You’ve Changed, You’re Not the Angel I Once Knew: David Brooks on the GOP

David Brooks is fed up with the GOP. Today’s conservative, he says, is not yesterday’s conservative. What happened?

Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

I’ve been trying to combat this argument by amnesia for yearsAs he has done before, Paul Krugman valiantly takes up my critique today in his response to Brooks. Yet the argument keeps popping back up.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility,

“The conservative principle has been defended, the past hundred and fifty years, by men of learning and genius.” (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency….Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1)

“Conservatism is in general the intuition of genius, whereas liberalism is the efficiency of talent.” (Elmer More, “Disraeli and Conservatism”)

a belief in steady, incremental change,

“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The American people now want us to act and not in half-measures. They demand and they’ve earned a full and comprehensive effort.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)

a preference for reform rather than revolution,

“…espouse conservatism with the vehemence of a radical. The thinking conservative, in truth, must take on some of the outward characteristics of the radical, today; he must poke about the roots of society, in the hope of restoring vigor to an old tree strangled in the rank undergrowth of modern passions.” (Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives)

“Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism. But this is not a satisfactory alternative. The nineteenth-century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions. So too must be his modern heir.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom)

It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.” (Burke, Speech on Fox’s East India Bill)

“The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals. The evidence is overwhelming.” (William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale)

a respect for hierarchy,

No argument from me.


“Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“Here the beaten path is the very reverse of the safe road.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The conservative peasant, as much as anybody else, owes his way of life to a different type of person, to men who were innovators in their time and who by their innovations forced a new manner of living on people belonging to an earlier state of culture.” (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty)

“That [Democratic] measure reflects an echo of the past rather than a benchmark for the future….More of the same will not cure the hardship, anxiety, and discouragement it has imposed on the American people.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)

“Change is our Ally: A Tory Approach to Industrial Problems.” (Title of 1954 Conservative Party pamphlet.)

balance and order,

“The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“Unhappily, history proves that war is, in a certain sense, the habitual state of mankind, which is to say that human blood must flow without interruption, somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite….the effusion of human blood has never ceased in the world. Sometimes blood flows less abundantly over some larger area, sometimes it flows more abundantly in a more restricted area, but the flow remains nearly constant.” (Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France)

and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible….

“Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“I enjoy wars. Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” (Harold Macmillan)

Conservatives of this disposition…also see the nation as one organic whole.

“We’ve got to destroy the confidence of the people in the American establishment.” (Richard Nixon)

Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands and now we have to fight the enemy within, which is much more difficult.” (Margaret Thatcher on the miners strike)

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.” (William F. Buckley to Gore Vidal)

The…rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced.

“There is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another. Above all these numerous animal species is placed man, whose destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to nourish himself, he kills to clothe himself, he kills to adorn himself, he kills to attack, he kills to defend himself, he kills to instruct himself, he kills to amuse himself, he kills to kill….His tables are covered with corpses.” (Joseph de Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues)

“The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this Nation out, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give. This is glaringly true in the State Department.” (Joseph McCarthy, Lincoln Day Address)

Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse.

“In this time of moral and political crisis…” (Young American For Freedom, The Sharon Statement)

“We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars…If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.” (Ronald Reagan, Speech for Barry Goldwater, 1964)

This produced a radical mind-set. Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,”

“They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that.” (Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address)

…this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption.

“Whoever won a battle under the banner ‘I stand for Consensus?'” (Margaret Thatcher)

I could go on. Instead, I’ll leave you with a song:

You’ve changed
You’re not the angel I once knew
No need to tell me that we’re through
It’s all over now, you’ve changed

And Nancy Wilson.


  1. Howard Berman October 14, 2015 at 9:19 am | #

    Brooks ain’t stupid and must have familiarity with the author’s you excerpted.
    He must be going through a weird bout of cognitive dissonance. Which might play out in his columns.
    How do you fancy he deludes himself?

    • L.M. Dorsey October 15, 2015 at 1:49 pm | #

      Tony Judt has a memorable passage on him in Thinking the 20th Century:

      The mention of David Brooks recalls a different point, in a different conversation with him, on the Charlie Rose show. It was about what the U.N. could do to solve the Iraq crisis, rather than leaving it to America to just do its own thing. Brooks was arguing very smoothly that the U.N. was useless and couldn’t be counted on to do anything forceful. He said: look at how useless it was in the Balkans. I went into some detail at that point about the resolution of the Kosovo crisis and, in particular, the role of the international agencies there — in catastrophic situations, I argued, it was still possible for international agencies to do good things, precisely because they were international agencies. And I expected Brooks to come back with: what about this, this and this. Instead, he just said: well, I don’t really know anything about that. And changed the subject.

