There is much to say about the David Brooks “Elegy” for conservatism in The Atlantic, the latest in a never-ending series of “Why Today’s Conservatives Are Not Like Those Reasonable Conservatives of the Past” essays that have been going on in precincts such as The Atlantic since before I was born and will be going on long after we are all dead. Brooks makes a number of reasonable points about the virtues of Burkean conservatism and the vices of the worst sorts of Trumpism. He takes some cheap potshots: the subtitle of the essay is “The rich philosophical tradition I fell in love with has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression,” but he does not even bother to make an argument for his lazy adoption of the “voter suppression” trope; it is simply plopped into one line of the piece as a Known Fact that Atlantic readers would be presumed to believe.
Then there is this: “the American conservative tradition—which I would say begins with the capitalist part of Hamilton and the localist part of Jefferson; extends through the Whig Party and Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt; continues with Eisenhower, Goldwater, and Reagan; and ends with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.” Now, I have argued that there is more continuity in the Republican Party’s ideological tradition than we sometimes think, but that does not mean that every Republican was part of “the American conservative tradition,” and if your account of that tradition gives more pride of place to Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Mitt Romney than Calvin Coolidge, Robert Taft, or William McKinley, I question what exactly you think conservatism is. Brooks’s account of conservatism as essentially modest is awfully hard to square with Theodore Roosevelt, who was many things in his personality and his policies, but modest was not one of them. And Romney, bear in mind, signed into law the model for Obamacare’s hyper-technocratic vision of centrally planned health care.
Brooks complains that conservatism can be a tool and a home for racial resentment, but of course, the same can be said for progressivism or most any other ideological persuasion; people are tribal, they focus their resentments when they equate some racial or ethnic group with the rich, the poor, the majority, the minority, the bankers, the street gangs, etc. There is no cure for tribalism this side of the grave (and not all of its manifestations are even bad), but the one and only ideology that genuinely restrains it is classical liberalism, and American conservatives, for all their flaws, still include within their ranks the most vocal proponents of classical liberal principles on our planet. Brooks begins his argument on race as follows: “Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust.” But his entire brief discussion of race is set in the mid-1960s, and he makes no real effort to consider, for example, what arrangements are unjust or when in his career he decided they were unjust.
Moreover, he spends a great deal of his essay talking about Edmund Burke. There is much to admire in Burke’s wisdom, but it takes a curious view of history to think that Burke’s Britain (which was still engaged in the slave trade and in the midst of conquering India) had no social or racial injustices. Burke, in fact, thought that there were plenty of things needing reform in his own society, some of which he crusaded against quite loudly. Still more did the France of 1789 demand reform. Yet he argued for conservatism precisely because of the dangers he saw in misguided reforms even when directed against real injustices. Also, it is hard to reconcile the veneration of Burke, who wanted to keep Britain’s electorate limited to 400,000 people because he thought the enfranchised masses a danger to liberty, with a conviction that 21st-century “voter suppression” is the breaking point for one’s tolerance for conservatism.
But of all the issues with Brooks’s account, this is the worst:
I’m content, as my hero Isaiah Berlin put it, to plant myself instead on the rightward edge of the leftward tendency—in the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. If its progressive wing sometimes seems to have learned nothing from the failures of government and to promote cultural stances that divide Americans, at least the party as a whole knows what year it is.
I understand why, if you get all your news about American conservatives from watching cable news, perusing Twitter, and reading The Atlantic and the New York Times, you might be ready to despair at how little influence remains for fusionism, classical liberalism, libertarianism, and Reaganism within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Certainly the illiberal and even brutish strands of the Right have grown in prominence and influence in the past six years. Examples of them are not hard to find, and if you choose to place them at the center of your daily news diet, they can seem overwhelming. But any reasonable and informed observer of the American political scene must see that the “moderate wing of the Democratic Party” has by far less influence within that party than the remaining Reaganites have within the GOP. It is only because Democrats have such tiny margins in Congress that the small number of surviving moderates are able to exercise any restraint upon the party. The progressives have been driving the media and cultural narratives, and the party’s behavior, on a vast number of fronts for some time now. If Brooks can’t or won’t see that, the problem is not with conservatism, but with its obituarist.