Given its title, The Death Of Conservatism initially seems like an ill-advised post-Obama victory lap—from no less than the editor of The New York Times Book Review, that frequent target of conservative scorn and paranoia. But the book’s thrust isn’t strictly topical: It’s nothing less than a summation of conservatism’s rise and fall from FDR to the present day. Tanenhaus’ book is too ambitious to be limited to its 120 slender pages: It’s a prospectus for a comprehensive history to come. As a highlight reel of 20th-century conservatism, though, it’s a winner.
Tanenhaus first allows himself some scolding. For him, the Republican party is mired in intellectual torpor, unable to meaningfully respond to the present day; he’s unshakably convinced that Democrats can settle in for 30-odd years of dominance. “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii,” he writes, “clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.” But Tanenhaus comes not to gloat (mostly) but to consider how the party got here. Because he’s concerned: “America needs a serious, rigorous opposition” to keep us honest and free of dangerous complacency.
Tanenhaus’ real interest is in the cultural wars initiated by William F. Buckley Jr. outside the realm of actual policy. From the ’40s to the ’60s, Tanenhaus refracts political history through journals, professors, and above all, Buckley’s influential gaze and acolytes. The book’s history pretty much stops at Watergate, skipping lightly from 1976 up to the present. In Tanenhaus’ telling, conservatives learned the wrong lessons from their period of dominance. From Watergate, conservatives took embitterment at an establishment presumably always out to get them; from Reagan, they gained an icon that didn’t match how bitterly he disappointed rigid ideologues in his first term.
That mismatch between conservatism’s accomplishments—Nixon’s global diplomacy and Reagan’s presiding over the Cold War—and the misguided lessons the party took away from them that troubles Tanenhaus. Not everyone will agree with Tanenhaus’ evaluations of political legacies, but his book crystallizes exactly how far conservative writing and thinking has fallen, from intellectual rigor to a repetitive, unwavering obsession with outdated culture wars. Tanenhaus’ book is a good start at diagnosing the problem (and far from a partisan victory lap), but it’s only a start. Hopefully it’ll prompt further analyses of greater length and depth.