Brooks: "Conservatism is Dead"

David Brooks has penned an article in which he tries to explain what he understands the great conservative thinkers to be saying, and why he thinks contemporary Republicans are far from their philosophical roots. This sort of project is nearly always worthwhile -- understanding any of the grand philosophical traditions, I mean, whether you end up agreeing with it or not. 

It strikes me that Brooks sees conservatism as having two specific insights that I tend to think of as being in competition rather than alignment. 

1) The first of these is against central planning: the kind of order that arises naturally from freedom will pragmatically work better than any centrally planned effort, no matter how well-intentioned. This is the insight that favors capitalism over communism, local control over central control, etc. I would not necessarily call this strain 'conservative,' although conservatives often do approve of free(r) markets: but insofar as it is to be so named, it is because it is an observation about how reality works and an acceptance of the limits it imposes on us. Even if you want to help people, you have to recognize that government can't do it very well and will usually make things worse if it tries too hard. It is better to allow people to be free to help themselves, and thus un-directed by central institutions.

2) The second insight -- which I would have tended to describe as 'conservative' more than the first one -- is that people are shaped by institutions, and it is therefore important that these institutions be kept healthy and effective. Brooks is right to note that the Marine Corps makes Marines because it trains the whole mind and body, and as an institution it upholds and enforces certain values. The Catholic Church used to be the standard example here: it has a moral doctrine, training facilities, rituals, sacraments, and other things that raise children and turn them into Catholics. In turn, the whole of what we call 'the West' ends up having been in a sense the product of the Church, such as she once was.

The way I've set this up, you can see why I think of these as being in tension with each other. One of these traditions warns against grand institutions of significant power over human life; the other tradition goes about trying to set them up and empower them over very broad swathes of life. 

For Brooks, the hinge that holds them together is a distrust of human reason.
One camp, which we associate with the French Enlightenment, put its faith in reason. Some thought a decent social order can be built when primitive passions like religious zeal are marginalized and tamed; when individuals are educated to use their highest faculty, reason, to pursue their enlightened self-interest; and when government organizes society using the tools of science.

Another camp, which we associate with the Scottish or British Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith, did not believe that human reason is powerful enough to control human selfishness; most of the time our reason merely rationalizes our selfishness. They did not believe that individual reason is powerful enough even to comprehend the world around us, let alone enable leaders to engineer society from the top down. “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small,” Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
It's not just selfishness that is the problem: as Brooks noted in his opening, central planning does not work even in cases where the very best intentions are involved. Brooks names the public housing crisis, which ended up being a nightmare in which people were trapped. You will recall, dear reader, our reading of Plato's Laws last winter: the final institution the Athenian wanted to set up was a nocturnal secret police council with plenary power over all aspects of citizen lives, to force them to live the virtuous lives that were surely going to be the happiest of all possible lives -- in the best of all possible communities, one designed from the ground up to produce happy and virtuous people.

So this is conservatism as he understands it, which he calls 'true' conservatism: a humble and modest arrangement that recognizes our limits, builds institutions but changes them only slowly, and trusts that our parents and grandparents passed on wise arrangements for the most part. Don't try to plan a whole society; let the church do part of the work, the family another, the Marine Corps a third, and the government strictly speaking a very small portion where it is absolutely necessary.

