When He’s Right, He’s Right

David Brooks can be a maddening columnist. He is often thoughtful and perceptive; obviously highly intelligent and unfailingly civil, he rarely comes across as doctrinaire. On the other hand, he often produces analyses that are surprisingly naive and occasionally even uninformed.

I read his columns regularly, because when he’s right, he’s really right. (And to be fair, even with his more off-base musings, there are usually nuggets worth considering.)

In his December 7th New York Times column, Brooks didn’t just hit it out of the park, he hit it out of the county.

Brooks is an old-fashioned Republican, conservative in the principled, Burkean sense of that term. I will readily admit that even in my most conservative days, I’ve never fallen into that particular category. Unlike the white nationalists and other morally repugnant political figures who have hijacked conservatism, however, Burkean conservatism was an entirely respectable approach. I’ve watched Brooks wrestle with that hijacking, and watched his efforts to give positions with which he clearly differed an (unearned) benefit of the doubt.

His lede describes that attitude, which he attributes to a generalized category of “good Republicans.”

A lot of good, honorable Republicans used to believe there was a safe middle ground. You didn’t have to tie yourself hip to hip with Donald Trump, but you didn’t have to go all the way to the other extreme and commit political suicide like the dissident Jeff Flake, either. You could sort of float along in the middle, and keep your head down until this whole Trump thing passed.

The column makes it pretty clear that Brooks has (finally!) turned a corner.

That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.

In this week’s Times, Peter Wehner–once on the staff of the Reagan White House, and a proud conservative Evangelical–comes to much the same conclusion in a column titled “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.”

Brooks recognizes that the rot that now infects the entire GOP didn’t start with Trump.  With Sarah Palin and Fox News, the party traded a previous “ethos of excellence” for an “ethos of hucksterism.”

The Republican Party I grew up with admired excellence. It admired intellectual excellence (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley), moral excellence (John Paul II, Natan Sharansky) and excellent leaders (James Baker, Jeane Kirkpatrick). Populism abandoned all that — and had to by its very nature. Excellence is hierarchical. Excellence requires work, time, experience and talent. Populism doesn’t believe in hierarchy. Populism doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said. Populism celebrates the quick slogan, the impulsive slash, the easy ignorant assertion. Populism is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.

Compare the tax cuts of the supply-side era with the tax cuts of today. There were three big cuts in the earlier era: the 1978 capital gains tax cut, the Kemp-Roth tax cut of 1981, and the 1986 tax reform. They were passed with bipartisan support, after a lengthy legislative process. All of them responded to the dominant problem of the moment, which was the stagflation and economic sclerosis. All rested on a body of serious intellectual work…

Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

As readers of this blog know, I was a Republican for 35 years. In 2000, I left. I realized that the party  for which I’d worked so long no longer existed; I said then (and continue to maintain) that I hadn’t left the party, the party had left me.

Brooks is not engaging in hyperbole in that last line. Every day, I run into good, thoughtful people I used to work with–in party politics, in municipal government–who echo his lament. They no longer see the GOP as a traditional political party with a political philosophy based on a distinctive moral vision. They certainly don’t see anyone pursuing excellence.

They see what David Brooks finally sees: an immoral cult pursing its tribal interests to the detriment of the country.


  1. All true. But to add a bit, it seems that the “R” have always been anti worker, anti Social Security, Anti Medicare, Anti Medicaid, Anti Black, Anti Gay, Anti Women. There was NEVER anything in their party that looked good to me. I hope they self destruct this time. I thought the Tea Party would do it but I was wrong. Maybe the Trump party will do it.

  2. I take some exception to the myth of the meritocracy. I understand Brookes to be a genuinely decent man but is hampered by his own accomplishments. His good education and position as an acknowledged public intellectual. He does not understand the benefits of class. Of coming from a place that gave him the solid ground to grow from. Many uneducated people are very smart and have had to work hard, to simply survive, under circumstances utterly alien to the ‘just work hard study hard’ educated class. The poor understand that you can play by the rules of power and still get screwed.

  3. I remember when the congressional Republicans finally stood up and acknowledged Nixon’s complicity in Watergate even to impeach him. Today’s Republican’s have been bullied into silence by their sponsors and with only a couple of exceptions, they don’t complain. This group is never going to serve the interests of the voters ; they steadfastly bow to the money of the Koch’s and others and allow their propaganda machine to continue to confuse and divide the public into warring camps with wedge issues that ensure their re-election and continued service to their masters.

