Blogs > Liberty and Power > Brooks and the "Progressive Conservative" Project

Aug 29, 2004 7:35 pm

Brooks and the "Progressive Conservative" Project

On the eve of the Republican National Convention, in today's NY Times Magazine, David Brooks gives us a lesson on"How to Reinvent the G.O.P.." In short: The Grand Old Party should simply become the Grand Much Older Party, and embrace the genuinely interventionist roots of Republicanism.

Brooks thinks President George W. Bush is well on his way to this romantic embrace; after all, the current President is the"guy who would create a huge new cabinet department for homeland security, who would not try to cut even a single government agency, who would be the first president in a generation to create a new entitlement program, the prescription drug benefit, projected to cost $534 billion over the next 10 years." Bush is the guy who"would spend federal dollars with an alacrity that Clinton never dreamed of, would create large deficits, would significantly increase the federal role in education, would increase farm subsidies, would pass campaign-finance reform and would temporarily impose tariffs on steel."

Brooks thinks this is"the death of small-government conservatism," buying into the cliche that Republicans have finally turned away from their"old anti-statist governing philosophy." But for all the small-government rhetoric of the Reagan years, the GOP has never been a"small-government" party. And deep down, Brooks knows this.

Drawing inspiration from David Frum, Brooks argues that it was"the death of socialism" that"transformed the Republican Party just as much as it has transformed the parties of the left." In their former attempts to curtail the growth of"Big Government," the GOP resurrected Jeffersonian rhetorical themes of decentralization."Conservatives and libertarians defeated socialism," Brooks asserts,"intellectually and then practically." But"[j]ust as socialism will no longer be the guiding goal for the left, reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives, as the Republican Party is only now beginning to understand."

And it is Bush who has helped the current GOP generation"to come up with a governing philosophy that applies to the times," one that rejects the"obsolete" and"simple government-is-the-problem philosophy of the older Republicans." Bush's" compassionate conservative" agenda advocated"effective and energetic government." But it is only in war that Bush has begun to solidify the"progressive conservative tradition," rooted in the neomercantilist politics of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. This is the politics that forged government-sponsored"internal improvements" (today, we'd call it"building infrastructure"), the government socialization of risk, government subsidies for business, government land grants for railroads, and national bank cartelization and centralization. Brooks thinks these policies facilitated trade by"open[ing] fields of enterprise," but, in reality, they have only eventuated in the 21st century"spending binge" and feeding frenzy of privilege-seeking that even Brooks sees as"a cancer on modern conservatism":

The money is appropriated in increments large and small -- a $180 billion corporate tax bill one week, a steady stream of pork projects all the rest. In 1994, there were 4,126 ''earmarks'' -- special spending provisions -- attached to the 13 annual appropriations bills. In 2004, there were around 14,000. Real federal spending on the Departments of Education, Commerce and Health and Human Services has roughly doubled since the Republicans took control of the House in 1994. This is a governing majority without shape, coherence or discipline.

Reinventing the GOP doesn't mean an end to this privilege-dispensing; it just means providing that dispensation with more"discipline." Yes, Brooks realizes,"any solution begins with culture." But genuinely"progressive conservatives understand that while culture matters most, government can alter culture." That's why we should applaud those"[g]overnment agencies [that] are now trying to design programs to encourage and strengthen marriage." That's why we should embrace"wage subsidies" and greater federal control of education to wrestle the system from"local monopolies," like unions. That's why we can use"the strong-government tradition" to improve market" competition." And finally, that's why we need"National service," to"encourage people ... to serve a cause larger than self-interest, fuse their own efforts with those from other regions and other walks of life and cultivate a spirit of citizenship."

And it doesn't end there. Brooks advocates the full internationalization of this"progressive conservative tradition" by embracing a comprehensive global nation-building enterprise."We need to strengthen nation-states," he writes."We are going to have to construct a multilateral nation-building apparatus so that each time a nation-building moment comes along, we don't have to patch one together ad hoc."

Somehow, Brooks thinks that this"progressive conservatism" will"rebuild the bonds among free-market conservatives, who dream of liberty; social conservatives, who dream of decency; middle-class suburbanites, who dream of opportunity; and foreign-policy hawks, who dream of security and democracy."

