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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bill Moyers: Conservative Radicals and the Politics of Vengeance


Intellectual conservatism is dead. And the angriest, most intellectually bankrupt elements have taken over the movement.

Editor's note: In the following interview, Bill Moyers and powerhouse NYT editor and author of "The Death of Conservatism Sam Tanenhaus discuss the last gasps of the conservative movement. Tanenhaus says that far from signifying a resurgence of conservative ideals, the Tea Party protesters and shock jocks like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spell the doom of the conservative movement. The interview starts with some scenes from journalist Max Blumenthal's video of last weekend's right-wing protests in Washington. Check out the video, which features exclusive footage of the Tea Party protesters that swarmed the Capitol, at the end of this article.

BILL MOYERS: Conservatives were out in force in Washington last weekend. They had come to express their opposition to big government, to taxes and wasteful spending, and health care reform they fear would lead to a nightmare of bureaucracy. Max Blumenthal, author of REPUBLICAN GOMORRAH waded into their midst to sample opinions.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: So you're saying if the government eliminates Social Security and Medicare then you'll get out of the program?

WOMAN: No, I said if they get out of my life.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Out of your Social Security and-

WOMAN: No, out of everything.

BILL MOYERS: But they had also come to deplore and denounce President Obama- in their minds a tyrant akin to Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.

MAN: I'm afraid he's going to do what Hitler could never do and that's destroy the United States of America.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: And what's the Obama revolution, what's going to happen?

MAN: Similar to Germany, like what Hitler did. He took over the auto industry, did he not? He took over the banking, did he not? And Hitler had his own personal secret service police, Acorn is an extension of that.

BILL MOYERS: They had found a new hero in Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican whose shout heard 'round the world was now the rallying cry of the weekend.

CROWD: You lie! You lie!

BILL MOYERS: Glenn Beck, their favorite pundit, had promoted this march and was reveling in its success.

GLENN BECK: This is a collection of Americans who but want both parties to stop with the corruption, stop with the spending and start listening to the people. Fox's Griff Jenkins is there now in Washington D.C., hey Griff.

GRIFF JENKINS: Glenn its unbelievable, thousands and thousands of people, look at this crowd right there. Do you guys have something you want to say to Glenn Beck?

BILL MOYERS: Watching those protestors you would have to say there's a lot of fight left on the Right, and you wouldn't be wrong. This rising tide of populist resistance to Obama, the anger over the massive government bailout of Wall Street and big failed corporations, have raised Republican hopes for a comeback. And it has Democrats scratching their head wondering how to respond.

So what do we make of this new book titled THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM? Has the author Sam Tanenhaus spent his time and considerable talent on a premature obituary?

Sam Tanenhaus edits two of the most influential sections of the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES - the Book Review and the Week in Review. He's has had a long fascination with conservatives and conservative ideas. He wrote this acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, the journalist who spied for the Russians before he became fiercely anti-communist and a hero to conservatives. Now Tanenhaus is working on a biography of the conservative icon William F. Buckley JR.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL, Sam Tanenhaus.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh my pleasure to be here, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: So, if you're right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?

SAM TANENHAUS: I'm afraid they're radicals. Conservatism has been divided for a long time -- this is what my book describes narratively -- between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We're seeing the revanchist side.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?

SAM TANENHAUS: I mean a politics that's based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that's been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for 'revenge.' It's a politics of vengeance.

And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism. Like the 19th Century nationalists who wanted to recover parts of their country that foreign nations had invaded and occupied, these radical people on the right, and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we're seeing on television and radio, and also to some extent people marching in the streets, think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration. Give it back to us. What we sometimes forget is that the last five presidential elections Democrats won pluralities in four of them. The only time the Republicans have won, in recent memory, was when George Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in modern history, for a sitting president. So, what this means is that, yes, conservatism, what I think of, as a radical form of conservatism, is highly organized. We're seeing it now-- they are ideologically in lockstep. They agree about almost everything, and they have an orthodoxy that governs their worldview and their view of politics. So, they are able to make incursions. And at times when liberals, Democrats, and moderate Republicans are uncertain where to go, yes, this group will be out in front, very organized, and dominate our conversation.

BILL MOYERS: What gives them their certainty? You know, your hero of the 18th Century, Burke, Edmund Burke, warned against extremism and dogmatic orthodoxy.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, it's a very deep strain in our politics, Bill. Some of our great historians like Richard Hofstadter and Garry Wills have written about this. If you go back to the foundations of our Republic, first of all, we have two documents, "creedal documents" they're sometimes called, more or less at war with one another. The Declaration of Independence says one thing and the Constitution says another.