    I don’t understand their appeal.

  4. As regular readers of the blog know, Sheila and I worked during the Republican Mayor Bill Hudnut’s administration here in Indianapolis. Sheila spent a brief time; I was there for the full 16 progressive years under an administration which not only served the public but cleaned racism, bigotry, sexism, nepotism, political patronage, required full support and 2% “donation”, in cash, by the end of every payday to keep our jobs, totally out of the Republican administration of this city . One of my early and most dedicated workers for the people, hired directly by Mayor Hudnut, was a Democratic woman, Administrator of the Division of Community Services, a division of the Mayor’s office. I was there when Goldsmith became ensconced in the Mayor’s Office and began the destruction of all that Mayor Bill Hudnut had built. Goldsmith, a Republican, began the decline of the GOP locally. His administration was a microcosm of the Nixon administration and a forerunner – or a test run – of the current “deconstruction” of all government, democracy and denying the Constitution.

    Was Indianapolis, during Mayor Bill Hudnut’s administration, an oddity in the GOP nationally? I don’t know the answer to that question; I only know that I worked, and worked hard, to support that administration – I was always and Independent voter till 2000. I lived in Florida during the “recount” of 2000, the only state to “recount” that close election, the state where George W’s baby brother, Jeb, was governor. How and why did and could that happen with no one in government questioning the action and the outcome. “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Was last night’s Alabama election a fluke; or was it proof in addition to the earlier Democratic election wins a sign that “things, they are a changin'”? Fingers crossed.

  5. It seems that conservatives today feel shackled to the “GOP.” If they ditch their party, which truly they feel they must — as evidenced by the Brooks column quoted here — where do they go? How does one start a new political party that is not relegated to the fringe? Where is a good, honorable conservative to go?

  6. Ever since the days of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” the Republican party has focused more on fear of the “other” than on legitimate policy positions to win elections. The GOP went further with Reagan and his “welfare queens” and his trickle down economics, which his primary oppenent labeled correctly as “Voodoo Economics”. It should come as no surprise that these policies have given rise to 45.

    After last night, though, I am beginning to hope for a brighter future. Thank you , Alabama.

  7. You have a good point, Danny. An honorable conservative gets no money from the donors, because the donors are reactionary Libertarians. Thus, their honor goes out the window.

    Teddy Roosevelt warned us about big money and politics. The Roberts court made perhaps the worst interpretation of free speech in world history by allowing licensed inventions (corporations & unions) to have the same rights as individuals. They also made another invention, money equal to that of free speech.

    The hijacking of “old style” Republicans began with the infamous Lewis Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling for corporate/banking America to literally hijack the political process through lobbying and to hijack intellectual thinking by creating their own partisan “colleges” within universities and the terrible think tanks like the CATO Institute, ALEC and The Heritage Foundation. Those places are where the seeds of the demise of the true conservative party began. They did it to themselves and lost control.

  8. For twenty years I’ve heard Republicans lament what has happened to their party, but I’ve seen no serious work to overturn it and get the party back on track. If Senator Lugar had stood up to the right and asked Democrats to cross over and vote for him in the primary I would have, and I believe he would have won that primary easily and stayed in office. But he tried to pander to the right instead. I believe we need healthy parties, so I don’t want the party of my hero Lincoln to fall apart, I want it restored. What are all you traditional Republicans waiting for?

  9. Danny,

    Where is a good, honorable conservative to go?

    They must join a COUNTER THIRD FORCE to the Tea Party. The Tea Party is not a political party. It is a RACIST political THIRD FORCE outside the TWO PARTY SYSTEM, which has taken over the Republican Party.

    The Democratic Party is not in a position to effectively take on the Tea Party which is only a more powerful brand than the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition. The Democratic Party can’t do it alone.

    The Nazi Party in Germany was a WHITE SUPREMACY THIRD FORCE. It was also a political party in a MULTI-PARTY SYSTEM. Consequently, it did have a countervailing force that eventually LOST.

    If I’m not mistaken, 73% of WHITES in Alabama voted for a WHITE PEDOPHILE.

  10. Steve Bannon needs to be isolated and become the #1 TARGET. He is much more vulnerable than Donald Trump or Mike Pence.

    He’s a perfect example of an “emperor without any clothes.” He can’t be allowed to escape retribution.