Keep dreaming, Mr. Brooks. The Bush administration's movement toward"progressive conservatism" or neoconservatism or theocratic fundamentalism or any other neologism we can coin has resulted in a near-irreparable conservative crack-up, which has fractured the uneasy consensus that once existed among these groups.

Nevertheless, I do believe that Brooks'"progressive conservatism" is more honest than the alleged"small-government conservatism" that dominated the GOP some 20 years ago. At least this time, the pretense of small-government ideology has been replaced by an ideology much more in keeping with the welfare-warfare statist reality that both Democrats and Republicans have sworn to preserve, protect, and defend. It's why there will be no fundamental difference whether Bush wins or Kerry wins.

It's also why I can agree with Brooks from a profoundly libertarian perspective:"It's time for one party or another to invent ... some new governing philosophy that will ... transform the partisan divide." How about one that is consistent in its understanding and application of the freedom-loving principles upon which this country was founded?

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John Arthur Shaffer - 8/30/2004


I don't disagree the means are any different, but the ends are. Brooks and the Dems both support larger government funded differently (Dems more current income taxes and Brooks borrowed money which of course someday must be repaid). While one, myself included, might detest the Dems ends (say socialized medicine at least at some level) the net benefits are probably much more broadly distributed. But the result is inevitably the equal sharing of a poorly run bureaucracy.

Brooks, using Bush's Medicare drug benefit boondoggle as an example, seems to be fine with bigger government that benefits a much narrower special interest. Bush's plan doesn't even try to use the tremendous buying power of Medicare to get any kind of reduced price for pharmaceuticals. Thus, it is really just a corporate handout, creating demand that wouldn't otherwise exist to pay a higher price (with borrowed money providing a subsidy for those with the highest drug bills). It also gives great incentive to companies with existing drug benefits to dump their retirees onto the government rolls.

Pat Lynch - 8/30/2004


It strikes me that we're seeing a remarkable divergence over issues at the mass level and an increasing shrillness among elites who can't stand not having their hands on the levers. Have you seen Mo Fiorina's latest book? He makes that very claim, so I can't take full credit for it.


I guess I would agree it's not a "traditional" Democratic agenda, but let's face it - aside from choice and the tax cuts, what is the real difference between Brooks and the Dems? In my view nada. Both know what issues will hit focus groups. Again, see my comment to Jonathan above.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2004


I had a similar reaction, actually. There was an awful lot of it that Kerry/Edwards could use, to be sure.

Of course, we have to distinguish between David Brooks' Republicanism and the views of anyone in the party that matters......

John Arthur Shaffer - 8/30/2004

I don't think it really shows they believe in a traditonal liberal Democratic agenda. What it shows is that whoever has the controls of the behemoth that is now the federal government will be unable to restrain its growth, much less cut its size and scope.

Beyond that, the Republicans now are controlled by many who would love to use government to impose their view of individual morality. So, you have corporate cronyism and paternalistic big brother telling you what to do. Isn't this fascism?

Pat Lynch - 8/30/2004

Actually I had a very different take on this list of goals at the end. It looked exactly like Clinton in 1996. The GOP is now comprised of American liberals. Frankly I'm glad they've come out of the closet.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/30/2004

I agree, Jonathan. Interestingly, Brooks does write this passage:

Not long ago, there was a clear distinction between conservatives and Republicans. Conservatives believed in principles; Republicans sold out. Conservatives admired capitalism but understood that businesspeople fundamentally did not like competition and would much rather use their lobbying power to induce government to protect them from competition, to counter unfair advantage, to offer them subsidies and to issue regulations that blocked future competitors. Over the past few years the distinction between conservative and Republican has eroded. ...

That's about the closest we get to a distinction.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/29/2004

Brooks can't distinguish between 'Republican' and 'conservative' which is telling in itself. And until he stops taking campaign rhetoric literally, he's useless as a political analyst.

And his proposed goals for a newly revitalized Republican Party are pretty funny, when you realize that there is nothing new there, and that just about every solution the Republicans have proposed or enacted towards these goals has made things worse.