David Brooks is the prominent New York Times columnist who made a name for himself as a conservative writer at the Weekly Standard and in his early books of comic sociology. At the Times, however, Brooks has gone native. He has become a one-man source of global warming. And I don’t mean climate change.
Sometimes he can’t see what is in front of his face, as in his take on the movie Lincoln. The movie told the story of Lincoln’s work to secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment — the amendment abolishing slavery — in the House of Representatives. Lincoln was the president who chose to fight what he called “a great civil war” rather than accept disunion. He was the president who turned the war into “a new birth of freedom.” He was the president who declined to accept anything less than the unconditional surrender of the forces of the Confederacy. This is all on display in one way or another in the film.
Brooks touted the film as promoting a view of politics as “noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.” Yet there is no compromise to be seen in the film on any important point.
Brooks’s first encounter with Barack Obama represents a more striking example. As Gabriel Sherman wrote in 2009, “that first encounter is still vivid in Brooks’s mind.”
Sherman quoted Brooks: “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks famously recalled, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” In the resulting Brooks column — “Run, Barack, Run” — Brooks declared Obama’s mode to be “conversation, deliberation and reconciliation.” Brooks concluded that “the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses.”
When it comes to politics, I think the intelligent reader may want to look elsewhere for guidance.
This week Brooks called out the conservative members of the House GOP Freedom Caucus. He condemned them as “The Republicans’ incompetence caucus.” Brooks finds them the symptom of a diseased party that has suffered “a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism.”
Brooks contrasts the radicalism espoused by modern conservatives with traditional conservatism standing for “intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.”
A serpent appears in this Eden. The serpent’s name is Rush Limbaugh. All is changed, changed utterly, and something terribly unbeautiful is born “in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.”
Brooks concludes that “this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”
Brooks doesn’t cite any American conservative of the good old school. I’m not sure whom he has in mind.
I think modern American conservatism derives from William F. Buckley, Jr., and the founding of National Review in 1955. Modern American conservatism took form as a political movement in the Goldwater presidential campaign that transformed the Republican Party in 1964. Buckley and his co-conspirators of course did much to inspire the Goldwater campaign. Goldwater was the original of the rough beast whom Brooks decries.
Lee Edwards takes us back to the founding of National Review in “Standing athwart history.” Edwards recalls that in his prospectus for founding investors in NR, Buckley rejected Eisenhowerism or the Republicanism of the time as “politically, intellectually, and morally repugnant.”
Edwards notes: “The most alarming single danger to the American political system, [Buckley] said, was that a team of Fabian operators ‘is bent on controlling both our major parties—under the sanction of such fatuous and unreasoned slogans as ‘national unity,’ ‘middle-of-the-road,’ ‘progressivism,’ and ‘bipartisanship.’”
What was Eisenhowerism then is Brooksism now.
Bill Buckley, incidentally, loved Rush. We have Jay Nordlinger’s testimony on this point: “I know, I was there.”
Rush responded to Brooks’s column in his monologue “David Brooks says I’ve ruined everything in American politics.” Rush takes note of Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire column responding to Brooks from the right. Corey Robin responds to Brooks from the left in “You’re not the angel I once knew.”
The best thing I have read on the Freedom Caucus is Jeremy Carl’s column “The Freedom Caucus is a rebellion that could change the GOP’s future.” By contrast with Brooks, one can actually learn something from Carl:
Their [elite] educational background means that Freedom Caucus members are almost invariably used to being in a small conservative minority surrounded by liberals. They are not afraid of being unpopular, or of holding views that are disapproved of by institutional leadership. They have generally thought through—and are comfortable defending—the conservative premises of their arguments. When combined with their lack of seniority, it paints a picture of the Freedom Caucus members as bright junior legislators who do not look kindly on an established leadership that has largely failed to achieve conservative goals it has promised the voters.
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The Freedom Caucus’s ascendance represents the frustration of the more than three quarters of GOP voters who are supporting a presidential candidate who emerged on the national political scene during or after the Tea Party Revolution of 2010. And it is reflective of GOP voters’ disgust with the current party establishment that Marco Rubio, currently being touted as the “great establishment hope” for those major donors looking for an alternative to Jeb Bush, was originally elected on a Tea Party platform in the face of National Republican Senatorial Committee opposition and with the enthusiastic support of conservative firebrand Jim DeMint.
Whatever the group’s tactical or strategic shortcomings, the Freedom Caucus seems to attract representatives who are interested in winning the battle of ideas for conservatism. If they can combine that zeal for “winning the argument” with the electoral and institutional savvy of some of the more senior members, many of whom know how to “win the vote,” it could allow the GOP House to have a highly effective, conservative and substantive governing majority.
But whether this happens will be largely determined by the next House GOP leadership, who will have to work with the Freedom Caucus far more effectively than Boehner and McCarthy did. At a time of considerable intellectual ferment on the right, the GOP coalition may not survive an establishment counter-revolution.
Those of us who identify with the spirit of the House Freedom Caucus think that President Obama and his “Fabian operators” have fomented a crisis of lawlessness. We think that is rather a big deal. By contrast with David Brooks, we are exercised about it. We are not suffused with the spirit of love and reconciliation.
David Bernstein’s forthcoming book, by the way, is precisely on point: Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law. This Bernstein guy sounds like one of the rough beasts David Brooks espies among the GOP hordes, yet he is the George Mason University Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, where he has been teaching constitutional law for the past 20 years. Some of the examples discussed by Professor Bernstein were even covered in the Times.
FOOTNOTE: Steve Hayward’s NR essay “The Reagan revolution and its discontents” warrants further study in this context.