US neo-cons jump the conservative ship

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
10 February 2009

The high-end blogosphere has been aflutter over "Conservatism is Dead," the latest of Sam Tanenhaus' many long elegies in The New Republic for conservatism as a movement and an ideology. But no one has recalled, much less revisited, his dirge in a lecture at the heavily neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in November 2007. Perhaps inadvertently, he put his finger then on American conservatism's original sin.

Tanenhaus, who edits The New York Times Book Review and the "Week in Review" section of that paper, began by noting that while American conservatives had once chafed under the New Deal's soulless managerialism, they'd allowed ex-leftist conservatives such as James Burnham and Irving Kristol to lead them on a long march through institutions that they despised, in an effort to build a managerial class of their own.

In Tanenhaus' telling, Kristol showed conservative business and political leaders that New Deal managerialism had bred a liberal "new class" of academic, think-tank, and media experts who trafficked in policy intellection more than in policymaking, but with significant consequences for the latter. He counseled conservatives to outdo liberals at this game in order to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy for the kind of capitalism and politics conservatives could profit from and enjoy. They might even restore virtue to Progressive reforms and secure the enlightened "national greatness" conservatism of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose American admirers would soon include Kristol's son Bill and Tanenhaus himself.

Jim Sleeper is a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale.

He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). Kristol's auditors took his advice seriously enough to compound American conservatism's original sin - its incapacity to reconcile its yearning for ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every riptide of the global capitalism that's destroying the nation, the republic, the values, and the customs that conservatives claim to cherish.

Through lavishly-funded initiatives such as New York City's Manhattan Institute, campus organizations, and private ventures such as Rupert Murdoch's journalism, conservatives generated a parody of the liberal "new class" - an on-message machine of talkers, squawkers, apparatchiks, and greedheads that Slate's Jacob Weisberg dubbed "the Con-intern."

The Con-intern's social ideas resembled Margaret Thatcher's more than Disraeli's. They were driven by a capitalist materialism that was as soulless as the Marxist dialectical materialism of their nightmares. That gave a false ring to conservative rhapsodies about civic-republican virtue. It glossed the displacement of the liberal counterculture with a degrading over-the-counter culture. It ignored conservatism's displacement of the New Deal's supposed "make-work" programs with the non-response to Katrina. It countered the "Vietnam syndrome" with the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history. Beneath the Con-intern's civic chimes and patriotic bombast, the civic republican spirit writhed in silent agony, forsaken by conservatism itself.

Tanenhaus knows all this, and at AEI he hinted that Irving Kristol knows it, too, but has become cynical and followed the money: "One could look over the trajectory of Mr. Kristol's brilliant career and see that he's in a different place in the 1990s than he was in the 1970s," Tanenhaus said, recalling that Kristol used to cite Matthew Arnold's cultural visions against Milton Friedman's vindications of greed.

Tanenhaus' wistful pleas for a politics of decency made me wonder then what conservatism could do besides push profits and spew guns, racism, sexism, and war to distract us all from the heartbreaking dissolution of the civic-republican ethos of getting along in the pursuit of a common good, of handling our losses without developing longstanding grudges.

Without question, the Con-intern has destroyed a lot of trust. While Tanenhaus stopped short of saying so in 2007, many conservatives of reputed discernment and high purpose had been sucked into the maelstrom, including the Kristols, the Podhoretzes (Norman and Norman's son John), the humiliatingly honor-obsessed Kagans (Thucydides scholar Donald and his sons Robert, the grasping power historian, and Frederick [the Great], an AEI military strategist), and the sophistical New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Tanenhaus did plead for a conservatism of virtue and moral poise. He credited "my hero Bill Buckley" for pushing anti-Semitic and other extremists out of the movement. He cautioned against trying to destroy liberalism with "a language of accusations, ... of treason at home and of leftists who have the same values as Osama Bin Laden." He called for a culturally textured, sophisticated conservative critique and assailed "magazines I used to write for, such as Commentary, which accused the New York Times magazine, my newspaper, of violating the Espionage Act because it published an article exposing a surveillance program. That's revenge," he said.

But there was no such moral poise or textured critique in the preponderance of liberal-bashing book reviews that Tanenhaus was running in the Times. And the person in his AEI audience with whom he seemed most engaged - referring to him respectfully at least four times - was David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who has sought to roll back the welfare state and a conservatism like Disraeli's that would have some care for the poor, but apparently is now reconsidering.

Tanenhaus invoked Lionel Trilling's distinction between an honorable sincerity that's anchored in faithfulness to a culture and a phony, individualist "authenticity" that reflects the narcissism in modern liberalism. He didn't mention Trilling's observation that, against even the vapid liberalism of his time, American conservatism had become a set of "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." In response to a question from AEI vice president Henry Olsen, Tanenhaus mentioned Whittaker Chambers' observation to Buckley that, as Tanenhaus paraphrased it, "You can't build a clear conservatism out of capitalism because capitalism disrupts culture."

