The Death of Conservatism

Why Doesn't the Right Examine Its Own Intellectual Tradition?
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 2 2009 1:02 PM

The Death of Conservatism


The Death of Conservativism.

Dear Reihan,

Your intelligent comments point up the most glaring deficiency on the right today: not its reflexive opposition to Obama-style pragmatic liberalism but its estrangement from an honest accounting of obvious truths. For instance, on the economy, which you discuss at some length. You put quotation marks around "efficient," as well you should since we have seen the free-market ideal almost thoroughly discredited in the past two years. Alan Greenspan and now Richard Posner have both acknowledged as much. You do, too, when you refer to the "unemployment crisis that might last a decade or more." Why can't the movement's appointed intellectuals do the same? I mean those who fill the movement's journals and magazines, its editorial pages and think tanks? Why the pretense, at this late date, that marketplace liturgy will deliver us all to prosperity?

It has become a tic on the intellectualright—you exhibit it yourself—to praise great forebears like Disraeli, Chambers, and Irving Kristol, only to dismiss their examples because "these times" are so different. But all times feel different to those who live through them. And this insistence on the new ignores the great continuities that have defined so much of modern American politics, and still do. Thus in foreign policy Obama has roughly followed the course laid out by his predecessor. And like FDR before him, Obama has tried, in Edmund Burke's formulation, to "correct and conserve" our ailing market system. Also like FDR before him, Obama is being labeled a socialist, communist, and even a fascist. The new epithet is appeaser. (See the WeeklyStandard and National Review.) This is what passes today for serious argument on the right.

For many years now, and never more virulently than at this moment, America's self-identified conservatives have practiced a politics of  oppositionism. This ignores the ontological purpose of conservatism, which is to conserve—to fortify what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "the politics of stability." The intellectual right did this brilliantly during the 1960s, in a period of "tumultuous change." Why not revive those efforts today?

Who benefits, exactly, when intellectuals degrade themselves, and the rest of us, by acting as cheerleaders for revanchism, embracing their own style of radicalism that feasts on weakness and revels in a politics of antinomian warfare? It is too much to hope for the advent of another Burke, to restate the great principles of conservatism. But it seems reasonable to expect conservativeintellectuals to show some respect for the past and for what conservatism used to be—in times that were, in fact, not so very different from our own.


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.


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