A fascinating article in the New Republic by Sam Tanenhaus on the death of American Conservatism following the 2008 US election.
The editor of the New York Times Book Review argues that through successive Republican administrations the party has transformed itself from a mainstream political force into a counter-revolutionary ‘movement’ - one that reached its apotheosis in the neo-conservative charge of George W Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. By doing so, however, it lost sight of an older Burkean tradition of American conservatism more interested in conserving and protecting the institutions of civil society than waging culture wars against them.
Tanenhaus suggests that it is this tradition of mainstream American conservatism, progressively vacated by the Republican party over the past half century, that Barack Obama successfully monopolise in his bid for the White House last year; territory the party will have to win back if it is to stand any chance of re-election.
What is fascinating about Tanenhous’ analysis for a British audience is the way his diagnosis of the contemporary American conservative movement mirrors the debate that took place in the Conservative party over the legacy of Thatcherism after the party’s 1997 defeat. Thatcherism too was seen as a ‘movement’ that ultimately consumed and undermined the conservative foundations on which it was built, allowing New Labour to step in and make its pitch on the centreground. Similarly, much of David Cameron’s appeal to his party has been based on a repudiation of rigid Thatcherite dogma and a return to an older ‘realist’ British Conservative tradition embodied in the legacies of Disraeli and Burke. Indeed, Tanenbaum’s concluding advice to America’s conservatives could have been copied straight out of the Cameron playbook:
What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology. And the only ideology one can meaningfully renounce is one's own. Liberals did this a generation ago when they shed the programmatic "New Politics" of the left and embraced instead a broad majoritarianism. Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition. At its best, conservatism has served the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times. There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism--a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.
So will the GOP follow in Cameron’s footsteps? Under the potential leadership of the increasingly influential failed vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, it seems unlikely. In the past political inspiration have tended to flow the other way across the Atlantic, not least in the influence exerted by Bill Clinton and his New Democrats on Messrs Blair and Brown. But is it just a coincidence, I wonder, the sudden interest a senior member of the Republican inner circle seems to have taken in the internal machinations of the British Conservative blogosphere?