That’s the headline over a joint January 11, 2023 lamentation in The New York Times, where David Brooks and Bret Stephens realize that yes, their beloved conservatism has morphed into the Leopards Eating Peoples Faces Party, and they are all a dither about how this happened and what do they do now? That, and they’re now on the outside looking in. If anyone in the party now gives a fig for their views, it’s news to them.
(The link in the headline should allow passage through the Times paywall.)
Or as the Gray Lady framed it:
For decades, conservative values have been central to Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s political beliefs, and the Republican Party was the vehicle to extend those beliefs into policy. But in recent years, both the party and a radicalized conservative movement have left them feeling alienated in various ways. Now, with an extremist fringe seemingly in control of the House, the G.O.P. bears little resemblance to the party that was once their home. Bret and David got together to suss out what happened and where the party can go.
[Interjection: “an extremist fringe seemingly in control of the House”?
WTF NY Times!]
Here’s how Bret and David start:
Bret Stephens: Lately I’ve been thinking about that classic Will Rogers line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” A century or so later, it looks like the shoe is on the other foot. Is it even possible to call the Republican Party a “party” anymore?
David Brooks: My thinking about the G.O.P. goes back to a brunch I had with Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza in the ’80s that helps me see, in retrospect, that people in my circle were pro-conservative, while Ingraham and D’Souza and people in their circle were anti-left. We wanted to champion Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and a Reaganite foreign policy. They wanted to rock the establishment. That turned out to be a consequential difference because almost all the people in my circle back then — like David Frum and Robert Kagan — ended up, decades later, NeverTrumpers, and almost all the people in their circle became Trumpers or went bonkers.
Bret: Right, they weren’t conservatives. They were just illiberal.
Digby has something to say about that. Conservatives believe:
"Conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed."
Their conviction is that conservatism is based on eternal truths that people disregard at their peril. They believe conservatism is the only set of beliefs and policies that work — except when they inevitably don’t and the escape clause kicks in.
To wit: conservatism is failed when people do not do conservatism hard enough (“This time it will work!”), Or it isn’t ‘real’ conservatism, OR the people responsible turn out to not be ‘real’ conservatives — or all of the above. “illiberal” is just the latest buzzword used here to dismiss those who are no longer ‘conservatives’ in the eyes of Stephens and Brooks.
[UPDATE: An additional insight. The conviction that conservatism cannot fail leads right into one of the mechanisms that drive authoritarian movements. When things do go wrong it’s too easy to believe it must be because of the ‘other’ — external enemies who are not true believers, who become scapegoats. Authoritarian leaders use this to persuade their followers that anything that goes wrong is not their fault. Sara Robinson describes it here. What she describes is how the GOP has become a right wing authoritarian cult.]
Ye Goode Olde Days of Conservatism...
Brooks seems to have a hankering to return to the conservatism of the 1980’s and ‘traditional’ conservative values. He drops some names.
Edmund Burke? Really? “a proponent of underpinning virtues with manners in society and of the importance of religious institutions for the moral stability and good of the state.” This from the party of Newt Gingrich, with his language a key mechanism of control, and a serial philanderer. Need I cite more examples?
Adam Smith? “Seen by some as "The Father of Economics" or "The Father of Capitalism". Two words: Voodoo economics AKA Reaganomics.
Reaganite foreign policy? Which one? Arms for hostages? Iran-Contra? The invasion of Grenada? The Marine Barracks in Lebanon? Star Wars?
Brooks criticizes Ingraham and D’Souza for wanting nothing more than to “rock the establishment.” He makes no connection with the sentiments in this address:
...In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem….
...It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government…
...It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government…
...We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inaugural Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer...
If you want to know when Republicans began the war on government, when they started pushing the notion that America is a Christian nation, you can see Reagan lighting the fuse back then. (Not to mention his appeal to racism.) And let’s not forget what began the GOP war on working people, leading to the current anti-labor Supreme Court.
Stephens is a 90’s kid — here’s his take on where things went wrong:
I have multiple theories, but let me start with one: The mid-1990s was also the time that Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House and Fox News got started. Back then, those who were on the more intelligent end of the conservative spectrum thought a magazine such as The Weekly Standard, a channel such as Fox and a guy like Gingrich would be complementary: The Standard would provide innovative ideas for Republican leaders like Gingrich, and Fox would popularize those ideas for right-of-center voters. It didn’t work out as planned. The supposed popularizers turned into angry populists. And the populists turned on the intellectuals.
Is it a surprise that Stephens, a professional ‘smart guy’, feels put out?
