A conservatism worth having by mattsteinglass
February 13, 2009, 11:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sam Tanenhaus’s essay in TNR, “Conservatism Is Dead“, seems right on target, if slightly mistitled; it’s really a diagnosis of the developing realignment among conservatives, and ends with a call for a conservatism that is really interested in conserving American values and institutions rather than tearing them down. It’s already elicited a bitter debate, with Andrew Bacevich weighing in to say America today is slave to its appetites and has nothing worth conserving, Damon Linker weirdly accusing Bacevich of a longing for authoritarianism, Patrick Deneen equally weirdly accusing Linker of not understanding that freedom must rest on self-restraint, Daniel Larison agreeing with Deneen, and so forth.

My basic feeling is that what Bacevich wants for America is in many ways right, but he fails to recognize that much of it is actually happening. Americans have gone on an unconscionable spree of unproductive personal consumption over the past 20-odd years, but that trend has been reversed with startling speed in the past year under the impact of the same thing that taught our grandparents to save: a very scary economic recession. There has been a powerful shift in the culture towards an ethics of responsibility, restraint, common sense and conservation. I think part of the reason Bacevich misses this is because the shift towards responsibility has largely been on the left, rather than the right. It was common sense and fiscal responsibility that turned Paul Krugman into a leftist; it was opposition to an ill-conceived and irresponsible war in Iraq that pushed much of the rest of the country to the left; and so forth. And then you have the basically conservative conservationism of, say, Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me”.

Probably the best encapsulation of the shift towards responsibility I can think of is “Friday Night Lights”. This is a show about high school football in Texas, lovestruck teens and the adults who must cope with them. And yet the subtext of the show, in contrast to almost any teen show I’ve ever seen, is financial hardship, escaping the temptations of drink, the struggle to get into and pay for college, all in a working-class economy where most kids’ families are within shouting distance of insolvency. The show is relentlessly moralistic, but in the context of a clear-eyed recognition of what middle America looks like today: mixed-up families, an absent parent or two, insecure jobs, savage class divisions, people tempted to live beyond their means. Our heroes are a 16-year-old quarterback with a long-gone mother and a father deployed in Iraq, taking care of his increasingly senile grandmother. And so forth.

This is an impressionistic answer. But it seems to me that America is not so far gone as Bacevich thinks, and that things are in fact moving in the right direction, culturally if not economically. So I think I’m more with Tanenhaus than with Bacevich here, though I’ve generally found Bacevich impressive in speaking about foreign policy issues.

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