Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sam Tanenhaus, _The Death of Conservatism_

READING THE MAYER book led me to look at this again.

The expanded version of a New Republic article that appeared in the first few weeks of the first Obama administration, it may have been ill-served by its title.  By the time the book appeared, the Tea Party was all over the news, and a year later the 2010 mid-term elections brought in a surly bunch of new Congressfolk who called themselves conservatives and were ready for a scrap. Conservatism seemed alive and kicking.

But if you read just a little way into the book, you will see that Tanenhaus is not talking just about those who brand themselves as conservatives, but what "conservatism" once meant. Once upon a time, it was about conserving, more what we mean by a "conservative" investment strategy: sober, prudent, avoiding unnecessary risks...and, by extension, skeptical of innovation, keeping faith with tradition, conscious of our fallibility as a species even when our intentions are noble...maybe especially then.

Tannenhaus mentions Burke, Disraeli, the J. S. Mill of On Liberty, Michael Oakeshott...he doesn't mention Samuel Johnson, but that's the sensibility.

Now recall the incendiary, burn-it-down, blow-it-up attitude of the Tea Party faction in Congress. Conservative? Hardly.

Ayn Rand and the Randians are another case in point. She is fons et origo of an important strain of contemporary American right-wing thinking, but she was not, strictly speaking, about conserving anything. Tanenhaus quotes from Whittaker Chambers's spot-on review of Atlas Shrugged: "this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house."

The Death of Conservatism offers a useful vantage on the Republican nomination process of 2016, I'd say. The Tea Partiers, the free marketeers, the evangelicals, and the "Reagan Democrats" who (I suspect) make up the bulk of Trump's supporters would probably all have said they wanted a conservative, but there was obviously no consensus at all about what that meant. Tanenhaus helps us understand how that could happen.

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