      And I remember thinking: you’ve gone on television, made ex cathedra statements against the whole idea of international action to resolve political crises in dangerous places, making a case for America to do its own thing because no one else can; and then when you’re pushed on it, you say: well, I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. Here we had the public intellectual who now occupies not only prominent television space but also op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers in the English-speaking world: and he knows nothing.

      But, too, he could be having a nervous breakdown. He’s comfortable enough to do both, I imagine.

    • Sufferin' Succotash October 16, 2015 at 11:22 am | #

      Cognitive dissonance? Nah. He’s known all along that modern-day conservatism is an intellectual joke and he’s playing at being “shocked! shocked!” by the fact. Brooks just senses that the 40-year tide is beginning to turn and he’s not about to swim against it.

    • Jim B October 16, 2015 at 3:11 pm | #

      Re. Howard Berman “How do you fancy he deludes himself?”

      See Paul Krugman on self-styled centrists.

    • Naomi October 19, 2015 at 3:29 pm | #

      I disagree with Howard Berman’s major premise. Brooks may not be stupid when compared with the entire global population, but he’s not nearly as bright as he thinks he is, or a some people have told him he is. I’ve always considered him right there at the top of the bell curve–in other words, average.

      • Howard October 23, 2015 at 11:04 am | #

        You may have pinned down a certain naivety in my comment.
        I’d say he lacks something other than IQ per se. Rather he is deficient in imagination and in a capacity to challenge authority.
        If he were a mere commoner and not a PHD columnist he’d slurp up all the mail order videos on the classics of western civilization.
        His home is habitually in the middle- to him the middle is golden like Aristotle

  2. Roquentin October 14, 2015 at 9:29 am | #

    Two things:

    1) His representation of the arguments made in “Politics as a Vocation” is misleading at best. While what he described as the qualities Weber valued in a politician almost all falls under the “charismatic” form of authority, there were also two others; “rational-legal” and “traditional” of which he makes no mention and presents the charismatic as the sole defining factor. Technically, he is correct in his citation, the problem is more with omission rather than distortion.

    2) I’m about 50% through the first of those three books Rick Perlstein wrote about the rise of the American right, Before the Storm. You are quite right in saying it has always been that way. These sorts of arguments were pretty much the same exact battles going on in the Republican party of the early 60s. There was a moderate wing represented by Rockefeller and the conservative faction headed up by Goldwater. All of them were trying to distance themselves from the insane rhetoric being produced by the John Birch Society, while still trying to get votes from that demographic. That has been the role of the GOP at the very least post-FDR. Their whole job is to try and bring in the radical, hysterical right Brooks deplores, while trying to make them into something they aren’t. Or to put it another way, to somehow tone down or repackage the same arguments of the radical right and make them sound more respectable. It depends on how you want to look at it.

    • Aardvark Cheeselog October 16, 2015 at 1:27 pm | #

      Erik Loomis of LGM has documented the earlier history of wingnuttery: one sample here:

      I was certain he’d published some old corporate newsletters from the ’30s that prefigured Bircher-style wingnuttery before the New Deal even got properly started, but was unable to turn that up.

      Wingnuttery as we understand it today probably became recognizable sometime between the advent of the Bolsheviks and the abandonment of the gold standard, but you can find its roots way back in the 1850s. Though of course the offenders in those days were Democrats.

      • bt October 16, 2015 at 8:22 pm | #

        “the offenders in those days were Democrats”

        Which leads us to the funny fact that when the Republicans picked up all those racist, white “Democrats” in the south, they magically became the Wingnut Party.

        There really is a case to be made that the Southern States are, and have always been, just a little bit off.

      • Some guy October 17, 2015 at 1:38 pm | #

        Shortly before he died, my father who was born in 1924, was reminiscing about the Congressional Republicans and their virulent opposition to EVERYTHING Roosevelt proposed.

        Dad told me that FDR attempted to move the Thanksgiving holiday from the fourth Friday to the third Friday of November.

