David Brooks’ Historical Revisionism: Neo-Conservatism as benign offspring of Progessivism and the New Deal? by Political Observer

Mr. Brooks latest essay at the New York Times titled ‘The Neocon Revival’  is what one always expects from him. A kind of political fiction that reflects a carefully managed set of assertions and quotations, that renders the notion of history as being just out of the reach of the careful reader.

His second paragraph is awash in congratulation for the halcyon years of the 1980’s:

‘But, in the 1980s, when conservatism was at its most politically and intellectually vibrant, the dominant voices in the movement celebrated Lincoln, the Progressive Era and even the New Deal.’

One might just express a doubt, as one of President Reagan’s favorite political assertions, or better yet tag lines, was government is the problem, which puts Progressivism and The New Deal in the province of outworn ideas and practices. Mr. Brooks lack of historical honesty is blatant. But places his comments in the undisputed realm of propaganda.

I’ve skipped over the opening paragraph which I shouldn’t have done, as it sets up the historical reference points of the essay:

‘They say you can define what kind of conservative a person is by what year they want to go back to. Some conservatives, apparently including some in Senator Rand Paul’s office, want to go back to the 1850s. They believe that Abraham Lincoln helped put us on the path to the leviathan state. Many other conservatives want to go back to the 1890s. They think Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the other Progressives set us on that course.’ 

Enter Irving Kristol in the third paragraph, as exemplary Neo-Conservative:

‘The kind of conservatism that Irving Kristol embodied was cheerful and at peace with modern America. The political heroes for this kind of conservatism, Kristol wrote, “tend to be T.R., F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.” ‘

A bit of further explanation to place Neo- Conservatism in the realm of rational political thought:

‘These conservatives, Kristol continued, reject the idea that the United States is on the road to serfdom. They “do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. … People have always preferred strong government to weak government, though they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of intrusive government.” ‘

Next, Neo-Conservatism explained, or at least Mr. Brooks homogenized version:

‘The conservatism that Kristol was referring to is neoconservatism. Neocons came in for a lot of criticism during the Iraq war, but neoconservatism was primarily a domestic policy movement. Conservatism was at its peak when the neocons were dominant and nearly every problem with the Republican Party today could be cured by a neocon revival.’

Kristol on the ‘floundering GOP’, according to the self-serving Brooks political narrative:

‘Kristol and others argued that the G.O.P. floundered because it never accepted the welfare state. “The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with conservative political philosophy,” he argued. In a capitalist society, people need government aid. “They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it.” ‘

The Rhetorical entrance of Neuhaus and Berger as rationalizers of the Welfare State?

As Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger wrote in a famous essay on mediating structures and public policy, “The modern welfare state is here to stay, indeed … it ought to expand the benefits it provides.”

Neuhaus and Berger were arguing for the mobilization of more religious and community groups. Others wanted structural reforms. “Such reforms,” Kristol added, “would include, of course, Social Security, unemployment insurance, some form of national health insurance, some kind of family assistance plan, etc.”

The crucial issue for the health of the nation, in this view, is not the size of government; it is the character of the people. Neocons opposed government programs that undermined personal responsibility and community cohesion, but they supported those programs that reinforced them or which had no effect.

Mr. Brooks fails to mention that the essay by Neuhaus and Berger, that he devotes some column space to, as essential to his argument, was unsurprisingly published by The American Enterprise Institute. To call this think tank reactionary is to understate the case. But more to the point, this think tank was a source of advocacy and then apologetics for a failed  Free Market Capitalism. And the essay that Mr. Brooks makes one of his argumentative centers is a polemic against government intervention in the lives  of Americans, while seeming to accept the necessity of the welfare state, it is rather perverse, but ultimately self-serving : the assertion that the New Deal and it’s historical/political permutations were somehow acceptable to the anti-New deal Right is exemplary of that perversity . But the essay is a kind of rhetorical prop, that takes it’s assigned place, without any explanation of it’s real contents, to strengthen his argument, acting as a seemingly impressive intellectual garnish.

The reader is then treated to this inventive bit of political characterization that is ludicrous on it’s face:

‘Neocons put values at the center of their governing philosophy, but their social policy was neither morally laissez-faire like the libertarians nor explicitly religious like some social conservatives. Neocons mostly sought policies that would encourage self-discipline. “In almost every area of public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials,” James Q. Wilson wrote.

How would they know if programs induced virtue? Empirically. “Neoconservatives, accordingly, place a lot of stock in applied social science research, especially the sort that evaluates old programs and tests new ones,” Wilson added.’

The readers of Mr. Brooks essay need only recall from their historical memory The Project for a New American Century, and it’s publication of  A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm by Ricard Perle and signed by Paul Wolfowitz, R. James Woolsey, Elliot Abrams, and John Bolton. Mr. Brooks underestimates the ability of his readers to recall this expression of ‘values’ as what? A call to make war on Iraq, our once ally in our sub rosa war on Iran? Or our attack on Afghanistan, a ‘war’ that has lasted 13 years.

Mr. Brooks brings Mr. George F. Will’s impressively titled ‘Statecraft as Soulcraft’ into his argument, impressive because it brings together politics and theology as theopolitics:

Nobody would call George F. Will a neocon, but, in 1983, he published a superb book called “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” It championed the sort of governing conservatism that was common then and is impermissible now. “It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot, legislate morality. But, in fact, it does so, frequently; it should do so more often,” Will wrote.

He was not calling for a theocracy. He was calling for “strong government conservatism,” for a limited but energetic government that could cultivate the best in persons by educating the passions. “American conservatives are caught in the web of their careless antigovernment rhetoric,” he concluded.

Mr. Will is brought into the argument to restate the tired old saw of Senator Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the presidency, that government cannot legislate morality. Should one dismiss Justice Holmes  comment that the Law was a form of public morality? Or might any citizen recall the once ubiquitous notion and practice of the cultivation of civic republican virtue? Of course this is before the advent of the Free Market fiction, as ruling idea.

A Brooks diagnosis and prescription:

‘In recent years, people like Kristol, Wilson and Reagan have been celebrated even though many of their ideas could no longer get a hearing in many conservative precincts. The Republican Party is drifting back to a place where it appears hostile to the basic pillars of the welfare state: to food stamps, for example. This will make the party what it was before the neocon infusion, a 43 percent party in national elections, rejected by minorities and the economically insecure.

The solution is not to go back to 1980. It’s to imagine what kind of values Americans should have, and what kind of limited but energetic government can reinforce those values.’

The Nihilist Republican Party cannot last. It simply, on demographic grounds alone, cannot continue as it is. The Southern Strategy and it’s permutation of Anti-Immigrant Nativism, wedded to the failed and failing Free Market ideology, are indicative of the possible permanent status of the Republican Nihilist as a pernicious, destructive minority Party.

Political Observer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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2 Responses to David Brooks’ Historical Revisionism: Neo-Conservatism as benign offspring of Progessivism and the New Deal? by Political Observer

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