The Death of Conservatism
By Sam Tanenhaus
Random House. 123 pp. $17
By Andrew Hartman
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme
right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how
much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions
of a small minority.
Richard Hofstadter wrote this in the shadow of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, which cemented movement conservatism’s hold on the Republican Party. Hofstadter labeled this brand of politics “pseudo-conservative,” and coined the psychological designation “paranoid style,” still in vogue, to describe its methods. Rather than conserve, pseudo-conservatives wished to destroy, often in the name of a liberty imagined to have disappeared under the weight of a government collectivism ushered in by liberals during the 1930s.
Hofstadter’s pseudo-conservatives are alive and well in 2009, injecting the paranoid style into town-hall meetings across the country. By airing conspiracies about the president being a secret foreigner or militant Muslim, or well-worn concerns about his policies being socialist or even fascist, these “extreme right-wingers” inflict real damage, and not just to Obama’s proposed healthcare legislation.
Media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin, by attending to “the animosities and passions of a small minority,” have helped reverse any momentum Obama gained by his historic victory. These pseudo-conservative ideologues mimic Goldwater by invoking liberty in their nostalgic recounting of a lost time when Americans were free from the tyranny of the liberal state. In Levin’s current New York Times bestseller, Liberty and Tyranny, he writes, for example, that the “Modern Liberal believes in the supremacy of the state, thereby rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence . . . .” The liberal, according to Levin, also encourages “a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism).”
If Sam Tanenhaus’s new little book is any guide, Hofstadter’s analysis of 45 years ago has retained its relevance. Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and the newspaper's “Week in Review” section, updates the Hofstadter school of thought for our moment in The Death of Conservatism, which, in turn, expands upon an essay he wrote in February 2009 for The New Republic. As did Hofstadter, Tanenhaus divides conservatives into two categories: real and pseudo, or, in Tanenhaus’s terminology, “realist” and “revanchist.” He argues that realistic conservatism is dead at the hands of revanchists, and that the nation is the worse for it. This explains his somewhat misleading title, for Tanenhaus is obviously aware of the persistent right-wing opposition to Obama, which implies that revanchist-brand conservatism is far from dead.