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David Brooks, still wrong, still spinning: Line by line, the real history his New York Times column pretends away about the right-wing

Brooks is fed up with the right: They're not like golden-day conservatives! Actually, he's cherry-picking his facts

Corey Robin
October 14, 2015 7:03PM (UTC)

David Brooks is fed up with the GOP. Today’s conservative, he says, is not yesterday’s conservative. What happened?

Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.


I've been trying to combat this argument from amnesia for yearsAs he has done before, Paul Krugman valiantly takes up my critique today in his response to Brooks: “Actually existing conservatism is a radical doctrine.” Even so, the notion that contemporary conservatives have betrayed the real conservatives of days gone by keeps popping back up.

So let’s take Brooks apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in about 30 years ago “or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene.” That was in 1988, just after Reagan. So that’ll be my cut-off point. Let’s see how today’s wine compares with those loamy vintages of more than a quarter-century ago.

The bolded passages are from Brooks’ column.


By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility,

“The conservative principle has been defended, the past hundred and fifty years, by men of learning and genius.” (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic....Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1)


“Conservatism is in general the intuition of genius, whereas liberalism is the efficiency of talent.” (Elmer More, "Disraeli and Conservatism")

 a belief in steady, incremental change,

"Every little measure is a great errour.” (Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)


“The American people now want us to act and not in half-measures. They demand and they’ve earned a full and comprehensive effort.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)

 a preference for reform rather than revolution,

"Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism. But this is not a satisfactory alternative. The nineteenth-century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions. So too must be his modern heir.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom)


“It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.” (Burke, Speech on Fox's East India Bill)

a respect for hierarchy,

No argument from me.



"Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The conservative peasant, as much as anybody else, owes his way of life to a different type of person, to men who were innovators in their time and who by their innovations forced a new manner of living on people belonging to an earlier state of culture.” (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty)

“That [Democratic] measure reflects an echo of the past rather than a benchmark for the future....More of the same will not cure the hardship, anxiety, and discouragement it has imposed on the American people.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)


“Change is our Ally: A Tory Approach to Industrial Problems.” (Title of 1954 Conservative Party pamphlet)

balance and order,

“The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“Human blood must flow without interruption, somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite....the effusion of human blood has never ceased in the world. Sometimes blood flows less abundantly over some larger area, sometimes it flows more abundantly in a more restricted area, but the flow remains nearly constant.” (Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France)


and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible....

“Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“I enjoy wars. Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” (Harold Macmillan)

 Conservatives of this disposition...also see the nation as one organic whole.


"We’ve got to destroy the confidence of the people in the American establishment.” (Richard Nixon)

“If we tear the country in half, we can pick up the bigger half.” (Pat Buchanan to Richard Nixon)

"Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands and now we have to fight the enemy within, which is much more difficult.” (Margaret Thatcher on the miners strike)

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.” (William F. Buckley to Gore Vidal)

The...rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced.

“There is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another. Above all these numerous animal species is placed man, whose destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to nourish himself, he kills to clothe himself, he kills to adorn himself, he kills to attack, he kills to defend himself, he kills to instruct himself, he kills to amuse himself, he kills to kill….His tables are covered with corpses.” (Joseph de Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues)

“The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this Nation out, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give. This is glaringly true in the State Department.” (Joseph McCarthy, Lincoln Day Address)

Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality.

“Among our convictions:…The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.” (National Review, “Our Mission Statement”)

“In this time of moral and political crisis...” (Young American For Freedom, The Sharon Statement)

“In times of crisis, conservatism does its best.” (Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism)

Civilization was always on the brink of collapse.

“We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars...If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.” (Ronald Reagan, Speech for Barry Goldwater, 1964)

This produced a radical mind-set.

“Here the beaten path is the very reverse of the safe road.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The bold line is the safer one.” (Disraeli to Derby)

“...espouse conservatism with the vehemence of a radical. The thinking conservative, in truth, must take on some of the outward characteristics of the radical, today; he must poke about the roots of society, in the hope of restoring vigor to an old tree strangled in the rank undergrowth of modern passions." (Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives)

“The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals. The evidence is overwhelming.” (William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale)

 Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic….Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,”

“They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that.” (Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address)

 ...this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption.

“Whoever won a battle under the banner ‘I stand for Consensus?’” (Margaret Thatcher)

You might be wrong!


Nancy Pelosi Has No Time for the 2016 GOP Shenanigans

Corey Robin

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, he is currently writing a book about Clarence Thomas.

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