Now our institutions are looking pretty sick these days, but that's not the part that bothers Brooks. The part that bothers him is that conservatism turns out to be immoral and anti-American -- at least in his telling. First he identifies flaws within conservative tendencies:
I realized that every worldview has the vices of its virtues. Conservatives are supposed to be epistemologically modest—but in real life, this modesty can turn into a brutish anti-intellectualism, a contempt for learning and expertise. Conservatives are supposed to prize local community—but this orientation can turn into narrow parochialism, can produce xenophobic and racist animosity toward immigrants, a tribal hostility toward outsiders, and a paranoid response when confronted with even a hint of diversity and pluralism. Conservatives are supposed to cherish moral formation—but this emphasis can turn into a rigid and self-righteous moralism, a tendency to see all social change as evidence of moral decline and social menace. Finally, conservatives are supposed to revere the past—but this reverence for what was can turn into an abject deference to whoever holds power.
Then he charges American conservatism with being a kind of contradiction in terms, because 'America' as he sees it is about change and dynamism, and conservatism is about looking backwards to the best of our history.
I confess that I’ve come to wonder if the tension between “America” and “conservatism” is just too great. Maybe it’s impossible to hold together a movement that is both backward-looking and forward-looking, both in love with stability and addicted to change, both go-go materialist and morally rooted.
So here we come to the part that he would have been better off not having written, which is the part where he tries to talk about Donald Trump. Brooks and his class hate Trump so much that they can't see him remotely clearly. Brooks charges Trump with being backward-looking ("Make America Great Again") but doesn't see that Trump is the one who forced through the Space Force. Brooks cites Reagan's "Star Wars" program as an example of the kind of thing he likes, but can't see that this man he doesn't like was at the forefront of the same kind of program to force the slow-evolving military to make strides in space.

Thus, I'm going to ignore the parts about Trump and talk about the other aspect: conservative immorality.
Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust. To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime. 
Now as I was saying a moment ago, I think a lot of our institutions are badly damaged at this point. Conservativism only makes sense when it is trying to preserve healthy conditions, including healthy institutions. Maybe you don't think race is the area where it's inherently immoral to try to conserve things, but it should be easy to see the point by picking an example of an unhealthy institution whose preservation actively causes harm. The Federal government is full of them; pick your favorite one, and you can see the logic of the point he is making even if you disagree about race in America. 

I'm not quite sure what he intends to capture when he says 'to be conservative on race,' except that he then cites William F. Buckley. I agree that trying to return to 1960s social structures around race would be a moral crime; but I'm not aware of anyone who wishes to do that, nor any argument for doing it being made by anyone anywhere. The heat of our discussions about race masks the fact that mostly people want to do right by each other, as per a recent discussion:
Grim: The thing about CRT that people don't get is that it has to be false to be functional. If America were really a racist plot, pointing out the ways that its structures keep down black people wouldn't have any effect. Nobody in the Jim Crow South was going to be shocked or moved by pointing out that grandfather clauses and such depressed the black vote: everyone understood that was the whole purpose of them.

So when CRT comes up with a criticism of American society being unfair and Americans rush to fix it, that is itself proof that the assumptions of CRT are false. And good that they are. Americans are mostly decent people who want to treat each other decently, and will try to be fair wherever they can see a fair way.
There is a sense, then, that being unwilling to change -- or wedded to institutions that are no longer healthy and wise -- can be inherently immoral. I do not think this is nearly the problem that Brooks does, partly because human nature includes death. There is simply no possibility of continuing forever along the same line, because the people who grew up with conditions that made that line seem sensible die and younger people have known other problems. Even in strict institutions, there is always a sense of changing (or falling away, to put it more conservatively: to return to the Marine Corps, every generation of it speaks of how the Old Corps was versus how soft it is now, though probably no one really wants to go back to Vietnam War era brutality by drill instructors, even if they think they might like to return to 1990s-era levels). 

Brooks also says that economics has played a role in the decline of American conservatism, where he is suddenly seeing the tension I opened with between the two strands he is trying to tie together. 
The right’s focus shifted from wisdom and ethics to self-interest and economic growth. As George F. Will noted in 1984, an imbalance emerged between the “political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens.” The purpose of the right became maximum individual freedom, and especially economic freedom, without much of a view of what that freedom was for, nor much concern for what held societies together.
In fact this tension strikes me as much more basic, and explains why those ideas don't naturally belong together. Conservatives who really believe in (1) can tolerate institutions only insofar as they are absolutely free to join or leave them (even if you only get to choose every four years, in the case of the USMC). It does not make sense to set up powerful overarching institutions to shape character if they are going to display the kind of benightedness characteristic of large bureaucracies. Families should be free from state control as much as possible, in every way possible. If they find an institution valuable, like a church, they can join it and stay in it for as long as it continues to be useful to them. 

