Monday, May 15

"While Hurtling Over an Embankment to Certain Death" Is the Wrong Time To Decide You're in Favor of Guardrails

David Brooks, "From Freedom to Authority," NY Times, May 14

Psychologists joke that two sorts of people need therapy: those who need to be loosened up and those who need to be tightened up. Now, in the political world, we're moving from what you might call loose conservatism to tight conservatism. We're seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority. Many of George Bush's problems come from the fact that he's awkwardly straddling the transition point between the two.

So begins another in the weekly series "David Brooks Redefines 'Conservatism' According To This Week's Requirements", brought to you with rapidly decreasing justification by the Liberal New York Times.

It hasn't been pretty watching The Conservative Liberals Love yank desperately at a set of imaginary controls as he watches Commander Codpiece's irreversible death spiral, just as, pace the supposed Credo of Bush Hatred, it isn't pretty watching the Franco-like demise of Reaganaut "conservatism" from its admixture of hubris and self-serving delusion. This is not comeuppance; it's disaster. Yet still there's the hopeful spin each week, though it's become less and less anchored in talking points and more and more in the search for some enlightening, self-confidence restoring piece of psych-or-sociological wisdom that'll float in high seas.

So shut up and die like an aviator, already.

There are some forms of idiocy which, if they don't require a Ph.D to promulgate, are at least unavailable to the man who can't, or needn't, hide his copy of Maxim behind Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. You wouldn't keep going back to the transmission repairman who told you your car was fixed, then that might take years longer to fix and cost several hundred times the original estimate, then that things were looking much better, and finally that the car was supposed to run exclusively in reverse.
In the 1970's and 80's, conservatives felt the primary threat was the overweening nanny state. Ronald Reagan tried to loosen the structures that restricted individual initiative and led to national sclerosis.

Brooks is writing this on the cusp of the anniversary of Bloody Thursday. Reagan made his "conservative" bones as the anti-hippie, anti-student demonstrator, anti-civil-rights authoritarian. It's understandable that for there even to be Reagan hero worship a lot of unpleasant realities have to be ignored, but does Brooks even know this stuff?
Times change. Now the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder. The biggest threats come not from nanny states but from failed states and rogue states. There is less popular fear of bureaucrats possessing too much control than of ungoverned forces surging out of control: immigration, the federal debt, Iraqi sectarianism, Islamic radicalism, Chinese mercantilism, domestic rage and polarization.

Times change. And how conveniently they change!
The chief challenge these days is to restore legitimate centers of authority.

Restore them from the hash the Bush administration has made of them? Or from the hash the Right tried to make of them because Clinton was president?
Middle-class suburbanites understood this shift far more quickly than the professional conservatives in Washington. What people wanted post-9/11 was Giuliani-ism on a global scale -- someone who was assertive and decisive enough to assume authority and take situations that seemed ungovernable and make them governable.

Enough, already. You'd think the unmitigated disaster that's followed in the wake of this authoritarian yearning would at least slow down the Post-Nine-Eleven stuff, but no. If Middle America pined for more Giuliani-ism it was because it didn't know him. If it found the Runaway President's bullhorn moment "inspiring" it was because it desperately needed to. It was obvious at the time that America would respond with wrath untempered by the facts, and that we had the misfortune to have in power a particular set of politicians who would milk that for every advantage. Giuliani knew for weeks that the death toll he was using was twice the actual, but "twice as many deaths as Pearl Harbor" was a sexier rallying cry than "roughly the same." But rallying to do what? Bush's "retired fireman" was a Republican ward-heeler, and the police badge the dead man's mother wanted him to have was seized by the Secret Service. That Middle America you keep claiming to know, Mr. Brooks, was already united and already fear-stricken. What it needed was someone to calm, to explain, to establish national priorities and reestablish the democratic impulse. It's the authoritarians who strongly desired an Authority, apparently imagining they were getting a cross between Octavian, Peter the Great, and George Patton; what they, and we, got was Nero, Jr. And don't try to sell us on that Reluctant Caesar business. George Bush may have realized in his marrow that he'd faked his way to this point and was now way out of his depth, but is there any question about what side God was gonna come down on when He spoke up?
In many ways, President Bush was sensitive to the changing nature of the times. Bush had never believed that his job as president was to cut government to enhance freedom. He never promised to reduce the size of government. His education reforms didn't enhance personal choice; they turned the federal government into an accountability cop.

