stepping back

Sam Tanenhaus argues that movement conservatism went down in 2008 because it’s leaders steered the movement away from – and isn’t this always the problem? – “real” conservatism. Refreshingly, he doesn’t lapse into Reaganite nostalgia. He thinks conservatism works best in it’s Burkean mode, which seems to mean a non-ideological commitment to fostering “organic” social unity, but Tanenhaus doesn’t go in much for definitions. He does have quite a long list of what conservatism isn’t, and it includes most of what the Republican Party has supported since Goldwater.

For all its rich historical insight, the essay ultimately contributes little to understanding how the intellectually modest “classical” conservatives became the contemporary Right. A too-emphatic commitment to corporate oligarchs is certainly part of the picture, but Tanenhaus most clearly blames the populist movement politics which became too hostile and too divisive. He says of movement leaders:

… their strategy was to build a movement based on organizing cultural antagonisms. Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy–“statist” social programs; “socialized medicine”; “big labor”; “activist” Supreme Court justices, the “media elite”; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the defenders of social unity had to go on the attack by the end of the 1960s. That decade saw the Great Society programs, the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, the Gay Liberation movement, anti-war activism and the rise of the New Left. “Cultural antagonisms” could not be ignored, and divisive politics were the order of the day however the right wanted it. Not wanting to make the institutional or cultural changes that would allow for more complete inclusion of these groups and their viewpoints, conservatives chose instead to emphasize their marginality and define them out of the American picture. To date, conservatives lack a better political strategy for dealing with pluralism.

The problem, for conservatives old and new, is that “organic social unity” is a myth. Society is always a site of antagonisms, and the society one identifies with and seeks to defend will always be an embattled choice amongst many possible articulations. Their dilemma is to defend the legitimacy of one existing articulation, while not making too little of civic responsibilites which extend to those pushing for change. Tanenhaus says theirs a place for this sort of politics in America, but what it would look like in terms of an organization and agenda, I couldn’t say. The Buckley/Chambers era – which he calls the American conservatism’s golden age – might have had more intellectual nuance, but even those thinkers couldn’t mount a constructive response to the cultural and class politics of the Cold War era. Even before the movement got mean, it didn’t have much idea where America should go next.

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~ by staticandme on February 4, 2009.

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