The Death of Conservatism

How Much Does the Conservative Intelligentsia Really Count?
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 1 2009 12:01 PM

The Death of Conservatism

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Dear Sam, The Death of Conservatism is a smart, humane, and at times almost anguished book, one that conveys a deep respect and appreciation for conservative insights as well as genuine despair over—I hope I'm being fair—what you see as conservatism's increasingly destructive influence on American political life. This is no ordinary polemic: I could feel the heat coming off the page.

To summarize briefly, you offer a sharp distinction between rigidly ideological movement conservatism, which you describe as more Jacobin than Burkean in its tone and in its anti-democratic ambitions, and the more modest and restrained "Beaconsfield position" advocated by Whittaker Chambers, a man whose courage, intellect, and independence you plainly admire. These two strands, revanchist and realist, have been present throughout the history of the American right and, as you vividly demonstrate in the case of William F. Buckley Jr., often coexist in the work of leading conservative intellectuals. The book ends with the revanchists triumphant as even neoconservative intellectuals, once the arch-realists, find themselves overtaken by ideological zeal.

I have a slightly different interpretation of conservatism's excesses. For good reason, you place the conservative intelligentsia at the heart of your story. I tend to think intellectuals belong on the margins. The revanchism you lament is not the invention of conservative elites. My view is that it is rooted in the considered judgments of a small but intense and vocal minority of American voters, many of whom are white evangelical Christians living in the Southern United States. As labor economist Stephen Rose argued in 2006, these are voters who are very tax-sensitive; they tend to settle in regions with a low cost of living, where self-reliance seems more plausible than it does from my vantage point as a lifelong city dweller. Social conservatism arguably has a totemic significance; because rural red America suffers from scandalously high rates of divorce, the sanctity of marriage is a live issue. Far from resenting public moralism, the voters I have in mind consider it a vital part of a decent, well-governed society.

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What you see as conservative decline strikes me as a structural consequence of our permeable democracy. In Britain, for example, large majorities of the public back the restoration of the death penalty—more, according to some polls, than in the United States, where we've experienced its many downsides—but an elite cross-party consensus keeps the issue off the table. For better or for worse, our system gives the most intensely committed voters a voice that can't be ignored. We remember the movement to impeach President Clinton as the wild-eyed crusade of out-of-touch congressional leaders, yet it was also fueled by the outrage of rank-and-file conservatives. And in a similar vein, Karl Rove never imagined that opposition to same-sex marriage would cement a permanent Republican majority. It was a distraction that I'm sure he found distasteful. President Bush himself could barely stomach talking about the issue. Yet talk about it he did, in deference to the need to press every advantage.

You argue that Bush was one in a long line of ideologically committed Republicans, but his central appeal in the late 1990s was that he seemed nonideological; his alliance with big business and the state educational establishment pitted him against grass-roots conservatives and convinced more than a few moderates that he was one of them. Rest assured, I'm not saying that Bush "wasn't a real conservative"; rather, I'm saying that what we're seeing is a bottom-up phenomenon, one that conservative elites don't ultimately control. Bush and Rove rode a wave, and they failed in all their efforts to guide it.

As he plotted the rise of George W. Bush, Rove pressed for a kind of market populism, to use Thomas Frank's derisive turn of phrase, that would unite Sunbelt conservatives with aspirational voters of all classes and ethnicities. It was the housing bubble and the failed push to revamp Social Security, the two pillars of the ownership society, that were at the heart of the Bush-Rove domestic vision, not the fight against abortion or gay rights. And though it is painfully clear that Bush's brand of ownerism was dangerously half-baked, it really was an ambitious project of social reform designed to cultivate the bourgeois virtues and to chip away at entrenched poverty.

But in our time, I suspect that presidents, even the most charismatic presidents, have less influence than they once did, as President Obama has already discovered. The same is true of our professional intellectuals, who face economic shifts that have rendered them a small, not terribly glamorous or profitable slice of the entertainment industry. I'm far more optimistic about the prospects for conservatism in large part because I see today's anger as a transitional phase, one that will steadily work its way out in hundreds of thousands of roiling conversations in office parks, shopping malls, living rooms, and lecture halls.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts, and to talk about where this has left conservatism as the Obama era unfolds—and what light history may have to shed on what lies ahead. As a realist, I'm keenly aware that my optimism might be fully cockeyed.

Sincerely,
Reihan

Reihan Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the co-author of Grand New Party, a columnist for Forbes.com and The Daily Beast, a contributing editor at National Affairs, and a blogger for National Review Online. Sam Tanenhaus, the author of The Death of Conservatism, is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the "Week in Review" section and is at work on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.

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