St. Michael’s Cosponsors Talk on Future of American Conservatism

By: Martyn Wendell Jones

St. Michael’s Principal and Vice President Randy Boyagoda opened a recent two-hour conversation between journalist Sam Tanenhaus and National Post columnist Andrew Coyne with a lead-off question: “will we see a resurrection [of American conservatism] any time soon?”

Author of a 2009 book titled The Death of Conservatism, Tanenhaus responded provocatively: “As bizarre as it sounds, Donald Trump is not the worst thing that’s happened to conservatism,” although he did allow that Trump may be the worst thing that has happened “to humanity.” Trump has brought to the fore issues and questions related to the viability of coupling an ideological movement with a practical political party that “movement conservatism in the United States has… ignored for a long time.”

Tanenhaus and Coyne spoke in front of a full audience of around 150 people in the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility at the Munk School of Global Affairs on Tuesday, September 12. The University of St. Michael’s College cosponsored the event with Munk, the School of Public Policy and Governance, and the Centre for the Study of the United States, which was the event’s primary sponsor.

Professor Boyagoda posed questions to Tanenhaus and Coyne for about forty minutes before opening up the floor to questions, which audience members passed along using slips of paper. When Coyne prompted Tanenhaus, the former New York Times Book Review editor offered a temperamental characterization of conservatism in place of an ideological one: “most of us feel ourselves to be in some way conservative,” wanting to preserve “things that work” while being suspicious of “change, threats and dangers in the culture, radical disruptions and transformations.”

Classic conservative positions such as a general distrust of government, lower taxes, free markets, and shrinking the federal government reflect “authentic American ideas” that aren’t manufactured “by ideologues,” but they have come to seem “anachronistic” in light of the pragmatic questions concerning issues such as healthcare, Tanenhaus said.

He suggested that there is hope for American conservatives to give up “the food fight” and return to offering real, practical policy alternatives to their Democrat counterparts, as was the case with the Heritage Foundation in the Reagan era. Americans are “true individualists,” and it’s for this reason that conservative ideals will always have a place in American politics. In Tanenhaus’s telling, it is up to proponents of American conservatism to recover their pragmatic orientation and return to offering concrete proposals if they intend to carve out a future for themselves in politics.

The day following this event, Tanenhaus met with students from the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas. With these students he discussed the role of faith in American public life with reference to the way Catholicism and Catholic intellectuals influenced John F Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 presidential election.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer in the Office of Communications at the University of St. Michael’s College.