Tanenhaus Sees Conservatives in "Rigor Mortis" Despite Tea Parties, Floats Conspiracy Theory on Bush v. Gore
Left-wing PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers, host of "Bill Moyers Journal," interviewed Times editor Sam Tanenhaus about his new book "The Death of Conservatism," which Times Watch found intellectually dishonest,unnecessarily hostile, and already dated.
Tanenhaus, who edits two Sunday sections, the Book Review and the Week in Review, insulted today's conservative movement the same way he did in his book, when he declared its death, calling it "a politics of vengeance." Tanenhaus, who decries conspiracism on the right, indulged in his own when he declared of the 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore: "... the conservatives on the Supreme Court stopped the democratic process, put their guy into office."
Challenged by Moyers on the book's title, given the huge anti-government rallies opposing Obama's spending and health care schemes, Tanenhaus insisted that "the overt signs of energy and vitality" of today's anti-government protesters notwithstanding, "the rigor mortis I described is still there."
Whatever you say, Sam. Some excerpts from the interview, which aired Friday night:
Moyers: So, if you're right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?
Tanenhaus: I'm afraid they're radicals. (Laughter.) Conservatism has been divided for a long time - this is what my book describes narratively - between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We're seeing the revanchist side.
Moyers: What do you mean revanchism?
Tanenhaus: I mean a politics that's based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that's been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for 'revenge.' It's a politics of vengeance.
And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism. Like the 19th Century nationalists who wanted to recover parts of their country that foreign nations had invaded and occupied, these radical people on the right, and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we're seeing on television and radio, and also to some extent people marching in the streets, think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration. Give it back to us. What we sometimes forget is that the last five presidential elections Democrats won pluralities in four of them. The only time the Republicans have won, in recent memory, was when George Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in modern history, for a sitting president. So, what this means is that, yes, conservatism, what I think of, as a radical form of conservatism, is highly organized. We're seeing it now- they are ideologically in lockstep. They agree about almost everything, and they have an orthodoxy that governs their worldview and their view of politics. So, they are able to make incursions. And at times when liberals, Democrats, and moderate Republicans are uncertain where to go, yes, this group will be out in front, very organized, and dominate our conversation.
Tanenhaus: They do and they don't. What I also say in the book is that the voices are louder than ever. And I wrote that back in March. Already we were hearing the furies on the right. Remember, there was a movement within the Republican Party, finally scotched, to actually rename the Democrats, "The Democrat Socialist Party." This started from the beginning. So, the noise is there. William Buckley has a wonderful expression. He says, "The pyrotechnicians and noise-makers have always been there on the right." I think we're hearing more of that than we are serious ideological, philosophical discussion about conservatism.
Moyers: It wasn't long ago that Karl Rove was saying this coalition was going to deliver a new Republican majority. What happened? It finally came apart. Why?
Tanenhaus: Well, I believe it had come apart earlier than that. I really think Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 sealed the end of serious conservative counterrevolution. We forget that election. It seems like an anomaly, but consider, Bill Clinton won more electoral votes than Barack Obama, despite the presence of one of the most successful third party candidates, H. Ross Perot, another Texan, in American history. But that's not the most important fact. The most important fact is that George H. W. Bush got less of the popular vote in 1992 than Herbert Hoover got in 1932. That was really the end. But what happened was the right was so institutionally successful that it controlled many of the levers, as you say. So, what happened in the year 2000? Well, the conservatives on the Supreme Court stopped the democratic process, put their guy into office. Then September 11th came. And the right got its full first blank slate. They could do really whatever they wanted. And what we saw were those eight years. And that is the end of ideological conservatism as a vital formative and contributive aspect of our politics.
Tanenhaus, who was actually considered something of a moderate or even conservative when he took the helm of the Book Review in 2003 (on the back of a well-received biography of conservative hero, the anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers), also indulged in liberal snobbery:
Moyers: Here's another puzzle. Back to what we were talking about earlier. You say in "The Death of Conservatism" that, "Even as the financial collapse drove us to the brink, conservatives remained strangely apart, trapped in the irrelevant causes of another day, deaf to the actual conversation unfolding across the land." And the paradox is, it seems to me, they are driving the conversation that you say they don't hear.
Tanenhaus: Well, you know, they have many mouths, Bill, but they don't have many ears. The great political philosopher, Hannah Arendt once said, in one of her great essays on Socrates, whom she wrote about a lot - that the sign of a true statesmen, maybe particularly in a democracy, is the capacity to listen. And that doesn't simply mean to politely grow mute while your adversary talks. It means, in fact, to try to inhabit the thoughts and ideas of the other side. Barack Obama is perhaps a genius at this. For anyone who has not heard the audio version of "Dreams from My Father," it's a revelation. He does all the voices. He does the white Kansas voices, he does the Kenyan voices. He has an extraordinary ear.
Challenged by Moyers as to whether his burial of conservatism was premature, he ridiculously replied:
Tanenhaus: The paradox of conservatism is that it gives the signs, the overt signs of energy and vitality, but the rigor mortis I described is still there. As a philosophy, as a system of government, as a way all of us can learn from, as a means of evaluating ourselves, our social responsibilities, our personal obligations and responsibilities. It has, right now, nothing to offer.