(This is why I have come to think of myself as less a conservative and more of an anarchist, as Tolkien said of himself when he was getting older. The more I see of institutions, the less I think they can be trusted -- at least at scale, when it gets beyond you and a few of your friends from the community who see eye-to-eye. I can think of very few of our national institutions that have not become corrupted, as have our major cities and many state governments -- and, well, many small towns and local governments too. Keeping these things as small as possible, and as weak as possible, at least has the benefit of limiting the power of corruption over everyone's life. But this is meant to be about Brooks' essay, not my own thoughts.)

What Brooks says is the biggest decline in conservatism he calls "spiritual," although he does not mean religious at all. He means that we aren't as patriotic as once. He correctly sees that as a result of a movement from the left at once to denigrate and dominate American institutions: 
For centuries, American and British conservatives were grateful to have inherited such glorious legacies, knew that there were sacred things to be preserved in each national tradition, and understood that social change had to unfold within the existing guardrails of what already was. 
By 2016, that confidence was in tatters. Communities were falling apart, families were breaking up, America was fragmenting. Whole regions had been left behind, and many elite institutions had shifted sharply left and driven conservatives from their ranks.

Oddly, though, his criticism is not for those who are denigrating or destroying American institutions, while purging them of their ideological enemies. He is offended by those who wanted to fight back, which he sees as dirty and ugly, a 'shadow conservatism' unlike his own. "As long as the warrior ethos dominates the GOP, brutality will be admired over benevolence, propaganda over discourse, confrontation over conservatism, dehumanization over dignity."

(I will pause for the laughter to die down at the idea that the GOP politicians are dominated by a warrior ethos.)

This is where Brooks, like David French, have lost their ability to relate to the ordinary people in the American conservative movement. Brooks now says he will be a moderate Democrat; French we discussed recently. Ultimately they would rather not fight for the culture, thinking it ugly to do so. It's a focus on 'toughness' for French; it is 'volkish' politics for Brooks (a strange thing to claim in nearly the same breath as noticing that American conservatives he dislikes admire Viktor Orban, who shares no volk with almost any of them). 

Ultimately a more useful reflection might begin with the question of what one ought to do in the face of a long, disciplined assault on your beloved legacy. If conservatism can only be moral if it has a healthy set of institutions to preserve, such undermining ought to be seen as a serious problem. At some point it does make the project of conservation unsustainable; maybe we're over the wall on that already. As they destroy statues of Lincoln and Washington as well as Jefferson or Robert E. Lee, as they purge not just universities or newspapers but every major corporation of once-ordinary expressions of American patriotism, well of course over time people are going to feel besieged. They are besieged. 

One might try to fight for them to have a space within these institutions to be as they were without being driven out or destroyed. If that won't happen, well, then the institutions are going to cross the line beyond which they cannot and ought not be defended -- if, indeed, they haven't already. 

One might also try to set up new institutions. This is sometimes suggested as a voluntary project like the Benedict Option, and other times as a more emphatic program like the Declaration of Independence option. This, though, would require more of a warrior ethics (an actual one, in fact) than any of the combative language that bothers Brooks. 

That is not a concern for him, though, as he has left the program. Ultimately I think he made a key error in his understanding of conservative philosophy, but an even worse one in his understanding of just what kind of response is required for what he calls the 'spiritual' problem. If America isn't worth fighting for with a warrior ethic, what is? Your church? Only your family and friends? Where will you find enough friends, then, to make a stand?


Assistant Village Idiot said...

He articulates the foundations or ideals correctly, or at least arguably so. He then faults conservatives for not doing these things, they are doing these things, but in the wrong way, Binky. They are supposed to be suspicious of pure reason, but then they are just so darn anti-intellectual, despising expertise. They are supposed to prize local community, but golly, not that way. They aren't supposed to be racist or xenophobic - which we know they are because all my new friends tell me so and point to cherry picked examples. And conservatives are supposed to cherish moral formation, but not MORALISM, which is quite different because...well, it just is.