  11. It must be hell to be in Congress these days if one has any principals. How awful to be tied hand and foot to the wealthy donors and corporate sponsors and lobbyists and have to do their bidding, no matter how unfair to the citizens who put you in office, and the majority who do most of the “working and paying and living and dying”, as George Bailey said in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The irony is that only Congress can solve this mess, and they don’t. They could, with top to bottom election and lobbying reform get the predators out of their campaigns and offices, stop spending hours daily trudging to separate offices a couple of blocks away, wasting the time that WE are paying their salaries for to call donors and plead for money to keep them in office. Every damned day. If they wrote laws to make our elections unavailable to “dark money” from the Kochs, Adlesons and Mercers of the world, and made them paid for only by government funds, we could see the end of torturous two year longs behemoth election cycles that cost billions and exhaust and demoralize the nation.
    Republicans have proven over and over that they no longer give a rats’ ass about their constituents and what is good and right for the nation. If they had anything to offer us, they wouldn’t need to cheat and gerrymander and suppress votes to get and keep in office the way they do. The sight of the Clintons walking into hotels at the time of the Democratic convention to get the checks of wealthy and corporate donors was disheartening and infuriating. I’m fearful of how much lower our Democracy will sink before both parties realize that a two party duopoly that keeps Independents out of primaries and has no interest in really governing, but in getting power is killing the nation and has to be turned around. Alabama last night was a small beacon of hope I hope that it’s not too late for us.

  12. I will not call myself a Democrat until I see evidence that Democrats “GET IT” and I am willing to bet the bank that not many responsible Republicans (certainly not the ignorant ones) will ever vote against the GOP, let alone embrace an alternative until they understand how badly they have been duped. I was there once. W’s eight years and the accompanying Republican Congress allowed me to see the light.

    I find myself thinking the word “conservative” in politics has morphed into having a meaning less to do with views and positions relating to constitutional and fiscal thought but more descriptive of a kind of nationalistic fascism.

  13. Donald Trump would not have been elected President, nor would Mike Pence be his Vice-President without the MACHINATIONS of Steve Bannon.

    mach-i-na-tion (mak’e na shan) n. [< L machinari, to plot] a plot or scheme, esp. one with EVIL INTENT: usually used in pl.

    ~Webster's New World Dictionary

  14. The comments about the Reagan tax cuts says they were a response to the problem of stagflation. But Brooks neglected to mention that they increased the deficit to the point that George H.W. Bush had to raise taxes. That either means that the tax cuts were not beneficial or that the economy cannot be controlled.

  15. Both parties make the same mistake. When they find a strategy that works to build a winning coalition, they continue to employ those same strategies and policies, without regard to their consequences, especially with respect to economic policy.

    Democrats continued to employ, into the the 1970s, same Keynesian economic policies that pulled us out of the 1929 Depression, even though the economic circumstances had changed. Today, Republicans continue to push the same supply-side (trickle down) economics they employed in the 1980s to end stagflation, even though it’s obvious to anyone paying attention, that our greatest political and economic challenge today is just the opposite, i.e., the unprecedented income and wealth inequality.

    McConnell is a master of political tactics and strategy. He knows the rules, how to use them and he knows what worked in the past. His knowledge and understanding of political and economic cycles is not so keen. Today, Democrats are learning/devising the strategies and policies that will work to build a majority coalition. When they do, they will continue to use them until they no longer work.

    Why are our political leaders the last to understand the policies and strategies are no longer working.

    Along with Sheila’s push for more civics education, I suggest we also need more and better economic education.

  16. Trump backed Luther Strange, and he went down; then backed his bird-of-a-feather friend Roy Moore, and he just went down. Don’t fear these people. They are beatable. – Rep. Keith Ellison.

    Excellent comment by Ellison, for too long the Democrats have campaigned as timid rabbits. Hopefully, this win by Doug Jones will put some backbone into the Democratic Party and return and campaign for Main Street and not Wall Street. Once Al Franken leaves the Senate, I hope Ellison is appointed to take his place in MN.

    What I found disturbing was some of the people on TV who urged Doug Jones the winner in Alabama to move to the Right. Doug Jones won because he is a Progressive and Roy Moore the loser was uniquely vulnerable.

    The Republicans are now pointing fingers. The Moore-Bannon Faction are blaming the establishment Republicans for stabbing Moore in the back. A CNN exit poll found roughly a little more than 70% of White Men voting for Roy Moore and slightly more than 60% of White Woman voting for Roy Moore.

