What If Tanenhaus Is Right?

By now I think everyone has moved on from Sam Tanenhaus’s essay on the death of conservatism, but I’d like to add a few brief thoughts.

(1) I mostly agree with Yuval about the flaws in the Tanenhaus essay:

Tanenhaus describes a cycle over the past five decades in which the left and the right each suffers a defeat for being too rigid, retools and reconnects with the middle of the country while the other is in power, and then regains power when the other grows too rigid. But at the end he suggests, without much argument, that this time the cycle is over and the right has lost permanently.

As I’m sure Yuval would agree, much depends on the definition of conservatism. The “right” has not lost permanently — I don’t think Tanenhaus believes that. The political right taken many different forms over the last century, and post-1955 movement conservatism is only one of them. Is that movement dead? Because Tanenhaus is convinced that there is a Beaconsfieldian through-line that stretches back to Burke, I think he muddies the issue. Because I am in the camp of discontinuity — there are historical breaks and ruptures that are papered over by shared language; there is no such thing as an Athens-to-Albion West, though there are palimpsests and resonances — I think you can separate out this question in a constructive way.

(2) The main reason I can’t dismiss Tanenhaus out of hand is that others have made something like his argument more effectively. In 2006, before the Republican rout in the midterm elections, David Frum wrote a prescient, persuasive essay for Cato Unbound on the death of movement conservatism.

The state is growing again—and it is pre-programmed to carry on growing. Health spending will rise, pension spending will rise, and taxes will rise.

Now I still continue to hope that the Republican Party will lean against these trends. But there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.

And the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.

For Frum, the author of Dead Right — itself a forceful attempt at an affirmative small-government vision — this was very much a lament. Though I quibbled with Frum’s assessment at the time, I now think it is pretty clear that he was right in a number of important respects.

(a) Will Republicans repudiate “Bushism”? Not “Bushism” as a matter of political affect, but “Bushism” as a turn towards mildly pro-government meliorism.

And as one surveys the available political talent, one sees that most of the governors and senators who look like plausible presidential material have already committed themselves to some form or another of Bush-style compromise with activist government.

(b) What does it mean for an ideological tendency to die? It could mean success:

Sometimes intellectual movements are called to life to save their countries at a time of challenge—and then gradually fade away as their work is done, as the Whigs faded away in the 1850s or the Progressives after the First World War. It may be that the future of conservatism is to recognize that it belongs to the past.

Or, more plausibly, it could mean that conservatism has become a more pervasive tendency.

Long after the Whigs went out of business as a party, their ideas and preferences exerted influence on American politics. A Republican President and Congress gave the country the nonpartisan civil service the Whigs had wanted; a Democratic President and Congress restored a central bank in 1913. Progressive ideals of government by experts, scientific management, and government responsibility for the health and welfare of the population have likewise become the common inheritance of both modern parties.

Might not the same be true of the small-government conservative beliefs championed by Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich?

This raises the question of whether movement conservatism will have a successor ideology, and of how strongly that successor ideology will resemble movement conservatism as we know it. That’s a question for another time, I guess. I tend to think that the next conservatism — and chances are the movement in question will be called “conservatism,” in no small part because conservative cultural politics, a moving target, will remain vital — will continue to emphasize the virtues of decentralization and competition, etc., but tax-cutting and deregulation will “evolve.” We’ll see.

The question of ideological succession is particularly interesting to me because I’ve been reading Sheri Berman’s excellent book on the history of social democracy. It also reminds me of David Ciepley’s take on the death or displacement of “virtue progressivism” in the wake of the totalitarian encounter — Berman doesn’t address the American political scene, but it was deeply shaped by the European experience, in that a moralistic, Whiggish disposition was essentially banished from the discourse. When I think about the next conservatism, I suspect that it will take on many aspects of late 19th/early 20th century “virtue progressivism.”

(3) One quick thing from the actual essay: T. compares the 1993 stimulus fight to the 2009 stimulus fight.

There is instead almost universal agreement—reinforced by the penitential testimony of Alan Greenspan and, more recently, by grudgingly conciliatory Republicans—that the most plausible economic rescue will involve massive government intervention, quite possibly on the scale of the New Deal/Fair Deal of the 1930s and ’40s and perhaps even the New Frontier/Great Society of the 1960s. All this suggests that movement doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.

In fairness, the recession was essentially over by the time Clinton took office — this was a mild recession that had an outsized cultural impact in large part because it was the first postwar recession to hit college-educated workers and its impact on New York city. So even if you hold the exact same ideological stance you did in 1993, you might sincerely believe that a different set of solutions is in order. Pro-market reformers at the Booth School, like Luigi Zingales, have offered smart critiques of the bailout and the stimulus that emphasize bright-line low-cost regulatory interventions and targeted tax cuts. I’d submit that this program is founded on a particular ideological sensibility that is not tangential to movement doctrine. Moreover, Tanenhaus clearly wrote this essay before the debate over the stimulus reached its present pitch — we’re seeing Republicans relearning the virtues of sober center-right neoliberalism and budget discipline, thanks in no small part to the interventions of Democrats like Alice Rivlin.

There is obviously a tactical, narrowly political component to this. There is also a rediscovery of conservative bearings.