Brooks has done nothing but redefine everything and declare himself victor.

Grim said...

His discussion of reason and the French Revolution reminds me of Chesterton's writings on madness, which may not be a good description of mental illness but definitely are a good description of things like the French Revolution. The logic of the idea ends up devouring everything, and the novel institutions set up to overthrow the old order end up turning into monsters to torment the people. Now that's a book that's worth reading again: the suicide of thought, the ethics of Elfland.

Mike Guenther said...

Brook's and French's opinion is that us ignorant plebes should just shut up and let the intellectual elite figure everything out. They expect and want us to just go along to get along.

Aggie said...

The unspoken outrage from characters like Brooks is the discovery that the delicious, irrational scorn that they reserve for Donald Trump is very similar to the sentiments that they find directed at them from the very people they aver to be appealing to.

Dad29 said...

Your quotes of Brooks' work make it seem as though it was caricature, not actual thought. I trust your judgment, which means it IS caricature of 'conservatives.'

Overall, Brooks does a favor for us, making clear that it is individuals, rather than institutions, which are deficient (one way or another.) We know that because we know the Church is indefectible regardless of her Popes', Bishops', priests', and laity's sins and imperfections.

Is America also indefectible? No; it is--like Plato's Republic--a civil society rather than one founded by God; thus, while it relies on Natural Law it will be 'better;' and the further from Natural Law, the less-good the country will be. We've spent a few pixels on the evils of Positive Law as a demonstration.

Brooks also errs, grievously, in postulating that "people" worship Trump rather than some of Trump's principles--but that's common among the Enlightened (Cloud-People) class.

Grim said...


The funny thing is that Brooks recently attended and wrote about a conservative political conference he attended in Florida where the views he despises were headlining. He said everyone was super nice to him.

Grim said...

On reflection I think there is an age as well as a class thing going on here. The young people speaking so stridently are, well, young people for the most part. Trump himself is not, but the MJTs and Boeberts are. The young activists who were so nice to him are just a whole lot younger than him, and young people tend toward fiery rhetoric (at least).

But it's also true that, as a wealthy member of elite journalism with publications in the NYT and Atlantic, he's just not exposed to the pain that is driving all of this. That should align with his whole discussion of how sentiment and human feeling are more reliable than human reason at times, and maybe convince him that they are on to something even if they have trouble explaining what it is in purely rational terms.

The people experiencing the destruction of the glorious legacy he describes are main street folks, rural folks, blue collar folks. (Not volk, either: they're from every kind of humanity in the world, all come to America and experiencing the same things.) They saw their factories closed, their communities hollowed out, their beloved military turned over to yes men who dishonored them in Afghanistan. They saw the school Christmas pageants of their youth replaced with Holiday Festivals, and then nothing at all. (A while ago I was looking at the first season episodes of The Simpsons, one of which involved attending the school Christmas pageant. I showed it to my son, and he said he had never seen anything like that in his life. It used to be done every year at nearly every school in America.)

They've seen their heroes derided and redefined as merely racists, slavers, sexists, and so forth. They've seen their country tarnished and slandered, and heard their children come home to tell them that they'd been learning in school how bad America was.

A lot of them are young enough to have been to college recently, and to have experienced directly the aggressive sexuality movements that cloak themselves in rights talk but actively try to destroy existing rights like free speech (and freedom of religious beliefs on sexuality). They've experienced the harsh lessons of academic suppression of conservative thought.

That's the part he's not getting, and maybe he can't get it. It's hard to think that far outside yourself.

J Melcher said...

The first draft of Jefferson's Declaration offered as examples of inalienable rights: "Life, Liberty, and Property." Even in that 18th century epistemology, the notion of property, per se, was too divisive. So, "Pursuit of Happiness".

Yet since then the divisions have widened between those who regard property -- a continuity of individual control over significant resources -- as a desirable thing and those who regard property --as expropriation and theft from communities' shared resources -- as, instead, a structural and systemic original sin. It seems to me the first group are of the right, and labeled "conservative" while the second is of the left and, variously, self-identifies as progressive, liberal, socialist, communist, etc.

