The Future of Conservatism

Sam Tanenhaus, Jacob Heilbrunn, and Grover Norquist came to the offices of The National Interest yesterday to discuss the future of conservatism. I thought Norquist got the better of the exchange. ( I don't see a link to video as yet on the website, though there is an interview of Tanenhaus by Justine Rosenthal.)

Tanenhaus was lucid and remarkably knowledgeable as always on the history of US conservatism, but had little to offer about where it goes next next. "I am not a prognosticator," he said. What about his book, "The Death of Conservatism"? Was that not a prediction, or indeed an announcement? No, he explained, he had been misunderstood. He mentioned Daniel Dombey's review (which I thought very good) in the FT last year. What that review and most others had missed, apparently, was that Tanenhaus was talking about conservatism as a set of ideas rather than as a political force. And in any case, read the title carefully. It is not declarative. He never said that conservatism was actually dead. (See also this earlier piece of his in The New Republic, entitled "Conservatism is Dead".)

Heilbrunn's main point, and Tanenhaus seemed to agree, was that conservatives cannot succeed simply by being against things. They have to be for something. I'd like to believe this, and have said something similar myself:

This shift [in Republican support] is remarkable not just for its speed but also for how little the party has done to deserve it. In the longer run, this surge may even hurt the Republicans, because it is rewarding them for having almost nothing to say.

Still, I wonder. At the moment they are only against things, and are doing well. If the things they are against--Obama's transformational ambitions--stay unpopular, who is to say that will not be enough?

Norquist had a different response. He said that conservatives are for something: liberty. A fair point. It was a shame that Tanenhaus and Heilbrunn failed to respond. What might be their answer? They might say it's too vague. In fact, they could turn another of Norquist's points against him. He emphasises the difference between views on "vote-moving issues" and mere preferences.  Politicians who concentrate on what polls tell them about preferences get misled. Intensity is what counts. A coalition of narrow but intense interests will beat a broad mild preference every time. On Norquist's own analysis, liberty is surely a broad mild interest rather than a vote-moving issue. But perhaps conservatism is a coalition of intense narrow interests wrapped in a broad, mild, and highly marketable preference?

Whatever. So far, it seems to be working.

I came away wondering, was Margaret Thatcher for things or against them? I'd say mostly against. It did not seem to hold her back.