Conservative Radicals and the Politics of Vengeance

Bill Moyers: In the following interview, Bill Moyers and powerhouse NYT editor and author of “The Death of Conservatism Sam Tanenhaus discuss the last gasps of the conservative movement. Tanenhaus says that far from signifying a resurgence of conservative ideals, the Tea Party protesters and shock jocks like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spell the doom of the conservative movement.

BILL MOYERS: Conservatives were out in force in Washington last weekend. They had come to express their opposition to big government, to taxes and wasteful spending, and health care reform they fear would lead to a nightmare of bureaucracy. Max Blumenthal, author of REPUBLICAN GOMORRAH waded into their midst to sample opinions.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: So you’re saying if the government eliminates Social Security and Medicare then you’ll get out of the program?

WOMAN: No, I said if they get out of my life.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Out of your Social Security and-

WOMAN: No, out of everything.

BILL MOYERS: But they had also come to deplore and denounce President Obama- in their minds a tyrant akin to Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.

MAN: I’m afraid he’s going to do what Hitler could never do and that’s destroy the United States of America.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: And what’s the Obama revolution, what’s going to happen?

MAN: Similar to Germany, like what Hitler did. He took over the auto industry, did he not? He took over the banking, did he not? And Hitler had his own personal secret service police, Acorn is an extension of that.

BILL MOYERS: They had found a new hero in Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican whose shout heard ’round the world was now the rallying cry of the weekend.

CROWD: You lie! You lie!

BILL MOYERS: Glenn Beck, their favorite pundit, had promoted this march and was reveling in its success….

So what do we make of this new book titled THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM? Has the author Sam Tanenhaus spent his time and considerable talent on a premature obituary?

Sam Tanenhaus edits two of the most influential sections of the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES – the Book Review and the Week in Review. He’s has had a long fascination with conservatives and conservative ideas. He wrote this acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, the journalist who spied for the Russians before he became fiercely anti-communist and a hero to conservatives. Now Tanenhaus is working on a biography of the conservative icon William F. Buckley JR.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL, Sam Tanenhaus.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh my pleasure to be here, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: So, if you’re right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?

SAM TANENHAUS: I’m afraid they’re radicals. 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.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?

SAM 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.

BILL MOYERS: What gives them their certainty? You know, your hero of the 18th Century, Burke, Edmund Burke, warned against extremism and dogmatic orthodoxy.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, it’s a very deep strain in our politics, Bill. Some of our great historians like Richard Hofstadter and Garry Wills have written about this. If you go back to the foundations of our Republic, first of all, we have two documents, “creedal documents” they’re sometimes called, more or less at war with one another. The Declaration of Independence says one thing and the Constitution says another.

BILL MOYERS: The Declaration says–

SAM TANENHAUS: …says that we will be an egalitarian society in which all rights will be available to one and all, and the Constitution creates a complex political system that stops that change from happening. So, there’s a clash right at the beginning. Now, what we’ve seen is that certain groups among us– and sometimes it’s been the left– have been able to dominate the conversation and transform politics into a kind of theater. And that’s what we’re seeing now.

BILL MOYERS: When you see these people in the theater of television, you call them the insurrectionists, in your book, what do you think motivates them?

SAM TANENHAUS: One of the interesting developments in our politics, in just the past few months, although you could see signs of it earlier, is the emergence of the demographic we always overlook in our youth obsessed culture: the elderly. That was the group that did not support Barack Obama. They voted for John McCain. It was also the group that rose up and defied George W. Bush, when he wanted to add private Social Scurity accounts. It was a similar kind of protest.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a paradox there, right? I mean, they say they’re against government and yet the majority of Americans, according to all the polls, don’t want their government touched. You know, there were people at these town hall meetings this summer, saying “Don’t touch my Medicare.” You know, keep the government out of my Social Security.

SAM TANENHAUS: Yes. This is an interesting argument. Because it’s very easy to mock, and we see this a lot. “Oh, these fools. These old codgers say the government won’t take my Medicare away. Don’t know Medicare is a government program?” That’s not really what’s going on, I think. I think there’s something different. A sense about how both the left and the right grew skeptical of Great Society programs under Lyndon Johnson, and the argument was everyone was becoming a kind of client or ward of the state. That we’ve become a nation of patron/client relationships. And a colleague of yours, Richard Goodwin, very brilliant political thinker, in 1967 warned, “We all expect too much from government.” We expect it to create all the jobs. We expect it to rescue the economy. To fight the wars. To give us a good life”. So, when people say, “Don’t take my Medicare away,” what they really mean is, “We’re entirely dependent on this government and we’re afraid they’ll take one thing away that we’ve gotten used to and replace it with something that won’t be so good. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re powerless before the very guardian that protects us.”

