Sam Tanenhaus, editor of "The New York Times Book Review" and "Week in Review," and the author of the book, "The Death of Conservatism," went on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC talk show Monday night to discuss her being featured in a fundraising letter from the right-wing John Birch Society. But the friendly chat soon veered off into a comparison of the nationalist John Birch Society to the Tea Party movement, with Tanenhaus confidently proclaiming "there are no serious ideas left on the right."
Tanenhaus is pretty assured, for a man who published a book called "The Death of Conservatism" months before a conservative resurgence. At least he didn't refer to Tea Party protesters as "tea baggers," as he did in an exchange on Slate last October.
SAM TANENHAUS: But there were many on the right who actually supported [John Birch Society president Robert] Welch on the principle we're seeing in action today - no enemies on the right. If they can be useful, you keep them in the tent. Then, by the mid-'60s, as you said before, they'd gotten so far off the grid that Buckley, a guy who kind of trafficked in intellectual circles, particularly in New York, and had a lot of smart liberal friends, like Murray Kempton and John Kenneth Galbraith, got a little embarrassed by them. At the same time, though, as you said, they were forceful. They were useful. In the Goldwater campaign in '64, they were the foot soldiers. In some sense, they're the precursor to the tea partiers we're seeing now, so the right is always nervous about evicting people like that.
RACHEL MADDOW: There's no way around it except to talk about who they are in the bluntest possible terms, I think. But what does it say to you, Sam, that the John Birch Society is back, after so many years in exile, after conspiracists had to contend with people who are sort of gatekeepers in terms of what counts as mainstream conservatism? What does it mean that the gatekeepers are gone now?
TANENHAUS: Well, it means that it's a movement without serious ideas. Look at poor David Frum, you know, someone who's actually a kind of consequential guy, protégé of Buckley himself.
MADDOW: Yes. (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
TANENHAUS: Well, more or less evicted from the movement. That's right. He doesn't want - I don't know. Maybe he has his own conspiracy about you.
TANENHAUS: They all do! But, yes, there are no serious ideas left on the right. We see who the great idea people are, the ones who pretend to be - Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and all the rest. This is about as good as it's getting now, so they don't have a Buckley or an Irving Kristol or someone like that to call them out. Some - there's another difference too, Rachel. People like Buckley and Kristol thought part of the job of conservatism was to persuade serious liberals, if not to agree with them, at least to rethink their own ideas, to raise the level of discourse. That's not what the extremists do.
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