What conservatives have yet to do is confront the large but inescapable truth that movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead. And yet they should, because the death of movement politics can only be a boon to the right, since it has been clear for some time the movement is profoundly and defiantly un-conservative–in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision.
(Stan Tanenhaus writing in The New Republic)
First in a series.
I hope I am forgiven by my regular readers for leaving behind arguments over stimulants, diuretics, laxatives, and other government remedies for what ails us while I return once again to the theme of making this site a “Blog of Self-Discovery” or, the “Writings of the Self-Absorbed Man” if you prefer. In truth, after more than 4 years of struggle, I am in many ways, more of a stranger in my minds eye than I was when I began this journey of self criticism; challenging everything I believe, forcing me to justify the underlying assumptions of my philosophy to my own satisfaction.
Although it should be the goal of any examined life to make such a quest a lifelong pursuit, it is a journey that is best begun when one is young, I think. At age 55, one has lived too much, experienced too much, seen too much, lived and loved and lost too much to retain the suppleness of mind that can process and absorb the terabytes of information we mainline every day. Can we recognize what all of this data is doing to us, how it is changing us, why it challenges our long and comfortably held assumptions as new insights are gleaned and new directions in thought are explored?
For those handful of you who have taken seriously my earnest but woefully inadequate attempts to put into words the “velocity of my thoughts” on the nature of man, of conservatism, and the threads of history and the evolution of man’s relationship to the state that seeks to find a complementary connection between them, please bear with me over the next few days as I attempt to explain the insights that have been granted to me recently. I hope by sharing them, some small part of the joy and satisfaction I received from the opening of new vistas, new horizons on this journey will help assuage your craving for acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake - learning for the simple happiness that comes from knowing.
I was pleased to discover that even at this point in my life, I could read something and have it reach out and slap me in the face with the power of the ideas contained therein. This essay by Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic has, in one fell swoop, crystalized much of my thinking that has been taking shape over the life of this blog while connecting many of the unordered, incoherent threads of criticism through which I have vainly sought to explore my personal philosophy.
Also assisting in this process was Andrew Sullivan who has cataloged what appears to me to be a similar journey to my own on his site and in the pages of leading journals of opinion and news. I am well aware of the distaste most of the right has for Sullivan (Tanenhaus, who edits the New York Times Book Reivew, is no catch either for righties) and yet, when the filter of politics and ideology are removed, what you are left with are ideas and concepts - take them or leave them. There is much with which to disagree from both men, but rejecting their thoughts out of hand and in their totality smacks of a deliberate effort to remain ignorant - a tale too often told on the right in recent years. Not being open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world has been our downfall both philosophically and electorally.
Tanenhaus has written what he calls “an intellectual autopsy of the movement” which dovetails with the title of his essay, “Conservatism is Dead.” What has died, Tanenhaus believes, is the post World War II strain of conservatism that grew into a “movement” in the 1950’s and ’60’s, reaching its apex, he believes, in the late 1970’s. He carefully separates this “Movement Conservatism” from the classical conservatism of Burke, Disraeli, and Matthew Arnold, seeing the movement as something of an antithesis to Burkean logic which eschewed ideology altogether in favor of a society that favored both “conservation and correction.”
The author takes us on a guided tour of the history (his version) of “movement conservatism” and where it’s failures to adhere to classical conservative thinking led to a gigantic contradiction - one I have explored in depth elsewhere - between the natural center of gravity of classical conservatism’s mandate to eschew the “totalizing nostrums” and ideological purity of revolutionary politics, and the rebellious revanchism of the Goldwater-Reagan “counterrevolutions” which sought, at bottom, to undo the New Deal and Great Society.
The story of postwar American conservatism is best understood as a continual replay of a single long-standing debate. On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.
One might legitimately ask what conditions led to this contradiction. It takes two sides to make a war and Tanenhaus doesn’t excuse the radical left of the 1960’s from contributing to the growth of this backlash:
As liberals unwittingly squeezed themselves into the stereotypes conservatives had invented, conservative intellectuals began to look like prophets for identifying a self-appointed “managerial elite” (Burnham’s term from 1941) that was leading a “liberal revolution” (Kendall’s, from 1963). The poor–believers in the American dream, content to struggle upward on their own–had become “a project” for technocrats intoxicated with nostalgie de la boue. In his book Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan–disillusioned with the programs he helped instate–ridiculed the pretensions of social scientists, “who love poor people [and] … get along fine with rich people” but “do not have much time for the people in between.” “In particular,” he wrote, “they would appear to have but little sympathy with the desire for order, and anxiety about change, that are commonly encountered among working-class and lower middle-class persons. The privileged children of the upper middle classes more and more devoted themselves, in the name of helping the oppressed, to outraging the people in between.” The absurdities of “social engineering” became sport for observers like Tom Wolfe, who satirized their excesses in Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers: “So the poverty professionals were always on the lookout for the bad-acting dudes who were the ‘real leaders,’ the ‘natural leaders,’ the ‘charismatic figures,’ in the ghetto jungle.”
This liberal overreach combined with the right’s new sophistication promised a new period in U.S. politics, one in which conservatives, fortified by Burkean principles, might emerge as the most articulate voices of “civil society,” separating out the strands of true reform, which drew on inherited values, from “liberal-left” attempts to make those values extinct. Perhaps the Great Society could be retooled, tamed into a legitimate extension of the New Deal. But, to accomplish this, the right would have to deal honestly with capitalism and its many ambiguities.
