"Conservatism Is Dead," blares the cover of the February 18 edition of The New Republic, heralding an article by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and Week in Review.Tanenhauscame to bury conservatism, arguing up front that today's GOP is too weak to resist Obama. (Perhaps a premature burial, given the GOP's stand against the "stimulus" package.)
Tanenhaus, who was advertised as some kind of conservative when he joined the Times as Book Review editor in 2004, has written nothing to justify that stance since. After Obama's election, he wrote in wonder that
Some 40 years later, there are conservatives who still inveigh against the perils of socialized medicine.
In his New Republic cover story, Tanenhaus sounded at best like a neo-liberal, making brief cursory criticism of liberal overreach while bearing down hard on conservative opposition to food stamps and the welfare state in general, with much discussion of Joe McCarthy, "the emptiness of free-market liturgy," and conservative malice toward the poor.
The right, it appeared, was nursing its own version of anti-Americanism. In fact, it had been festering for many years. As Garry Wills, who broke with the movement in the 1970s but continued to call himself a conservative, observed: "The right wing in America is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve."
The attack on the "new class," rooted in cultural hostility, dominated movement conservatism for the next 30 years, up through the administration of George W. Bush. On one side, as Rusher described it, were "businessmen, manufacturers, hard-hats, blue-collar workers, and farmers." On the other: "a liberal verbalist elite (the dominant media, the major foundations and research institutions, the educational establishment, the federal and state bureaucracies) and a semipermanent welfare constituency."
The great tribune of this new polarity was Ronald Reagan, with his denunciations of "big government" and the Cadillac-driving "welfare queens" it supported and his devotion (with urging from Kristol) to supply-side economics. The New Right was not only anti-Burkean. For all its populist enthusiasms, it reached back to the plutocratic Old Right of the Depression years, when businessmen had opposed federal assistance to the jobless because (as William E. Leuchtenburg summarized the argument in his book The Perils of Prosperity ) "the suffering of the unemployed was not the product of an economic breakdown but was the direct result of their moral infirmity."
As Reagan's first term approached its end, it "has achieved as yet hardly anything in bringing the most rapidly growing domestic programs under control," Nathan Glazer concluded, after examining the available budget data. There was a reason nothing was done: The untouched programs benefited the "Reagan Democrats" who had been wooed in 1980 with the pledge that "insurance programs" like Social Security and Medicare would not be touched. The boom had been lowered in only one place: "The advocates of the poor play no role in this administration," Glazer found. "From this fact one can conclude that a certain blindness to their problems at best, and a positive malice at worst, animates the administration's policies." So much for the Beaconsfield position.
Tanenhaus's view of conservatism has no role for the concept of limited government. He concluded that there was hope for conservatives - by going along with the welfare state.
At its best, conservatism has served the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times. There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism - a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.
In Tanenhaus's narrowed definition of conservatism, liberals are free to expand the federal government, which conservatives are then obligated to "conserve" to be true to their philosophy. How convenient for big-government liberals, to have an opponent that will consolidate their political gains.