Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Death of Conservatism? Robson's Saturday Evening Review

According to Sam Tanenhaus, in his new book The Death of Conservatism,

David Souter, who in his nineteen years on the Supreme Court infuriated so many on the right by his refusal to advance the movement's pet judicial causes - - - instead immersing himself in the study of history, partly to uncover in the past "some relevance to a constitutional rule where earlier judges saw none" - - - may well endure as the most authentic conservative in the Court's modern history.

(at 117). Tanenhaus (pictured at right), the editor of both the NYT Book Review and NYT Week in Review, Tanenhaus not only argues that Justice Souter is best understood as a conservative but that the present politics and culture of the US are best described as being in a conservative phase.  This might make it seem that conservatism is very much alive, but Tanenhaus argues that conservatism as a politics has succumbed to conservatism as a "movement."  Tanenhaus contends that postwar conservatism has been a debate between the "realists" (who uphold the 18th Century ideals of Edmund Burke of "replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions") and the "revanchists" (committed to a counterrevolution) - - - and that "at almost every critical juncture, the revanchists have won the argument." (at 20).

I picked this book up because of an acquaintance with Tanenhaus at the CUNY Writer's Institute.  I recommend it because it provides a highly readable account of recent political and legal history, with a nice balance of details and broad brush strokes.  Some of the material will be familiar to constitutional law professors, such as President Reagan's legislative agenda.  Other material might be less so, especially if one is a bit rusty on the work of William F. Buckley or Whittaker Chambers.  But the reason to read this book is not for its facts, but its insights. While Tanenhaus has been labeled a "neocon," the message of this book is relentlessly moderate: 

Since its founding, our nation has been productively divided between liberal and conservative impulses.  They form the dialectic of our infinitely renewable politics.

(at 114).  Whether this dialectic has actually occurred or has been "productive" remains, to my mind, very debatable.  Nevertheless such a claim is not dissimilar to many constitutional history theories of adjustment, feedback, or even backlash.  Thus, while not a book devoted to constitutional law, this brief book (120 pages and no footnotes) can provide insights that might be fruitful for one's own scholarship and teaching. 


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