To anyone interested in the history — and future — of intellectual conservatism, this morning's David Brooks is a must-read. In looking backward, he mostly navigates the right themes, I think. In briefly looking forward, however, he shipwrecks on the shallow rocks of unfounded optimism. On this latter point, perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps Brooks sees a real, safe, nearby intellectual harbor that escapes my somewhat cynical view. More on that, momentarily.
As for contemporary conservatism already wrecked? Brooks surveys three causes. "First, talk radio, cable TV and the internet have turned conservative opinion into a mass-market enterprise…. It’s ironic that an intellectual tendency that champions free markets was ruined by the forces of commercialism, but that is the essential truth. Conservatism went down-market in search of revenue. It got swallowed by its own anti-intellectual media-politico complex — from Beck to Palin to Trump."
I would add, maybe unnecessarily, that conservatism also went down-market in search of votes. The New Right of the 1970s was old Godlwaterism and coming Reaganism married to Christian evangelicalism, which by nature and definition embraces the absolutism of no compromise, ever. Absent religion and politics, debate and argumentation are dull things. But religion in politics — that is, the politics of governing — is an anti-republican pathogen that eats at the core of American pluralism. This, the historically grounded founders knew, and so went out their way to build constitutional walls between them — to which the New Right promptly took a sledgehammer. And, as a major conservative constituency, it's still hammering.
"Second," writes Brooks, the "very essence of conservatism is the belief that politics is a limited activity, and that the most important realms are pre-political: conscience, faith, culture, family and community. But recently conservatism has become more the talking arm of the Republican Party." What Brooks is getting at here is, of course, conservatism's past, almost metronomic rejection of Burkeanism: a fundamentally pragmatic faith in social institutions, tradition, and continuity. No longer is such faith "the very essence of conservatism"; it hasn't been since the rise of ideological libertarianism, which is the very essence of social atomism — and thus wholly incompatible with Burkeanism. As they were chasing votes for the self-serving sake of political power, conservative intellectuals silently watched the latter slip away as the third of Brooks' noted causations took hold. To wit …
"Blinkered by the Republican Party’s rigid anti-government rhetoric, conservatives were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time. For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void." It should be further and rather hastily noted that Trump's demagogy is scarcely an innovation in Republican politics, which, through degraded Christianity and what's-yours-is-yours-only ideology, has been populistically bamboozling middle- and working-class white Americans for decades.
So there you have it, a rather tidy survey of modern conservatism's inevitable wreckage. Its pile-up has been a long time coming, and though I criticize conservative intellectuals for their lack of rocks-ahoy! vigilance throughout, I'm not sure that such active vigilance would have averted much. Once conservative-"fusion" theorists of the 1950s and 1960s decided on the unstable, shotgun marriage of evangelicals and libertarians for the sake of an artificially expanded base and consequent political power, inexorable damage was done. Republican politicians swamped intellectual conservatism with their endless greed for more power, which, in time, became conservatism's only reason for being.
What is Brooks' "optimistic" answer to all this? "Most young conservatives are comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex. Conservatism’s best ideas are coming from youngish reformicons who have crafted an ambitious governing agenda (completely ignored by Trump). A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth." Brooks' answer, in short, is more intellectualism.
But with that there is a problem, and it is a big one. As observed (by me, if not by Brooks), Trump's demagogy is scarcely new; in fact, by now it defines Republicanism, whose hardcore rabble follows only the right's media-politico complex. In postwar conservatism's adriftness, Republican pols could take cues from conservative intellectuals, as the former sought means to the end of an expanded base. And now they're stuck with that base. The only means by which they can retain what power they have is by pandering to the demagogically inclined — which, of course, sidelines any thoughtful conservatism. Brooks' intellectualism is marooned on an isolated isle of navel-gazing. And I just can't see it floating its way, anytime soon, into modern Republicanism — which, desperately, is all about nothing but power.