        The idea was to benefit small businesses by encouraging Americans who had money to do an extra week of Christmas shopping, since many of us don’t start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving.

        According to Dad, the Republicans put on such a hissy fit that the idea had to be abandoned.


        Remind you of how they treat Obama?

  3. Thomas L. Dumm October 14, 2015 at 12:34 pm | #

    As soon as I read Brooks’s column I thought, “Corey will have a field day with this shit!” And you did!

  4. SteveWhite October 14, 2015 at 1:10 pm | #

    Wow ! You hit the nail on the head.

  5. Joel in Oakland October 14, 2015 at 5:14 pm | #

    Brooks reminds me of those cartoon characters who miss a curve, fly off the cliff, and keep going just fine, as long as they don’t look down. Or, changing the metaphor, he walks through concepts like a fire walker through hot coals – no problem as long as you train yourself not to think about what you’re doing, only focus on continuing to move ahead (or so they tell me).

    Every time he writes about something where I have some expertise, he’s never left the surface, tending to see only his reflection, no acknowledgment of all that contradicts what he’s managed to glean in his superficial study.

    But he looks nice on camera and sounds congenial, like someone you could take to grandma’s for Thanksgiving dinner – it wouldn’t matter what superficiality he came up with; grandma will like him because he has such nice table manners. And looks so clean. And does anything else really matter? Nobody of influence seems to care about reality checks – that’s for the satirists.

    • Joel in Oakland October 14, 2015 at 5:15 pm | #

      (Anyway, keep up the good work, Corey).

  6. Eclectic Observer October 16, 2015 at 11:08 am | #

    Brooks would have a point if he had been referring to the Republican Party median prior to Ronald Reagan rather than “conservatives”. I think the definition of conservatives and liberals is an inkblot exercise. Most people when confronted with policy options in more complex terms and without the tribal affiliations tend to be nuanced as to their preferences. Sure you have the true believers but you are not going to see an honest proposal on Fox News about dismantling Medicare because it’s too popular with their demographic. Instead you are more likely to see something on the order of “some people are getting stuff you aren’t and so you should be mad”

  7. Lichanos October 16, 2015 at 11:12 am | #

    I think the only way to understand Brooks, if you care to spend time doing that, is through psychological analysis. He identifies strongly with Father Figure conservatives, Buckley for him, and admires “rock ribbed” evangelicals, even though he knows they condemn him for being a Jew unbeliever. (This is from his columns.) Politics is purely personal for him. That’s why he can make his grand pronouncements and then say he “knows nothing” about it. He’s responding on a level that is emotionally satisfying to his identity as an assimilated-independent-(insecure male Jew in a Christian land) – self.

    Yes, armchair psychology, but if you read him carefully for years, as I used to do, it’s pretty much out in the open.

    • Naomi October 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm | #

      I read him for years, too. (And sometimes still get sucked into his column.) Lichanos’ assessment sounds very accurate.

  8. Tom Brown October 16, 2015 at 11:12 am | #

    Maybe Brooks was referring to Lacey Davenport:

  9. low-tech cyclist October 16, 2015 at 11:26 am | #

    Even if the rot had set in just 30 years ago, and conservatism before that had been the conservatism of Brooks’ memories, the fact is that Brooks hasn’t been denouncing contemporary conservatism for 30 years.

    I don’t follow Brooks closely, but my impression is that he’s only lately become dissatisfied with American conservatism. So what’s his excuse for only now coming to grips with the conservative movement’s flaws, given his own admission that it’s been on the wrong path for decades?

    • Kenneth Almquist October 17, 2015 at 3:49 pm | #

      Good question. He’s always played the “thoughtful conservative,” and I imagine that the style (as oppose to the substance) of the current Republican front-runners, combined with the fact that the current front runners don’t seem to be the favorites of the wealthy elites, put him in a position where he felt the need to distance himself from them.

  10. Bob in Madison October 16, 2015 at 11:34 am | #

    What about Wisconsin’s Lafollette? What about a guy like Eisenhower who was willing to speak out against the military industrial complex.

    They were republican figures interested in responsible governing, which no longer exists.

    • Robert Marshall October 16, 2015 at 1:11 pm | #

      If we might judge a man by his enemies as well as his friends, perhaps Brooks has George C Marshall in mind. He was FDR’s key to Congress, Eisenhower’s father-figure and McCarthy came into the Senate over La Follette.

