Sound Familiar?

In the debate over the justifiability of the Egyptian military coup, David Brooks comes down very emphatically in favor on the “yes” side, but does so with a sadly facile distinction:

The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.

Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup….

Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup.

As one might expect once the “debate” is defined as one between “substance” and “process” (or indeed, anything else), “substance” is the clear winner for Brooks. Radical Islamists, as he puts it, have “absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets” that make them “incapable of running a modern government.” He quotes Adam Garfinkle–who calls Egypt’s Islamists “culturally pre-modern people–as suggesting Morsi’s supporters have no concept of causality or objective fact; it’s all about doctrine and feeling.

What’s weird about Brooks’ very categorical dismissal of the possibility of a democratic system accommodating Islamists is what his definitions imply for politics right here at home. Can we think of some Americans who view secular, rational thinking as contrary to
God’s Will? Who seem to be in an extended revolt against modernity? Who have a fixed, rigid notion of how society ought to operate, rooted deeply in an imagined Golden Age? Who want to utilize democratic processes to impose a system that brooks no compromise or “relativistic” adjustments to changing circumstances, but instead reflects an order dictated by natural and divine law, and the nation’s “true” character?

It’s possible Brooks is entirely conscious of these parallels but just doesn’t want to spell them out; he is, after all, generally aligned with the Republican Party, despite all his “centrist” positioning. If he’s not playing a subtle game here, though, it’s interesting that he doesn’t seem to grasp that you could pretty easily substitute “Tea Party activists” for “Islamists” in this piece and reach a pretty alarming set of conclusions about the proper limits of American democracy. And much as I dislike the Tea Folk, I’m not willing to define them as “outside the democratic orbit” and thus subject to violent resistance if their extreme elements (i.e., those represented by Rand Paul) happen to win an election.

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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.