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The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus

What I miss most from my time in the United States is all the yelling. I lived in the U.S. from 1999 to 2006, a tumultuous period from any political perspective. And whether I found myself in a Midwestern college town or an East Coast city or a Texas suburb, I was always struck by the passion and vitality of the U.S. national conversation or, more precisely, by the shared understanding in the United States, across deep-cut ideological lines, that a truly thriving national conversation depends upon a wide array of political and cultural positions developing their ideas - not their slogans or their talking points, but their ideas - in constant close contact, combat even.

More than once in those years, I was at dinner parties where people were standing on chairs yelling at each other until it was time to go home, at which point they would shake hands and return to their corners until next time. The only reason I think you would see someone standing on a chair at a Toronto dinner party is to change a light bulb.

The good of this unrelenting clash of convictions is twofold: First, it invests a political culture with a sense of transcendent unity; second, in its healthiest form, this clash can be the lively source of replenishment for national life itself. The problem in the United States at present, according to Sam Tanenhaus, an intellectual historian and editor of The New York Times Book Review and Week in Review, is that the right has fallen down on the job. His new book, The Death of Conservatism, is a slim but idea-packed volume that provides an intellectual genealogy-cum-autopsy for "movement conservatism, the orthodoxy that has been a vital force in [U.S.] political life for more than half a century and the dominant one during the past 30 years," a movement that for decades has been engaged in a cycle of defeat and renewal that gradually "pushed it farther along the route to ultimate victory."

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Along the way, this conservative movement thrived, exerting greater influence via think tanks and opinion magazines and, most dramatically, via a succession of Republican presidential and congressional gains until 2008, when it endured a conclusive defeat.

But rather than breathlessly invoke the rise of Barack Obama, Tanenhaus coolly blames the right's current doldrums on its abandonment of a decades-long commitment to vigorous thinking "about the nature of government and society, and about the role of politics in binding the two," for the easier and cheaper games of party infighting and "stockpiling ammunition for the next election."

A nation's public life ... is at its best when hard argument and vital ideas and passionate engagement come from both the left and the right

In Tanenhaus's cogent reconstruction of U.S. intellectual and national politics, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, he makes it clear that conservatives, often in reaction to liberal advances and broader cultural developments, have both been at their strongest and made their most important contributions to U.S. life when they have accepted the "obligation to rethink and re-evaluate, to undergo the serious work of self-examination and preparation," all in support of advancing national interests according to their own core conservative principles.

These principles reach back to the thought of Edmund Burke, specifically Burke's vision of a politics that rejected all ideologies for "the continual adjustment and recalibration of the existing order." One way of understanding this book is to regard it as a study of post-Second World War U.S. conservatives who have been motivated by Burkean principles and those who have subverted them in naked grabs for power.

In the latter category, Tanenhaus includes political figures such as Joseph McCarthy, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. In the former category, he focuses on intellectual figures such as Whitaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr.

This is not surprising: Tanenhaus is far more interested in political ideas and argument than he is in political manoeuvring for its own sake, and he's already the author of an excellent biography of Chambers, the country's most famous early Cold War intellectual, and is at work on a biography of Buckley, who, until his death earlier this year, was the United States' most prominent intellectual conservative.

In fact, Tanenhaus's skill at weaving ideas and history together through essentially short biographies of these two men make for the book's most compelling reading. The only problem with his more general analyses of U.S. conservatism is the problem that most every book on the complex relationship between ideas and politics suffers from - that once you've established your definition of right (or left), then anyone who falls outside that definition is by self-evident extension not a true member of the side.

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In Tanenhaus's case, this problem is typified by his never discussing abortion, a major driver of U.S. conservatism for almost 40 years, both on the picket lines and in the opinion columns. But because his vision of what it means to be a true conservative doesn't involve anti-abortion politics, Tanenhaus doesn't discuss it, and his overall presentation of the U.S. right is less accurately reflective as a result.

That said, the book is most valuable as the source of Tanenhaus's criticisms of the right becomes increasingly clear. Instead of crowing along with the majority of his New York Times readers (and likely a majority of Canadians) at the recent foundering of the conservative movement, he eloquently argues that "America needs a serious, rigorous opposition. Skeptics and outsiders perform a vital function in a democracy. It is they who ask the most uncomfortable questions, who gaze most critically at the existing arrangements of our politics and culture. Since its founding, [the United States]has been productively divided between liberal and conservative impulses. They form the dialectic of [the United States']infinitely renewable politics."

A nation's public life, as Sam Tanenhaus's book makes clear, is at its best when hard argument and vital ideas and passionate engagement come from both the left and the right. That kind of public life depends upon a conviction, on the part of its contributors, that their positions (and those of their opponents) matter in and of themselves, and to each other, and to the greater good - at least in a country when the greater good is inspired by more than yearly mandates for minority governments.

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at Ryerson University and author of Governor of the Northern Province, a novel.

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