David Brooks and the “Conservative Intellectual Crisis”

 

David Brooks is the New York Times’ least hated non-dead conservative. He is the Left’s go-to respectable conservative, the kind you’re supposed to be able to bring home to meet your mom. He won’t belch at the dinner table and he knows which fork to use with the curly endive and manchego salad with raspberry coulis.

Of course Brooks is a “conservative” only in the sense that, if tomorrow the Senate voted Obama the offices of Consul, Tribune of the Plebs, Field Marshal, Maximum Lider, Imperator, and Dictator for Life, Brooks would quibble that they didn’t make him Pontifex Maximus first. This is the guy who grew all gooey and moist contemplating Obama’s pant crease, a sentiment Brooks has no doubt been choking on for at least the past four years.

Brooks put out an unintentionally revealing column last week that tout le monde is gushing about (check out the comments). What it reveals more than usual, is the extent to which Brooks is a creature of the New York Times and its audience. As with so much of his output, the column is designed to leave NYT readers unperturbed in the comfort of their unexamined assumptions.

The more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger column blames the Trump phenomenon on the so-called “Conservative Intellectual Crisis”. Brooks says:

I feel very lucky to have entered the conservative movement when I did, back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working at National Review, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. The role models in front of us were people like Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter.

These people wrote about politics, but they also wrote about a lot of other things: history, literature, sociology, theology and life in general. There was a sharp distinction then between being conservative, which was admired, and being a Republican, which was considered sort of cheesy.

But then, during Brooks’ middle years, talk radio, cable TV and the internet swept away these genteel, urbane souls, and ushered in the conservatism of the trailer park: Rush, O’Reilly, Breitbart, Coulter, Palin and the rest, with Trump as the inevitable catastrophic result. Brooks looks forward to a Trump defeat that will, according to him, “cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth.”

Brooks makes it seem like the decline of intellectual and cultural standards is a conservative phenomenon, but this is just shameless pandering to his liberal audience. As he knows very well, the enstupidation is universal: It is the culture as a whole that has faceplanted into the sewer. It is always a revelation to me to watch TV from the period Brooks is talking about. Go to YouTube and watch Dick Cavett’s 2-hour long 1980 interview with Richard Burton, for example, and prepare to be amazed that something this grown-up once captured prime time viewers’ attention. Going back even farther to the golden era of the Middlerow, observe how Ted Sorensen was able to lard JFK’s political speeches with classical references and expect to be understood by ordinary Americans. That was the era, remember, when Mortimer Adler’s dubious Great Books box set could be bought at your local Piggly Wiggly.

Yes, I too am nostalgic for the Reagan Era. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” as the poet says. I am a little younger than Brooks, but I too remember fondly that period of my intellectual and political awakening, when Bill Buckley’s Firing Line was a regular feature on Public (!) Television. In addition to Firing Line, during the early 1980s PBS also aired Free to Choose, a program about the free market based on the eponymous book, featuring Milton and Rose Friedman. Another PBS show I remember is The Constitution: That Delicate Balance, a series of a dozen or so Socratic dialogues dealing with discrete constitutional topics that brought together journalists, politicians, cabinet secretaries and former Supreme Court justices, deftly moderated by Fred Friendly and presented at an intellectual level appropriate to a serious law school. I distinctly remember seeing Robert Bork for the first time on that show.

Nothing remotely like these programs exists anywhere on TV now. As these examples illustrate, not only has the general intellectual climate of the country cratered, but, not coincidentally, conservative voices have been systematically purged from the old mainline networks. Today the only “conservative” you will find on PBS is… wait for it… David Brooks! Simultaneously, conservatives were also purged from most university faculties. This ethnic ideological cleansing has not been good for the country’s intellect, resulting in such scientific breakthroughs as gender-neutral pronouns, safe spaces, Queer Theory, Feminist Glaciology, and all the other Stalinist instruments of political correctness, with no one except a few aging cranks left to push back against the insanity.

