David Brooks Casts His Early Ballot

Given his habit of perpetually posing as the Columnist From Dover Beach, forever wheeling eagle-like above the grubby partisan pols with their petty concerns (before landing, inevitably, somewhere amidst the ignorant army of the Right), it’s refreshing to see David Brooks in his latest column just coming right out and making the case for his party, the GOP. Sure, he maintains the third-person in explaining the Republican “viewpoint” to his readers, but the whole way he frames the choices facing the electorate make his allegiances as clear as if he put on a fake elephant trunk and ran around yelling about “secular socialism.” Here’s a sample:

[M]any Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety”:

“We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. … We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”

To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards.

Democrats, of course, are blind to all this, imprisoned as they are in old-think. Doing his best Mitch Daniels impression, Brooks casts his vote for the party that wisely understands Yesterday’s Solutions Are Not Today’s, and that extremism in the defense of entitlement reform is never a vice:

The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has now become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly.

This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing….

This is what this election is about: Is the 20th-century model obsolete, or does it just need rebalancing? Is Obama oblivious to this historical moment or are Republicans overly radical, risky and impractical?

Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions about how much change is needed. I suspect the likely collapse of the European project will profoundly influence which perception the country buys this November.

Yes, that whole social-democratic thing from the 20th century has to be “replaced” by something “market-oriented,” i.e., by little on the pathway to nothing. I wonder what other shopworn vestiges of the 20th century need to be junked to avoid disaster and make way for progress? Unions, surely. Perhaps the minimum wage, or the 40-hour-work week (already fading fast). Public schools, those bureaucratic relics of the “industrial age,” probably strike Brooks as insufficiently nimble and entrepreneurial, certainly for children in his social circle. And who needs civil rights laws any more? Isn’t the real racism on the Left? Reproductive rights? Haven’t ultrasound and (as his Times colleague Ross Douthat suggests) other biomedical advances made those as dangerously obsolete as Social Security?

The real value of this column is as an illustration of how this bogus interest in “change and innovation” makes it so easy for someone as ostensibly reasonable as David Brooks to embrace the kind of raw right-wing radicalism that used to be associated (and still is, at the grass roots) with the kind of yahoos Brooks so often snipes at in his occasional efforts to chide his own party. If something like the basic and hardly over-generous social safety net that Americans rely on can be breezily dismissed as part of a “welfare model” that nobody outside a doomed Greece or Spain could possibly accept any more, then it’s hard to say what communal commitments Brooks would find indispensable. So he’s along for the newly respectable ride back to Goldwater and 1964, spouting pieities about “change” like a slightly more presentable version of Newt Gingrich. It’s truly pathetic what it takes these days to maintain a toehold in the GOP.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.