Rrrrrright. Gingrich and Fox were legitimate actors who would serve to spread carefully developed innovative ideas, make them popular, and bring in voters with these ideas. Suuuurrrre they would…. Funny how there’s no mention of Rush Limbaugh. He was probably too crude for their beautiful minds — and more popular than they are.
Charles P. Pierce can write rings around both Stephens and Brooks. He was looking at the GOP Congress in 2010 — and it was not pretty. While the original link to his classic article at Esquire on Reagan and the monkey brains appears lost to wherever it landed, Dangerous Minds has it available:
...We have elected the people sitting on hold, waiting for their moment on an evening drive-time radio talk show.
We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.
Mind you, this was in 2010 — the names have changed but things have not improved. In 2021 their followers showed up with guns and imaginary grievances because their God-King had been cheated of his victory.
We have elected a national legislature in which Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann have more power than does the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who has been made a piteous spectacle in the eyes of the country and doesn’t seem to mind that at all. We have elected a national legislature in which the true power resides in a cabal of vandals, a nihilistic brigade that believes that its opposition to a bill directing millions of new customers to the nation’s insurance companies is the equivalent of standing up to the Nazis in 1938, to the bravery of the passengers on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and to Mel Gibson’s account of the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 13th Century. We have elected a national legislature that looks into the mirror and sees itself already cast in marble.
We did this. We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons.
Deja vu all over again with the current Angry Children’s Brigade in the House, again with another neutered Speaker...
This is what they came to Washington to do—to break the government of the United States. It doesn’t matter any more whether they’re doing it out of pure crackpot ideology, or at the behest of the various sugar daddies that back their campaigns, or at the instigation of their party’s mouthbreathing base. It may be any one of those reasons. It may be all of them. The government of the United States, in the first three words of its founding charter, belongs to all of us, and these people have broken it deliberately. The true hell of it, though, is that you could see this coming down through the years, all the way from Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address in which government “was” the problem, through Bill Clinton’s ameliorative nonsense about the era of big government being “over,” through the attempts to make a charlatan like Newt Gingrich into a scholar and an ambitious hack like Paul Ryan into a budget genius, and through all the endless attempts to find “common ground” and a “Third Way.” Ultimately, as we all wrapped ourselves in good intentions, a prion disease was eating away at the country’s higher functions. One of the ways you can acquire a prion disease is to eat right out of its skull the brains of an infected monkey. We are now seeing the country reeling and jabbering from the effects of the prion disease, but it was during the time of Reagan that the country ate the monkey brains.
Read The Whole Thing by Pierce.
A reminder of what had them up in arms: in 2008 America put a Black Man in the White House! The horror!
Only now are Stephens and Brooks trying to come to a reckoning? It’s been this bad for a long time on the ‘conservative’ side.
The rest of the piece gets weird; Brooks confesses he voted for Obama. Stephens confesses he voted for Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. It might have been interesting if they’d made more of that publicly at the time. Perhaps they looked at what happened to Mann and Ornstein, who documented that extremism coming from the Republican Party had put constitutional government in peril and found themselves unpeople who disappeared from the talking head tv show circuit and speaking engagements.
It’s telling in another way, that neither of them address the G.W. Bush years in any detail — the closest is a bare mention of the Iraq war. Nothing about the failures of 911, the pivot from the war in Afghanistan to invade Iraq on the basis of lies and the dreams of the NeoCons with their Project for The New American Century. Nothing about the huge deficits that racked up. Nothing about the Great Recession. Should we assume they were okay with that, water under the bridge, what?
Oh well — I guess G.W. Bush wasn’t really a conservative, so not their problem.
A bit of biographical musing is revealing:
David: Our trajectories with the G.O.P. are fairly similar, and so are our lives. I’m older than you, but our lives have a number of parallels. We both grew up in secular Jewish families, went to the University of Chicago, worked at The Wall Street Journal, served in Brussels for The Journal, and wound up at The Times.
I wonder how happy Brooks or Stephens is about the embrace of white nationalism on the right, the rising anti-semitism?
Bret: We also probably had many of the same professors at Chicago — wonderful teachers like Nathan Tarcov, Ralph Lerner, François Furet, and Leon and Amy Kass — who taught me that Lesson No. 1 was to not succumb to the idea that justice is the advantage of the stronger, and to always keep an open mind to a powerful counterargument. That’s not a mind-set I see with the current Republican leaders.
Well, that explains the diversity of viewpoints at the Times. It’s also not really a wonder to anyone that a right wing authoritarian cult like the GOP seems to favor strength over justice — except to Stephens.
