Conservatism in need of life support and David Brooks is not enough

The Conservative Intellectual Crisis

David Brooks NYT, OCT. 28, 2016

I feel very lucky to have entered the conservative movement when I did, back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working at National Review, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. The role models in front of us were people like Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter.

These people wrote about politics, but they also wrote about a lot of other things: history, literature, sociology, theology and life in general. There was a sharp distinction then between being conservative, which was admired, and being a Republican, which was considered sort of cheesy.

These writers often lived in cities among liberals while being suspicious of liberal thought and liberal parochialism. People like Buckley had friends of every ideological stripe and were sharper for being in hostile waters. They were sort of inside and outside the establishment and could speak both languages.

Many grew up poor, which cured them of the anti-elitist pose that many of today’s conservative figures adopt, especially if they come from Princeton (Ted Cruz), Cornell (Ann Coulter) or Dartmouth (Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza). The older writers knew that being cultured and urbane wasn’t a sign of elitism. Culture was the tool they used for social mobility. T.S. Eliot was cheap and sophisticated argument was free.

The Buckley-era establishment self-confidently enforced intellectual and moral standards. It rebuffed the nativists like the John Birch Society, the apocalyptic polemicists who popped up with the New Right, and they exiled conspiracy-mongers and anti-Semites, like Joe Sobran, an engaging man who was rightly fired from National Review.

Students signing up with the College Republicans during freshman orientation last month at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Credit T. J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The conservative intellectual landscape has changed in three important ways since then, paving the way for the ruination of the Republican Party.

First, talk radio, cable TV and the internet have turned conservative opinion into a mass-market enterprise. Small magazines have been overwhelmed by Rush, O’Reilly and Breitbart.

Today’s dominant conservative voices try to appeal to people by the millions. You win attention in the mass media through perpetual hysteria and simple-minded polemics and by exploiting social resentment. In search of that mass right-wing audience that, say, Coulter enjoys, conservatism has done its best to make itself offensive to people who value education and disdain made-for-TV rage.

It’s ironic that an intellectual tendency that champions free markets was ruined by the forces of commercialism, but that is the essential truth. Conservatism went down-market in search of revenue. It got swallowed by its own anti-intellectual media-politico complex — from Beck to Palin to Trump. Hillary Clinton is therefore now winning among white college graduates by 52 to 36 percent.

Second, conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else. The very essence of conservatism is the belief that politics is a limited activity, and that the most important realms are pre-political: conscience, faith, culture, family and community. But recently conservatism has become more the talking arm of the Republican Party.
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Among social conservatives, for example, faith sometimes seems to come in second behind politics, Scripture behind voting guides. Today, most white evangelicals are willing to put aside the Christian virtues of humility, charity and grace for the sake of a Trump political victory. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, 72 percent of white evangelicals believe that a person who is immoral in private life can be an effective national leader, a belief that is more Machiavelli than Matthew.

As conservatism has become a propagandistic, partisan movement it has become less vibrant, less creative and less effective.

That leads to the third big change. Blinkered by the Republican Party’s rigid anti-government rhetoric, conservatives were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time.

For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void.

This is a sad story. But I confess I’m insanely optimistic about a conservative rebound. That’s because of an observation the writer Yuval Levin once made: That while most of the crazy progressives are young, most of the crazy conservatives are old. Conservatism is now being led astray by its seniors, but its young people are pretty great. It’s hard to find a young evangelical who likes Donald Trump. Most young conservatives are comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex. Conservatism’s best ideas are coming from youngish reformicons who have crafted an ambitious governing agenda (completely ignored by Trump).

A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth. It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.

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William F. Buckley in his office in New York City, in 1980. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The Comments

Following the David Brooks op ed piece there were comments, and at this very  moment, only a few hours after publication, there have been hundreds of them. And for the op ed writers of the Times this is not unusual, that hundreds read and respond with a comment to what they have read.

I haven’t read them, the hundreds of comments (nobody does, I suppose, except the Times editors themselves) but as usual, whenever I do take the time to read a few or more of them I’m impressed.

The Times Comment writers, at least the ones that I have read, are an extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent bunch of people. Would that they could somehow replace the present members of the House and Senate where pettiness, unreason, obstruction, along with a legion of other failings and shortcomings are the rule.