Given these lamentable developments, it is no surprise that Liberals are not aware of the existence of intellectually serious conservatives. But they do exist, of course, as anyone who has ever attended an AEI event or perused a random issue of, say, The New Criterion or the Claremont Review of Books would know. Such a person would be blown away by the richness and depth of these small safe harbors of intellectual sanity: the subtle charm of Joseph Epstein’s literary criticism; the penetrating insight of David Goldman’s and William Voegli’s analysis of foreign affairs; the sensitivity and refinement of Jay Nordlinger’s musical essays; the erudition and humanity of Anthony Daniels; the freshness and analytical vigor of Yuval Levin; and many, many others. Brooks knows all this better than I do, of course, but validating his audience’s prejudices about the intellectual emptiness of conservatism and their own intellectual superiority is what keeps the invitations to those Georgetown cocktail parties rolling in.

Part of the self-flattery involved in being David Brooks and writing for an audience of soi-disant intellectualoids, is the conceit that intellectuals have a large and direct impact on politics. But intellectuals’ relationship to politics is highly attenuated. Trump is the product, first and foremost, not of the dearth of serious conservative thought, but of the fecklessness and political failures of the Republican leadership at the national level. To suggest otherwise is to completely misunderstand what caused the rise of Trump. The people who support Trump do so not because they have misplaced their Russell Kirk, but because they, quite correctly, see the structures of power in this country, including the Republican Party, as hopelessly corrupt, and they want to burn them down. Brooks is so invested in these structures, and so overestimates the political influence of intellectuals like himself, that he seems blind to this.

Finally, I can’t resist the low-hanging fruit. I understand that Brooks is the NYT house conservative and it is his duty to opine on conservative things. But where is his column about the Liberal intellectual crisis? As we know, Republicans are in the midst of a civil war over Trump. There is to put it mildly, a vigorous disagreement over Trumpism and the future of the GOP, both within the party and in conservative circles generally. Democrats, by contrast, are in perfectly synchronized lockstep with Clinton who — as we now know in microscopic detail and beyond any shadow of doubt — is a criminal sociopath. There is no “Never Hillary” movement among the Democrats, to speak of. The fact that this has not precipitated an intellectual crisis of the Left is in itself a scandal. Where is that column?

Brooks’s lament feeds an unshakable article of faith on the Left: that conservatives are misinformed and not very bright. It is beyond tedious debating Liberals on this point, since so many of them, including ones who should know better, fail to grasp that political conflicts are rarely if ever about facts; they are about different values, temperaments and world views. Liberals believe that the basic function of government is to alleviate human suffering, and that equality is the most important public good; conservatives believe different things. Better access to information won’t settle this conflict. David Brooks knows all this and I wish he would stop flattering his Liberal audience’s delusions.

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  1. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Indeed the intellectual crisis is on the left and has been for at least half a century.  Their brains were eaten away by the blind rigidity of historical materialism, nihilism and deconstruction.  There was a time when we considered people on the left intellectuals with heft.  But who out there now on the left can sustain a coherent historical, economic or political thought?   But then how does one think clearly about anything while not believing there is such a thing as truth, or that 4000 years of history, intellectual history and tradition is irrelevant.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Oblomov: [quoting Brooks] I feel very lucky to have entered the conservative movement when I did, back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working at National Review, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. The role models in front of us were people like Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter.

    Heh.  He didn’t mention his excellent work at The American Spectator during the latter part of those years. I wonder why.  (Actually, I don’t wonder why.)

    • #2
  3. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    Good work, Oblomov!

    • #3
  4. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    There is certainly a vocal element that sees corruption and wants to burn things down. (Note to self, see that Batman movie  everyone keeps quoting)

    On balance, most voters are more practical. They want functioning institutions. Problems should be identified, solutions proposed, vetted and, put in place. The citizens are not naifs. We all know one lubricant that moves things along is honest graft. What we get today is outsized graft and no solutions.

    David Brooks needs to reacquaint himself with the difference between a mote and a beam.

    • #4
  5. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Oblomov: Liberals believe that the basic function of government is to alleviate human suffering, and that equality is the most important public good

    You left out sexual gratification, which seems to rank quite high on the left’s list of ultimate human goods.

