David Brooks is one of those pundits who just drives me bonkers. Half the time, he comes across as self-satisfied pedagogue. Other times, he can be uncommonly perceptive. You never know what you’ll get.
Brooks begins by quoting (approvingly) a conservative writer who faults “progressive elites” for their presumed inability to understand the battle over social issues in American life as “anything other than a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other.” He takes several subsequent paragraphs to lecture readers on the legitimacy of Republican cultural views–a lecture that would have been defensible “back in the day,” when most Republicans were conservatives rather than White Supremicist QAnon believers.
Brooks’ introductory paragraphs are barf-inducing:
Many progressives have developed an inability to see how good and wise people could be on the other side, a lazy tendency to assume that anybody who’s not a social progressive must be a racist or a misogynist.
This framing carefully avoids defining either the “other side,” or the enormous amount of credible research confirming the transformation of what used to be a normal political party into something very different–and very dark. Pretending that transformation didn’t occur–ignoring the fact that “good and wise” people are leaving the GOP in droves, appalled by what it has become, is simply dishonest.
It’s one thing to criticize strategy–to point out, as Brooks does, that much of progressive elite discourse comes across as preachy as Brooks himself, and can be distinctly unhelpful politically–is fair enough. Insisting that fair-minded, moral people must respect what the GOP has become, however, is to bury one’s head very far down in the alternative-reality sand.
In the second half of his essay, however, Brooks does a very good job of summarizing the rival moral traditions that undergird our culture wars, and summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Here is how he describes the “moral freedom” ethos:
It is wrong to try to impose your morality or your religious faith on others. Society goes wrong when it prevents gay people from marrying who they want, when it restricts the choices women can make, when it demeans transgender people by restricting where they can go to the bathroom and what sports they can play after school.
This moral freedom ethos has made modern life better in a variety of ways. There are now fewer restrictions that repress and discriminate against people from marginalized groups. Women have more social freedom to craft their own lives and to be respected for the choices they make. People in the L.G.B.T.Q. communities have greater opportunities to lead open and flourishing lives. There’s less conformity. There’s more tolerance for different lifestyles. There’s less repression and more openness about sex. People have more freedom to discover and express their true selves.
However, there are weaknesses. The moral freedom ethos puts tremendous emphasis on individual conscience and freedom of choice. Can a society thrive if there is no shared moral order?
He then describes the countervailing position.
People who subscribe to this worldview believe that individuals are embedded in a larger and pre-existing moral order in which there is objective moral truth, independent of the knower….
In this ethos, ultimate authority is outside the self. For many people who share this worldview, the ultimate source of authority is God’s truth, as revealed in Scripture. For others, the ultimate moral authority is the community and its traditions.
We’re in a different moral world here, with emphasis on obedience, dependence, deference and supplication. This moral tradition has a loftier vision of perfect good, but it takes a dimmer view of human nature: Left to their own devices, people will tend to be selfish and shortsighted. They will rebel against the established order and seek autonomy.
Brooks recognizes the weaknesses of this tradition: it often leads to “rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify systems of oppression” and facilitates “othering — people not in our moral order are inferior and can be conquered and oppressed.”
He also recognizes that the United States has opted for autonomy–legally and culturally.
This is the ultimate crisis on the right. Many conservatives say there is an objective moral order that demands obedience, but they’ve been formed by America’s prevailing autonomy culture, just like everybody else. In practice, they don’t actually want to surrender obediently to a force outside themselves; they want to make up their own minds. The autonomous self has triumphed across the political spectrum, on the left where it makes sense, and also on the right, where it doesn’t.
Nor is he entirely blind to the threat posed by Rightwing Christianist politics:
Consumed by the passion of the culture wars, many traditionalists and conservative Christians have adopted a hypermasculine warrior ethos diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount moral order they claim as their guide. Unable to get people to embrace their moral order through suasion, they now seek to impose their moral order through politics. A movement that claims to make God their god now makes politics god. What was once a faith is now mostly a tribe…
So is there room in the Democratic Party for people who don’t subscribe to the progressive moral tradition but are appalled by what conservatism has become?
I’d rephrase that last question: will American politics ever return to the era of the “big tents,” when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans overlapped? The answer to that hinges on another, more critical inquiry: will today’s GOP either (1) return to sanity or (2) implode and be replaced by a sane political party?
Because we can’t consider and/or debate Brooks’ philosophical arguments while the barbarians are at the gate..