Friday, March 5, 2010

Who are the real conservatives?

After seeing Sam Tanenhaus in a panel on Fareed Zakaria's GPS, I had to go take a look at his latest book, The Death of Conservatism (New York: Random House, 2009). The book tends to confirm my impression that the ideology which today masquerades as "conservatism," bears as little resemblance to true conservatism as modern feminism does to classical feminism. From the last pages:

Once again the American Right must "face historical reality," as Whittaker Chambers advised half a century ago. So tightly wedded to the politics of protest, movement ideologues have missed the salient fact about America today: the nation has entered a conservative phase, perhaps the most conservative since the Eisenhower years. This is why Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican moderate facing sure defeat in a primary campaign dominated by movement conservatives, could abruptly switch parties without altering any of his important positions. It is also why David Souter, who in his nineteen years on the Supreme Court infuriated so many on the right by his refusal to advance the movement's pet judicial causes—instead immersing himself in the study of history, partly to uncover in the past "some relevance to a constitutional rule where earlier judges saw none"—may well endure as the most authentic conservative in the Court's modern history.

And it is why attempts to depict Barack Obama as a radical or socialist dissolve under the most rudimentary examination of the facts. The decision by his team of conservative, Wall Street-inflected economists to fortify the banking system and improve the flow of credit is patently an attempt to salvage the free market, quite as the economic conservative Roosevelt tried to do in 1933. Obama's plan to extend health coverage to the nearly fifty million Americans who lack it is pure Disraeli. And Obama's foreign policy, premised on diplomacy and multicultural concord, is as forceful a repudiation of the imperial presidency as we have seen in the modern era. All these are the actions of a leader who, while politically liberal, is temperamentally conservative and who has placed his faith the durability—and renewability—of American institutions.

Culturally, too, these are conservative times. The Right should revel in the emergence of a new generation of college students who have rediscovered the virtues of public service and volunteerism, and of business school graduates who are turning away from Wall Street, either to experiment with Internet commerce or to choose altogether different careers. What better evidence that the young are no longer alienated from our civil society and that the chasm between the "business elite" and the "adversary culture" is negotiable after all—and may someday narrow to extinction? So, too, conservatives should savor the embrace of "family values" by the nation's homosexual population, who seek the sanctuary—and responsibilities—of marriage and child-rearing, a development unthinkable a generation ago, when gays personified the excesses of the "alternative lifestyle" (pp. 117-118).

1 comment:

Hume's Ghost said...

Gary Wills (former conservative turned off by modern "conservatism") wrote a review of the book for NYRB.

The New York Review of books podcast discussion of the review is interesting, too. (it's the 9/19/09 episode)