WASHINGTON -- It has happened again. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review referred to by Paul Krugman the other day as "a long-time conservative," has essayed in the New Republic the modern conservative movement, and traced us all back to John C. Calhoun. I suppose our point of origin could have been more sinister. Sam could have traced us back to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate General who went on to be an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, but John C. Calhoun is bad enough.
Of course, Calhoun is no kind of modern conservative. He is not even a typical conservative of the 19th century, at least outside the South. He would have made heavy weather of it in the North in the company of such conservatives as the Adams’ or even the Virginia founders such as George Washington.
Calhoun is commonly recalled as a brilliant political philosopher, a proponent of states’ rights and a defender of slavery. I do not know anyone who defends slavery today, save for those who apologized for the Soviet Union. If Sam knows of such a dinosaur I suggest he be bold and take the fellow on in the pages of his Review. It would liven the place up. Next will come Prohibition, and I shall be eager to see which side Sam is on.
Actually the modern conservative movement was founded in the 1950s with an amalgam of anti-Communists, libertarians and American traditionalists. As the years have gone on, it has shown itself to be the most dynamic political movement in the country, picking up along the way sober-minded liberals (known as neoconservatives), Reagan Democrats, evangelicals, Tea Partiers and even independents.
In the face of this, Sam has been a bit flighty. In 2009, he brought out a book pronouncing The Death of Conservatism. Fourteen months later -- just as Sam's paperback came out -- the Republicans swept into control of the House in one of the largest rightward swings in the history of America, nay, in the history of Democratic government. Yet not a single member of the Republican House supports Calhoun's view of slavery.
Meantime the pollsters discovered that only 18-20 percent of the American people are, to use a superannuated term, "liberal" -- they ought to be calling themselves socialists or possibly friendly fascists. Today around 42 percent of the American people are conservative, and with the independents who voted against Barack Obama last year thrown in, that number climbs to around 57 percent -- though I would say that number is only roughly conservative. I am looking forward to the 2014 elections.