    • #5
  6. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Serious question: doesn’t intellectualism on either the left or the right come off as mere pretentiousness more often than it contributes to actual solutions? I think a great deal of the push for Trump on the right and Sanders on the left can be attributed to a desire by many to see more produced in the way of actionable solutions rather than mere words.

    • #6
  7. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    The job of “conservatives” like Brooks is to set an example for the rest of us: be a graceful loser to liberals in all things, then quietly go back to our place at the back bench where Gaia intended us to be. Well, $#*% that.

    • #7
  8. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    Much of this is the conservative media’s own fault. If you were fed a steady diet of O’Reilly and Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck, and Ingraham, what else could you conclude? What’s being missed is that there is a whole world of conservatives who are not Fox News. But as they say, Fox News and talk radio are sucking all of the air out of the room.

    I think this is not so much liberal and conservative ideology, but how conservative media went for the low-brow sensationalism (i.e., shouting) instead of focusing on sensible and thoughtful conservatives. Makes better TV and radio. Brooks’ opinion is about conservative media, not so much conservative ideology, and he shouldn’t confuse or conflate the two.

    • #8
  9. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Not only is the OP a cogent history lesson, but the final paragraph is about as good a summation as I’ve ever read of the true divide between the Left and right in America. We do indeed have decidedly different values, temperaments, and world views.

    • #9
  10. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Again I must go back to Williamson’s Welcome to the Machine in which he wrote:

    But you have no real idea what the public interest is. Nobody really does. How could you? How would you find out? (No, not rhetorical.) You could take a poll and see what the public says it wants, but what the public says it wants at any particular moment is not identical with the public interest. The public is made up of individuals, most of whom have no better idea what is in the best interest of people they have never met and know nothing about than you do — and practically all of whom will lie when asked what it is they really want: They’ll say they want opera broadcasts and educational programming and organic chard and more foreign news in the newspaper, but in real life their revealed preferences are pretty much classic rock, fantasy-football stats, and those heinous seven-layer burritos from Taco Bell.

    At least some part of the death of intellectualism is due to the fact that people simply don’t want it. I think we idealize high mindedness without really having the energy or interest to actually pursue it. I know I’m nowhere near as well read as I should be, and I also know I’m not likely to overcome that any time soon.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    If it weren’t for self-flattery, Brooks wouldn’t have any.

    • #11
  12. livingthehighlife Inactive
    livingthehighlife
    @livingthehighlife

    Irony is dead.

    • #12
  13. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    KC Mulville:. Brooks’ opinion is about conservative media, not so much conservative ideology, and he shouldn’t confuse or conflate the two.

    And a tiny part of “media” (whatever that means) at that. There are a thousand Ricochets (all very different) out there, each with their factions and in jokes and assumptions, and each entirely independent of the approved journolist consensus (which informs Fox and the WSJ and…) or top-down model (whether newspaper, radio show or tv channel).

    That there are such folks as Oblomov in the world, and such folks as us to respond to his thoughts, makes all the difference in the world.

    • #13
  14. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Oblomov: The people who support Trump do so not because they have misplaced their Russell Kirk, but because they, quite correctly, see the structures of power in this country, including the Republican Party, as hopelessly corrupt, and they want to burn them down.

    I have heard this argument a lot, and I don’t buy it.  Sure, there are always people who want to burn everything down and expect a wondrous Utopia to rise from the ashes.  The usual home for these people is the socialist party, in whatever form it exists in their country.  “Burn down all the corrupt institutions and we will have Utopia” is the very essence of socialism.  And at the center of the socialist Utopia there is always a strong man who proclaims himself to be above the corruption that infects the corporations, or the Czars, or whoever.  And when the socialist experiment fails, it is always because “Stalin was the wrong guy to put in charge,” never because of any failure in the the whole theory of socialism itself.

    For sure, there are some of these burn-it-all-down people supporting Trump.  As implausible as it seems (to me) there are people who think that Trump is the least corrupt among us, when he is actually among the most corrupt.  But real conservatives know that the socialist Utopia model built on the supposedly incorruptible strongman is inherently the most corrupt form of government that there is.  Burn-it-down is not their thinking.

    • #14
  15. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Wonderful essay, thank you.

