Brooks Misses the Boat

David Brooks’ latest critique of the conservative movement (which reads an awful lot like the first draft of a post-election thumb-sucker on What Went Wrong) covers a lot of familiar ground for anyone familiar with intra-conservative debate over the years. Used to be, to paraphrase what Jesse Jackson once said about the Democratic Party, conservatives understood you needed “two wings to fly:”

On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.

But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

So, to boil down the rest of Brooks’ argument, the conservative movement is (temporarily?) just out of balance, and needs some of that fine Burkean/Kirkean communitarian ballast to keep the Good Ship Reaction from following the wild winds of libertarianism through the Straits of Delirium to Galt’s Gulch and electoral disaster.

It’s an elegant argument that mainly suffers from a pretty striking misunderstanding of the actual nature of the actual conservative movement for much of the last half-century. Check out this planted axiom from Brooks about the good old days when “traditionalists” lived in harmony with “economic conservatives”:

Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed.

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

With all due allowance for the selective memories of Reagan that are so prevalent among conservatives, the actual Reagan stood for exactly as much “market conservatism” as the political marketplace would accommodate. Yes, he compromised with Democrats in a way that seems alien today, and sure, he did express some interest in buttressing the slim economic prospects of the working poor on “family policy” grounds. But he was also the man who coined the eternal phrase “Government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” And there’s a reason Grover Norquist, the epitome of the tyrannical economic conservative Brooks is excoriating, spent a decade of his life roaming around the country badgering state and local governments into naming things after St. Ronald.

And anyone familiar with the actual nature of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”–in practice, a small program aimed at buying votes and cooperation from a highly targeted group of evangelical ministers, especially African-Americans–would be a little shy about treating it as the latter-day incarnation of the traditionalist impulse in Anglo-American conservatism.

But putting all that aside for a moment, Brooks’ portrait of the conservative movement has a rather glaring omission: a rather large and powerful group of self-identified “traditionalists” who are fully aligned with the “market conservatives” on a common agenda: the Christian Right. And the Christian Right in turn has its roots in an ancient southern authoritarian tradition that began to join the conservative movement in the Goldwater campaign of 1964, the true precursor to today’s GOP.

You wouldn’t know this from reading Brooks, but this “economic/traditionalist” alliance is alive and well, and merges almost seamlessly in the Tea Party Movement. All those “economic conservative” politicians Brooks frets about, with extremely few exceptions, are fully committed to an activist agenda to restore the “social order” of “traditionalist” sexual ethics, patriarchal family and community structure, and ecclesiastical privilege. And the actual “traditionalists” of American conservatism–not the tweedy Burkeans of Brooks’ imagination, but the vast grassroots machine of the Christian Right–have happily cooperated in baptizing laissez-faire capitalism as a divinely ordained, ideal system of organizing economic life.

Yes, there are some “traditionalist” Catholic thinkers and leaders who are half-in, half-out of the contemporary conservative movement. But more and more, they seem inclined to subordinate their broader social vision to the categorical imperative of maintaining Church privileges and fighting feminism, contraception and abortion.

All in all, it’s not the conservative movement that’s lost its ballast and balance; it’s that Brooks has missed the boat. Reading his column, I’m reminded of the great postwar “traditional conservative” Peter Viereck, who claimed Franklin D. Roosevelt (or the “Squire of Hyde Park” as he was prone to calling him) as the great twentieth-century American conservative figure.

David seems to think an electoral defeat (or some sort of post-election coup executed by Mitt Romney) could fundamentally change American conservatism from the direction he’s deploring. And that’s the biggest misunderstanding of all.

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.