The Corner

Category Errors

I’m really not sold on David Brooks’s column today. Yes, sure, Republicans should be the party of “civic order.” Yeah, I suppose Western cowboy movies support that point — to a point. But Brooks seems to be arguing with strawmen and leaving out all sorts of important considerations. For instance, he writes:

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

But the Republican Party has mis-learned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

What is left out here is that most Republican talk of untrammeled freedom (which, I confess to hearing less of than David does) is in relation to the federal government. One of the binding convictions of conservatism and the Republican Party generally is the idea that the federal government is too intrusive on civic order and community norms. Certainly, one can add big government and high taxation to that long list of challenges to the family and local community without becoming a radical invidualist. 

My larger problem with Brooks’s approach is that it is corrupted with category errors. Local communities are different than sprawling continental nations. Sure there are themes of both community and individualism in Westerns, but how anyone could anchor a column around the movie My Darling Clementine, and see it as an inspiration for a Washington-led political agenda is beyond me. I’ve seen a lot of Westerns. Few of them support the idea that people should look to Washington for guidance — never mind orders — on how to organize their lives. Of course, David is right that Westerns celebrate civic order and community life. But he misses the point that they also celebrate localism and actual communities. David talks about how people feel like they want to belong to a community and then ticks off stuff about environmentalism, class status, and capitalism. These are all worthy issues, but they have little to do with what most people have in mind when they talk of community, or at least most conservatives.

I suspect this stuff is in his next book, because it’s a theme he keeps revisiting. I do hope he spends at least a little time differentiating between his idea of a community-driven approach to politics from Hillary Clinton’s, because this sounds an awful lot like a Republican version of It Takes A Village.

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