Stephens says he didn’t really have a problem with the party until 2012; Brooks the early 2000’s. Where it goes from here, neither of them seem to have a clue although they offer up some scenarios.
You may not want to be drinking anything when you read what they think should be the way forward:
David: If the Republican Party is to thrive, intellectually and politically, it will have to become a multiracial working-class party...
Bret: ...The natural place for the G.O.P. is as the party of economic freedom, social aspiration and moral responsibility — a party of risers, if not always of winners…
And here they disagree — or do they?
David: ...I think the core driver of politics across the Western democracies is this: In society after society, highly educated professionals have formed a Brahmin class. The top of the ladder go to competitive colleges, marry each other, send their kids to elite schools and live in the same neighborhoods. This class dominates the media, the academy, Hollywood, tech and the corporate sector.
Many people on the middle and bottom have risen up to say, we don’t want to be ruled by those guys. To hell with their economic, cultural and political power. We’ll vote for anybody who can smash their machine. The Republican Party is the party of this protest movement.
Bret: Another way of thinking about the class/partisan divide you are describing is between people whose business is the production and distribution of words — academics, journalists, civil servants, lawyers, intellectuals — and people whose business is the production and distribution of things — manufacturers, drivers, contractors, distributors, and so on. The first group makes the rules for the administrative state. The latter lives under the weight of those rules, and will continue to be the base of the G.O.P.
Um guys? You might want to look in a mirror and notice which class best describes the two of you. You might also notice who you are saying the Republican Party is supposed to be resisting even as you decry the current vandalism in D.C. and elsewhere. Is this cognitive dissonance at work, or just a particular case of Dunning-Kruger syndrome meets the Peter Principle?
And if you’re really wondering why things are going badly, maybe the fact that you can spout things like:
“To hell with their economic, cultural and political power. We’ll vote for anybody who can smash their machine. The Republican Party is the party of this protest movement.”
“The first group makes the rules for the administrative state. The latter lives under the weight of those rules, and will continue to be the base of the G.O.P.”
with a total lack of self-awareness shows that you are not immune to self-serving grievance politics. (Stephens’s use of “administrative state” as a pejorative is a tell for his libertarian bias.)
So where do they think things went wrong?
David: ...I wish we had pivoted our conservatism even faster away from (sorry) Wall Street Journal editorial page ideas and come up with conservative approaches to inequality, to deindustrialization, to racial disparities, etc. I wish, in other words, that our mentalities had shifted faster.
There are conservative approaches to those problems that actually solve them? Mirabile dictu!
But in truth, I don’t believe it would have made any difference. Authoritarian populism is a global phenomenon. The Republicans were destined to turn more populist. The big question is, do they continue on the path to authoritarianism?
Bret: ...I don’t think the ideas were the core problem, even if not every one of them stands the test of time. The problem was that, when the illiberal barbarians were at the conservative gates, the gatekeepers had a catastrophic loss of nerve. Whether it’s too late to regain that nerve is, to me, the ultimate question.
I am reminded of a quote attributed to Talleyrand: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” At the least they seem to have some awareness that something went wrong somewhere.
Frankly, Kevin Drum did a far better takedown of the Republican Party back in 2018, and had a far more coherent vision of what an actual conservative party should be like.
(Don’t ask about Ross Douthat, who seems to be obsessed with ‘decadence’ and the subconscious conviction that things would be better if he was the Pope as he contemplates Dominionist fantasies of the Opus Dei variety.)
But meanwhile, they will continue to share their ‘wisdom’ with us in the Paper of Record while the party whose supposed ideals they’ve spent their careers championing runs wild.
Nice work if you can get it.
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
John Kenneth Galbraith
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
― Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
Update: Hat Tip to Gharlane for finding quite a bit more from Galbraith on this.
….A fuller version of the quote (which is more of an elliptical quote or a paraphrase), from WIST:
The modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. It is an exercise which always involves a certain number of internal contradictions and even a few absurdities. The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building value of privation for the poor. The man who has struck it rich in minerals, oil, or other bounties of nature is found explaining the debilitating effect of unearned income from the state. The corporate executive who is a superlative success as an organization man weighs in on the evils of bureaucracy. Federal aid to education is feared by those who live in suburbs that could easily forgo this danger, and by people whose children are in public schools. Socialized medicine is condemned by men emerging from Walter Reed Hospital. Social Security is viewed with alarm by those who have the comfortable cushion of an inherited income. Those who are immediately threatened by public efforts to meet their needs — whether widows, small farmers, hospitalized veterans, or the unemployed — are almost always oblivious to the danger.
That last bit of snark — the last sentence — is priceless.