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The Death of Conservatism Hardcover – September 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The arguments are more surprising than the conclusions in this slender book that simultaneously celebrates and mourns the end of the harshly ideological strain of conservatism that reached full flower during the presidency of George W. Bush. Tracing the movement's intellectual history from Edmund Burke to Rush Limbaugh, Tanenhaus (Whitaker Chambers), editor of the New York Times Book Review, argues that the contemporary Right define[s] itself less by what it yearns to conserve than by what it longs to destroy—and that pragmatic Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have usurped the Republicans' once winning focus on social stability. Tanenhaus argues that Republicans must moderate their focus on ideological purity if they are to return from the political wilderness and offers trenchant criticism of the liberal excesses that previously led to a long Democratic exile from the White House. Tanenhaus's positions are not entirely consistent, however; he aligns Nixon with George W. Bush and his destructively revanchist course before praising Nixon's prodigious gifts and sheer intellectual ability. But the author recognizes the need for two strong parties to compete in American politics, and his impeccably well-written book insightfully summarizes the highs and lows of American conservatism over the decades. (Sept.)
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“Impeccably well-written book insightfully summarizes the highs and lows of American conservatism over the decades.”—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068843
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068845
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,328,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

96 of 130 people found the following review helpful By Scott Chamberlain VINE VOICE on September 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In reading The Death of Conservatism, I've become convinced that this slender little volume is going to have a huge impact on politics over the next few years--everyone is going to have something to say about it.

Distilled to its essence (hardly needed in that it is a very quick read), Tanenhaus' argument is that the two great pillars of American society are its political institutions and what Tanenhaus would call its patrimonial or traditional social institutions such as schools, churches, corporations, unions, etc. Although liberals and conservatives may disagree on which pillar is more important, the fact is BOTH are required for the county's stability. Tanenhaus goes on to argue that when the conservative movement was most dynamic and effective, it produced great intellectual figures such as Burke or Buckley who could articulate their positions and formulate policies that took into account both these foundational pillars, and pragmatic politicians such as Regan who could work with both their allies and enemies to put these ideas into place. He notes that that this cooperation between the "thinkers" and the "do-ers" wasn't a marriage of convenience, it was absolutely essential to moving the agenda forward...the intellectuals were keen on developing rationales that made sense to the broader public, which paved the way for the politicians to actually implement conservative policies. Tanenhaus goes on to strongly emphasize that the great conservative thinkers and politicians were above all practical, not blindly ideological--Buckley strongly denounced extremists such as the John Birch Society, and Regan made clear he was a fan of the New Deal.
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19 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Hellstrom on September 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This was a brisk read and very enjoyable. I "read" the four hour audio book in a single session to and from my work destination. Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times book review does a great job differentiating the "movement" conservatives from conservatives like Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. It is especially strong in its coverage of the 60's, especially William F. Buckley and interesting asides like highlights of the career of the late NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The book was too short. I felt attention should have been paid to thinkers like Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom, the think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the transformation of New York in the Giuliani administration. Tanenhaus is correct in his assessment of the "noise makers" of today when held in contrast to those who sought to "conserve" social stability and civil society. The Tea Bagging "You lie" conservatives are the polar opposite of Edmund Burke. The Republicans and the right should retreat into the wilderness, read this book and emerge with a stronger vision that is relevant to today's politics. The left and the democrats should read this book to see the value of having a strong opposition to act as a corrective to ideological excess and a disregard of history.
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18 of 26 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on October 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is precipitated, first, by the loss of the last presidential election by the inglorious Republicans, or pseudo-conservatives, but also by the disappearance of any semblance of true conservatism from national politics. Two things about the book: regardless of the ridiculousness of this brand of Republicanism, their demise is greatly exaggerated; secondly, the entire concept of "conservatism" is beset by misrepresentations.

The author's admission that most of us are both liberal and conservative helps little. Gordon Wood in "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" made the essential point that the formation of the United States was a liberal undertaking. We rejected kowtowing to kings, priests, feudal lords, etc. We emphasized equal liberty for all (initially, white men) and created a political community based on the participation of the common man to greater or lesser extent. We accept that "We, the People" will decide what measures will be undertaken by our government. We don't automatically accept old thinking and old ways of doing things, usually reinforced by social elites. It is totally nonsensical to speak of anti-government sentiment in a democracy when it is actually our responsibility to participate in gov and address our issues and advance the cause of ourselves, if not mankind.

The author makes an invidious comparison between the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man versus our supposedly conservative, practical founding. Of course, he has to acknowledge that our own Declaration of Independence speaks of the equality and rights of men. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution attempted to rein in democracy, which actually testifies to our democratic instincts. Applying political labels is almost impossible.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Bachmann VINE VOICE on June 22, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sam Tannehaus' provocative title (but not so provocative thesis) is that the conservatism of Burke and Buckley is dead. In the last generation conservatives have made a devil's pact with Christian kooks and America First global interventionists. The movement has not only lost its mooring but is listing in the shoals of racism and jingoism. Frankly, anyone who has watched a Republican convention since 1980 could have deduced the same but Tannenhaus does us the service of organizing this into a thin, cogent volume.

To return to its roots (if not its glory days) he suggests the movement in general and Republican Party in particularly returns to the Burkean faction trumpeted by advocates such as W.F. Buckley for more than half of the last century. Sound advice if politicians were interested in principle over power however experience shows us otherwise. The notion that 10s of millions of supporters are going to be turned away by the GOP is simply preposterous. Nice explication of the problem. Absurdly naive solution.
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