Dealing honestly with capitalism wasn’t in the cards for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a fervent belief by the movement that entrepreneurs are gods and the “American system” was a self correcting mechanism where a level playing field for all economic actors was a a virtual given. “Bigger is better” was not necessarily a battle cry of the Movement but the dangers inherent to gigantic, international corporations to the very free markets that were enthusiastically espoused were largely ignored.
There have been harsh critiques of capitalism that have, of course, turned the tables in an equally exaggerated way and painted the businessman as a combination Beelzebub and Babbitt. How much of the Movement’s unquestioning support of capitalism was in response to the latter view espoused by many on the left to this day? Tanenhaus seems to acknowledge that the Movement’s failings were not born in a vacuum; that the whole idea of a “counterrevolution” is that there is something to counter in the first place.
So what happened? What sidetracked the movement from adopting Tanenhaus’s “Burkean principles” and becoming a partner with government in building not only a “just moral order” but a “civil society” as well?
One reason is that the most intellectually sophisticated founders of postwar conservatism were in many instances ex-Marxists, who moved from left to right but remained persuaded that they were living in revolutionary times and so retained their absolutist fervor. In place of the Marxist dialectic they formulated a Manichaean politics of good and evil, still with us today, and their strategy was to build a movement based on organizing cultural antagonisms. Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy–”statist” social programs; “socialized medicine”; “big labor”; “activist” Supreme Court justices, the “media elite”; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government.
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” was a warning by Burke that accepting the reality of government was paramount to stability. Tanenhaus avers that the Movement ” placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed” which describes perfectly the Utopian moral universe of many on the right who believe only through God can America prosper and achieve the pinnacle of a perfect moral order - a world where gays would still be in the closet, abortions performed in back alleys or not at all, everyone would pull their own weight, and school children would be taught the Bible in public schools. Removing God from the equation was unthinkable because only through the Creator was true harmony possible.
It is a determinedly myopic view of modern industrialized society that has caused many, less ideological conservatives to revolt. This has led to the spectacle of the Movement imposing “litmus tests” and enforcing a stifling ideological purity, something Tanenhaus argues convincingly is very unconservative.
And it highlights perhaps the greatest problem with modern Movement conservatism: It’s lack of a coherent, positive agenda setting out what it supports that would improve a modern society. “Tax cuts, less regulation, and a strong national defense” are catch phrases and bear little on the realities of living in a 21st century industrialized democracy of 300 million people. Tanenhaus recognizes this dilemma for conservatives - that being against everything means that you can’t be for anything - and how this principle has led to the slow strangulation of the Movement over time. He tells the story of one of the lions of the old guard, Whittaker Chambers whose own intellectual journey from Communist to conservative was so consequential to 20th century thought:
But, if it’s clear what the right is against, what exactly has it been for? This question has haunted the movement from its inception in the 1950s, when its principal objective was to undo the New Deal and reinstate the laissez-faire Republicanism of the 1920s. This backward-looking program mystified one leading conservative. Whittaker Chambers, a repentant ex-communist, had passed through a brief counterrevolutionary phase but then, in his last years, had gravitated toward a genuinely classic conservatism. He distilled his thinking in a remarkable sequence of letters written from the self-imposed exile of his Maryland farm, and sent to a young admirer, William F. Buckley Jr. When their relationship began, Buckley–a self-described “radical conservative”–was assembling the group of thinkers and writers who would form the core of National Review, a journal conceived to contest the “liberal monopolists of ‘public opinion.’” Buckley was especially keen to recruit Chambers. But Chambers turned him down. He sympathized with the magazine’s opposition to increasingly centralized government, but, in practical terms, he believed challenging it was futile. It was evident that New Deal economics had become the basis for governing in postwar America, and the right had no plausible choice but to accept this fact–not because liberals were all-powerful (as some on the right believed) but rather because what the right called “statism” looked very much like a Burkean “correction.”
Chambers witnessed the popular demand for the New Deal firsthand. He raised milch cattle, and his neighbors were farmers. Most were archconservative, even reactionary. They had sent the segregationist Democrat Millard Tydings to the Senate, and then, when Tydings had opposed McCarthy’s Red-hunting investigations, they had voted him out of office. They were also sworn enemies of programs like FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act, which tried to offset the volatility of markets by controlling crop yields and fixing prices. Some had even been indicted for refusing to allow farm officials to inspect their crops. Nonetheless, Chambers observed, his typical neighbor happily accepted federal subsidies. In other words, the farmers wanted it both ways. They wanted the freedom to grow as much as they could, even though it was against their best interests. But they also expected the government to bail them out in difficult times. In sum, “the farmers are signing for a socialist agriculture with their feet.”
It is this schizophrenia that has marked the skein of conservatism from Taft to Bush; people actually want government to do for them, just not everyone else. And to make matters worse, they don’t want to pay for it - a singularly unhappy outgrowth of conservatives telling them on the one hand that government is the problem and on the other, showering them with tax cuts while the beneficiaries of this largess want social welfare programs to make their lives easier. No matter what legerdemain is performed, the numbers will never, ever add up to anything even approaching a zero balance. You can spout supply side nostrums from here to Christmas and not make what we spend match what we take in.
Deep down, I really think even Movement conservatives know this but are reluctant to abandon the contradiction because if they do, a chasm opens beneath their feet and the stark reality of being wrong about a fundamental tenet of Movement conservatism stares them in the face. Infallibility is another by-product of the Movement, as Tanenhaus points out, and the dreadful consequences of opening a crack in the dam might mean catastrophe if further self-examination revealed other weak points in their thinking.
Tomorrow: Small government, big government, or the right government?