    • Jeremy Johnson October 17, 2015 at 8:33 am | #

      According to Gerring In Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 the big switch in the Republican Party from a “national/patriotic” organization occurred during the 1920s to something that resembles a lot of what it looks like today. La Follette’s son left the Republican Party in the 1930s and won as a Senator as an Independent. Eventually La Follette’s son was defeated by Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower was a non-politician brought on to produce a victory which he did. He wanted to refashion the GOP as a “moderate party.” Arthur Larsen tried to articulate such a philosophy for Ike. It went nowhere. There were moderates and liberals in the GOP long afterwards, such as Jacob Javits, and still are some today. Parties can’t be exactly defined as ideological agents even today let alone through most of American history before the south flipped its partisan allegiance.

  11. Brian October 16, 2015 at 11:39 am | #

    I take issue with the notion that “because someone once said it, I or others quote it, it must be true” mentality. This is a cancer that infects our law, too. The range, circumstances and audiences for the quoted ideas or political messages, were vastly different and the goal of the messages diverse and different. Cherry-picking several quotes over a period of more than 100 years then ascribing the perceived shift right of conservatism through those quotes is disingenuous and misleading. Perhaps the perceived shift right in conservatism is a balanced response to the perceived, and much more provable, shift left by liberals. One cannot argue that an extreme leftward shift didn’t occur when comparing the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama. The shift went from right to left when comparing the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

    In fact liberals have gone further left while conservatives have shifted left, too. Conservatives look at change over the course of many years to measure failure of success where as liberals want it now, move on if their goal is achieved, and pretend to forget what was said in the recent past as they attempt to suddenly change another offending idea to their “principles.” e.g. Immigration of the mid-1980s versus the argument today. Liberals forgot what they agreed to in the 1980s. Conservatives have long memories.

    • Joseph Cereola October 16, 2015 at 12:47 pm | #

      At least Robin offered something in support that of his position that GOP didn’t hold the values Brooks assigned to them. Brooks merely asserted a certain set of values were “conservative,” offering absolutely noting to support his claim.

    • Kyle Michel Sullivan October 16, 2015 at 1:45 pm | #

      Having 40 Congressmen willing to shut down the US government, harm its credit rating and send the economy into turmoil just to achieve their ideological goals…goals based in no way on fact or evidence…is hardly a leftward movement on the right’s part. Nor is working to make Barack Obama a one-term president a leftward movement. Of course, if you’re coming from the right of Attila the Hun, I suppose anything less than slash, burn, destroy could be considered left-wing.

    • Tom October 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm | #

      Brian, not to be churlish, but what you say appears to be completely at odds with reality. So much so that, it is gibberish: it makes no sense of any kind to claim that a “shift went from right to left when comparing the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.” Look just at tax policy, as an example.

      While I can’t vouch for other people’s memories, looking at what was actually said, and what actually happened is a good thing to do.

      • Brian October 16, 2015 at 8:44 pm | #

        Mr. Joseph Cereola. Agreed. That’s the danger one assumes when one assigns their values to a group and the group does not uphold them. They’re surprised when you don’t meet their expectations. Isn’t this what our mothers-in-law did of us?

        Mr. Sullivan’s advise that: “Having 40 Congressman willing to shut down the US government …. ” smacks of a talking point from the left regarding the recent Planned Parenthood issue. Briefly. If Congress sends a bill to the executive for his signature and the executive refuses to sign it or he vetos it does not amount to forty congressman shutting down government. That issue disposed with I’ll move on.

        Tom you are being churlish. You cite to one item, yet what do you mean by tax policy? If you mean American citizens who actually work keeping more of their property as a group, or do you mean a reduction in corporate tax rates and a reduction in tax rates for the rich? Or do you mean the current administration’s blocking of 501(c)(3) groups application for tax exempt status? It is undisputed, and since you did not deny my assertion that there has been a leftward shift from Clinton to Obama, I’ll concentrate on what I said emphasizing the leftward shift from Reagan to G.W. Bush.

        In the interests of full disclosure I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. I am college educated, holding an undergraduate, master and doctoral degrees. I am a retired naval officer, retired businessman and retired attorney et al.

        AIDS funding: None or very little under Reagan. Under Bush not only was AIDS fully-funded in the United States, but Bush sent $16 billion to Africa for AIDS. That amount automatically renewed for $48 billion his last year in office. See PEPFAR signed by Bush. State and websites.