The left has, usually successfully, linked property to sin: Greed, abuse, excess, self-centeredness, exclusion, expulsion, hate, violence, murder both individual and wholesale.

E Hines said...

The first draft of Jefferson's Declaration offered as examples of inalienable rights: "Life, Liberty, and Property." Even in that 18th century epistemology, the notion of property, per se, was too divisive. So, "Pursuit of Happiness".

And yet John Adams put property at the core of happiness in his Article I of Part the First of the Massachusetts constitution:

All men are born free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

That stands unaltered in Massachusetts' current constitution, with this bit added: Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.

Eric Hines

RonF said...

The tension between the initial two points is at least partially resolved by the following. You can quit the Catholic Church, and the laws ensure that you cannot be legally required to either belong to it, obey its moral strictures purely on the basis of the Church's own authority, or contribute to it. But you cannot quit government - it is ever present, even if you move to another country.

RonF said...


"They've seen their heroes derided and redefined as merely racists, slavers, sexists, and so forth. They've seen their country tarnished and slandered, and heard their children come home to tell them that they'd been learning in school how bad America was."

They've seen then-Pres. Trump be derided by the media and other governing "elites" for warning that the mobs toppling Confederate hero statues would go for Washingon, Lincoln and Jefferson next - and then say nothing when the emboldened mobs did those very things. It was then that many otherwise disinterested folks understood that the media operate as propagandists and have no integrity.

Anonymous said...

Dont forget, Brooks is a bedwetter since 2015 and that fact has not changed one damn bit.....


Anonymous said...

Matthew 6:21
For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.

Where is David Brook's Treasure? I say it is in Israel and he has no skin in the game here in the USA His son does not serve in the US military.

Please read:
No Surprise Dep’t: David Brooks’s son is in Israeli army


Grim said...

Well, if you’re quoting scripture about it, the Bible also has a few positive things to say about Israel and those who give their hearts to it.

Dad29 said...

@ Greg: damn convincing, no?

Anonymous said...

Trying to make logical sense out of any of the ramblings of the NYT's resident "pet-conservative" is like trying to understand a criminally insane inmate in a padded cell at the nuthouse (if we still had nuthouses)

What Brooks fails (on purpose I believe) to understand is, conservatives are in fact patriotic. However our level of patriotism is eternally tied to our people, not to any nation-state that (by most measures) has turned against the people. William Wallace was a great "patriot" because of his love for his people, not the nation-state that was ruling over his people.

David Foster said...

"1) The first of these is against central planning: the kind of order that arises naturally from freedom will pragmatically work better than any centrally planned effort, no matter how well-intentioned."


"2) The second insight -- which I would have tended to describe as 'conservative' more than the first one -- is that people are shaped by institutions, and it is therefore important that these institutions be kept healthy and effective."

These are not remotely contradictory. Certain kinds of institutions...the American legal system, for example...actually *allow* order to arise naturally from freedom. It is only those institutions which are overweening in their power and pretensions that interfere with (1).

Grim said...

I didn't say they were a contradiction. I said they were in tension with each other, rather than obviously in alignment. You can try to set up institutions that don't end up being about central planning -- even that regulate it, through localism or checks-and-balances or Federalism and the like. But the more you rely on institutions, the more you centralize planning at least a little. What was an individual decision, or an agreement between guys who see alike, becomes a bureaucracy's decision that the individuals have to submit too -- even as small scale as with a Homeowner's Association.

Grim said...

Or think of it this way: Brooks hinges these together through a distrust of human reason. But I don't think you and I couldn't reason together. On a man-to-man basis I can get along with almost anyone, even Marxists. It's the point at which we shift to institutions that our ability to reason together becomes notional, and improbable as the institutions scale.

Dad29 said...

Another trenchant demolition of Brooks' 'thinking' here:

David Foster said...

By chance I ran into this old NR article, which seems relevant:

Note especially the reference to the Scottish Enlightenment and the Hayek excerpt.