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February 23, 2010

The death of conservatism: Is "gut" conservatism really bad for the US and UK? Richard D North reflects on The Death of Conservatism - Sam Tanenhaus

Posted by Richard D. North

The Death of Conservatism
by Sam Tanenhaus
New York: Random House, 2009
Hardback, £10

Sam Tanenhaus's book is a short, sweeping and vigorous denunciation of the Republican party's capitulation to its dissident redneck and revanchist tendencies (often these are combined, but not always). Instead of attending to the unelectable refuseniks of "movement" Republicanism, the author thinks America's right should have worked with its other great tradition: an authentic Burkean conservatism which understands the real nature of government. A note of caution: Sam Tanenhaus never tells us where his own political sympathies lie, but he never evinces any liking for the right except (and then only tacitly) where it is of a Disraeli, Baldwin or Macmillan stamp. In short, for all we know he might be a socialist with a bad case of Tory-envy.

There's some anger in The Death of Conservatism, and it is directed toward the movement which is accused of disliking the most of the Republican party, The Establishment, the "liberal elite", the US government and every thing it professes to stand for: American society. You may say that Sam Tanenhaus disapproves of Tory purism and likes Tory compromises. But he also assumes - as his title sort of implies - that (p. 4):

this moment's emerging revitalised liberalism has illuminated a truth that should have been apparent a decade ago; movement conservatism is not merely in retreat; it is outmoded.... [Especially in the realm of] ideas and argument [it is] glaringly disconnected from the realities now besetting America.

Obituaries for conservatism are premature
Of course conservatism isn't dead, and even Mr Tanenhaus accepts that it succeeded "in vanquishing all other rival political creeds until it was itself vanquished in the election of 2008". In actuality, conservatism is never vanquished: if it's out of power or fashion, it's merely biding its time. Indeed Mr Tanenhaus believes only that conservatism faces wilderness years, as (he argues) all political movements do from time to time.

I don't doubt that the Republican party and many conservative voices are making a mess of things at the moment. But I do rather admire conservatism - its ideas and impulses - and especially want to promote the sort of conservatism Mr Tanenhaus doesn't like. I suggest that it still has a lot of awkward life which Big Government conservatism needs to accommodate.

Just as I like the unpopular forms of British conservatism, I am interested in what most educated people think are unpalatable Republican prejudices - some of them intellectual and some of them visceral. And I am less than completely keen on the Disraelian fudges which conservatives have to adopt if they want to govern in the US or the UK.

The US borrowed English conservatism, and Big Government
I suspect that it is important not to be misled by the ease with which an American writer like Mr Tanenhaus refers to British conservatism. Mind you, he's in a decent tradition. Reba N Soffer has already given us History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan, and its thesis is mostly that American intellectual conservatism is a translation - even a direct copy - of much British thought. Soffer's book and Tanenhaus's jive well together because the former is an account of almost academic arguments and the latter tells us a lot about how these themes play out in practical politics.

There are lots of differences between the conservatisms of either side of the Atlantic but Tanenhaus in particular reminds us of a feature they share (p. 9):

…. no president in modern times, Democrat or Republican, has seriously attempted to reduce the size of government, and for good reason: voters don't want it reduced. What they want is government that's "big" for them.
This is all too true and infuriates the intellectual hard right. Of course, in Tanenhaus' book it is the best feature of real conservatism that - with Burke or Disraeli - it believes that proper Tories understand that a political creed and party has the prime job of being the midwife to progress, as defined by the rest of society. Nations need Tories otherwise radicals win, and wreck things. But compromises wreck things too, and every now and then lucky countries man-up and get in Tories like Thatcher and Reagan.

The US is rightwing
In several ways, the UK and the US are worlds apart and not least because Democrats - let alone Republicans of whatever stripe - are well to the right of anything in the mainstream UK. So President Obama's health reforms look like socialism to many Americans, including many Democrats. The system of compulsory health insurance Obama is proposing would seem to most Britons including plenty of Tories like the wholesale destruction of an indispensable part of the social contract.

