David Brooks argues that what goes by the name of conservatism today is grotesque and bears no relation to what conservatives traditionally have believed. Not surprisingly, considering that this is Brooks, he begins his piece on the subject with autobiography.
A socialist early in life, he says he fell in love with conservatism in his 20s because events persuaded him that, as Edmund Burke argued, “human society is unalterably complex” and “if you try to reengineer it based on the simplistic schema of your own reason, you will unintentionally cause significant harm.”
Whatever Brooks believed in his 20s, he was no longer much of a conservative by 2008. That year, he supported Barack Obama rather than John McCain. Not Donald Trump or anyone who can be described as Trumpian. John McCain.
Obama was determined to reengineer society based on the dictates of his overrated intellect. You couldn’t be a conservative in any strong or traditional sense and prefer Obama to McCain.
Thus, Brooks fell out of love with conservatism years before Trump emerged as a political force. He can’t blame his disillusionment with the movement on Trump, Tucker Carlson, or “voter suppression.”
Nor can he blame it on what he sees as contemporary conservatism’s lack of “epistemological modesty, or humility in the face of what we don’t know about a complex world.” If such modesty and humility drove Brooks’ ideological preferences, he would not have supported the highly immodest Obama.
What about the specifics of Brooks’ indictment of the views and the mindset he believes have ruined the conservative movement? Brooks sees three fundamental flaws in contemporary conservatism’s core convictions.
First, Brooks maintains that American conservatism seeks to preserve “America’s racial arrangements,” which, he writes, “are fundamentally unjust.” Here, Brooks is presenting a caricature of what most contemporary conservatives believe about race.
We believe in equality of opportunity. The left leans towards equality of outcomes, which it misleadingly describes as “equity.”
Equality of opportunity is what enlightened conservatives have long believed in and called for. Conservatives have never favored distributing benefits and burdens based on the race of recipients in response to claims — correct or incorrect — that the current distribution is “fundamentally unjust” (or for any other reason.)
However, this is not to say that conservatives believe that current racial arrangements are fully consistent with equality of opportunity. We don’t believe they are.
We know, for example, that public schools are failing to provide a great many young African-Americans with the education they need and the one required for true equal opportunity. That’s why most conservatives, but very few liberals, favor substantial changes in public school education, including the promotion of school choice so that Blacks won’t be trapped in bad public schools.
It’s also worth noting that some of the conservatives whose writings presumably captivated Brooks in his 20s were more at ease than contemporary conservatives with racial arrangements that were far less just than contemporary arrangements.
Second, Brooks frets that American conservatism focuses on economic self-interest and enlarging freedom at the expense of the welfare of citizens’ souls. But mainstream conservatism has long focused on protecting and enlarging freedom. This is nothing new.
There have been, and still are, strands of conservatism that focus on the “welfare of citizens’ souls.” But it’s difficult to reconcile the insights that once propelled Brooks towards conservatism — that human society is unalterably complex and that attempts at reengineering it, even for noble purposes, show a dangerous lack of “epistemological modesty” — with a politics that downplays economic self-interest and freedom and emphasizes improving citizens’ souls.
Third, Brooks asserts that American conservatism exploits the decay of national confidence to prosecute a “holy war” in the service of a “Trumpian authoritarianism” revolving around “hatred of the Other.” Peter Berkowitz shows this claim to be nonsense. He writes:
Yes, Trump is vain and thin-skinned. Yet rather than adopt an authoritarian agenda, the 45th U.S. president cut taxes, curtailed regulations, restored the rule of law to America’s southern border, appointed judges committed to interpreting rather than rewriting the law, and gave states room to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, some thugs and kooks rallied around Trump. Meanwhile, other thugs and kooks gravitated to the Democratic Party. The swing voters who were decisive in Trump’s 2016 victory, moreover, supported him not out of “hatred of the Other” but in self-defense against the scorn that progressive elites directed at them, their communities, and their faith.
And yes, many conservatives feel embattled. But not, as Brooks ridiculously alleges, because “they need to continually invent existential foes — critical race theory, nongendered bathrooms, out-of-control immigration.”
Conservatives and Trump voters feel embattled because, even as a New York Times columnist writing in The Atlantic dismisses their political concerns as a matter of benighted and feverish imaginations, they can see with their own eyes that schools indoctrinate students in critical race theory; that progressive elites make transgenderism a signature cause not to protect the basic rights of a tiny minority but as a lever to overturn traditional moral limits and teachings; and that since Joe Biden entered the White House, soaring numbers of migrants have illegally crossed the nation’s southern border.
Brooks’ desire to overturn existing arrangements for the purpose of helping Blacks and improving souls shows that he’s not a conservative in the classic sense. He’s a man of the center-left and has been for years.
This doesn’t mean that Brooks’ critique of conservatism is wrong (though it should be clear from what I’ve written here that I think it is). But we shouldn’t be surprised that a center-leftist is strongly put off by conservatism.