But none of that changes the fact that there is something typically psychologistic and so ultimately very superficial about Brooks’s analysis: a more sophisticated and urbane Republican Party would certainly do better among the “educated class”, as would one that approached matters with a great deal more intellectual seriousness. ~John Schwenkler
Brooks’ analysis is an applied form of the Dougherty Doctrine: the GOP would be better off if it were more like me; it’s failing because it’s like you. Brooks’ reference to the “urbane” candidates in the primaries (i.e., Giuliani, Romney and McCain) was instructive for its lack of realism and its terrible judgement. The Terrible Trio, as I once dubbed this awful threesome, represented everything that was wrong with the modern Republican Party: nasty authoritarianism, shilling for corporate interests and endless jingoism. Each one combined some measure of these things: Romney called for “doubling” Gitmo–whatever that meant–and Giuliani embraced any and every new conflict on the horizon, while McCain was glad to accept new government surveillance powers and pro-corporate trade and economic policies. Think of everything that went wrong with the Bush administration, and then consider these three candidates–it becomes clear that any one of them promised to perpetuate at least some part of the abuses of the Bush Era: Giuliani was going to spy on you or lock you up without charges; Romney was going to shortchange and defraud you; McCain was likely to start another war. Leave aside for the moment their problems with social conservatives and their personal flaws–these were, are, horrible representatives of the right. That at least two of the three had a plausible path to the nomination makes a mockery of complaints that “urbane” candidates cannot flourish in the modern GOP. One might fairly ask why any party would want to be “urbane” if it includes accepting the policy priorities of such people, but it is undeniable that the party tolerates, promotes and rewards them at the highest levels. For the most part, conservatives go along with this, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes not.
When presented with a candidate who actually represented the core constituencies of the party in terms of geographic origin, socioeconomic background and level of education (i.e., Huckabee), there was an unparalleled collective freakout among conservative activists and elites. So it is not entirely credible when I see complaints from “urbane” conservatives that they are somehow underrepresented or neglected in modern Republican politics–were it not for their entirely outsized, overbearing influence, Giuliani and Romney would have been dismissed almost as soon as they announced their candidacies. It is worth bearing in mind how much worse a Giuliani or Romney would have done had he been the nominee; it is worth considering that someone like Huckabee might have actually done much, much better than McCain is doing, and not only because he is a more naturally talented politician. It may have been inevitable that the GOP was doomed to lose this election, and lose it badly, and there is some justice in that, but it is not at all obvious that the GOP is going to fail because it was insufficiently “urbane.”
As John reminds us, and as I suggested earlier this week, the GOP has come to its current straits to a large extent because it heeded Brooks’ advice–or the advice of those who shared Brooks’ views–on what its priorities and policies should be. The deeper problem that the GOP and conservatives alike have is that even if the Bush administration had been a paragon of excellence and competence (ha!), educated professionals and working-class Americans would have been drifting away from them in any case. Cultural and demographic changes have also been working to undermine Republican political strength, and the response to these trends have been schizophrenic at best because there is basic disagreement inside the coalition about the identity of the party and the direction of conservatism. Meanwhile, having defined many academic and professional fields as bastions of liberalism, conservatives have ceded an entire generation almost uncontested. Conservatives are now paying the price for more or less writing off an entire generation by eschewing the work of education and building up the culture they want in favor of political activism.
Obviously, a badly managed war and a general culture of cronyism and incompetence have persuaded managers and professionals that the supposed party of grown-ups has lost its way, but even without these things members of the New Class were never going to feel immediately at home in a party that relied heavily on social conservative votes and religious rhetoric. When confronted with secular conservative complaints about the undue influence of religious conservatives, I have often been inclined to ridicule or belittle their concerns, because I am a religious conservative who sees no such influence and would be glad to see much more genuine religious conservatism guiding the right, but as I step back I begin to understand that their complaints were veiled pleas for acceptance. As I have watched Palinites enthuse about their Joan of Arc, it has occurred to me that they want nothing more than validation for their way of life; criticism of Palin wounds them because they think it is a judgement on how they live. Likewise, secular conservatives wish to be accepted and validated by their religious confreres. Even Andrew’s often overwrought and ultimately misguided complaints about so-called “Christianism” are at bottom arguments in favor of the proposition that is is possible to be conservative but critical of religion in politics. These complaints then morph and mutate into absolute affirmations (in Palin’s case) or negations (in the secular conservatives’ case) that try to force people to make false choices: either you uncritically endorse everything about Palin, or you hate small-town, religious people; either you reject religious conservatism in politics, or you endorse the reign of “fundamentalist” loonies. Palinites feed off of secular conservatives’ disdain as proof that their stark opposition between true believers and godless elites is correct, and the secular conservatives find the Palinite mania to be proof that their fear of the role of religion in politics was entirely justified.
We may be faced with another false choice between embracing conservatives’ cultural populism and having respect for ideas, and it is vital that we find some way of holding the two in tension.