        Education Department. Reagan nearly axed the department as unconstitutional that Carter had just created. (I won’t sidetrack us with a discussion of the commerce clause as I’m sure we could find abortion, gay marriage, polygamy, denial of firearms rights, creation of gun-free zones, inter-breed marriage, religious free zones or gay rights zones under that clause if we look hard enough. We already learned that it regulates NOT growing wheat. If you’re a lawyer you know the case.). Bush passed the “No Child Left Behind Act” and increased spending and the number of employees at the department. This on top of what Congress did, under Carter, when the department was created from the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare and the employee numbers increased from 3000 to 17,000 in 1979. ED website.

        Social security. Reagan reduced the rates, reduced the number of those who qualify to obtain it, and he reduced the survivor benefit rate. Bush went back and increased most amounts across the board while raising compensation rates (he allowed them to automatically increase without trimming them or stopping them. Even Obama’s rates are but a fraction of the total increases under Bush (24.3% for Bush’s eight years v. 8.5% for Obama’s seven years. I doubt a 15.8 increase is coming in 2016). SS website.

        Immigration. The immigration policy seems to occupy an inordinate amount of the media and the left’s time. The right seems to have a policy of “no policy” and responding to whatever the left media ask about an immigration policy. But why should the right when the law that both parties passed answers the problem.

        Reagan sought to stop the flow of illegal aliens and he reviewed the status of the illegals already here. Reluctantly, Reagan entered into an grand bargain with Congress on amnesty. Bush did nothing to staunch the flow of illegal immigrants. Moreover, the total number he allowed in far exceed the number granted amnesty under Reagan. This with a vastly increased ICE, Border Patrol, Depart. of Homeland Security, DEA et al, and much better technology. Additionally I can personally speak to ICE’s ignoring reports from law enforcement and officers of the court advising that a dangerous illegal alien was in the courtroom. ICE sent no one to pick-up this criminal under Bush. Multiple sources.

        Military: Reagan presided over the largest so-called peacetime (I wish they had told us we were at peace in the ’70s and ’80s) build-up of our armed forces in history. We never attained the goals set by Reagan. Bush reduced the size of our armed forces in terms of manpower, reduced overall spending for strategic programs and spent more on civilians/contractors than at any time in history while fighting two wars. DOD website.

        Just a few leftward moving moments from the right.

    • ejh October 17, 2015 at 5:06 am | #

      “One cannot argue that an extreme leftward shift didn’t occur when comparing the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.”

      What? An “extreme leftward shift”? The only reason for not arguing it would be the absence of evidence that such a thing occurred.

      • Brian October 17, 2015 at 8:30 pm | #

        Mr. ejh: You said it. Now support it. I responded to the writer Mr. Tom who did not challenge my argument regarding a leftward shift from Clinton to Obama. I stated that in my response. I replied to his disagreement with my argument that there was a leftward shift from Reagan to Bush. Please read the words I wrote. Your turn.

  12. groblewis October 16, 2015 at 11:50 am | #

    My all-time favorite comment on Brooks (and sadly I can’t remember who said it): He can’t even follow HIS OWN ARGUMENTS to their logical conclusion.

    • Lichanos October 16, 2015 at 3:57 pm | #

      Wish I had – perfect!

  13. medgeek October 16, 2015 at 12:48 pm | #

    Corey, thanks for the great post. Your web site is a must-read for me along with those of Paul Krugman and Dean Baker. Some might say you’re lucky to have a Nobel economist as a new CUNY colleague, which is true. I would also say that Paul is lucky to have you as a new colleague.

  14. Steve Kyle October 16, 2015 at 12:54 pm | #

    Sorry, but there IS a very real difference between today’s “Freedom Caucus” types and the conservatives of yesteryear. I would call that difference a lack of belief in our system of government. Today’s radicals are bomb throwers who neither know nor care that their actions make the machinery of government as laid out in our Constitution impossible to operate. In fact, it appears to me that they think that blowing the whole thing up is a plus, not a negative. Even Ronald Reagan (no hero of mine) believed that the way to get what he wanted was through the ballot box. Yes, he told fairy tales to credulous masses but he used our system and believed in it, regardless of what he claimed to his adoring followers. Margaret Thatcher is another who used the electoral system and the long standing organs of democratic governance to achieve her goals.

