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When David Brooks’ Dreams Don’t Work Out

If the present-day conservative establishment has a face, it’s that of David Brooks. As a columnist for The New York Times and during his weekly appearances on PBS and NPR, Brooks exudes respectability. His commentary is interesting, reasoned, and thoughtfully expressed.

Yet Brooks also exhibits the blindness that permeates that very same conservative establishment and renders it unworthy of trust. I use the term “blindness” as a matter of courtesy. Others might describe the problem as blatant dishonesty.

Prompting this reflection is a recent Brooks column [1] that carries the title “The Rise of the Resentniks.” The piece also comes with a subtitle: “And the Populist War on Excellence.”  The purpose of the essay is to consider how over the past two decades (according to Brooks) so many conservatives “wandered into territory that is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, authoritarian.” They did so, he believes, because the end of Cold War deprived conservatives of any sense of moral purpose.

Enlightened conservatives sought to fill that vacuum, Brooks citing “compassionate conservatism and the dream of spreading global democracy” as “efforts to anchor conservatism around a moral ideal.” Unfortunately, he writes, those efforts (which Brooks himself had warmly endorsed) “did not work out.”


Reflect for a moment on that concluding phrase: “did not work out.” It suggests minor disappointment. It is steadfastly nonjudgmental. It eschews finger-pointing. If spoken aloud, its natural accompaniment is a shrug, as in “When I was a kid, I’d hoped to play shortstop for the Cubs, but it did not work out.” No big deal.

Now to say that compassionate conservatism did not work out is, at the very least, misleading. The catchphrase devised by George W. Bush’s handlers when he was first running for the presidency in 2000 never received anything remotely like a fair trial, being swallowed up after 9/11 by the global war on terror.

As for the dream of spreading global democracy, it has indeed received a fair trial. Yet to say that U.S. democracy promotion efforts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq did not work out is akin to saying that Bonaparte’s campaign to capture Moscow in 1812 didn’t quite pan out as he had hoped. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia yielded a disaster for France. So too with post-9/11 U.S. efforts to export democracy at the point of a gun: the results have been disastrous for the United States and for more than a few innocent bystanders.

Yet to this very day Brooks and other members of the conservative establishment refuse to confront the scope of that disaster. It has cost trillions [2] and killed hundreds of thousands. It has destabilized much of the Islamic world. And it has given the resentniks that Brooks abhors plenty to be righteously pissed off about.

Even so, the solution to the mess we’re in, according to Brooks, is to return power to the morally high-minded establishment that created that mess in the first place.

“If conservatism is ever to recover,” he writes, “it has to achieve two large tasks.” The first task is “to find a moral purpose large enough to displace the lure of blood-and-soil nationalism.” The second task is “to restore standards of professional competence and reassert the importance of experience, integrity and political craftsmanship.”

Well, if large implies more cockamamie crusades, mark me down as favoring moral purposes that are realistic and true, even if comparatively modest in scope. Fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution–notably devoid of references to blood-and-soil nationalism–should suffice for any principled American conservative.

As for professional competence, it was the absence of competence on the part of those ostensibly possessing experience, integrity and political craftsmanship along with their media cheerleaders that discredited the very concept of conservatism, while creating the conditions that gave us Donald Trump.

If conservatism is ever to recover, an essential first step will be to recognize the bankruptcy of the establishment that Brooks represents.

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large. His new book is Twilight of the American Century, available from the University of Notre Dame Press.

66 Comments (Open | Close)

66 Comments To "When David Brooks’ Dreams Don’t Work Out"

#1 Comment By Alan On December 3, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

@ John Blade,

LOL….Are you seriously standing up for the neocon psychopaths (your distinguished list of folks) who gave us $20 Trillion in debt, thousands of soldiers who died so they could get rich, etc etc? Good luck with that.

#2 Comment By David On December 3, 2018 @ 7:46 pm

The term “conservative” used to stand for a set principles. It has come to be a cover term for evasion of responsibility, whether to others, to the next generation, to the planet or to anything other than one’s self or like-minded group. To call oneself conservative is to be blind to this change in meaning or be ready to adopt the cover usage.

#3 Comment By yes: corruption On December 3, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

@Jan – I agree with you.

Disgust with corruption, institutional, political, what have you, is an important thread uniting many of the populist movements around the world.

The problem being that somebody like Trump is at least as corrupt as those he attacked as corrupt during the presidential campaign. On grounds of nepotism and cronyism alone he’s the worst we’ve seen since Bill Clinton.

I also agree that we need really harsh penalties for corruption, and we need to criminalize some of the behaviors that allow lawmakers and others to get away with corruption. Limit campaign donations. Outlaw lobbies for foreign countries. No “gifts” whatsoever to public officials. And the term of “revolving door” employment laws should be radically increased to a decade or more after leaving office.

#4 Comment By When To Stop On December 3, 2018 @ 11:45 pm

“And the term of “revolving door” employment laws should be radically increased to a decade or more after leaving office.”

How is it that Congressmen who never had more than a few thousand in the bank before they took office retire as millionaires? What the hell is going on in Washington?

And when is Trump going to keep his promise to stop the grossly corrupt practice of government officials leaving and going to work for companies that do business with the government?

Or is that yet another campaign promise betrayed?