    It would be interesting to know why White Men and Woman found Roy Moore such an attractive candidate. Why was Doug Jones the Democrat such a threat to them??? The answer I suspect is a multiple choice of wedge issues.

  17. Carol Frances Johnston; that political mess left in Indianapolis city government, which Mayor Bill Hudnut cleaned up, was left behind by Mayor Richard Lugar. To be hired by the City under him everyone had to swear to and sign a Loyalty Oath document; as for that 2% “donation”, Mayor Hudnut passed the word that our paychecks belonged to us. If we wanted to donate any amount to the Republican party, they would gladly accept it but…it was our money to choose how to use it.

  18. Another wrinkle is the Brad Parscale effect (Huckster’s media director, who working with Google, Facebook, and Twitter to target market; some credit him with the Huckster winning) where we are fed what we want to hear only. If we don’t get all the info, how can we learn to dissect and analyze info given in social media? My 22 year old granddaughter in Co., looking forward to her first Presidential election, couldn’t vote for Trump, but was bombarded by the Russian bots to the point where she couldn’t vote for H.C., so she reluctantly didn’t vote. Some estimate 126 million voters were subjected to social media bombardment, much negative fake stuff i.e. pizzagate, uraniumgate, etc. This makes it easier for folks to stay in their limited info cocoons.

  19. Though I am delighted with the outcome in Alabama, something happened yesterday that is perhaps more important in the long run than winning a seat in the Senate. I refer to crossover Republican votes, especially those of Republican women. They said no mas by their vote against the coarseness and insulting sexual and political misbehavior of such as the Trumps, Bannons and Moores. Dignity and respect trumped party, as well it should, and thus we are all winners, including Republicans who for their own reasons voted for Moore.

    We have been drawn into Trump’s narcissistic otherworld swamp to such a point that we are not only allowing Trump to question our democratic institutions (FBI, State Department etc.) but even our folkways and mores (grabbing women, lying as truth, alternative facts etc.). I think the result yesterday will never bring us back to a Norman Rockwell existence where the little girl skips gaily down the sidewalk with her Easter basket (if it ever existed), but it will at least slow our fall into social as well as political and economic oblivion. I think there is a lot of room on the spectrum between Norman Rockwell and Trump’s grabbing women braggadocio and that yesterday’s watershed event signals a return to a less coarse and insulting America and hope for the future of a robust democracy as well. I am encouraged.

  20. 68% of white voters voted for Roy Moore. Not surprising to one born and raised in the South. Race is still a major issue for whites, and the older the whitie the less likely to be reconciled with modern day race matters. Thankfully younger white voters aren’t nearly as racist as their elders. Also, churches in the South have been slow to adopt. “Love one another.”

  21. Doug Jones ran a great campaign promising Alabamians to show off the progressive half of their state while Roy Moore gave the regressive 19th century half something to cheer for.

    What will Republican fake news (which influences all of us) highlight? Not the fact of Moore’s indifference to our Constitution, not Moore’s support of Christian sharia law, but the allegations of his fondness for young teenage girls which while certainly plausible given Evanglelical culture is unproven.

    So gopnews will marginalize the effectiveness of the DNC and its platform that were really what propelled progressive Alabamians out in sufficient numbers.

    Some progressive thinking will be influenced by this GOP propaganda and further divide progressives into tribes more alike than different.

    Who will benefit from that?

  22. It’s like the cold war. GOP=authoritarian=USSR. Dems=democratic=USA. The GOP is awful because when the dictator is not benevolent, your life under him (them, the donors, the owners, the bosses) will be awful. The Dems are awful because a large group of people contains many professional victims, kooks, scam artists, lunatics, etc.

    The question of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican is whether you want to live under Negan or Rick Grimes. Dictatorship where things are predictable and secure, or democracy where things are chaotic and leadership is often lacking.

    If you pretend to be neither (regardless of what the parties are called at the moment), you are lying to yourself. You can’t live outside society in today’s world, and your leadership choices really are authoritarian or not authoritarian.

    |Grimes/Rhee 2020|

  23. Edit: pursuing is misspelled in the last sentence.

    If Alasdair MacIntyre is right about Burke, “when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is either dying or dead,” true conservatives will need to identify another ‘great thinker’ to emulate.

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