The heart of the difference between the two polities is that Americans have a much higher regard for self-reliance than the British. This produces the secondary effect, crucial to politics, that Americans are much more wary of the state than the British. In particular, Americans are quite inclined to believe that the federal state can't directly do much good and that every person and institution ought to fight the temptation to let it try. It is an oddity that this thought is shared by many Democrats.

I can't imagine that many Americans would share the general British assumption that one should take all one can get from the state on the basis that one's paid for it. What's more, Americans might find it odd how many rather right-wing working class British people would express this thought as sharply as their Labour-supporting compatriots.

What's more, it is easy to frighten almost any American with the idea of imposing a Welfare State on them and it is easy to frighten almost any Briton with the idea of robbing them of theirs. I am inclined to argue that both countries are the victim of some powerful misunderstandings, and in the American case these may amount to a sort of False Consciousness. The point is of course that the Americans could organise health services better without falling into Communism and that the British could dismantle the Welfare State without falling into a free-for-all.

It happens that I am not remotely self-reliant, but I do strongly admire the quality in others. I am drawn to the intellectual and moral right of the thoughtful and moral right-wings, and think a country - a society - that could cultivate and live these ideas would do well and better than ours where they have been abandoned. So I am drawn to the American way of thinking.

Over forty years ago, I did dimly see that the US were right to admire self-reliance more than we did. I used to the thrill to the occasional appearances of the very clever right-winger William Buckley on British television. He was patrician and sardonic in a very civilized way. His confidence - and his attractiveness even to the ur-liberal BBC - said something about the differences between America and Britain. He was a very dry martini, but was accepted here as a major figure without demur. He wasn't an Enoch Powell; he made the dark side attractive, which Powell - a clever and thoughtful man - could never quite do.

At about that time, I was reading about the Republican star and nearly-man Barry Goldwater. He was supposed to be frightening and I duly shivered. Only recently have I found out enough about Goldwater to find him fascinating, not least from a collection of his writing, Pure Goldwater.

I knew, back in the 60s, that John F Kennedy (the war-mongering Democrat hero) was not half as useful as most people thought, and that Lyndon Johnson (Democrat fixer, bruiser and social reformer) was far more so.

In short I had some of the normal half-educated prejudices of the English, but not all of them. I was a right-winger of sorts, but guided by rather conventional prejudices.

Years later, I have spent a bit of time in the US and talked to a good many people there. I have met (for instance) multi-millionaire Democrats and Republicans on the Upper East Side and in Fort Worth, and struggling country people in the Colorado and Washington State, and plenty more besides, and came away with the conviction that it was a mistake to think they had very close parallels back home.

I have been struck by the difficulties that even experienced English liberals have with modern America. Stephen Fry, Justin Webb and Simon Schama all seem to me to have come unstuck, and in much the same way. Their commentary likes much of the theory and experience of America, but seems to hold its nose about too much that matters. They love America, but like Frasier Crane or Edith Wharton or Henry James (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus), they can't help feeling that America ought to be a little more like Europe.

They seem to trip over the great difference between the US and the UK, which is that the average American does feel that people's sufferings and failings are to a marked degree their own problem and maybe their own fault too. They are not their brother's keeper and not keen on the state trying to be. In most misery, self-indulgence will be at work. In most attempts to alleviate suffering, there is a profound danger of moral hazard.

Not all Americans feel these impulses equally, but to a degree which surprises a Briton, almost all Americans believe in these tenets even when they conflict with their own self interest or their own philosophical bent. In short, Americans are right wing in the sense that they are not liberal in the European sense, and that includes many on the "left" of politics, if that is indeed what it means to be within the Democrat fold but to its right.

False consciousness in modern politics
Of course, there's great muddle in all this. The American left likes unions, big federal welfare programmes and pork, but has to accommodate the pioneer and prairie morality. The American right likes entrepreneurship, state powers and federal pork, but is deeply riven as to how much of the modern Big State it must live with.

