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The Death of Conservatism
The Death of Conservatism
Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, 2009
144 pp., $17.00

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Reviewed by Eric Miller


Day of the Dead?

The fate of the conservative movement.

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I don't believe Burke would have embraced this course—and this is where Tanenhaus' portrait of Burke is misleading. To the extent that Burke was advocating a politics of pragmatism, it was a pragmatism operating within a very different moral and intellectual universe from the one we inhabit today. In his remarkably enduring Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke at one point heatedly proclaims, "We know, and what is better we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort." Atheism was an "unhallowed fire"; "We are protestants," he declared, "not from indifference but from zeal."

This zeal—Burkean zeal!—has certainly misfired politically; here Tanenhaus' case is strong. And the ideological shape and trajectory American conservatism has taken is, to my mind, deeply flawed. But the reasons that lie beneath modern conservative zeal must be conveyed, and conveyed sympathetically, if history is to be served. Even more crucially, the actual perceptions and arguments that have kindled conservative zeal must continue to be discussed and debated, however certain Tanenhaus and others may be that "the age of orthodoxy—of uncompromising certitude—has ended and will not be reborn anytime soon."

Tanenhaus himself, in making a brief but important point on the perils of exporting democracy by warfare, provides occasion to suggest why this debate so matters, even at the cost of social instability. Only civilizations in which "the rule of law" is "embedded in social custom" have been able to establish democratic governance, he warns; the erecting of democratic systems alone has proven unable to make a people democratic.

Many conservatives would certainly agree with this claim. Tanenhaus, though, seems to hold that a democratic civilization can be sustained apart from the self-consciously religious basis of civil society that Burke himself believed to undergird it. The conservatives with whom Tanenhaus tangles possess no such confidence. These are colossal differences—competing orthodoxies, even—and much is at stake in getting the questions and answers right. Is the historical evidence so clear on the matter that we no longer need consider it? Should such searching critics as MacIntyre and Rieff be brushed so easily aside? Is not the gravity of the current cultural and political crisis sufficient to re-open some old, lingering questions, as well as adding some new ones to it?

Political conservatives are certainly at a crossroads, and will only gain by welcoming Tanenhaus' sally in their direction. In fact, were I a movement conservative, I would gather my friends and invite Tanenhaus over for some serious conversation. It might at least convince him that, however many limbs and body parts may be missing, conservatism's not dead yet.

Eric Miller is associate professor of history and the humanities at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His biography of Christopher Lasch will be published by Eerdmans in 2010.

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