BILL MOYERS: So, how do you see this contradiction playing out in the health care debate? Where what’s the dominant force that’s going to prevail here at the end? Is it going to be, “We want reform and we want the government involved?” Or are we going to privatize it the way people on the conservative side want to do? The insurance companies, the drug companies, all of that?

SAM TANENHAUS: I think what we’ll see is a kind of incremental reform. Look, we know that health care has become the third rail of American politics, going back to Theodore Roosevelt. The greatest retail politician in modern history, Bill Clinton, could not sell it. But here’s another thing to think about. In the book I discuss one of the most interesting political theories of the modern era, Samuel Lubell’s theory of the solar system of politics. And what he says is what we think of as an equally balanced, two-party system, is really a rotating one-party system. Either the Republicans or Democrats have ruled since the Civil War for periods of some 30-36 years. And in those periods, all the great debates have occurred within a single party. So, if you go back to the 1980s, which some would say was the peak of the modern conservative period, the fight’s about how to end the Cold War, how to unleash market forces– were really Republican issues.

Today, when we look at the great questions — how to stimulate the economy, how to provide and expand and improve a sustainable health care system, the fight is taking place among Democrats. So, in a sense what Republicans have done is to put themselves on the sidelines. They’ve vacated the field and left it to the other party, the Democratic Party, to resolve these issues among themselves. That’s one reason I think conservatism is in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: You write in here that they’re not simply in retreat, they’re outmoded. They don’t act like it, you know?

SAM 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.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that the news agenda today is driven by Fox News, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Why are those organs of information and/or propaganda so powerful?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, there’s been a transformation of the conservative establishment. And this has been going on for some time. The foundations of modern conservatism, the great thinkers, were actually ex-communists, many of them. Whittaker Chambers, the subject of my biography. The great, brilliant thinker, James Burnham. A less known but equally brilliant figure, Willmoore Kendall, who was a mentor, oddly enough, to both William Buckley and Garry Wills. These were the original thinkers. And they were essentially philosophical in their outlook. Now, there are conservative intellectuals, but we don’t think of them as conservative anymore– Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukayama, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Lind, the great Columbia professor, Mark Lilla– they’ve all left the movement. And so, it’s become dominated instead by very monotonic, theatrically impressive voices and faces.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does it say that a tradition that begins with Edmund Burke, the great political thinker of his time, moves on over the years, the decades, to William Buckley, and now the icon is Rush Limbaugh?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, in my interpretation it means that it’s ideologically depleted. That what we’re seeing now and hearing are the noise-makers in Buckley’s phrase. There’s a very important incident described in this book that occurred in 1965, when the John Birch Society, an organization these new Americanist groups resemble — the ones who are marching in Washington and holding tea parties. Essentially, very extremist revanchist groups that view politics in a conspiratorial way.

And the John Birch Society during the peak of the Cold War struggle was convinced, and you’re well aware of this, that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, who reported to his brother Milton, and 80 percent of the government was dominated by Communists. Communists were in charge of American education, American health care. They were fluoridating the water to weaken our brains. All of this happened. And at first, Buckley and his fellow intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW indulged this. They said, “You know what? Their arguments are absurd, but they believe in the right things. They’re anti-communists. And they’re helping our movement.”

Cause many of them helped Barry Goldwater get nominated in 1964. And then in 1965, Buckley said, “Enough.” Buckley himself had matured politically. He’d run for Mayor of New York. He’d seen how politics really worked. And he said, “We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe.” So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its “drivel” were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line. And that’s what we may not see if we don’t have that kind of leadership on the right now.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent is race an irritant here? Because, you know, I was in that era of the ’60s, I was deeply troubled as we moved on to try to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by William Buckley’s seeming embrace of white supremacy. It seemed to me to taint– to leave something in the DNA of the modern conservative movement that is still there.

SAM TANENHAUS: It is. And one of the few regrets Bill Buckley ever expressed was that his magazine had not supported the Civil Rights Act–…Look who some of the great protestors are against Barack Obama. Three of them come from South Carolina, the state that led the secession. Joe Wilson and Senator DeMint, Mark Sanford who got in trouble. These are South Carolinians. And there’s no question that that side of the insurrectionist South remains in our politics.


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