If conservatives really want to make America great again, they should start by thinking about what it was that made America great in the past.
David Brooks is in an angry and spiteful mood. Perhaps he’s even getting to be a bit unhinged, as history is putting his vision of American conservatism onto its rubbish heap. As Ben Shapiro recently noted, Brooks is ranting that the “dangerous parts of the Republican Party” are taking over,” and tending toward revolution, but, he chastises them, “every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.” Typically for a “pragmatist” type, he is forgetting one very important thing—the American Revolution. The practical men of the day thought that Sam and John Adams, not to mention Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others were crazed radicals, and their efforts would ultimately collapse upon themselves. These Tories, or perhaps we should call them colonial “Court Whigs” thought that the patriots were false prophets. Court Republicans like David Brooks may be similarly misguided.
In the months before the battles of Lexington and Concord, John Adams argued the Americans’ case with Daniel Leonard, a friend and a leading Tory lawyer. Leonard and the other Tories complained that the Patriots’ talk of “Revolution Principles” was dangerous, and would bring on Massachusetts the wrath of the King:
“They,” the popular leaders, “begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people, for their good, and they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. Doubtless, there have been instances when these principles have been inculcated to obtain a redress of real grievances; but they have been much oftener perverted to the worst of purposes.”⚓✪
Adams noted that Leonard was attacking the foundations upon which English government rested:
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.⚓✪
He found it odd that any colonist would object to a mention of those principles, or be embarrassed by them:
“Yet we find that these principles stand in the way of Massachusettensis and all the writers of his class. The Veteran, in his letter to the officers of the army, allows them to be noble and true; but says the application of them to particular cases is wild and utopian. How they can be in general true, and not applicable to particular cases, I cannot comprehend. I thought their being true in general, was because they were applicable in most particular cases.”
After the American Revolution, Adams, often regarded as America’s first “conservative,” held that it was essential for Americans to recur to the principles of 1776—otherwise the American people might forget them, and, as a result, the people would cease to be their own governors. (Adams’ reading of history suggested that, most humans being lazy, the danger was that the elites would kindly offer to solve the people’s problems. Unthinkingly, citizens would consent, and feel grateful. Only later would they realize what they had lost—and perhaps after their capacity for self-government had been degraded by neglect.) Hence in the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams, imitating and expanding upon provisions in other state constitutions, included a paragraph:
A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty, and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives. And they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observance of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.
The “Tea Party” represents a return to these principles. One could even argue that today’s Court Whigs, like those of yesteryear, are simply trying to steal a political base by saying that the common citizen should not worry his pretty head about politics. Leave the negotiations to others, they’ll make a good deal—promise.
Or perhaps Brooks rejects American principle. He defends a conservatism that “see[s]the nation as one organic whole.” That very notion runs contrary to the principles of 1776 which declare that America is built upon devotion to certain self-evident truths about man, nature, and politics, and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” It is reflection and choice, based upon consent to state and federal constitutions, through the ratification process that built the American nation. The America nation is not, pace Brooks, an accident of history. Brooks does not understand that man is more than just a social animal, he is the political animal.
It may very well be that a few of the newer GOP members of Congress are too reluctant to compromise. In a large, diverse republic that’s hardly a surprise. But Brooks believes that the party as a whole is grown radical. Shapiro notes that Brooks does not seem to understand what a principled conservatism looks like, or, for that matter, what democracy, rightly understood, looks like.
What does prudence demand in trying political times? For the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist to denounce “right-wing radicalism” is preaching to the choir. Would it not be more helpful, to help bind up our national wounds, to explain that these so called right-wing radicals are, in reality, classical liberals, and that they oppose a Progressive ideology that, they are not wrong to fear, has less and less room for anything recognizable as “liberal” in any reasonable sense of the term? It would be far more helpful, and more prudent, for Brooks to point to essays like Frederick Hess’s on Obama’s education reforms which notes the President’s tendency to describe any criticism of his policies as the result of bad faith. This is not exactly the way to forge a national consensus. Instead, Brooks confirms his readers’ prejudices.