BILL MOYERS: The Declaration says--

SAM TANENHAUS: …says that we will be an egalitarian society in which all rights will be available to one and all, and the Constitution creates a complex political system that stops that change from happening. So, there's a clash right at the beginning. Now, what we've seen is that certain groups among us-- and sometimes it's been the left-- have been able to dominate the conversation and transform politics into a kind of theater. And that's what we're seeing now.

BILL MOYERS: When you see these people in the theater of television, you call them the insurrectionists, in your book, what do you think motivates them?

SAM TANENHAUS: One of the interesting developments in our politics, in just the past few months, although you could see signs of it earlier, is the emergence of the demographic we always overlook in our youth obsessed culture: the elderly. That was the group that did not support Barack Obama. They voted for John McCain. It was also the group that rose up and defied George W. Bush, when he wanted to add private Social Scurity accounts. It was a similar kind of protest.

BILL MOYERS: There's a paradox there, right? I mean, they say they're against government and yet the majority of Americans, according to all the polls, don't want their government touched. You know, there were people at these town hall meetings this summer, saying "Don't touch my Medicare." You know, keep the government out of my Social Security.

SAM TANENHAUS: Yes. This is an interesting argument. Because it's very easy to mock, and we see this a lot. "Oh, these fools. These old codgers say the government won't take my Medicare away. Don't know Medicare is a government program?" That's not really what's going on, I think. I think there's something different. A sense about how both the left and the right grew skeptical of Great Society programs under Lyndon Johnson, and the argument was everyone was becoming a kind of client or ward of the state. That we've become a nation of patron/client relationships. And a colleague of yours, Richard Goodwin, very brilliant political thinker, in 1967 warned, "We all expect too much from government." We expect it to create all the jobs. We expect it to rescue the economy. To fight the wars. To give us a good life". So, when people say, "Don't take my Medicare away," what they really mean is, "We're entirely dependent on this government and we're afraid they'll take one thing away that we've gotten used to and replace it with something that won't be so good. And there's nothing we can do about it. We're powerless before the very guardian that protects us."

BILL MOYERS: So, how do you see this contradiction playing out in the health care debate? Where what's the dominant force that's going to prevail here at the end? Is it going to be, "We want reform and we want the government involved?" Or are we going to privatize it the way people on the conservative side want to do? The insurance companies, the drug companies, all of that?

SAM TANENHAUS: I think what we'll see is a kind of incremental reform. Look, we know that health care has become the third rail of American politics, going back to Theodore Roosevelt. The greatest retail politician in modern history, Bill Clinton, could not sell it. But here's another thing to think about. In the book I discuss one of the most interesting political theories of the modern era, Samuel Lubell's theory of the solar system of politics. And what he says is what we think of as an equally balanced, two-party system, is really a rotating one-party system. Either the Republicans or Democrats have ruled since the Civil War for periods of some 30-36 years. And in those periods, all the great debates have occurred within a single party. So, if you go back to the 1980s, which some would say was the peak of the modern conservative period, the fight's about how to end the Cold War, how to unleash market forces-- were really Republican issues.

Today, when we look at the great questions -- how to stimulate the economy, how to provide and expand and improve a sustainable health care system, the fight is taking place among Democrats. So, in a sense what Republicans have done is to put themselves on the sidelines. They've vacated the field and left it to the other party, the Democratic Party, to resolve these issues among themselves. That's one reason I think conservatism is in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: You write in here that they're not simply in retreat, they're outmoded. They don't act like it, you know?

SAM TANENHAUS: They do and they don't. What I also say in the book is that the voices are louder than ever. And I wrote that back in March. Already we were hearing the furies on the right. Remember, there was a movement within the Republican Party, finally scotched, to actually rename the Democrats, "The Democrat Socialist Party." This started from the beginning. So, the noise is there. William Buckley has a wonderful expression. He says, "The pyrotechnicians and noise-makers have always been there on the right." I think we're hearing more of that than we are serious ideological, philosophical discussion about conservatism.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that the news agenda today is driven by Fox News, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Why are those organs of information and/or propaganda so powerful?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, there's been a transformation of the conservative establishment. And this has been going on for some time. The foundations of modern conservatism, the great thinkers, were actually ex-communists, many of them. Whittaker Chambers, the subject of my biography. The great, brilliant thinker, James Burnham. A less known but equally brilliant figure, Willmoore Kendall, who was a mentor, oddly enough, to both William Buckley and Garry Wills. These were the original thinkers. And they were essentially philosophical in their outlook. Now, there are conservative intellectuals, but we don't think of them as conservative anymore-- Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukayama, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Lind, the great Columbia professor, Mark Lilla-- they've all left the movement. And so, it's become dominated instead by very monotonic, theatrically impressive voices and faces.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does it say that a tradition that begins with Edmund Burke, the great political thinker of his time, moves on over the years, the decades, to William Buckley, and now the icon is Rush Limbaugh?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, in my interpretation it means that it's ideologically depleted. That what we're seeing now and hearing are the noise-makers in Buckley's phrase. There's a very important incident described in this book that occurred in 1965, when the John Birch Society, an organization these new Americanist groups resemble -- the ones who are marching in Washington and holding tea parties. Essentially, very extremist revanchist groups that view politics in a conspiratorial way.