    There are two benefits to a classical Catholic education. The first is that you are in constant demand as a partner in Classical Trivial Pursuit and are never bothered with requests to partner with someone in Pop Culture Trivial Pursuit.

    The second is that at the university level you study the history of philosophy, all the philosophers, not just Catholic philosophers. You discover that all ideas have pedigrees, and what is considered new and novel to man in the present day have some very ancient pedigrees.

    My least favorite philosophers were the words have no meaning crowd. There is something paradoxical about someone that proposes words have no meaning and then uses words to prove their thesis. They made you long to reread Kant and Hegel, well almost long to read them again.

    As Lord Acton said there is nothing more irritating than the discovery of the pedigree of ideas. Lord Acton was right and the world could use a bit more irritation when it comes to ideas.

    • #15
  16. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    The King Prawn: At least some part of the death of intellectualism is due to the fact that people simply don’t want it.

    I blame the schools. No, really. Everyone knows someone who thinks of reading or culture with dread because any joy in literature has been flogged out of them by teachers, most of whom assign dreadful books because they’re “classics”.

     

    • #16
  17. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    Doug Watt: There are two benefits to a classical Catholic education. The first is that you are in constant demand as a partner in Classical Trivial Pursuit and are never bothered with requests to partner with someone in Pop Culture Trivial Pursuit.

    Stealing this one with glee. There’s nothing more helpless than having a huge lead over my children during Jeopardy, only to face a final Jeopardy category of Lyrics from Lady Gaga. Dad is toast.

    • #17
  18. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    I think it can be simultaneously true that there exists a robust conservative intellectual framework at AEI, CRB, NR etc. and that the center of gravity of public conservative intellectualism has shifted away from the likes of Yuval Levin, William Voegelli and Peter Robinson and towards Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.

    Conservatives long ago stopped talking to the other side a la Buckley or Friedman and started talking only to ourselves. It should not surprise us then that Liberals have controlled the conversation.

    • #18
  19. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Austin Murrey:

    The King Prawn: At least some part of the death of intellectualism is due to the fact that people simply don’t want it.

    I blame the schools. No, really. Everyone knows someone who thinks of reading or culture with dread because any joy in literature has been flogged out of them by teachers, most of whom assign dreadful books because they’re “classics”.

    Parents 90%, all others 10%.

     

     

    • #19
  20. Drusus Inactive
    Drusus
    @Drusus

    Austin Murrey:

    The King Prawn: At least some part of the death of intellectualism is due to the fact that people simply don’t want it.

    I blame the schools. No, really. Everyone knows someone who thinks of reading or culture with dread because any joy in literature has been flogged out of them by teachers, most of whom assign dreadful books because they’re “classics”.

    These days schools aren’t teaching “dreadful books because they’re ‘classics,'” they are teaching pablum because it’s “engaging.”

    There’s a pretty strong correlation to the topic under consideration in the OP, come to think of it.

    • #20
  21. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    Drusus: These days schools aren’t teaching “dreadful books because they’re ‘classics,’” they are teaching pablum because it’s “engaging.”

    Even worse.

    • #21
  22. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Is there no way to compromise between the high and the low? Shouldn’t one have both Bach and Bachman Turner Overdrive on his playlist be able to appreciate both?

    • #22
  23. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    The King Prawn:Is there no way to compromise between the high and the low? Shouldn’t one have both Bach and Bachman Turner Overdrive on his playlist be able to appreciate both?

    BTO and Bach don’t belong to the same playlist!

    They can, however, be in the same library.

    • #23
  24. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I blame socialism for the dampening of the American intellect. Learning anything requires initiative, and initiative is the first casualty in socialism’s control of a country.

     

    • #24
  25. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Austin Murrey:

    The King Prawn:Is there no way to compromise between the high and the low? Shouldn’t one have both Bach and Bachman Turner Overdrive on his playlist be able to appreciate both?

    BTO and Bach don’t belong to the same playlist!

    They can, however, be in the same library.

