Brooks as you know, has earned high praise from me on more than one occasion for his clarity of thought, his common sense, and his uncanny ability to comment on modern American society. His place on the New York Times Editorial Page as one of the in-house Conservatives gives him a perch from which to opine to a wide audience, and he is fast becoming the Conservative liberals love to love. Brooks' affinity for Barack Obama is well known. I come not to praise or bury Mr. Brooks with this post, simply to analyze this column and ponder whether he hasn't missed the mark.
In the column, Brooks gives his view of the tense partnership in modern conservatism between what he calls "economic conservatives" and "traditional conservatives". He defines the two groups thusly:
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.
Brooks tells us that when he showed up as a young man at National Review, these two groups existed in fine tension creating a brand of conservatism with which we can infer that Brooks was quite comfortable. Here is Brooks' assessment of the modern conservative movement, and presumably, why it isn't his cup of tea:
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.
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.
The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. Republicans have very little to say to Hispanic voters, who often come from cultures that place high value on communal solidarity.
Do you notice anything missing from Brooks' analysis? How about this. How about a sense of proportion, and a sense of just what it is economic conservatives and traditional conservatives were up against? How about recognition that as noble as the ends and views of traditional conservatives were, the march of history in the past fifty years has been one in which American society has moved away from the traditional conservative view, to some extent, solidly repudiating it? Traditional conservative thought depended on a shared sense of culture and society. Such simply does not exist anymore, at least not to the degree it once did--even to the degree it did when young Mr. Brooks strode into the NR offices. Every battle lost by the traditional conservatives created a bill for the economic conservatives to pay. The wages of illegitimacy? The explosion of middle class entitlements? The vast transfer of wealth from the young to the old? All done with the tacit if not explicit permission and support of traditional conservatives. So when we as a society are handed a new bill by the likes of Sandra Fluke, why should we be surprised?
The simple truth is that the traditional conservatives Kirkians represent a wonderful and respected view that was once far more consistent with mainstream America. Brooks has written before about the Protestant elite that once ran our country, and what it meant was that THEIR morals and THEIR approach was the accepted mainstream. They simply don't exist anymore. The cultural elite who now run our country put forward policy ends that are diametrically opposed to the interests, philosophy and ideology of the economic conservatives. Our loss in the culture war has created a battle on the economic front. If Brooks and others find themselves wondering where their old conservative coalition went, wistfully yearning for the day when Daniel Patrick Moynihan could decry an out-of wedlock birthrate in the African American community of 25%, the answer is that it went down in flames. The only Army left on the field is the economic conservatives, and it is their battle--won by the founders originally--that gave "traditional conservatives" the running room over the past two centuries to refine and extend their influence.
Put another way, no group should be rooting harder for the ascendency of the economic conservatives than the traditional conservatives--because only by a victory in the battle of ideas against the modern collectivist state can the softer, more communal mores of the traditional conservatives be accommodated in a democratic system.
Brooks et al should cease immediately with their rambling reminiscences and grab an oar. There is a lot of rowing to be done.