And the John Birch Society during the peak of the Cold War struggle was convinced, and you're well aware of this, that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, who reported to his brother Milton, and 80 percent of the government was dominated by Communists. Communists were in charge of American education, American health care. They were fluoridating the water to weaken our brains. All of this happened. And at first, Buckley and his fellow intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW indulged this. They said, "You know what? Their arguments are absurd, but they believe in the right things. They're anti-communists. And they're helping our movement."

Cause many of them helped Barry Goldwater get nominated in 1964. And then in 1965, Buckley said, "Enough." Buckley himself had matured politically. He'd run for Mayor of New York. He'd seen how politics really worked. And he said, "We can't allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe." So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its "drivel" were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line. And that's what we may not see if we don't have that kind of leadership on the right now.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent is race an irritant here? Because, you know, I was in that era of the '60s, I was deeply troubled as we moved on to try to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by William Buckley's seeming embrace of white supremacy. It seemed to me to taint-- to leave something in the DNA of the modern conservative movement that is still there.

SAM TANENHAUS: It is. And one of the few regrets Bill Buckley ever expressed was that his magazine had not supported the Civil Rights Act--


SAM TANENHAUS: …but you may remember that in the late '70s, he supported a national holiday for Martin Luther King--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I remember that.

SAM TANENHAUS: …where someone like John McCain did not. I once heard Buckley give a lecture -- brilliant lecture in New York City -- about the late '90s in which he talked about the importance of religion in American civil life. And it was Martin Luther King who was the object.

BILL MOYERS: What changed him? I mean, because he was writing in the National Review about, endorsing the White Supremacy scheme of the country at that time.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, he actually did that, Bill, a little bit earlier.


SAM TANENHAUS: '50s. He did more of it. In the early '60s, even a great thinker and writer like Garry Wills, who was still a part of the "National Review," though he supported the civil rights movement, thought it might weaken the institutional structures of society, if it became too fervent a protest. Now, what the Republican Party did was to make a very shrewd political calculation. A kind of Faustian bargain with the South. That the southern whites who resisted civil rights legislation-- and as you know, Lyndon Johnson knew, when he signed those bills into law, he might lose the solid south as it had been called, the Democrats might lose them for a generation or more. And yes, the Republicans moved right in, and they did it on the basis of a state's rights argument. Now, however convincing or unconvincing that was, it's important to acknowledge that Republicans never-- conservatives, I should say, northern Republicans are different-- but conservatives within the Republican Party, because the two were once not, you know, identical-- thought that a hierarchical society and a kind of racial difference-- a sense of racial difference, established institutionally, was not so bad a thing.

They were wrong. They were dead wrong. But that sense of animus is absolutely strong today. Look who some of the great protestors are against Barack Obama. Three of them come from South Carolina, the state that led the secession. Joe Wilson and Senator DeMint, Mark Sanford who got in trouble. These are South Carolinians. And there's no question that that side of the insurrectionist South remains in our politics.

BILL MOYERS: When you heard Joe Wilson shout out, "You lie," and you saw who it was, did you think "the voice of conservatism today"?

SAM TANENHAUS: No. I thought "This man needs to read his Edmund Burke." Edmund Burke gave us the phrase "civil society." Now, people can be confused about that. It doesn't mean we have to be nice to each other all the time. Bill Buckley was not nice to his political opponents. What it means is one has to recognize that we're all part of what should be our harmonious culture, and that we respect the political institutions that bind it together. Edmund Burke, a very interesting passage in his great book, the "Reflections on the Revolution in France," uses the words "government" and "society" almost interchangeably. He sees each reinforcing the other. It is our institutional patrimony. When someone in the floor of Congress dishonors, disrespects, the office of the President, he's actually striking-- however briefly, however slightingly-- a blow against the institutions that our society is founded on. And I think Edmund Burke might have some trouble with that.