It is only a slight complication that William Buckley used to say (as Tanenhaus reminds us) that he knew what a liberal (in the American sense) was, but not what a conservative was. Presumably he knew that the left wanted more state spending, more welfare and more egalitarianism. But the right was all over the place. It's true, and the point of Tanenhaus's book. The question for the right in the US and in the UK too is whether its internal divisions can become creative rather than poisonous.

When I watch Fox News, or to vox pops with Tea Party-goers on C-Span, I warm to the moral impulses that seem to be lurking even in the stridency of many of the opinions. I like to think that when the American right rails against the Welfare State, it isn't merely a selfish cry (it is that too) but also a howl of outrage that no-one seems to understand that the left is a large, self-serving conspiracy of unions, professions and officials as they plunder the citizen in the name of doing good. This form of right-wingery does indeed want a change, and is a change backwards, a reversion to a past before America's ideals were stolen by liberal thieves.

The oddity of the American right is that its anti-state views are held most vociferously by the unprivileged. It is entirely possible to argue that the right contains many decent people who have little chance of upward mobility, whose income has stagnated as the very rich got even richer, and whose welfare critically depends on a large and even an expanding state apparatus. It is an enduring miracle to many on the left and some on the right that America is a place where there is a good deal of false consciousness, denial and cognitive dissonance.

Obviously, I liked and like brainy right-wingery. That's the easy bit. But I think we ignore the moral quality of people who aren't obviously thoughtful. I think that even in the apparently "nasty" right-wingery of the not-very thoughtful right, there is often a moral sense of real and under-rated value. I think that is especially true in the US where patriotism and national myth lead to an idealism which can be called right-wing. For historical reasons, socialism in the US always seemed to threaten the national myth, whilst in the UK a soft socialism has come to embody the national story. In the US the left can never quite trump the national myth whilst in the UK - as result of Whig History and much else - the triumph of the left has seemed almost like the smooth unfolding of historic trends.

Of course neither the US nor the UK has an immutable settlement. The US will presumably one day find a way of using its state to ordain rather than deliver more welfare and the UK will presumably one day dismantle the state’s hegemony over social services. The US will get over its terror that all innovation leads to Stalin and the UK will get over its fear that all innovation leads to vicious chaos. What's more, these will be the core battles between left and right in both countries. In effect both countries will be working out how to get out from under a socialist thrall.

Living with the visceral right
It's a big part of Tanenhaus's work to try to describe and even resolve the row within the right of the US. He is right to say that the revanchist right of the Republican party makes it unelectable. But I think he rather misses how important it is for the Big Government Right to accommodate the visceral American desire to enshrine self-reliance at the heart of the public ethos. There are echoes here in the UK of course. UK Tories are divided about how far to go in stressing that the country needs to rediscover the self-reliance which three or four generations have abandoned. In short, in the US and the UK the right is divided as to how much both countries can be more American, and less socialist.

For what it's worth, I don't suppose Sarah Palin's Tea Party and redneck credentials will or ought to take her to the candidacy of the Republican party or to the Presidency. But I do suppose that some Republican leader, sometime, needs to find a way of accommodating Mr Tanenhaus's Big Government Disraelians with the loud discontent of America's populist right, even when they seem revanchist, dim and unelectable.

Mr Cameron's problem looks different. Authentic, right-wing Toryism is a problem to Mr Cameron because it has become furtive, fugitive and even feral. He probably thinks that a slimmer state is right for our society, but he doesn't have people with jeeps, jeans and rifles calling for it.

Both the US and the UK have intellectual "purist" right-wingers and they make sense to a decent minority of intellectuals. But in the US, the politically viable right has to work out what to do about a vociferous visceral populist right. Mr Cameron has decided there is no such problem or opportunity here. I hope he's wrong.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics: Or Why Old Tory Stories Matter to Us All.

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