Society and Culture

The Enduring Liberal Cliché about Conservatism

deathofconservatismSteve Hayward has a great omnibus review of a bunch of conservative books in the latest Claremont Review of Books. It is very much worth reading in its entirety. But I have a particular interest in his discussion of Sam Tanenhaus’s much-discussed book, The Death of Conservatism (Henry Olsen had some very edifying posts on the subject, here and here). Steve writes in part:

A properly oriented or “realist” conservatism, Tanenhaus thinks, exists to make liberalism better. A plausible argument, perhaps, but Tanenhaus’s model of realist conservatism is mostly the National Review of the 1950s and ’60s—especially the outlook of Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and Kendall’s protégé, Garry Wills—along with certain practical men of the Right, particularly Eisenhower and Nixon. There is a delicious and almost comical irony in Tanenhaus’s embrace of the old National Review. On the surface his argument would seem to be a repudiation of Dwight Macdonald’s dismissal of National Review at the time of its founding: “We have long needed a good conservative magazine … This is not it … It is neither good nor conservative.” Macdonald’s complaint against National Review was, on closer inspection, nearly identical to Tanenhaus’s complaint against conservatism today, namely, that National Review was merely “anti-liberal” rather than conservative, that is, not properly deferential to liberalism. Buckley’s response reveled in exactly what Macdonald (and Tanenhaus) scorned: “[National Review] does not consult Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to determine the limits of tolerable conservative behavior.” Yet that is more or less exactly what Tanenhaus thinks conservatism needs to do today. Tanenhaus’s argument turns out to be a restatement of G.K. Chesterton’s quip that the business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes, while the business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. No thanks.

I’ll second that “No thanks.” In a piece I did for National Review, I called Tanenhaus’s vision of conservatism “Sherpa conservatism.” I wrote in part:

Tanenhaus says that the high-water mark of good conservatism was roughly from 1965 to 1975. Not coincidentally, this was also the low-water mark of its political power, when conservatives critiqued the Great Society but lacked the power to do more than heckle. Good conservatives (or Burkean or Beaconsfieldian ones; for Tanenhaus the terms are interchangeable) should know their place and gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward “progress” and happily carrying the extra baggage for progressives in their zealous but heroic quest for the summit. And any conservative who doesn’t accept his role as Tenzing Norgay to liberalism’s Edmund Hillary will have nasty adjectives like “revanchist” hurled at him by Tanenhaus.

It has been ever thus. That is the amazing thing about the book and its reception among Tanenhaus’s liberal peers. Sold as a constructive criticism of the Right, the book is blurbed by, in order, Chris Matthews, Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer, and Leon Wieseltier, famous one and all for their love of and respect for the right kind of conservatism. It’s the same old wishful thinking, dressed up as clear-eyed analysis.

But don’t take my word for it. The other day I reread a great essay by Irving Kristol, first published 31 years ago in the American Enterprise Institute’s Public Opinion magazine. Titled “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed—Perhaps the Only—‘Neoconservative,’” Kristol’s discussion of the liberal response to any conservatism that might seriously compete with liberalism is as timely today as it was in 1979. Here’s the relevant part:

It has long been a cliché of liberal discourse that what this country needs is a truly intelligent and sophisticated conservatism to replace the rather primitive, philistine, and often racist conservatism that our history is only too familiar with. This new and desirable conservatism should have a philosophic and literary dimension which would rectify the occasional excesses of liberal ideology. It should even have a nebulous but definitely genteel political dimension, since it is likely that we shall always, at intervals, need a brief interregnum of conservative government whose function it is to consolidate and ratify liberal reforms. The ideal conservative president, from this liberal point of view, would by a Dwight Eisenhower who read Lionel Trilling instead of paperback Westerns, who listened to chamber music instead of playing golf—but who would be, in all other respects, as inert as the real President Eisenhower in fact was.

What we absolutely do not need or want, from this liberal perspective, is a conservatism with strong ideas of its own about economic policy, social policy, or foreign policy—especially if these ideas can pass academic muster and survive intellectual debate. Such a conservatism might actually affect public policy, even become a shaping force in American politics, and this is simply impermissible. The very possibility of such a conservatism is a specter that haunts the liberal imagination and can propel it into frenzies of exorcism.

It is because the liberal intellectual community—and particularly the liberal-Left intellectual community, which is not quite the same thing, if almost the same thing—sees “neoconservatism” as representing such an awful possibility that it is so terribly agitated about it. Note: It is they, not us, who are excited. It is even they who gave us our name in the first place (specifically, it was Michael Harrington). We don’t go around talking about neoconservatism. Indeed, such supposed representatives of this “movement” as Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Roger Starr, Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q. Wilson all shy away from the designation—some of them quite violently. Others, such as Robert Nisbet and Edward Banfield, call themselves “conservatives,” without benefit of qualification. I myself have accepted the term, perhaps because, having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice. But I may be the only living and self-confessed neoconservative, at large or in that capacity.

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