    I used to put a rock song in my “study” playlist of classic music every hour or so to make sure that I was awake…

    • #25
  26. Polyphemus Inactive
    Polyphemus
    @Polyphemus

    I Walton:Indeed the intellectual crisis is on the left and has been for at least half a century. Their brains were eaten away by the blind rigidity of historical materialism, nihilism and deconstruction. There was a time when we considered people on the left intellectuals with heft. But who out there now on the left can sustain a coherent historical, economic or political thought? But then how does one think clearly about anything while not believing there is such a thing as truth, or that 4000 years of history, intellectual history and tradition is irrelevant.

    Bingo! What many people are saying about the irrelevance of intellectuals is true in the immediate political environment. But the long view shows that ideas do indeed have consequences. The Left side of our culture represents the vanguard of our plunge down through the philosophical torrents of the last few centuries. The consequences of embracing, relativism, nihilism, postmodernism and so forth leave no basis for “coherent historical, economic or political thought”.  This is why the Left does not really operate on principles. They don’t concern themselves with truth as you say. Those are relics of already-discarded worldviews.

    • #26
  27. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Polyphemus:

    I Walton:Indeed the intellectual crisis is on the left and has been for at least half a century. Their brains were eaten away by the blind rigidity of historical materialism, nihilism and deconstruction. There was a time when we considered people on the left intellectuals with heft. But who out there now on the left can sustain a coherent historical, economic or political thought? But then how does one think clearly about anything while not believing there is such a thing as truth, or that 4000 years of history, intellectual history and tradition is irrelevant.

    Bingo! What many people are saying about the irrelevance of intellectuals is true in the immediate political environment. But the long view shows that ideas do indeed have consequences. The Left side of our culture represents the vanguard of our plunge down through the philosophical torrents of the last few centuries. The consequences of embracing, relativism, nihilism, postmodernism and so forth leave no basis for “coherent historical, economic or political thought”. This is why the Left does not really operate on principles. They don’t concern themselves with truth as you say. Those are relics of already-discarded worldviews.

    This is shortsighted. It is both true that the left suffers from intellectual sclerosis and that the right suffers from the same.

    • #27
  28. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Tommy De Seno
    @TommyDeSeno

    Two things:

    1.  This column is so good, @oblomov, that I insist the editors pin it to the top of the Main Feed until election day;
    2. @roblong needs to work on a TV show as you’ve described.
    • #28
  29. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Larry3435:

    Oblomov: The people who support Trump do so not because they have misplaced their Russell Kirk, but because they, quite correctly, see the structures of power in this country, including the Republican Party, as hopelessly corrupt, and they want to burn them down.

    I have heard this argument a lot, and I don’t buy it. Sure, there are always people who want to burn everything down and expect a wondrous Utopia to rise from the ashes.

    snip…

    For sure, there are some of these burn-it-all-down people supporting Trump. As implausible as it seems (to me) there are people who think that Trump is the least corrupt among us, when he is actually among the most corrupt. But real conservatives know that the socialist Utopia model built on the supposedly incorruptible strongman is inherently the most corrupt form of government that there is. Burn-it-down is not their thinking.

    I see your point but you take it a step too far. Three things: the burn-it-all-down people are not seeking Utopia, there is a massive difference between corrupt and hopelessly corrupt, and Trump is not viewed as the least corrupt among us, it’s just that he has nowhere near the machine of corruption that Clinton has. These nuances give a more accurate picture of the views of those supporting Trump than your way of describing what they are trying to do.

    • #29
  30. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    The people who support Trump do so not because they have misplaced their Russell Kirk, but because they, quite correctly, see the structures of power in this country, including the Republican Party, as hopelessly corrupt, and they want to burn them down.

    I disagree.  I suppose there are some who want to burn “it all down” just as there are real arsonists in the world who start real fires to see real things burned down.

    However, I believe that most Trump supporters have seen the graft and corruption in our leadership.  Not in the institutions per se but in the persons running those institutions.  Voters know the difference between Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court and Congressmen, a President and S.C. Justices.  I think most Trump supporters would be happy to see a completely new batch of faces in each of the mentioned institutions as well as in the other offices that govern us.

    BTW, I am deliberately not commenting on the likelihood that it will or can happen.

    • #30

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