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Conservatives, yesterday and today

Sam Tanenhaus' new book explores the right's shift from old-school classic conservatism to the revolutionary 'movement conservatism' of today.

August 31, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Think back to the spring of 1968. The U.S. is mired in Vietnam. The country is in turmoil. The sitting Democratic president abruptly pulls out of his campaign for reelection, and the leading conservative columnist of the day neither gloats nor does a victory dance.

It's nearly impossible to imagine this happening today.

We could chalk this up to the deterioration of civic discourse and the rise in political polarization (or is it the other way around?). But it's really part of a much more significant shift that has fractured the right side of the political spectrum.

The columnist in 1968 was, of course, William F. Buckley Jr., and on President Lyndon B. Johnson's abrupt withdrawal from the presidential race, he was nothing if not circumspect. Why? Because as a classic conservative, Buckley understood the importance of stability and found the "burn, baby, burn" drumbeat from the left, which had forced Johnson's decision, deeply unsettling.

In his column that week, Buckley opined that "instant guidance by the people of the government means instability, and instability is subversive of freedom." In other words, Johnson's withdrawal was too responsive. For Buckley, maintaining social order was of paramount importance, even if it meant helping to preserve the welfare state he deplored.

Sam Tanenhaus, book review editor at the New York Times (and Buckley's biographer), has just published a book exploring the right's shift from old-school classic conservatism to the revolutionary "movement conservatism" of today. He tells the Buckley/Johnson anecdote as he ponders one of the great political paradoxes of our times: How did a political ideology once devoted to "conserving" the past and balancing stability and progress become an ideology of insurrection?

The short answer, of course, is that conservatism has been betrayed, that what we today call conservatism -- a politics of "grievance and resentment" -- isn't.

Just listen to the ruckus over healthcare. Are there problems with the Democrats' proposals? Absolutely. But the tenor of criticism from so many on the right suggests they're more interested in destruction than resolution. As Tanenhaus puts it, the contemporary right defines itself "less by what it yearns to conserve than by what it longs to destroy." They call themselves conservatives, but the "I hope Obama fails" rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh is more reminiscent of the tantrum-throwing far left of the late 1960s than of classic conservatism.

This analysis, of course, has been circulating for quite awhile, and it reached a high point after the 2008 presidential election, when the GOP's "grievance and resentment" fared dismally against the Democrats' "yes we can." But watching the August town halls nearly a year later, it's clear just how seductive and widespread that deep, loud and vicious anger can be.

Why? For an answer, go to historian Richard Hofstadter's 1954 essay on what he called "pseudo-conservatives." He was responding to wild accusations of anti-Americanism against Chief Justice Earl Warren and even President Eisenhower in the 1950s. What made right-wing politics so vituperative?

Hofstadter points to the fundamental rootlessness and heterogeneity of U.S. society, and the "peculiar scramble for status and [the] peculiar search for secure identity" that those qualities inspire. Without, say, a traditional class system -- a "recognizable system of status," in Hofstadter's words -- Americans suffer from "status anxiety." During times of great social flux, these fears play out in politics as people seek out enemies (which helps them reaffirm their own standing) and, at the same time, damn a social order they feel they can't dominate.

It's not a stretch to say that the election of the first black president, as well as the deep economic recession, have challenged Americans' sense of self. That a resulting status anxiety would play itself out on the right more than the left may have to do with the right's general discomfort with the kind of collective identities -- unions, ethnics, gender -- that the left tends to embrace. Instead of finding affiliations to secure their status, the right's "rugged individualists" get mired in the type of anomie that in turn increases the need to reaffirm one's place in a topsy-turvy world.

The personal, deeply vituperative tone of the debate over healthcare reform seems to suggest that Americans' anger is not just about whether a "public option" is part of a reform package. The fear is less about encroaching socialism than it is about getting lost and forgotten in a rapidly changing society. Change isn't slowing down, and the bad news is that these feelings of losing control are not likely to go away any time soon.

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