interpretation is balderdash, I believe the pro-life side engages in as much arbitrary line-drawing as the pro-choice side. Still, it should be noted that Tanenhaus fails to prove his case that the movement has been inordinately committed to its orthodoxy. The movement still professes the slogans, but not with anything like the same fervor.