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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.