Although Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, argued the conservative movement is “dead” and interred, the redoubtable R. Emmett Tyrrell, in his latest book "After the Hangover," tells us reports of conservatism’s death are greatly exaggerated. With his usual panache, Mr. Tyrrell offers a remarkable distillation of conservative history and, most significantly, how it is unfolding in the United States circa 2010.
Sitting on his perch at The American Spectator, Tyrrell has lanced the boil of contemporary liberalism and has offered a valuable critique of conservatism, both its wisdom and failures. In what can only be described as a tour de force, Tyrrell chronicles the ebb and flow of contemporary politics from the Republican success in the 1994 congressional elections to the defeat in the 2008 presidential election.
Despite an inclination to embrace conservative ideas and what Tyrrell calls the conservative “temperament,” he includes a scathing indictment of conservatism as often “pinched by a smallness that has set the movement back and encouraged intramural squabbling.” Alas, based on my own experience, this is an accurate portrayal.
Without the heavy-handed club conservatives sometimes employ to attack media myrmidons, Tyrrell notes that gaffes of a truly amusing variety by President Obama and Vice President Biden are given scant attention by members of the press corps (pronounced as “core” for President Obama’s edification).
Tyrrell recognizes the obvious bias, but doesn’t dwell on it; what he does dwell on is the difference between elites and the man and woman in the street. He recalls with nostalgia a time when there was genuine solidarity among conservatives, the height of what might be called the William F. Buckley era and the founding of National Review.
However, the political ascendency of conservatism in the 1950s and '60s occurred in large part because the movement was small, united, and virtually powerless. Fragmentation insinuated itself into conservatism with the political success of the Reagan years. At that point, conservatives saw themselves as the genuine article as opposed to the arriviste neo-cons and the paleos of yesteryear.
Liberals, as Tyrrell points out, have “silenced disagreement,” a conspicuous difference with conservatives. And yet even after Obama’s election, roughly twice as many Americans claim to be conservative as opposed to liberal, a legacy, I suspect, of first principles on which conservatism was founded.
Nonetheless it is important to note, that many, if not most, of these conservatives are not registered Republicans.
What appears to enjoin liberal loyalty is a general cultural understanding ratified by moral sentiment, etiquette, and reflexive cues. “Bush lied,” “McCarthy destroyed civil liberties,” “trickle down economic theory adversely affects the poor,” are homilies that drip from the lips of liberals without the slightest regard for historical accuracy or context.
Here is the herd of independent thinkers incapable of nuanced thought. These views sculpted into the national culture through textbooks such as Howard Zinn’s "A People's History of the United States," represent the conservative challenge for the future. Tyrrell describes it as overcoming “Kultursmog.”
A new generation of conservatives face a challenge their predecessors did not have to consider.
Fifty years ago, the ideas that threatened America came from outside our borders, now the threat is from within as the servants of a command economy are attempting to impose a behemoth government on every American. They do so with the conviction that this helps the poor and downtrodden, but as conservatives understand, dividing the economy doesn’t multiply the wealth.
It is difficult to convince youthful idealists that the road to serfdom (apologies to Hayek) is paved with good intentions. The conservative attitude is predicated on individualism and anti-utopianism, ideas that do not immediately awaken youthful enthusiasm. However, as the ship of state moves relentlessly down an ocean of hazards and icebergs, there will be many looking for a helmsman who can provide a different direction.
As I see it, they need look no further than "After the Hangover" since R. Emmett Tyrrell has outlined a remarkably sensible agenda for the future with his policy prescriptions. I was particularly taken with his reassertion of American exceptionalism.
At a time when “declinists” are on the rise, it is refreshing to read that with all our national imperfections, the United States is still the beacon of hope for mankind.
As a conclusion, Tyrrell notes the nation’s political center is shaped by conservatism. There is little doubt that is true, but there is a major task ahead in reclaiming the culture from radical elitists who dominate it. That is the mission this book explores and the reason it should be read.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial" (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and "America's Secular Challenge" (Encounter Books).
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