Friday, October 10, 2008

David Brooks Fleshes Out His Thoughts On Contemporary Conservatism

Brooks begins:
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.
What follows is a devastating attack upon contemporary Republican politics. It is possible that Brooks is doing his best to stave off the 'conservatism is dead' argument with a 'conservatism is not dead; the practice of American conservatism deviated from its roots.' Given his employ as a conservative commentator, I would say this is not only possible, but likely: Far better to be the advocate than the eulogist.
What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
Of course, the originally conceived American conservatism was fatally flawed. The fact that there will never be sufficient numbers of elites (by definition) to win sweeping victories within a Democratic Republic without a mass populist appeal ironically bound the movement to death by anti-intellectual populist zeal. Whatever Brooks's inspiration, the text delivers a blow. Oddly, his words are a well-dressed version of the comedic and intentionally crass piece by Taibbi mentioned here.
The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.

The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.
The piece goes on to conclude:

She [Sarah Palin] is another step in the Republican change of personality. Once conservatives admired Churchill and Lincoln above all — men from wildly different backgrounds who prepared for leadership through constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking. Now those attributes bow down before the common touch.

And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission — because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away.

We are all worse off for this reincarnation, as 'teh dumb' is winning, entrenching, and becoming ever harder to turn back.


  1. >>>"Of course, the originally conceived American conservatism was fatally flawed. The fact that there will never be sufficient numbers of elites (by definition) to win sweeping victories within a Democratic Republic without a mass populist appeal ironically bound the movement to death by anti-intellectual populist zeal.<<<<

    This sentence has no meaning, at last to me. Beginning with the term "of course" is thus especially ironic. What are you trying to say here that makes conservatism somehow different from liberalism? What conundrum do intellectuals from the right face that intellectuals from the left do not, other than, perhaps, that intellectuals from the left are substantively populist quite apart from their populist rhetoric?

  2. By the way, I'm surprised Brooks does not mention Nixon, who perhaps started it all with his "silent majority." Tony can tell us more about that.

  3. The contemporary left has built itself on a 'bottom up' plan, given the history of its 19th and 20th century thinkers (Marx, Marcuse, Bernstein, Kautsky, Benjamin, Adorno, et al) and the role of 'solidarity.' The left, from a philosophical point of view, looked to build its leaders and expand its movement.

    The right, looked to appoint and assign its leaders from the 'top down.' The conservative plan was not to build a new class of leaders, but to ensure that the leaders would not threaten the existing elite.

    Very different models, analogous in some ways to Catholicism v. Judaism; the former is an inclusive club, looking to proselytize and grow while the other is an exclusive club looking to limit membership via heredity. Yes, this analogy fails, in that both Catholicism and Judaism are structured to protect their existing elite in some significant ways, but the analogy has some interesting threads.

    Also, you are correct, I should have not begun that statement with 'of course.'

  4. As for Nixon, back in ought-sixty-two, when he lost the race for governor of California (after, arguably, having had the Presidency stolen from him in 1960), he famously told the assembled press, "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

    Nixon's contribution to the political discourse of our day is complex and wide-ranging. A brilliant man, he was also a classic outsider. He evidently attributed this to his being a poor kid at school and therefore being shunned; there's almost certainly more to it than that, as we have all known poor kids at college who were charismatic and therefore highly popular; and there's no reason to think that Whittier College students were any more shallow, etc than any other students.

    Nixon had a deep-seated resentment. It showed itself during the famous controversy that culminated in the "Checkers" speech, was nurtured by Eisenhower's treatment of him, and by the treatment of the glamorous Kennedys*; and it made him suspicious, touchy, and alert to real or perceived slights.

    His speechwriter William Safire, and others, helped him turn this into a narrative for export to what he defined as the "silent majority." Ironically, Nixon, who spent his life on both coasts (he was a very successful and very prominent NYC lawyer before he won the Presidency), directed his resentment, when packaging it for consumption by the polity, to the bi-coastal elite, of whom it could be said that, while he was among them, he never felt "of them."

    This had unfortunate consequences for his Presidency, not just with regard to Watergate, but, for instance, when his Supreme Court nominee Clement Haynesworth was not confirmed by the Senate, he nominated a clearly unqualified candidate, Harold Carswell, and did so as a means of "sticking it" to those he regarded as having been disrespectful in nixing Haynesworth, never dreaming that they would have the guts (sorry, Pericles, "stones") to vote down a second candidate. Of course, they did; and of course Nixon took exactly the wrong message from this: that they were out to get him personally.

    Nixon was not much of a conservative. The Federal Register, which publishes all the regulations that are proposed under the US Code, went, during his administration, from a few hundred pages a year to tens of thousands. In many ways, his policies were reasonably progressive. And he probably had a better grasp of foreign policy issues than any President since them. Of course, like his predecessor, his Presidency was wrecked on the rocks of an ill-conceived and poorly-managed foreigh war. But Nixon himself probably qualified as an intellectual.

    I could go on.

    *The Kennedys were celebrities in a way that, although common now, had never been seen before. One of the most popular records of, I believe, 1962, was a series of comedy routines featuring them. On one cut, Jackie Kennedy is giving an imaginary visitor a tour of the White House. She passes the Lincoln bedroom, the (such and such) room, the "Richard Nixon dumbwaiter" --to hilarity all around. When you realize that Nixon was still one of the most prominent politicians in the country at the time, you can imagine how he must have felt.

    (I guess I did go on.)


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