And the readers pounce, almost to the “man,” on David Brooks’ final statement, about how great it is to be a conservative right now. And this after he has persuaded his readers, and me too, that the barbarians out there who now go by the name of conservative, such as Rush, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, Alex Jones, Ted Cruz, Laura Ingraham, to name just the first few that come go mind, now dominate the social media. Young conservatives, in the manner of Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter, who knows any?


Now a selection of the comments:

It’s true and maybe a kind of silver lining that the Limbaugh-Breitbart-Trump effect is making the kind of “old-fashioned” conservativism Brooks eulogizes here, à la Buckley, Kirk, et al, seem noble–a worthy and welcome counter to liberal ideals…. jbtodsttoe wynnewood

I am in my 50s and never identified with Buckley. I remember his show, however, and he wasn’t afraid to have discussions with people he disagreed with. There was give and take,… but the definitions of conservatism and liberalism have been lost…Tedsams Fort Lauderdale

Nostalgia about the past, wishful thinking about the future, and failure to connect the two with attention to substance, do not an argument make… GEM Dover

I was with you until the end. The future of Conservatism is bright? Point to a young Republican leader who will be the party’s standard bearer. All the young Republicans in Congress are know-nothing nihilistic Tea Partiers. Conservative intellectualism is dead…Carlin Rosengarten Singapore

A well considered article. Your basic problem …is that extreme gerrymandering and its concept of ‘safe seats’ which has allowed the crazies to take over your party. Because of Safe Seats, thoughtful Republicans cannot get through the primaries. The country is left with the detritus of your Alt-Right in the halls of Congress…. JR Montgomery County, PA

Yes, completely agree Brooks is insane for being optimistic, because he failed to name a single conservative politician who could lead the faithful out of their rabbit hole of moldy cheesy ideas. Let’s face facts, the once Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower has morphed into Trump, Cruz, and Palin. It’s over….Cowboy Wichita

Conservatism has lost its intellectual vibrancy–it’s led by noisy windbags who market a lifestyle where you can have your preferences and your prejudices confirmed 24 hours a day…. There are plenty of thoughtful conservatives out there–but few are in positions of real influence, either in government or outside….Michael Liss New York

It seems to me that our biggest political problem is that over the past 30-40 years, the conservative movement/Republican Party moved to a place where seeking compromise is an anathema because of a distrust in government. Thus, obstructionism is better than activism….I see more gridlock and inaction as the world continues to move past us…. America is a land of incredible resources (physical and intellectual) that are being wasted due to the fecklessness of our politicians and the unwillingness of Americans to do what needs to be done–remove these people from office. Dave Walker Valley Forge

….Where in that mess are the poetry quoting bon vivants of Brooks imagination? What we have instead are the humorless ideologues like Labrador, Lee, Cruz, and Ryan who do not either live or see the actual world….that is what Brooks should be worrying about. bboot Vermont

I think Mr Brooks is largely on the mark, though, as we all do when recalling our lost youth, he soft-focuses and romanticizes…. But he’s right that they comprise a Pantheon compared to what passes for a ‘conservative intellectual’ today….the Limbaughs and Coulters et al. who with Trump have hijacked the GOP, or rather, the GOP let itself be hijacked. ACW New Jersey

Brooks says that the keystones of conservative thought are “conscience, faith, culture, family and community.” I find that a peculiar assertion.
The root problem with “conservatism” is that it is not a coherent philosophy or worldview. It’s a Rube Goldberg political coalition. The grouping includes libertarians and authoritarians; backers of megacorporate oligopolies and believers in competition and free enterprise; those who want to cut taxes while increasing defense spending — and who have no credible answer as to how the shortfall will be covered…. tbrucia Houston, TX

I can’t help but feel a genuine pang of pity for Mr. Brooks here….
Look at 20th century as a whole, as objectively as you can…. [During] the Great Depression and the New Deal. Conservatives opposed the social welfare programs enacted to ensure the poor didn’t starve to death,… They also opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a national minimum wage and put enormous restrictions on child labor…. [and since then] very little has changed.
It’s not just the racism, or the misogyny, or the Jesus of it all. Underneath all that, there’s still the same old contempt for the less fortunate, and willingness to believe that the miserable burdens of poverty are a choice…
I think the larger problem is perhaps that conservatism is incompatible with a rapidly-changing world.
And the problem with simply waiting for the crazy old conservatives to die off is that crazy conservatives like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan and the others aren’t old…. reader CT


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