The end of classical conservatism (and why that’s bad for progressives)

davidbrooksRecently, I heard an interview with David Brooks on NPR, in which he promoted his new book The Road to Character. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to its quality. But I am frequently impressed with Brooks, and saddened, because I believe he is somewhat of a dying breed: That of the classical conservative.

In a period of unhappiness, Brooks wrote The Road to Character, an attempt to find happiness in a job that pays him “be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am”. To remedy this, Brooks looked back at some of his heroes from history: Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Eisenhower. He discovered how their failures and successes could help him to become a happier and more just person.

Brooks’ approach is characteristic of old-fashioned conservatism, the theory that was birthed by Edmund Burke, in contrast to the French Revolution’s bloody excesses. Burke articulated a theory of freedom that Brooks’ describes as “a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

This kind of conservatism was hesitant or even opposed to issues of social justice like slavery, unionism, and women’s rights. But frequently these conservatives served as a loyal opposition, people with whom the Left could do business and compromise. It was a prime example of a classical conservative, Gerald Ford, who intoned that “Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Let’s compare this to the rest of the current American Right: The Tea Party, Ted Cruz, Glenn Beck, John Boehner. Could you imagine any of them writing a book about self-discovery that wasn’t mired in self-worship and regurgitation of American exceptionalism? Or one that expressed even a smidgeon of self-doubt? Or one that idolizes Bayard Rustin (a black, gay socialist), Dorothy Day (a women’s rights activist), or even Dwight Eisenhower, who has been overshadowed by Saint Ronald?

I am afraid that David Brooks-style classical conservatism is dying in this country. It seems to have been replaced with two horrific ideologies: Ultra-nationalism (Bush II, Reagan, John Boehner) that preaches an imperialistic and hateful form of patriotism, and faux-libertarianism (Ron and Rand Paul, Reagan again) that considers freedom giving corporate America a free pass and a blank check. Neither bodes well for any sort of progressive future.

We may argue fiercely with classical conservatives like David Brooks, but these arguments have more the feel of a family quarrel than a fight to the death. Observe Brooks’ and Gail Collins’ lively and pretty funny debate series, “The Conversation,” in the New York Times. It’s how people who disagree should talk things out: In a friendly and open-minded manner. We can’t expect such a manner from the new Right. Instead, we will only get more gridlock and an outside chance of violence.

Classical conservatism may be dying, and that is bad news for the Left.