This prudent failure demonstrates that Brooks misunderstands our situation in America today. His fundamental error might be that he thinks it is possible to have a national politics that never boils over. As an historian, I regard that as a fantasy—nothing in the historical record suggests it is possible. Perhaps Brooks’ trouble is that he was raised during the long, and historically unusual, period of Democrat dominance in the Senate and House, a period that also featured a rare lull in high immigration and a brief window of monopolistic control of information by a few newspapers, magazines, and networks. All that was historically unusual and is gone, and America is returning to type. As that era drew to a close, the first President Bush proclaimed that “The American people . . . didn’t send us here to bicker.” Au contraire, George Will noted. He returned to the point again shortly before Bush’s son was elected, the American people elect politicians to be contentious: “The American people send particular representatives rather than others to Washington so they will bicker (both Bushes use a word calculated to make political differences seem petty and ill-mannered), argue, obstruct, denounce and generally engage in–pardon the lurid word–partisanship. That is why there are two parties.”
Brooks claims that he understands the role of argument in politics, but, he argues, the new GOP rejects compromise altogether: “Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests.” In class, I often suggest to my students that the Founders thought of politicians like we think of toddlers—when they’re quiet, that’s when they’re really up to no good. The more shouting, provided it is contained in the political system, the more chance the public has to be informed. In a good political system, the government serves the people not the politicians. Making the politicians comfortable might, in fact, be bad for the republic.
Brooks seems to misunderstand prudence. A prudent man understands the ancient Solomonic wisdom, that there is a time for compromise and a time to go to the mats. Adams put it this way. When his friend Benjamin Rush noted that a friend called prudence a “cowardly virtue,” Adams replied, “his meaning was good. He meant the spirit which evades danger when duty requires us to face it. This is cowardice, not prudence.” But, Adams noted, prudence, rightly understood, means something else:
By prudence I mean that deliberation and caution, which aims at no ends but good ones, and good ones by none but fair means, and then carefully adjusts and proportions its good means to its good ends. Without this virtue there can be no other. Justice itself cannot exist without it. A disposition to render to every one his right is of no use without prudence to judge what is his right and skill to perform it.
Many years ago, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued that there are Cycles of American History. Schlesinger believed that the cycles were those of reform and reaction (or perhaps of pragmatic consolidation of progress). Schlesinger, of course, also said that “There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.” (Typically for a Left winger, he claimed that there are two forces in America—those of public spirit and progress, and those of selfishness and reaction. After a few “cycles,” that leaves increasingly less room for civil society—the realm of civic action, in the private sphere, outside of politics.)
In the 20th century history repeatedly demonstrated the futility of socialism. The Left complains that the governing structure created by the New Deal was taken over by “conservative” business types. But, given human nature and the play of forces in the U.S. what the heck else did they expect to happen, as many noted at the time? Friedrich Hayek noted exactly that in his Road to Serfdom. And he was denounced for being blind, and behind the times by the sophisticates of the day. Given that analysis, the Tea Party seeks some retrenchment—fighting crony Capitalism is inseparable from the fight to scale back the administrative state. Even the Scandinavian nations have been scaling back their social democracies. In that sense, perhaps we should follow the Danish political model.
Meanwhile the United States is nearing $20 trillion in debt—and most of that due to our generous welfare state, which, not coincidentally, also benefits many large corporations. Obamacare, for example, has benefitted large, corporate healthcare immensely, even as it has limited choice for citizens—all that was part of the design, and why President Obama should have known, if he didn’t that it simply was impossible for Obamacare to allow people to keep their insurance and their doctors if they liked it. It’s an iron law—the more government does, the more important it is to be well connected to succeed. At the same time, the rise of laws made not by our elected representatives, but, instead, by civil servants, with government approved credentials and jobs for life represent a return of the “Civil List” that the Americans made revolution before the King could impose it on the colonies.