BILL MOYERS: There's long been a fundamental contradiction at the heart of this coalition that we call "conservative." I mean, you had the Edmund Burke kind of conservatism that yearns for a sacred, ordered society, bound by tradition, that protects both rich and poor, against what one of my friends calls the "Libertarian, robber baron, capitalist, cowboy America." I mean, that marriage was doomed to fail, right?

SAM TANENHAUS: It was. First of all, this is absolutely right, in the terms of a classical conservatism. And here is the figure I emphasize in my book is Benjamin Disraeli. What he feared-- the revolution of his time, this is the French Revolution that concerned Edmund Burke-- half a century later what concerned Disraeli and other conservatives was the Industrial Revolution. That Dickens wrote his novels about-- that children, the very poor becoming virtual slaves in work houses, that the search for money, for capital, for capital accumulation, seemed to drown out all other values. That's what modern conservatism is partly anchored in. So, how do we get this contradiction?

BILL MOYERS: Why isn't it standing up against turbo-capitalism?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, one reason is that America very early on in its history reached a kind of pact, in the Jacksonian era, between the government on the one hand and private capital on the other. That the government would actually subsidize capitalism in America. That's what the Right doesn't often acknowledge. A lot of what we think of as the unleashed, unfettered market is, in fact, a government supported market. Some will remember the famous debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, and Dick Cheney said that his company, Halliburton, had made millions of dollars without any help from the government. It all came from the government! They were defense contracts! So, what's happened is the American ethos, which is a different thing from our political order-- that's the rugged individualism, the cowboy, the frontiersman, the robber baron, the great explorer, the conqueror of the continent. For that aspect of our myth, the market has been the engine of it. So, what brought them together, is what we've seen in the right is what I call a politics of organized cultural enmity. Everybody--

BILL MOYERS: Accusatory protest, you call it.

SAM TANENHAUS: Accusatory protest. With liberals as the enemy. So, if you are a free-marketeer, or you're an evangelical, or a social conservative, or even an authoritarian conservative, you can all agree about one thing: you hate the liberals that are out to destroy us. And that's a very useful form of political organization. I'm not sure it contributes much to our government and society, but it's politically useful, and we're seeing it again today.

BILL MOYERS: It wasn't long ago that Karl Rove was saying this coalition was going to deliver a new Republican majority. What happened? It finally came apart. Why?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, I believe it had come apart earlier than that. I really think Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 sealed the end of serious conservative counterrevolution. We forget that election. It seems like an anomaly, but consider, Bill Clinton won more electoral votes than Barack Obama, despite the presence of one of the most successful third party candidates, H. Ross Perot, another Texan, in American history. But that's not the most important fact. The most important fact is that George H. W. Bush got less of the popular vote in 1992 than Herbert Hoover got in 1932. That was really the end. But what happened was the right was so institutionally successful that it controlled many of the levers, as you say. So, what happened in the year 2000? Well, the conservatives on the Supreme Court stopped the democratic process, put their guy into office. Then September 11th came. And the right got its full first blank slate. They could do really whatever they wanted. And what we saw were those eight years. And that is the end of ideological conservatism as a vital formative and contributive aspect of our politics.


SAM TANENHAUS: Because it failed so badly. It wasn't conservative. It was radical. It's interesting. Many on the right say, "George Bush betrayed us." They weren't saying that in 2002 and 2003. He was seen as someone who would complete the Reagan revolution. I think a lot of it was Iraq. Now, I quote in the book a remarkably prescient thing. The very young, almost painfully, 31-year-old, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in 1835, he said you cannot export democracy, even then, to lands ruled by despotic priests. And he happened to mean Catholic, not Islamic priests. But he said you actually have to have a civil society established in advance. He said that's why the United States had become a great republic so shortly after the Revolution. We had the law of English custom here. You see? So, we were prepared to become a democracy. There were conservatives who tried to make that argument before the war in Iraq. Francis Fukayama was one, Fareed Zakaria was another-- they're both well outside that movement. There were people in the Bush Administration who tried to argue this -- they were marginalized or stripped of power. What America saw was an ideological revanchism with all the knobs turned to the highest volume. The imperial presidency of a Dick Cheney and all the rest. And we saw where we got.

