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The Death of Conservatism

 Back in February, it must have seemed a good idea to read the last rites for American conservatism. Barack Obama was in the White House, having secured the biggest share of the vote of any Democrat since 1964. His agenda was ambitious, his public support was extensive and his Republican opponents were very definitely in disarray.

So who could argue with the central tenet of an article that appeared in the New Republic entitled "Conservatism is Dead"? So thoroughly did it capture the moment that it was all but inevitable that its author, Sam Tanenhaus, would whip it into an elegantly concise book.

However, since then we have seen Obama fall to earth and the Republicans crawl out of the graveyard.

Tanenhaus, editor of the influential New York Times Book Review, argues that the most successful US political movement of the past half century has run its course. Though his well-honed prose slips down easily, the substance could cause some spluttering.

He contends that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush won power on the back not of traditional conservatism but of a shrill ideological creed, antagonistic towards its opponents, disrespectful of the constitution and now, after Obama's victory, heading towards oblivion.

The book is certainly vividly written. Tanenhaus's most arresting image compares conservatives in today's US with the victims of Vesuvius in ancient Pompeii: figures frozen in time, "clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology". The movement, he adds, is not just in retreat but outmoded; as for its proponents, "on the great issues of the day they are virtually silent".

Still, Tanenhaus is less rigorous than the ancients in defining his terms. His "conservatism" is not conservatism as a whole but "movement conservatism", a more combative ethos that took over from what he sees as the more constructive, more consensual school of Burke and Disraeli.

In Tanenhaus's eyes, figures such as Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the "movement conservatives" who preceded them are "committed to a counter-revolution, whether the restoration of America's pre-New Deal ancien régime, the return to cold war-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of premodern ‘family values'". At almost every turn in the past half century, he says, such "revanchists" have beaten back the realists of the Republican party.

Tanenhaus argues that last year's election, in which voters rejected George W Bush and all his works, also marked the end for movement conservatism. To those who say Bush was not really a conservative at all, he replies that the former president was more devoted to the movement's principles than any of his predecessors.

This is questionable. Tanenhaus argues that Bush's foreign policy was the natural heir to the aggressive policies Republicans favoured to win the cold war. But the Iraq war was in fact a break with the past, denounced by a rightwing British columnist as a wretched "left-wing war".

Yes, Bush was hubristic. Far from ushering in an age of dominance, he appears to have brought the conservative era to a close – as Tanenhaus and many others have argued. The Democrats' victories in the 2006 Congressional elections and in 2008 have given them the initiative, no matter their day-to-day difficulties pursuing their agenda.

But, for Republicans, it is one thing no longer to be dominant, quite another to be dead. The party is certain to win elections again – and may well do so before being reinvented, even if a prolonged period of reflection would best serve its interests in the longer term.

And although a measure of healthcare reform is more likely than not, Obama's ambitions may still remain unrealised. Many Americans remain suspicious of government, fearful of an advancing deficit and unconvinced of the internationalist agenda that calls for the closure of Guantánamo Bay.

While that remains the case, the conservatism Republicans have exploited so successfully since 1968 remains defiantly alive.

Politics appears as if it may return to normal – and, in a rare double feat, this book's conclusions might yet manage to be not just premature but also out of date.

The Death of Conservatism
By Sam Tanenhaus
Random House $17 144 pages

Daniel Dombey is the FT's US diplomatic correspondent.

And although a measure of healthcare reform is more likely than not, Obama's ambitions may still remain unrealised. Many Americans remain suspicious of government, fearful of an advancing deficit and unconvinced of the internationalist agenda that calls for the closure of Guantánamo Bay.

[ REVIEWED BY DANIEL DOMBEY ]

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