Sam Tanenhaus on the Death of Conservatism

The editor of The New York Times Book Review and the paper's "Week in Review" section, Sam Tanenhaus is the biographer of Whittaker Chambers and is at work on the life of William F. Buckley Jr. In a new, short book, The Death of Conservatism, he argues that the right needs to find its footing for the good of the country. In an e-mail exchange with Jon Meacham, Tanenhaus reflected on the book's themes. Excerpts:

Meacham: So how bad is it, really? Your title doesn't quite declare conservatism dead.
Tanenhaus: Quite bad if you prize a mature, responsible conservatism that honors America's institutions, both governmental and societal. The first great 20th-century Republican president, Theo- dore Roosevelt, supported a strong central government that emphasized the shared values and ideals of the nation's millions of citizens. He denounced the harm done by "the trusts"—big corporations. He made it his mission to conserve vast tracts of wilderness and forest. The last successful one, Ronald Reagan, liked to remind people (especially the press) he was a lifelong New Dealer who voted four times for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The consensus forged by Buckley in the 1960s gained strength through two decisive acts: first, Buckley denounced right-wing extremists, such as the members of the John Birch Society, and made sure when he did it to secure the support of conservative Republicans like Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Sen. John Tower. This pulled the movement toward the center. Second: Buckley saw that the civil disturbances of the late 1960s (in particular urban riots and increasingly militant anti-Vietnam protests) posed a challenge to social harmonies preferred by genuine conservatives and genuine liberals alike. When the Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan called on liberals to join with conservatives in upholding "the politics of stability," Buckley replied that he was ready to help. He placed the values of "civil society" (in Burke's term) above those of his own movement or the GOP.

Today we see very little evidence of this. In his classic The Future of American Politics (1952), the political journalist Samuel Lubell said that our two-party system in fact consists of periods of alternating one-party rule—there is a majority "sun" party and a minority "moon" party. "It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out," Lubell wrote. Thus, in the 1980s, Republicans grasped (and Democrats did not) that new entrepreneurial energies had been unleashed, and also that the Cold War could be brought to a conclusion through strong foreign policy. This was the Republicans' "sun" period. The reverse is happening today. The Democrats now dominate our heliocentric system—first on the economic stimulus, which is already proving to be at least a limited success, and now on the issue of health-care reform. These are both entirely Democratic initiatives. The Republicans, so intent on thwarting Obama, have vacated the field, and left it up to the sun party to accept the full burden of legislating us into the future. If the Democrats succeed, Republicans will be tagged as the party that declined even to help repair a broken system and extend fundamental protections—logical extensions of Social Security and Medicare—to some 46 million people who now don't have them. This could marginalize the right for a generation, if not longer. Rush Limbaugh's stated hope that Obama will fail seems to have become GOP doctrine. This is the attitude not of conservatives, but of radicals, who deplore the very possibility of a virtuous government.

Is there an analogous historical moment? Conservatives argue that this is 1965 and that a renaissance is at hand.
I disagree. Today, conservatives seem in a position closer to the one they occupied during the New Deal. The epithets so many on the right now hurl at Obama—"socialist," "fascist"—precisely echo the accusations Herbert Hoover and "Old Right" made against FDR in 1936. And the spectacle of citizens appearing at town-hall meetings with guns recalls nothing so much as the vigilante Minutemen whom Buckley evicted from the conservative movement in the 1960s. A serious conservative like David Frum knows this, and has spoken up. It is remarkable how few others have. The moon party is being yanked ever farther onto its marginal orbit.

Would Chambers recognize the right as it stands today?
He might recognize it, but with dismay. Even in 1959, Chambers withdrew from National Review—where he had been writing occasional essays—because it seemed out of step, for instance, in its failure to see that the Soviet Union must be negotiated with, not simply threatened with nuclear extinction. Chambers opposed the arms race, favored civil liberties, distrusted the unregulated free market. His model was Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century English conservative who regarded unchecked capitalism, and the upheavals it wrought, as a potential threat to the social order. Above all, Chambers was a humanist intellectual, deeply learned in the literature of several languages. He urged Buckley (his young protégé) to read the radical novels of André Malraux. He admired Nabokov's Lolita.

Is there an inherent contradiction in the idea that conservatives need to put forward an agenda for the future?
I don't think they need to put forward such an agenda. The best policies are formed through cooperation between the two parties. Most voters aren't ideological. They choose leaders for reasons of trust and affinity. It's worth remembering that even at this supercharged moment, with so much fervor in the air, this country elected a relatively inexperienced African-American product of Hawaii, Kenya, Columbia, and Harvard, with some years spent as a social organizer on the South Side of Chicago. And a majority voted for him for they same reason they have voted for other presidents, because they liked and trusted him, and because he seemed attuned to them and their problems. Hannah Arendt identified the ability to listen—to place oneself inside the mind of others—as the essential requirement of democratic statesmanship. The function of conservatives is not to meet every liberal program or scheme with a denunciation or a destructive counterscheme, but rather to weigh its advantages and defects, supporting the first and challenging the second. A declaration of ideological warfare against liberalism is by its nature profoundly unconservative. It meets perceived radicalism with a counterradicalism of its own.

One criticism of your book will no doubt be that you are an egghead sellout from The New York Times and aren't a true conservative anyway.
Egghead? I wish. I'm a working journalist, plus biographer and self-taught historian. I claim no expertise as a political thinker, and even less in the realm of policy. As for my having sold out to the Times, anyone masochistic enough to review my writings over the years will see my point of view has changed very little. Nothing I say in my new book conflicts with anything I wrote in my biography of Chambers. I'm not registered with either party and never have been. I'm interested in politics as a theater of ideas and as a place where intellectuals now and again exert some visible influence. It is this confluence of ideas and action that I like to write about.

Who do you see as the plausible leaders of the right in the next decade? for that matter, will there be one "right," or possibly a Palin party and a Pawlenty party, to put it very roughly?
This is the crisis now facing the right and principal reason I wrote this book. The movement has exhausted itself and depleted its resources. Before the GOP finds a new leader, it will need a new vocabulary. Political ideas don't change much over time and political debates don't either. (Remember, TR, FDR, and Truman all favored national health care. So did Nixon.) But the tonal difference between a Joe McCarthy in 1950 and a Reagan in 1980 is enormous. And it is the intellectuals who must reinvent the conservative vocabulary, by thinking hard again. I once asked Bill Buckley what brought him to Goldwater and then Reagan. He said, "They came to me." Bill Buckley had the ideas and the language. These ascendant leaders needed to master both.