    The real long term danger here is that if the new radicals really do succeed in sabotaging our democratic machinery we will be forced to find some other way to govern the country. It is a slippery slope from an increasingly presidential system to the “man on a horse” who, once in power, doesn’t leave.

    • William Aldis October 16, 2015 at 10:24 pm | #

      Since a sub-theme of this entire thread is recovered (political) memories, can’t resist noting that your thoughts on “a slippery slope from an increasingly presidential system to the “man on a horse” who, once in power, doesn’t leave” takes us back to Plato’s Republic, except that he was talking about democracy in general tending towards despotism. Somebody please read Plato again (all of it, none of these cherry-picked quotes) and report back.

  15. Bart DePalma October 16, 2015 at 1:10 pm | #

    Brooks is offering the definition of classical conservatism (government enforcement of tradition and incremental change), as opposed to classical liberalism (limited government and individual freedom).

    FDR turned these definitions on their head by adopting the term liberal to describe his decidedly illiberal progressive political economy.

    Eventually, the critics of the New Deal adopted an opposite term and ideology, calling themselves conservatives, but advocating classically liberal free markets.

    Both the Democrat and GOP establishments are fully invested in our progressive political economy, the Democrats somewhat more so than the GOP.

    Brooks is part of this progressive GOP establishment and his idea of conservatism is expanding the progressive government at a slower, more incremental rate than the Democrats desire.

    Voters started electing conservative free marketeers beginning with Reagan and the GOP is currently in civil war between its progressive establishment and its conservative free market voters and elected representatives.

  16. Kyle Michel Sullivan October 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm | #

    Have you read “Domestic Manners of the Americans” by Fanny Trollope? Written in 1830 after she spent a few years in the US, mainly Ohio? The things being said in there, by conservatives and businessmen, mirror what’s being said today. “Taxes are too high; government interferes too much; etc.” Showing it has always been thus. That David Brooks thinks his party has changed is nonsense; it’s just stopped trying to hide what it is, anymore.

    • LFC October 23, 2015 at 9:33 am | #

      Actually there’s a good argument to be made that the Repub Party has changed since the 1950s (or, if you prefer, 1920s) and others in this thread have made it, such as the person who cited the Gerring book on Party Ideologies in America. One cite to a British visitor from the 1830s does not counter that, nor would for that matter a cite from Tocqueville, also a visitor in the 1830s (1831-32 to be exact). See also Kabaservice, ‘Rise and Ruin’.

      • LFC October 23, 2015 at 9:38 am | #

        p.s. One can certainly look for and find the reactionary element in conservatism from the late 18th cent., but that’s a somewhat different issue from the specific trajectory of the Repub. Party as an organization. It’s to some extent two different questions.

  17. Jerry October 16, 2015 at 2:55 pm | #

    David is wrestling his id on the pages of the Times. It’s an existential crisis and his identity is increasingly at steak with the preponderance of his party’s buffoonery. He wants to assure you, that once, he was good.

  18. Cynic October 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm | #

    Brooks is getting a respect he hardly deserves. He’s spent his entire career propagandizing for the Republican party and is one of the army of conservative hacks who is largely responsible for state the Republican party is in today. He write books extolling moral integrity and has displayed very little of it in his private or public life. Now the monster that has been created by he and his ilk over the last 30 years is turning on the Republican establishment and Tartuffe (sorry Brooks) is in a state of shock.

  19. Roddey Reid October 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm | #

    I think it is important to remember that in his career as pundit Brooks has effectively positioned himself as the smooth spokesman of sophisticated reasonableness with an ironical and at times mildly contemptuous attitude towards his more vulgar and verbally violent colleagues even as he advocated extreme positions himseff (such as torturing prisoners immediately after 9-11). In a sense Brooks’s urbane, patrician irony has functioned to keep himself above the dirty business of politics while being quite content to allow the radicals serve as bludgeons against liberals and progressives. So the basis if his complaint appears to be that he and his ilk have lost control over the political radicals whose extreme actions they never opposed outright.

  20. steeve October 16, 2015 at 3:59 pm | #

    And of course, even granting Brooks’s premise that conservatism was only insane for 30 years, he can be immediately fired for never once informing us of this insanity.

    Unless he only just now woke up and noticed it, in which case “Liberals were right and I was wrong” needs to be the headline of everything he ever says or writes.