Yeah, yeah. Bush is not a conservative. Why were you guys so enthusiastic about him, then?
As Fred Barnes wrote in his book "Rebel-in-Chief," Bush and his team operate in Washington like an occupying army of insurgents, an "alien in the realm of the governing class." Ever the visionary, Bush told Barnes that his interest "is not the means, it is the results."

Y'know, reading those two sentences is a lot like watching one of those Hollywood Arabian Nights fantasies of the 40s or 50s, where everybody wore contemporary hairdos and Technicolor harem pants.
But statesmanship consists precisely of understanding the relationship between the means at your disposal and the ends you seek to pursue. Bush has had trouble exerting authority because he and some of his advisers have been aloof from or hostile to the inescapable and legitimate institutions of authority in this country.

How fortunate for all of us y'all could figure this out in less than six years.
Furthermore, Bush and his team have generally not shared information with the people with whom they share power. They've been slow to open reciprocal communication with people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington who could do them some good.

Now, here's the thing: this is the party Brooks claims superiority for on the grounds of its weekend Burke retreats and intellectual bullpen, yet every last time-honored conundrum known to Western Civilization sneaks up behind these guys and kicks 'em in the ass. Those people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere were makin' with the Hosannas as recently as last year, right up to the point that the poll numbers fell off the table and started rolling toward the basement stairs. Nobody went public, David. Nobody said Bush wasn't "conservative" enough until Bush was a dirty word. 'Course, you're the guy who recently told us how troubled all the insiders were about Iraq, the same ones that you had assured us earlier were uniformly optimistic.
Finally, members of the Bush administration did not respect government enough to understand that a strong one had to be established in postwar Iraq. They had too much faith in spontaneous social order, a libertarian myth from the 1980's that has been sadly refuted by events.

Only because, sadly, its refutation by easily understood rational argument was ignored.
For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state, but that debate's basically done. The next one will be over where the state should erect guardrails in a mobile and fragmented world.

How is it that the party of Burke seems to imagine that history began twenty years ago?


Anonymous said...

What can anyone reasonably expect of a columnist who delivered himself of the phrase "the dewy green faeries of sanity" in the New York Times last Thursday or Friday? Whatever he's got in his water cooler, I'd like a hit of it...

Anonymous said...

"For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state"

Gosh, David, who is we? I ask because 1808,1819,1837, 1857, 1873, 1893 1907, 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1929 were sufficient for those of us with any honesty to conclude that economic activity in it's "natural unregulated state" will lead to the sterling results we see in Iraq today.

Anonymous said...

Columns like this one are disheartening examples of what passes for conservative thought in the 21st century. For those with their eyes open and their brains functioning even at half throttle the ultimate takedown of a Brooks piece is to simply lay it up there verbatim without comment. Fortunately, you write for the masses, so the astute commentary is much appreciated.

It's a ridiculous to observe the spectacle of sainted and pure conservatives now feeling betrayed by Texas-style Republicanism. Or the absurdity of the Bushists pictured as visionary insurgents against the governing class—topsy-turvyism and surreal as you describe it. And I love how Brooks lumps the federal debt in with all his other ungoverned forces surging out of control as if the obscene Bush tax-cuts & slush fund raid on the treasury for the benefit of corporate conservative aristocrats (not to mention the first war in our history paid entirely by Mastercard) is just Mother Nature.

I don't get the wish for Giuliani-ism. To my mind, that's exactly what we got with Bush. Giuliani ruled the city like the egocentric autocrat he is, and was decidedly a divider, not a uniter. He didn't make the ungovernable governable, he simply took credit for work done by folks like Lee Brown, Bill Bratton, and Jack Maple, among others. As for Bush, the 9/11 attack was, politically speaking, a godsend. (Folks with longer memories might recall how he tried to exploit it to extend his term in office and suspend the election, but New Yorkers and Bloomberg wouldn't stand for it.) Lord help us if the real Giuliani makes it anywhere near the presidency in 2008.

Anonymous said...

For the record, I suspect John Stossel's moustache tells David Brooks what to think, too.

I'll get back to the Bush Is Actually A Liberal But I Proudly Voted For Him Twice And Still Have The Bumper Stickers On My SUV thing a little later, when it's not quite so nauseating a lump of week-old roadkill.