Well, what about that? Surely markets should be honored only in their place, and there are occasions when the polity must be sovereign over the economy. New Deal "liberal" managers knew that that requires a republican vigilance that profit-maximizing corporations, as much as big government, inevitably try to subvert. Asked by historian Michael Kazin to explain the prospects for a small-government conservatism that's still tied to big government, including a military operation that's a virtual welfare state for its participants, Tanenhaus responded, "I'd be interested to hear what David Frum has to say on that," confessing himself a "total ignoramus about globalization issues."

The poignancy of Tanenhaus' predicament reminds us that conservatism's original sin lies not in its bombastic and noxious neo-conservative interlopers, accelerants of republican decay though they may be, but in the tragic nature of American conservatism itself.

When conservatives vow to rescue liberal education and democracy from liberals, they mean sincerely to defend a classical, 18th-century liberalism that balances individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property with individuals' responsibilities as republican citizens to rise sometimes above narrow self-interest, to act on shared moral commitments and sentiments.

Conservatives know that a balanced society, like a whole person, strides forward on both a left foot of social education and security - without which conservatives' cherished individuality couldn't flourish - and a right foot of irreducibly individual freedom and responsibility - without which even the best social engineering will turn persons in to clients, cogs, or worse. Society protects and nourishes the individual flame, but it cannot light it and should not try to extinguish it.

One's readiness or failure to light that flame originates in faith or natural law, which even a covenanted society may honor but cannot itself create or, ultimately, control. Conservatives charge, rightly, that many liberals have lost sight of this sublime truth and have over-emphasized public provision, swelling the left foot and hobbling everyone's stride.

Few elite liberals have a credible answer to this. Too many of them have done too well by the corporate capitalist system to attack its growing inequities with more than symbolic, moralistic gestures. Yet they can't bring themselves to defend it wholeheartedly, either. Sensitive to individual rights and sufferings, they try to strengthen the left foot of social provision without strengthening personal responsibility. For that they rely on outside incubators of the virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and free markets need but by themselves cannot nourish or enforce.

But most of the social mayhem rising around us is driven by the seductions and stresses of corporate consumer marketing and employment and of a capitalism that only opportunistically invokes John Locke's Christian strictures, Adam Smith's theory of the moral sentiments, or a civic-republican nationalism that might reasonably be elevated by serious "liberal education."

Instead of taking these things as seriously as they claim to, conservatives careen back and forth between conflicting loyalties to a national-security state and to a post-nationalist global capitalism that dissolves republican virtue far more than terrorism has done: There is such a thing as "economic violence." It does eviscerate the villages that raise the children. Wall Street does subvert Main Street and morals.

The follies of Marxist ideologues have left a taboo against criticizing capitalism, whose twilight they'd announced a few times too often. But aren't we now in a relationship to capitalism analogous to that of American colonials to the British monarchy early in the 1760s? Colonials then still ardently professed affection for and dependence on the crown, even as they began to sense that their own sovereignty and dignity couldn't be reconciled with the empire's. They wound up risking their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to rearrange that.

Similarly, something basic will have to change relatively soon in how we configure and charter the vast profit-making combines that are degrading social equality and the rhythms and security of our daily lives and incapacitating many Americans as cultural actors and, hence, as free citizens.

Tanenhaus tried fruitlessly in his lecture to square the circle of deceit that has drawn around us by the yawping brigades of conservative opportunists and partisans spawned by Irving Kristol and others. At AEI he presented himself - a bit disingenuously, I think, considering his accomplishments at the Times - as a learned, unassuming fellow who would lead no one anywhere. No wonder that other conservatives think that ex-liberals like Tanenhaus and, for that matter, Irving Kristol, who came to conservatism offering strategic savvy and rhetorical cover for excellent adventures, have only worsened its plight.

Conservatives and liberals alike need to rediscover the American civic-republican tradition and to sacrifice some comforts to revive it. A few years ago I sketched that challenge in an essay about a long-forgotten uncle of the Connecticut anti-war Senate candidate Ned Lamont who had a "conservative" sensibility that many liberals are the poorer for missing. And I waited for Tanenhaus to admit that conservatives can't reconcile their keening for an ordered, sacred liberty with their obeisance to every riptide of a capitalism that's dissolving the republic, values, and customs they claim to cherish.

Now, in The New Republic, he has admitted it. And he has resisted commendably his old temptation to blame liberals. Conservatives who dine out too often on liberals' follies forget how to cook for themselves and the whole society, and Tanenhaus has been a poor chef at the Times, as I showed in The Nation. But I hope that his coming biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. will equal his delicious one of Whittaker Chambers. And I hope that he, Frum, Brooks, and other erstwhile neo-cons who are now very busy trying to re-position themselves  will take time to re-ground themselves in presumptions less damaging to the American civil-society and republic.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData