Who died and made David Brooks king?

The pundit heaps scorn on the Tea Party rubes he has to share a party with, and not even for the right reasons

Published March 5, 2010 12:06PM (EST)

Every New York Times columnist has a different way of phoning it in.  Tom Friedman writes about the immigrant taxi-driver who drove him to the airport and, like, totally used Bluetooth. (I actually made this example up as a joke, then discovered that it really happened.) Maureen Dowd dashes off a mock-screenplay, in which she puts words in the mouths of public figures so she doesn't need to bother to explain what they did in real life. Nick Kristof, with Herculean effort and at no small risk to himself, travels to some impoverished corner of the earth, to illuminate the suffering of young women driven from their homes by civil war or economic collapse. (Try a little harder please, Mr. Kristof.)  And, practically every other week, David Brooks attacks some group of his fellow right-wingers as impostor know-nothings.

Today, the Times runs a Brooks column that tries to write the Tea Parties out of the True Faith. Borrowing heavily from a piece written by Michael Lind last month here in Salon, Brooks compares Glenn Beck and his followers to the 1960s counterculture. In imitating the revolutionary zeal of the flower-power New Left, along with a hippie-like distrust of "the System," the Tea Partiers have broken with true conservatism, Brooks writes. The genuine article involves trusting the establishment, and cynicism about the possibilities of mass politics. Conservatism, for Brooks, means loving "the System."

For this reason, both the New Left and the Tea Party movement are radically anticonservative. Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin -- on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization -- in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.

Brooks has always preferred the gray politics of the conservative establishment to the color of the right wing’s rabble-rousers. During the 2008 campaign, it often seemed as though he was preparing to abandon his long commitment to the GOP, based on his horror at the antics of Sarah Palin. And, to be fair, he clearly has some kind of point here.

So yes, in the Tea Parties, there is a certain strain of radical egalitarianism that offends Brooks, in his self-designated position as conscience of the precious conservative elite. But there’s also something much older in the movement, which he misses entirely. Like the New Left, Beck and his followers see a bloodsucking state up on top of society. But the 1960s radicals only pointed their hatred upward, at the state, the establishment and the wealthy. The Tea Parties share this upward-looking disgust, but they also see parasites down below them, at the bottom of society, looking for redistribution.

It's this multi-directional loathing that animates the charges that the Tea Party movement is, by its basic nature, racist. (That plus, you know, all the really obvious racism.) In their evocations of a lost, "simpler" past and a "real America," this is what the Tea Party folks are talking about: themselves in the center, and the looters, thieves and degenerates all around them. It’s pretty close to the outlook that characterized 19th-century southern populism. That movement was both an uprising against a capitalist system that the populists saw as rigged from above and also, eventually, virulently racist. Tea Party ideology also closely echoes the belief system of the revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This second iteration of the Klan was a movement of small businesspeople, skilled workers, clerks and the like, who were convinced that the government and high finance had formed a conspiracy against them with the poor, Jews, Catholic immigrants and African-Americans.

So in one sense, we should probably be applauding Brooks for his discomfort, rather than making fun. But it’s not like he cites the troubling sides of right-wing populism in his argument. He’s just worried these people are going to endanger the elitist traditions of conservatism.

Besides, who died and made him the new William F. Buckley? If Brooks got his way, Republicans would have little support outside the top tax bracket. Getting to a majority has always involved adulterating the pure dogma with a major dollop of scary populism. It’s the major irony of the right wing. Defending the free market and the institutions that go along with it is what Brooks cares about. But to do it, he’s got to enlist an army of people he has almost nothing in common with. And honestly, if some Tea Party veteran called this guy a snob, would you disagree?

Conservatism as a doctrine is descended from a defense of aristocracy. That’s the origin of what Brooks identifies as a belief in "social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities." In a fallen world, where life is nasty, brutish and short, it’s best to have a king. But Brooks ought to go try telling that to the peasants at the gate. See how they like it.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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David Brooks Media Criticism Republican Party Tea Parties The New York Times War Room