David Brooks is the prodigal son of the Democratic Party. As a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, he identified himself as a democratic socialist. But after graduating, he was caught in the spirit of Reaganism and began an internship with William F. Buckley Jr. Now, after more than three decades as a formidable Republican attorney, Brooks is poised to return to the Democrats.
In an article in the January / February issue of The Atlantic Originally titled “I Remember Conservatism,” Brooks admits that the Republican Party is likely to continue to be fascinated by a version of Trumpism, a humiliated and harassing populism that threatens American democracy.
“A lot of my friends are trying to take back the GOP and turn it back into a conservative party,” notes Brooks. “I cheer you on. America needs two leaders. But I’m skeptical that the GOP will soon have the kind of conservatism I admire. ”After failing the Republicans, Brooks decided to“ instead position himself on the right edge of the left bias – on the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party ”.
The Gospel of Luke teaches that the prodigal son should be received with joy. Charity demands that the repentant sinner be given a second chance. But before we kill the fattened calf, it is worth asking whether the stubborn waste has really improved. Has he actually learned anything in his debauchery?
While Brooks has abandoned the Republican Party, he remains loyal to conservatism, an intellectual tradition that he continues to see in literally romantic terms. “When I was 20, I fell in love with conservatism,” enthuses Brooks. “As a Chicago political and crime reporter, I often found myself near public housing projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, built with the best of intentions but turned into nightmares. The city planners who designed these projects thought they could make life better by replacing dilapidated old neighborhoods with a series of neatly ordered skyscrapers. ”
In this account of his conversion to conservatism, we see how little Brooks has changed. In response to Brooks’ essay, historian Rick Perlstein tweeted:
There’s a high-end lakefront apartment with exactly the same design as a CHA skyscraper. Have YOU “disregarded the residents by turning them into invisible, passive spectators of their own lives”? How is it that lakefront condominiums in this style didn’t become “national symbols of urban decay”? Projects fell into disrepair because they lacked government funding the moment they became filing cabinets for blacks while suburbs were subsidized by taxes for whites, and fell exponentially worse as Conservatives in the Reagan White House and Congress celebrated Generation David Brooks As if Solons from some philosophical Olympus LOWER THE FEDERAL BUDGET BY 75%.
Most of Brooks’ essay is devoted to a selective and canned account of some of the great conservative thinkers who fascinated his young mind and taught him the value of prudence and the organic development of society. His names include Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. There are also a few weird intellectuals: Willmoore Kendall, Peter Viereck and James Q. Wilson, as well as Buckley himself.
This story, strangely enough, is devoid of complexity and particularity: Hamilton and Jefferson were enemies – and they certainly influenced liberals as well as conservatives. Both were revolutionaries, just like Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt was also a reformer.
We get Burke the sublime exalter of “little trains” – but not the Burke, who absurdly raved about Marie Antoinette and the Age of Chivalry, the Burke who ridiculed the “swine crowd”, or the Burke who waged an all-out war against France demanded. Willmoore Kendall is named namelessly without mentioning his support for Joseph McCarthy, his advocacy of a preventive war against the Soviet Union, or his promotion of biological racism. James Q. Wilson’s thoughts on morality are cited without considering his key role as a promoter of mass incarceration.
On conservatism and race, Brooks writes: “Being conservative on racial matters is a moral crime. American Conservatives never bothered. My beloved mentor, William F. Buckley Jr., screwed his ass in his 1965 Cambridge debate against James Baldwin. At the time I was working at National review“20 years later, no explicit racism was evident in the office, but racial issues were generally overlooked and the GOP’s flirtation with racist dog whistles was casually tolerated.”
This is a whitewash of a far worse and more momentous story. The Buckley-Baldwin debate is the least. National review celebrated Jim Crow in the USA and apartheid in South Africa and promoted the “Southern Strategy”, which racially polarized American parties and paved the way for Trump. When Brooks was an intern in 1985, National review still employed the managing editor Joseph Sobran, whose overt anti-Semitism and racism were notorious. It took Buckley many years to reprimand Sobran, who was eventually fired only for criticizing his employer.
As spy Magazine reported in 1989:
Editors-in-chief Sobran and Jeffrey Hart exchanged jokes about crematoria and gas chambers. Racial relationships are also a popular topic. In November 1986, NR published a cover story entitled “Blacks and the GOP: Just Called to Say I Love You,” which outlined possible strategies the GOP could use to attract black voters. Leading the traditional post-edition recap, Buckley quipped, “Maybe it should have been called ‘Just to say I love you, niggah’.” During another editorial session, Jeffrey Hart reflected wistfully that “under a real one Government Bishop Tutu would be a bar of soap. “
Sam Tanenhaus, Buckley’s biographer, reports that the National review The editor-in-chief decided that Brooks cannot succeed him because he is Jewish. This seems to have taken Brooks by surprise and even provoked some hurtful feelings.
The history of conservatism is much uglier than Brooks himself now admits. Leaving the GOP is not enough. Before we celebrate a feast for this prodigal son, he must honestly reckon with his life, in which he romps about a dissolute ideology.