Author: Liberals Should Lament Conservatism's Death
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Author Sam Tanenhaus presents us with a paradoxical dilemma. These are conservative times, he writes. So conservative that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter can cross the aisle, become a Democrat without changing a single position. So conservative that gays demand a right to live by traditional family values - marrying and raising children. And yet, as Tanenhaus sees it, American conservatism has degenerated into a hollow echo-chamber of movement die-hards and talk show hosts, disconnected from the broad public, which until recently it spoke for. Tanenhaus is the author of the "The Death of Conservatism." And he joins us from our bureau in New York, welcome.
Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Author, "The Death of Conservatism"): Great to be here.
SIEGEL: Given that conservative Republicans and some conservative Democrats are influential enough to have a major say in what kind of health care bill we get and that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity still have terrific ratings, what does it mean exactly for American conservatism to have died?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, it's died as a really vital contributive force to the serious political conversation of our time. What we forget is that America in its peak periods has really been a nation of consensus, where left and right Democrats and Republicans have found common grounds because they shared basic values. They shared a belief in the virtue of government, it might be a limited government, if one was a conservative, but the government itself performed a vital function. It did during the Cold War. It did during World War II and the Great Depression. It's trying to do it now.
And they also shared a belief in the viability and renewability of America's great social institutions: its universities, its churches, its newspapers. And that together, government and society created the civil republic we all belong to. This grows out of the thinking of the original genius of conservatism, Edmund Burke and their values that the right now utterly denounces. They declared war on everything outside their shrinking island of movement politics.
SIEGEL: You used a phrase in writing about conservatism that I'd like you to elaborate on: revanchist conservatism. What does that mean?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, you know, it's funny. Historically, revanchism really meant a kind of nationalistic politic of the European idea from the 19th century about recovering lands that had been taken from you in battle. I used that term metaphorically because it seems to me to capture this idea that conservatives have, that the culture's been taken away from them, that America has been robbed of its values by liberals or they would say socialists like Barack Obama.
It's a politics of resentment, anger and revenge. Revanchism is just a derivative of the French word revenge, for revenge. We're seeing a politics of vengeance now from the right. When Rush Limbaugh said he wanted Barack Obama to fail, he was not just spitting out a provocative line, he was actually handing out a kind of marching orders to the right, which they now seem to be following.
So, when we say we have a health care debate, what do we really mean? What we hear from the right now, from the Sarah Palin movement wing, is an attack on the Americanness of the idea of extending health care to, you know, the broad mass of citizens, when a true conservative like an Edmund Burke or Benjamin D'Israeli, the great 19th century statesman, believed in exactly those values, using government to protect the rights of ordinary citizens.
SIEGEL: You wrote earlier a biography of Whittaker Chambers, the one-time communist agent who became a very conservative anti-communist and a political and literary star of the right. And in this book, you write about his exchange with the much younger William F. Buckley. I think it's one of the most insightful moments in this story and I'd like you to relate what Buckley asked of Chambers and how Chambers answered him.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, what happened was in 1954, when the very young 29-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr. was looking to create a movement, built around a new magazine that would eventually be called National Review, he went to the most admired and celebrated conservative writer and thinker of his time, Whittaker Chambers, and said, come abroad. And Chambers said, well, I don't think I want to. I don't like your hero, Joe McCarthy. I think he's damaging to the principled ideas of anti-communism.
Also, all of you on the right, Mr. Buckley, don't realize that we're living in a conservative time. That the New Deal, which you all want to roll back is actually supported by the very conservative farmers, Chambers said, who are my neighbors in Maryland. Why? Because the government is supporting them with price supports and with crop yield controls at times when they might be in danger of going bankrupt.
So even though my neighbors think of themselves as conservatives, they have bought into the New Deal, he said. They voted for socialism with their feet. And what he wanted Buckley to grasp was what Chambers called a sense of historical reality. And eventually Buckley came to realize Chambers was right and himself emerged as a kind of Chambers or Edmund Burke-like conservative a decade later when conservatism really matured as a philosophy and political movement in this country.
SIEGEL: I understand. In fact, it's perhaps self-evident what's bad for people who are conservative to not have a more creative, conservative movement that connects with their concerns. What's in it for people who aren't conservative? Why should American liberals lament the absence of a fertile, conservative, intellectual base in America?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, to give you a very high-brow answer, it's because of what John Stuart Mill said in the mid-19th century about the greatest conservative of his era, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet. He said: We need Coleridge because he makes us think better. If we look at the periods when liberalism has failed and this book also describes that and one entire chapter is about the failures of the great society, the question that liberals were not asking was: Had they make government too big? Had they made citizens too dependent on it? Had they sapped the initiative of the individual or created what John Stuart Mill called a pedantocracy of experts.
We need conservatives to ask the tough questions, to be very skeptical about the idea of an ever-growing welfare state, not because it isn't a virtue in and of itself, but because it can get out of control. That if we have a government that promises us too much, then maybe all the different conflicting demands we have will clash in a way that creates trouble for us.
Conservatives should be using this moment to ask in a very reasoned, detailed, logical way, where are the policies of the present administration going to take us? Not, are they evil, not, are they socialistic, not, will they deprive us of our freedoms, but what will the costs be? Conservatives are there to question the cost and price of liberalism, which is a question we all have in our normal conversation anyway.
SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. TANENHAUS: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus is the author of "The Death of Conservatism." And there is an excerpt from his new book at the new npr.org.