  21. B.J. Bear October 16, 2015 at 5:23 pm | #

    Jello Biafra called it “Nostalgia for an age that never existed.” Just as Gingrich made pretense of a Leave it to Beaver styled golden age and Reagan used the cowboy movie imagery for his golden age, Brooks pretends that there is an Eisenhower/Rockefeller wing of the party as a silent majority just waiting to bring reason back to politics-where it never really existed.

    Much of the midleid (Nixon’s Silent Majority) have similar wishes for our political future; those who would have been Wobblies in the 1920s-1930s are now Tea Party activists, and they want what they want and are willing to rationalize the political, social, and economic terminology and labeling after the fact. Our remaining middle class is a technocratic class and their thought processes tilt towards the systematic, rational, incremental and gradualist mind set. Engineers, doctors, technicians.

    A precondition for cognitive dissonance is cognition, and in this case what we have is passion and sentiment, not cost benefit analysis or carefully reasoned market based notions. Thus giving us authoritarian nationalist socialism for poor whites under the umbrella of a demand for freedom, liberty, and free markets, the latter of which is a curse and the former a mixed blessing. Poor people have the freedom to starve as long as they don’t do it in public, and if the free market commands them to starve then they are at liberty to do it quietly and in private. Brooks and his ilk have long averted their eyes from the reality of the programs and policies they propose and endorse because the dream world they inhabit is unaccountable as yet to the consequences of their ideology. Sometimes these beliefs are marked to market, however.

    • Hueysheridan October 17, 2015 at 7:04 pm | #

      This whole thread is impressive but your comment is one of the best written I have ever seen.

    • yodefoe October 21, 2015 at 3:48 pm | #


  22. Thomas Zaslavsky October 16, 2015 at 7:52 pm | #

    Thank you for the Nancy Wilson song.

  23. Matthew Kostura October 16, 2015 at 8:02 pm | #

    Could not agree more wth nearly all of the commentary. Brooks recent column about “relationship education” is just one more of those examples of him going to that safe place of emotionally satisfying situations. In this way he really resembles more of the humanist slice of liberalism. Very little data driven thought and a whole lot of emotion. If he can sing kumbaya around the campfire he is happy.

  24. richardhserlin October 16, 2015 at 8:16 pm | #

    Great job, and great insights on conservatism. But I’ll add this:
    Brook’s puts on his act and misleads and lies horribly and constantly, year after year. But let’s suppose his premise is true. That it’s always better to be incremental and cautions, and stick to precedence and tradition. Well then, there would be no United States of America. American Revolution in 1776! Hello! And there would be no steam revolution, or electrification revolution, or Social Security or Medicare,…
    It’s a horrible premise that we throw our brains out the window and don’t carefully, intelligently, and objectively consider the costs and benefits of the particular situation in deciding whether to do more than an incremental, nothing very qualitatively different change. If the costs outweigh the benefits of trying something very different and big, like in, I don’t know, founding our country, then you do it. You don’t unthinkingly have a flat rule against that.

  25. Talley October 17, 2015 at 3:19 am | #

    “Every time he writes about something where I have some expertise, he’s never left the surface, tending to see only his reflection, no acknowledgment of all that contradicts what he’s managed to glean in his superficial study.”

    That’s exactly it. It seems he sits down to write his columns in an empty room, not consulting facts, figures, or folks, finding answers only within himself. And he casually takes absolute positions on unsolved questions thousands of people have spent their entire lives investigating, even using them as axioms in whatever sweeping proof he’s decided to present the world each day. Infuriating and ridiculous. I don’t understand how the Times puts up with it. Any professor worth his or her salt would publicly humiliate a student who did that.

  26. Kneel October 19, 2015 at 3:10 pm | #

    Like Bluto in Animal house (…when the german’s bombed pearl harbor..), DB’s heart is in the right place. If he can get the team to follow, do the ends justify the means?

  27. Nathanael October 20, 2015 at 5:49 am | #

    When you look historically, you find that the incrementalists, the intellectually humble, do not call themselves conservatives. Ever. They call themselves moderates or progressives or liberals or whatever. (As opposed to the radicals, the leftists, the revolutionaries.)

    Self-described conservatives are the ones who declare that it’s their way or the highway, from the medieval Popes onward. Brooks shouldn’t be surprised, but then he’s not very bright.

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