Heartless Conservatives Unite!

Lee Siegel talks to Sam Tanenhaus, author of the era-defining The Death of Conservatism, about his Buckley fetish, Sarah Palin's culture war, and why the right wing abandoned politics.

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“I have a Buckley fetish” Sam Tanenhaus said with a self-mocking laugh.

William F. Buckley, that is, whose biography Tanenhaus—who is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and that paper’s Week in Review—is thick in the middle of writing. Then he proceeded to tell me one of his favorite stories about Buckley. “Whenever one of his books got a negative review,” Tanenhaus explained. “Buckley would send the reviewer a devil’s food cake. And when he got a positive review, the reviewer would get an angel food cake. That was it. No recriminating letters or phone calls. Just the cakes.”

“These conservatives today are heartless. They are really heartless.”

We were having a drink in a crepuscular bar on a warm summer evening in one of the hotel watering holes in the West 40s, between Grand Central Station and the old New York Times building, not far from the old offices of The New Yorker. It was a good place to meet and talk about Tanenhaus’s new book, The Death of Conservatism. Because the conservatism he is writing about is not just a political ideology. It was a way of thinking, and writing, and even being that went way beyond politics.

Really memorable nonfiction books have two premises. The first is the book’s argument, stated at the outset. The second is what you might call the author’s argument, embedded in his character. The finest nonfiction books are a public quarrel started by a set of private passions. This is why they are often said to “write themselves.” Even if they weren’t written, they would, in some way, be lived.

The explicit argument first. For Tanenhaus, the conservatives have abandoned their core values of respect for tradition and sensitivity to the necessity of change—of pragmatic, principled adaptability—for a rigid absolutism that expresses itself in a politics of destruction and mechanical negativity.

The party that once stood for governmental ballast and probity in the '50s, and for governmental order and responsibility in the late '60s—as the liberals’ well-intentioned war and their well-intentioned welfare state came crashing down on society—now identified government itself with the forces of evil.

An interesting consequence followed. Since political power can only operate through government, the conservatives had chosen to exert their power more directly, around politics, as it were, by means of cultural confrontation, personal attack, and reflexive stonewalling. This is why conservatives seem most politically organized when out of power, and why when they attain political power, they immediately begin to act like apolitical outlaws.

It’s also why their preferred battleground has been the arena of culture, not politics. As Tanenhaus observes in his book, ever since Buckley equated America’s “ruling class” with “the opinion-makers” (the media, mostly), conservatives have set their sights on liberal dominance of culture. The New Left’s desire to take power by making “the long march through institutions” (i.e. universities) has now become the right wing’s desire to acquire power by making a long march through the media.

Thus its main spokespeople have been cultural, not political figures: Limbaugh, Coulter, and the noisy pantheon at Fox News. This is why conservatism’s political figures often leave the hills and valleys of politics for the darkling plain of culture: Gingrich and Palin.

To make this argument—one strand among many in his book—Tanenhaus pointedly quotes the great political historian Richard Hofstader, who wrote in 1954 that McCarthyism was a “form of cultural protest, evidence that politics itself was assuming a new character.” That new character was the politics of culture, which is what drives today’s “movement conservatism,” as Tanenhaus calls it, as opposed to traditional conservativsm, which was motivated by a belief that “American politics is a replenishing exercise in adjustment and accommodation.”

What is most fascinating about Tanenhaus’s fascinating book is his nimble grasp of what Hegel called “the cunning of history.” He is ultra-sensitive to the social-psychological aspect of American politics, to the way opposing factions project themselves onto their adversary, covet and envy the opponent’s principles and social position, express antagonism by impersonating and/or parodying the enemy’s most successful values.

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So, as Tanenhaus writes, the liberal rhetoric of compassion and the state’s responsibility to its most hard-pressed citizens—the poor—which led to the New Deal became the Reagan conservatives’ rhetoric of compassion and the state’s responsibility to its most hard-pressed citizens—the middle class—which led to tax cuts that undid or diminished many of the New Deal’s social programs.

Tanenhaus himself embodies this ironic complexity. He writes with warm admiration of the Ur-conservative Edmund Burke’s “distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.” He glowingly describes how Burke “warned against “the destabilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind.” This conservative credo seems to be the root of his revulsion against today’s conservative extremists.

Yet his own antagonism to the totalizing extremism of movement conservatism is derived from his antagonism to the totalizing extremism of Soviet communism and its influence on certain branches of American progressivism. Tanenhaus’ sardonic treatment of liberal technocrats’ soulessness in the '60s is nearly as scathing as his contempt for what he calls today’s “revanchist”—i.e. reactionary—conservatives. He has no dogma in this race.

Which brings me to the book’s second, unstated premise. It is alluded to at the end of the book, when Tanenhaus writes about what he calls “a central truth of human nature. Most of us are liberal and conservative…” This is not a political observaton. It is a literary one. It is really of no use to the political operative or tactician looking for a leg up over the opposition. It is a quiet, almost Emersonian sort of paradox that invites reflection, not action.

“The Death of Conservatism”—it should really be called “The Death of Rational, Pragmatic Conservativsm”—has the intimate literary quality of that “classic” you read in college which stuck with you, which imparted a novelistic density to events that put your private life into dramatic relationship with the public world around you. Behind history are ideas, and behind ideas are men and women. And your own ability to perceive and make sense of these ideas is your way in the world. A little niche for yourself in history.

I have a weakness for this kind of adventure story about people’s role in making history, especially when it treats urgent contemporary events like episodes out of Tacitus or Carlyle. I don’t know of any other book about politics now by a living author that presents what we are living through with such riveting depths.

Sure, there are a few weak spots. Writing about the right wing’s “growing fixation on the [liberal] power elite in the early '60s, Tanenhaus might have added that the left wing’s own fixation on same—see C. Wright Mills’ classic work, The Power Elite—made the same argument with different targets.

And I wish he had elaborated on his intriguing suggestion that “Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism.” He means the perception that Nixon was destroyed by the liberal culture-makers, who were portrayed as anti-American, lay behind the sympathy for Reagan’s attacks on liberals. But surely Reagan’s triumph among the “Reagan Democrats” had just as much, if not more, to do with shifting economic realities. Sometimes the engines that drive reality are more prosaic than ideas.

But the unique virtue of this book is Tanenhaus' belief that individuals, to a great extent make their fate out of sentiments and concepts the way human life is made out of flesh and blood. Tanenhaus refuses to accept that, ultimately, there is anything at all prosaic about the public quarrels swirling around us.

As we left the bar, the natural light slowly gave way to the light from streetlamps and storefronts, and we walked through the thickening air of expectation that gathers on a humid summer evening in Manhattan. Some anecdote, or piece of gossip recalled what writers’ lives are like. We both agreed that the conservatives were exceptionally welcoming and kind to people who did not hail from exclusive backgrounds, and that this attitude had a genuine appeal to young writers lacking membership in a special group or club.

“But,” Tanenhaus said, shaking his head, “these conservatives today are heartless. They are really heartless.”

You might say that they want to have their devil’s food cake, and eat it too.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.