Only a Crisis Can Stem the Retreat From Responsibility

The Death of Conservatism

Only a Crisis Can Stem the Retreat From Responsibility

The Death of Conservatism

Only a Crisis Can Stem the Retreat From Responsibility
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Oct. 2 2009 7:11 AM

The Death of Conservatism


The Death of Conservatism.

Dear Sam, One of the central ideas of The Death of Conservatism is that "American politics is a replenishing exercise in adjustment and accommodation." I tend to see successive waves of polarization as a more useful lens. Part of Kevin Phillips' argument in The Emerging Republican Majority was that racial and ethnic antagonisms are essentially immutable and that polarization between two mutually hostile coalitions is the inevitable result. Though I'd like to think this isn't true, my reading of American history suggests that our resentment-fueled politics is far from unusual.

The period from 1965 to 1975, which you describe as a period of conservative intellectual renewal, might also be described as a highly idiosyncratic moment during which the parties of the right and left saw their identities scrambled and reshaped by tumultuous change, one that extended well into the 1980s. As the great scrambling unfolded, intellectuals had room to breathe, and it's hard not to envy them. In taking congressional Republicans to task for their scorched-earth opposition to President Obama's agenda, you observe that dozens of Democrats backed President Reagan in 1981 in deference to the popular will. But most of those Democrats were, of course, boll weevils, self-described conservatives who in another time and place would have been Republicans—and indeed many of them, like Phil Gramm, eventually made the switch. As the parties have grown more ideologically coherent, a steady increase in partisan ferocity strikes me as an entirely predictable, if depressing, outcome.


While I'd much prefer a GOP that pursued health reform as avidly as it fought for low taxes, I fear that heckling from the sidelines is instrumentally rational. That is, it is not clear to me that conservatism can find new life, if by that you mean new political life, only by embracing a politics of consensus. Self-interested conservative lawmakers are looking to 2010, when elderly voters will constitute a disproportionately large share of the electorate. Restraining Medicare costs is a conservative idea, and a vitally important one, yet the defense of every cent Medicare now spends has been elevated to an inviolable principle for ostensibly conservative Republicans.

And as I suggested in my first entry, I really do think that something structural is going on: In the past, the democratic marketplace was less "efficient," and that was in a sense a very good thing for writers and thinkers and public-spirited elected officials, who had the freedom to defy movement discipline. Our more fragmented media landscape has far lower barriers to entry, and it allows passionately engaged citizens, as well as cranks, to organize and even intimidate. When you consider that Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa fears a hard-right Internet-enabled primary challenge, his otherwise puzzling behavior in the health reform debate starts to make sense.

Throughout the book, you draw on political analyst Samuel Lubell to argue that America's party system consists of a dominant sun, a majority party that sets the ideological agenda, and a minority moon. And like many observers, you suggest that after a long period of Republican dominance, during which Democrats came to embrace conservative insights as part of a new consensus, we have now entered a progressive era. And so conservatives face a choice: Either a new generation of Republican Disraelis will champion a Bismarckian welfare state, a view that Irving Kristol championed as late as 2003 (I disagree with your interpretation of the late Kristol, but I digress), or the movement will be doomed to snarling insignifiance at the margins of our political life.

As a great admirer of Disraeli, I suppose I should agree with you. But I have a somewhat different view of what it means to be a one-nation conservative. For example, you describe Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Crist as a model of the more pragmatic conservatism that might represent a retreat from the dead end of rigid movementism. If our historical reality is that—as Whittaker Chambers believed some decades ago, and as Irving Kristol also argued—the growth of public desires and thus of government is inevitable, then perhaps both men are the wave of the future. The historical reality I have in mind is that we're living in straitened economic circumstances, that we face an unemployment crisis that might last a decade or more, and that American workers don't have the skills they need to flourish. Over the past decade, spending by state governments has increased at a rate of 6 percent a year, far outstripping economic growth. This is not sustainable. What I want most from the political right is a commitment to truth-telling: In the next few years, we will have to cut spending and raise taxes across all levels of government. In normal times, this isn't a winning political formula, but it might be in a crisis. And a crisis is exactly where the retreat from responsibility, which I see as a phenomenon of the right but also of the left and center, is leading us.

At the end of The Death of Conservatism, you argue that the Democrats now represent the best of our political traditions: In President Barack Obama, we have both sober Burkean wisdom as well as an expansive sense of what a democratic government can accomplish. I hope you're right. I see the same combination of good intentions and poor judgment that I saw during the Bush years, albeit with a different—and in many respects more impressive—cast of characters. You described my interpretation of the Bush White House as wishful. I think of it as tragic.

There is much else to discuss. James Burnham's The Machiavellians was a high-school favorite, and The Managerial Revolutionwas a delight. One of these days I hope we can debate Burnham and Kristol at greater length.


Reihan Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the co-author of Grand New Party, a columnist for 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.