BILL MOYERS: Here's another puzzle. Back to what we were talking about earlier. You say in "The Death of Conservatism" that, "Even as the financial collapse drove us to the brink, conservatives remained strangely apart, trapped in the irrelevant causes of another day, deaf to the actual conversation unfolding across the land." And the paradox is, it seems to me, they are driving the conversation that you say they don't hear.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, you know, they have many mouths, Bill, but they don't have many ears. The great political philosopher, Hannah Arendt once said, in one of her great essays on Socrates, whom she wrote about a lot -- that the sign of a true statesmen, maybe particularly in a democracy, is the capacity to listen. And that doesn't simply mean to politely grow mute while your adversary talks. It means, in fact, to try to inhabit the thoughts and ideas of the other side. Barack Obama is perhaps a genius at this. For anyone who has not heard the audio version of "Dreams from My Father," it's a revelation. He does all the voices. He does the white Kansas voices, he does the Kenyan voices. He has an extraordinary ear. There's an auditory side to politics. And that capacity to listen is what enables you to absorb the arguments made by the other side and to have a kind of debate with yourself. That's the way our deliberative process is supposed to work. Right now, at a time of confusion and uncertainty, the ideological right is very good at shouting at us, and rallying the troops. But, you know, one of the real contributions conservatism made in its peak years, the 1950s and '60s, I think as an intellectual movement, is that it repudiated the politics of public demonstration. It was the left that was marching in the streets, and carrying guns, and threatening to take the society down, or calling President Johnson a murderer. Remember it was William Buckley, who said, "We're calling this man a murderer in the name of humanity?" It was the conservatives who used political institutions, political campaigns, who rallied behind traditional candidates produced by the party apparatus. They revitalized the traditions and the instruments and vehicles of our democracy.

But now we've reached a point, quite like one Richard Hofstadter described some 40 years ago, where ideologues don't trust politicians anymore. Remember during the big march in Washington, many of the protestors or demonstrators insisted they were not demonstrating just against Barack Obama, but against all the politicians-- that's why some Republicans wouldn't support it. They don't believe in politics as the medium whereby our society negotiates its issues.

BILL MOYERS: What do they believe in?

SAM TANENHAUS: They believe in a kind of revolution, a cultural revolution. They think the system can be-- what some would say hijacked. They would say maneuvered, controlled, that they can get their hands back on the levers. An important thing about the right in America is it always considers itself a minority position and an embattled position. No matter how many of the branches of government they dominate. So, what they believe in is, as Willmoore Kendall, this early philosopher said, is a politics of battle lines, of war.

BILL MOYERS: So, here, at this very critical moment, when so much is hanging in the balance, what is the paradox of conservatism as you see it?

SAM TANENHAUS: The paradox of conservatism is that it gives the signs, the overt signs of energy and vitality, but the rigor mortis I described is still there. As a philosophy, as a system of government, as a way all of us can learn from, as a means of evaluating ourselves, our social responsibilities, our personal obligations and responsibilities. It has, right now, nothing to offer.

BILL MOYERS: Now, they disagree with you. They think you have issued a call for unilateral disarmament on their part-- that brass knuckles and sharp elbows are part of fighting for what you believe in, and therefore, you're calling for a unilateral disarmament.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, you know, that's what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style, is when it's always living on the verge of apocalypse. That defeat is staring you in the face, and the only victories are total victories. Because even the slightest victory, if it's not complete, means the other side may come back and get you again. This is not serious responsible argument. Much of my book is actually about the failures of liberalism in that noontime period of the 1960s. And many of the conservatives simply ignore that part of the argument.

BILL MOYERS: How to explain this long fascination you've had with conservative ideas, and the conservative movement. Why this fascination?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I think it has been the dominant philosophy, political philosophy in our culture, in America, for some half-century. What particularly drew me first to Chambers and then Buckley is the idea that these were serious intellectuals, who were also men of action. Conservatives have kind of supplied us in their best periods-- the days when NATIONAL REVIEW and COMMENTARY and THE PUBLIC INTEREST were tremendously vital publications, self-examining, developing new vocabularies and idioms, teaching us all how to think about politics and culture in a different way, with a different set of tools. They were contributing so enormously to who we were as Americans. And yet, many liberals were not paying attention. Many liberals today don't know that a great thinker like Garry Wills was a product of the conservative movement. It's astonishing to them to learn it. They just assume, because they agree with him now, he was always a liberal. In fact, he remains a kind of conservative. This is the richness in the philosophy that attracted me, and that I wanted to learn more about, to educate myself.

BILL MOYERS: The book is THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM. Sam Tanenhaus, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for joining me.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh, it's my great pleasure to be here.

See more stories tagged with: gop, liberals, conservatives, conservatism, buckley, garry willis

Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.

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