As Brooks’ anger and frustration demonstrates, we seem to be entering a more contentious period of American politics. Rather than recognize how things are changing, Brooks is lashing out against change, and is in danger of becoming a sorry relic of a bygone age.
The rise of conflict in politics is hardly cause for alarm, for engaging the argument about what is justice, in a particular time and place, is the essence of politics. If it never spilled over or caused a crisis, it wouldn’t truly be politics. Brooks’ definition of politics is a narrow and historically ignorant view of politics. Politics not only involves negotiation and compromise, and leadership and followership, but it also involves knowing when to make a deal and when to keep arguing or to walk away. It is those who think it is possible to keep political discussion within a narrow range who reject politics rightly understood. As a divided United States marched into the War of 1812, Adams reminded Benjamin Rush that:
The similitude between 1773 and 1774 and 1811 and 1812 is obvious. It is now said by the tories that we were unanimous in 1774. Nothing can be further from the truth. We were more divided in ‘74 than we are now. The majorities in Congress in ‘74 on all the essential points and principles of the Declaration of Rights were only one, two, or three. . . . The history of the world is nothing else but the narration of such divisions. . . . All the great affairs of the world, temporal and spiritual, as far as men are concerned in the discussion and decision of them, are determined by small majorities. The repulsion in human nature is stronger than the attraction. Division, separation are inevitable.
Brooks seems to object to those who reject Schlesinger’s model of moving softly toward democratic socialism, and who, therefore, seek to change the premises that drive our political discussion, or perhaps he buys the notion of historical inevitability, and, hence he believes that there never are significant forks in the road in political life. Either way, he believes that American politics can imitate a Yale seminar. Hardly.
Meanwhile, the rise of an explicitly socialist party, or, at least, one that openly embraces America’s leading socialist, represents an extreme effort to change what it means to be an American. As the Democrats grow increasingly extreme, as their moderate wing dies off, and is pushed aside, politics will only grow more contentious. It does not help that we have a President who thinks of bipartisanship this way: “You have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.” Is it really a surprise that Mrs. Clinton views Republicans as her “enemy”? Contrast that with former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill’s famous quip—“The House Republicans are not the enemy, they’re the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.”
If we take seriously Brooks’ definitions of politics, of prudence, and his idea of when compromise is acceptable, we may conclude that his is just being political, or perhaps prudent in the narrow sense. He is being “reasonable” in the context of Timesworld. In 2006, Pinch Sulzberger made it clear just how extreme his “political views” are. In fact, he revealed he rejected politics, by assuming it is possible to solve most human problems:
You weren’t supposed to be graduating in an America fighting a misbegotten war in a foreign land. You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life, the right of gays to marry or the rights of women to choose.
He apologized for his, and his generations’ failure to fix the world, “you weren’t. But you are and I am sorry for that.” That might explain why the folks who work for the Sulzberger family at the Times, from people who they hire to be “reporters” to those who they officially allow to be “opinion journalists” seem to think it’s their job to tell their readers what to think. Classically, it was the job of journalists in our democratic republic to relate information to allow we the citizens to make our own judgments. If one believes that universal and perpetual peace, at home and abroad is, in fact possible, and that political power needn’t corrupt a significant number of those who wield it, then it might, instead, be the job of newspapers to shape opinions to serve that end.
But if one allows that there are no final solutions in political life, and that it is our job as citizens to think independently about political questions, it soon becomes apparent just how unlikely a general consensus is, especially as the number of issues in national politics increases—and that, perhaps, explains the fracturing national consensus that is driving David Brooks to distraction. Absent a return to a genuine federal division of power, national conflicts will only grow more intense, so long as we are free to be political—hence the Left’s war on politics, a war that Brooks’ narrow definition of politics encourages. Like his boss, Brooks seems to think that it’s possible to create a world in which politics never recurs to first principles and foundations. Yet history is just now reminding us that that is not the world we are given. Given the realities of human nature, administrative government and democratic–republicanism cannot be reconciled. Perhaps we can continue to balance the two, but it is growing increasingly difficult.