[Marxism] Tanenhaus gets skewered (mildly)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 29 11:15:54 MDT 2009

(This is noteworthy, a somewhat critical review from the left of a book 
by Sam Tanenhaus, the dickwad conservative editor of the Sunday NY Times 
Book Review who routinely assigns conservatives to write hostile reviews 
of leftist books.)

NY Times, September 29, 2009
Books of The Times
The Waxing and Waning of America’s Political Right

By Sam Tanenhaus
123 pages. Random House. $17.

One puzzling feature of American politics is that the people who call 
themselves conservatives seldom want to conserve anything. The modern 
conservative movement promotes radical transformation while ignoring 
classical conservative ideas — for example, Edmund Burke’s respect for 
established institutions and customs, for continuity with tradition and 
for incremental change.

The recent history of the American right, writes Sam Tanenhaus, involves 
the triumph of “movement conservatism” over the Burkean version. In his 
view “the paradox of the modern Right” is that “its drive for power has 
steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly 
un-conservative,” and that has finally led to electoral disaster, 
political irrelevance and “rigor mortis.”

This obituary is premature, but the story leading up to it is deftly 
told. “The Death of Conservatism” is an expanded version of an essay 
that originally ran in The New Republic. It traverses several decades of 
complex political change, so inevitably it neglects some important 
topics. What remains is an elegant brief history of the modern 
conservative movement, as unsparing in its critique of liberal hubris as 
of revanchist resentment.

Mr. Tanenhaus, editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the 
Week in Review, traces the origins of modern conservatism to revulsion 
against the policy intellectuals who came to power during the New Deal. 
While ideologues on the right worried about this mandarin “new class,” 
moderate Republicans made their peace with it and cheered Eisenhower to 
victory in 1952. “When at last conservatives gained a foothold within 
the establishment, political and intellectual,” Mr. Tanenhaus writes, 
“it was because they had earned their way.”

Agreeing to play the game by New Deal rules, they accepted progressive 
taxation, some government regulation of business and the rudimentary 
welfare state created by the Democrats.

But the right-wing ideologues sensed a sellout. The young William F. 
Buckley raged against “atheistic socialists” at Yale, defended Joseph 
McCarthy and argued — with some justification — that the “liberal 
consensus” functioned as a closed system rather than as an arena for 
open debate. The mandarins of the center scoffed. The historian Richard 
Hofstadter characterized the “pseudo-conservative revolt” of McCarthyism 
as the unleashed irrationality of “mass man.”

In 1960 the title of a book by the sociologist Daniel Bell announced 
“The End of Ideology.” Since Democrats and Republicans agreed on 
fundamentals like government-business partnership and a bipartisan cold 
war, Mr. Bell wrote, politics had become about managerial procedures 
rather than ideological commitment.

Seldom have the perils of premature obituary been so quickly revealed. 
Even as Mr. Bell wrote, conservatives were on the move — in Orange 
County, Calif., and other Sunbelt suburbs, on college campuses, and 
eventually in the “Draft Goldwater” movement that led to his nomination 
in 1964. Barry Goldwater’s defeat as president gave centrist liberals 
more cause to congratulate themselves.

But the euphoria was not to last. “The liberal sun, even as it steadily 
enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral 
wastes of orthodoxy,” Mr. Tanenhaus writes. He shrewdly identifies the 
hubris at the heart of midcentury liberalism — the tendency to transform 
pragmatism from a method into a metaphysic and an unassailable truth 
backed by experts.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family,” for example, 
deplored the “tangle of pathology” afflicting urban blacks. While black 
leaders accused him of complicity with “the white power structure,” Mr. 
Tanenhaus writes, “Moynihan’s analysis implied there could be no honest 
disagreement with him, or with the social science that informed his 
thinking.” Like Buckley, New Left radicals began to expose the 
stultifying effects of consensus as they attacked the slogans of 
national mission used to justify the war in Vietnam. The supposedly 
pragmatic liberals retreated into their own orthodoxy.

As the liberal consensus collapsed in 1968, Richard M. Nixon won by 
posing as a moderate. But he could not keep his resentments in check for 
long, and they led him to the abuse of executive power that ended in 
scandal. “Even as he destroyed his own presidency,” Mr. Tanenhaus 
writes, “he released the furies of movement politics most conspicuously 
with us today.”

Rage at Nixon’s alleged maltreatment provoked right-wing Republicans’ 
resurgence, led by “the tribune of this new polarity,” Ronald Reagan. 
His election in 1980 inaugurated three decades of rule by the right, 
culminating in the catastrophic overreaching of President George W. 
Bush, the most dedicated movement conservative ever to occupy the White 

As the Bush administration crashed and burned, Mr. Tanenhaus argues, the 
Democrats moved right, creating a pragmatic consensus — one suited to 
the Burkean temper of the times: cautious, incrementalist, wary of 
speculative schemes and imperial adventures. As the Obama administration 
adapted its thinking to a conservative age, he concludes, movement 
conservatives retreated into impotent protest and angry oblivion.

“The Death of Conservatism” is a persuasive intellectual history of the 
right, but it omits a lot of institutional history and ignores money and 
power altogether. A fuller history would have paid attention to Lewis F. 
Powell Jr.’s 1971 memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Attack on 
the American Free Enterprise System.” Powell, soon to be a Supreme Court 
justice, urged friends of capitalism to retake command of public 
discourse by financing think tanks, reshaping mass media and seeking 
influence in universities and the judiciary.

This did happen in the decades to follow. What had once been far-right 
fantasies — abolishing welfare, privatizing Social Security, 
deregulating banking, embracing preventive war — became legitimate 
policy positions, emanating from institutions that cost a lot of money 
to maintain: the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, 
the Fox News Network, as well as numerous corporate lobbying 
organizations and university professorships. Money talked.

None of this ideological infrastructure has disappeared. Whether the 
Obama administration can stand up to its power remains to be seen. 
Despite popular support for a robust public option in health care 
coverage and even a single-payer system, the airwaves are pervaded by 
the buzzwords of the market — competition, incentives, consumer choice. 
Foreign policy, too, remains dominated by right-wing assumptions. 
Whatever President Obama’s intentions (and it would be a mistake to 
underestimate him), he will find the imperial presidency difficult to 
repudiate. The bureaucratic labyrinths of the national security state 
will be dismantled no more easily than the hundreds of American military 
bases around the world, many of them shrouded in secrecy. Nor will it be 
easy to challenge the assumptions that underlie empire: the humanitarian 
dreams of interventionists in Mr. Obama’s own party and the relentless 
Republican demands for toughness. Here as elsewhere, the right wields 
far more power than its weak popular support warrants. Reports of its 
death have been exaggerated.

Jackson Lears is editor in chief of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the 
author, most recently, of “Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern 
America, 1877-1920.”

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