I don’t want to hear any more about “elites” and their wonderfully moral intentions, until some significant number of them have been thrown in prison for corruption, incompetence, criminality, and treachery.

#5 Comment By cka2nd On December 4, 2018 @ 3:01 am

When were William Safire and Ross Douthat read out of the conservative side of the political spectrum? Just like there are different kinds of feminists and different kinds of socialists – hell, different kinds of communists – there are different kinds of conservatives.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, the Times Op-Ed page had a bevy of centrist columnists speaking on behalf of the establishment (e.g., James Reston, Flora Lewis and Tom Wicker, although Wicker leaned a bit to the left) alongside one liberal (Anthony Lewis) and one conservative (William Safire). When Sydney Schanberg went too far in criticizing the real estate industry and the proposed Westway highway, the Times’ neo-con Editor-in-Chief Abe Rosenthal canceled his column. One of Rosenthal’s biggest fans was Times TV non-fiction critic John Corry (Gods, I hated him), who has continued his career writing for conservative outlets like The American Spectator.

I haven’t read the paper regularly for 30 years, but my impression is that they expanded the liberal and conservative wings a bit over the years, with Paul Krugman, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert joining the liberal side and Brooks, Douthat and William Kristol the conservative one. No populists need apply, though, be they of the right, left or center. But let’s not pretend that the paper’s social liberalism is matched by the Times’ coverage of economic, military or foreign policy issues, either in its news pages or on its Op-Ed page. It’s still relentlessly pro-establishment when it comes to Capital and America’s Big Stick.

#6 Comment By Bill Underwood On December 4, 2018 @ 3:40 am

PBS & NPR are a part of that very same conservative establishment that got us into this mess?

#7 Comment By Cererean On December 4, 2018 @ 6:15 am

“Fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution–notably devoid of references to blood-and-soil nationalism”


“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,[note 1] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to *ourselves and our Posterity*, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Well, they got the mentions to blood and soil in there. Or do you think they were only referring to their adopted posterity?

#8 Comment By WalkingHorse On December 4, 2018 @ 9:17 am

If Brooks were at all sincere, he would come right out and advocate a return to feudalism, which is what the “globalism” advocates crave when all the platitudes are stripped away. The problem our contemporary elites have is that they exhibited their own corruption, incompetence, and arrogance before they consolidated power.

#9 Comment By Theodore Seeber On December 4, 2018 @ 10:46 am

I’d even say that most CONSERVEatives, think the entire attempt to rescue the Kuwati royal family was a mistake.

#10 Comment By Rockerbabe On December 4, 2018 @ 10:49 am

Really!? It seems to me that the “conservative” have done in part what they set out to do. Continue an unwanted set of wars on several fronts, get us to near bankruptcy by rewarding gillionaires with unearned, unneeded and undeserved tax credits, while trying to take food, medical care, housing and hope from the far less fortunte, who often work for these same gillionaires. You have succeeded in getting more white men on the SCOTUS in an effort to turn back the clock to the 1950-60’s in an effort to restrict the rights of women and minorities. Geez, I guess a 3/4 loaf is just not enough for you greedy basta3ds.

#11 Comment By Zgler On December 4, 2018 @ 11:47 am

The neocon’s intent to “spread global democracy” is like the missionary John Chau’s intent to “spread the gospel”. The intended audience doesn’t want it, it’s dangerous and misguided.

#12 Comment By UGA Oldtimer On December 4, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

Thank you, Walking Horse. Succinctly and accurately put!

#13 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 4, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

The comments are both fascinating and frightening:
Brooks is a thoughtful traditional conservative. Because he is well-spoken, erudite, and argues logically instead of shouting slogans and stomping his feet, the neocon Trumpers deride him with abuse and declare him fake. He was a Conservative before many detractors bothered to enrol to vote.
The evidence is that in dismissing NYT, NPR and other PBS, they think they are exposing automatic bias and get lots of ‘likes’ from their echo chamber.

Fear of engaging with ideas, carefully considered logic, and use of facts are strategies practised by both the Alt-right as well as the snowflake SJWs. Just finger-in-the-ear reactionaries trolling TAC, not Conservatives.
Playing the man, not the ball, are true Trumpian tactics. Like Dear Leader says, never let the facts get in the way of a good Outrage!

#14 Comment By SteveK9 On December 5, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

Could not agree more. I think if there were an Olympic Gold Medal for smugness, David Brooks would win without breaking a sweat.

#15 Comment By Dominique Watkins On December 5, 2018 @ 6:56 pm

Boom. Bacevich drops the mike

#16 Comment By Ian Williams On December 6, 2018 @ 5:16 am

Brooks is a thoughtful traditional conservative.

There is no such thing … they are either country-club ones who only care about their car dealership, or they are outright thugs.

Every piece of social progress, every event liberating and helping people – every single one over the last 200 years – has been done by the labor / liberal side of politics.

Conservatives have been on the wrong side of history in every single movement to create things that we can hold dear … every single one.

They have fought every piece of progressive legislation down the ages, because of their greed and worship of power and money. Only labor has had any principles, and they are the source of everything good that has happened.

(Slavery is one aberrant exception – everybody with the slightest stripe of moral conviction – conservative or liberal – was against it).