Home/Daniel Larison/Brooks, “Energetic” Government, and the Whigs

Brooks, “Energetic” Government, and the Whigs

Robert Merry tries to make sense of David Brooks’ celebration of the Whigs last week:

Brooks portrays it as focused on “enhancing opportunity and social mobility” and dedicated to giving “marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.” It fought against the “divisive populist Jacksonians” in championing big public-works projects—roads, canals, bridges—designed to propel America into greatness. Brooks adds the party “believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion.”

As readers of Brooks will already realize, the program that Brooks is describing is not necessarily the one favored by the 19th century Whigs, or at least not in its entirety. It is the same political program of “energetic” government that Brooks has been promoting for the better part of twenty years. He has long associated himself with those parts of American history that have favored relatively more activist and centralized government, whether this means praising Alexander Hamilton or Teddy Roosevelt. This is what he was talking about when he lamented that Newt Gingrich wasn’t promoting these ideas in the right way, and this was what he was saying when he enthused about a “neocon revival.” Another important point for Brooks is that he thinks this tradition has to be recognized as the moderate political tradition in American history. He said as much in a column just before the 2008 election:

The Hamiltonian-Bull Moose tendency is the great, moderate strain in American politics.

The point is not necessarily to describe the historical examples correctly, but to ransack them and appropriate them for the cause of “energetic” government today. Of course, almost all of the Whigs of early 19th century America would probably have recoiled from Brooks’ idea of what an “energetic” government should do and how much power it should have, but the point of the exercise is to invoke these past examples to advance the cause of a “centrism” defined by its corporatism, deference to government, and support for activist foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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