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 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 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.