“The only thing Brooks’s ‘true conservatism’ is ‘responsible’ for, however, is progressivism’s thoroughgoing dominance of our culture. For Brooks, a ‘responsible’ conservatism must concede the moral legitimacy of every progressive ‘advance.'”
n two recent essays for The Atlantic, establishment conservative David Brooks takes aim at the new right, the pro-Trump faction of conservatism threatening to take over the GOP. In the first, he describes his experience at the second National Conservatism conference, the gathering of new-right intellectuals this past November in Orlando, Florida (that I too attended). New righters, he correctly reports, share a vision of “a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought.” Brooks thinks this anxiety is entirely unjustified and that we are in for a “terrifying future” if it takes hold. What is scary to Brooks is the new right’s fear itself, for it leads it to treat the left as a hostile enemy, a stance Brooks deems irresponsible.
His second piece is a “reclamation project” for “true conservatism,” a Burkean “social vision…about soulcraft, about how we build institutions that produce good citizens—people who are moderate in their zeal, sympathetic to the marginalized, reliable in their diligence, and willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.” The new right, he argues, is “the opposite” of true conservatism. “Today, what passes for the worldview of ‘the right’ is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism.” He aims to banish the new right from respectable politics. He continues: “A lot of my [establishment republican] friends are trying to reclaim the GOP and make it a conservative party once again. I cheer them on. America needs two responsible parties.”
The only thing Brooks’s “true conservatism” is “responsible” for, however, is progressivism’s thoroughgoing dominance of our culture. For Brooks, a “responsible” conservatism must concede the moral legitimacy of every progressive “advance.” It must submit entirely to progressive ideology. Like David French before him, Brooks employs pleasant rhetoric for his establishment view and catastrophizing rhetoric for his new-right opponent, but once we peel away to the content, we find the same controlled opposition that makes Brooks, like French, a useful idiot for progressivism.
The View From The New Right
New right conservatives see the public political discourse emerging from the commanding heights of “the corporate, media, political and academic elite” as far from neutral between conservative and liberal/progressive/woke viewpoints. They see a clear trend, whereby cultural and economic issues that are brought into public dispute invariably get resolved (insofar as these institutions have the power to resolve them) in the progressives’ favor. Hence their concern with, as Brooks puts it, “how the left has learned to dominate culture.”
The public discourse on race is the archetype through which the pattern of conservative handicap and perpetual progressive victory is most easily discerned. To see this pattern, consider what distinguishes an old “classical liberal” like Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist who has joined the new right, from a classical liberal like Brooks who is terrified by it. Brooks quotes Loury stating what differentiates them: “What has happened to public discourse about race has radicalized me.” Loury sees the Left’s ethical discourse on race as an artifice deployed to justify consolidating political power. Brooks dismiss the idea because he has bought into that discourse.
The main goal of the old “classical liberal” or “libertarian” right was to reverse, or at least arrest, the growth of the state. The new right has abandoned this goal, recognizing the old right’s abject failure to achieve it. It is important to understand why it failed; otherwise, we will continue to fail in our current goals. It failed for two reasons. First, because over our history we have abandoned the classical understanding of rights as negative rights, which were guarantees against government interference for a commitment to positive rights that justify government interference. As the philosopher Nick Land summarizes, progressives cast these rights as:
“a positive right to be tolerated, defined ever more expansively as substantial entitlement, encompassing public affirmations of dignity, state-enforced guarantees of equal treatment by all agents (public and private), government protections against non-physical slights and humiliations, economic subsidies, and—ultimately—statistically proportional representation within all fields of employment, achievement, and recognition.”
Classical liberals and libertarians resisted the expansion in the meaning of rights because they were wary of granting the state too much power. They saw the expansion of rights as legitimating the expansion of state capacity. Their central concern was that increasing state interference in the economy would harm its health by reducing the rewards of healthy economic behavior and softening the consequences of unhealthy economic behavior.
But, at each stage, progressives were able to cast resistance to the proposed expansion of the state as motivated not by a principled wariness of big government or a concern with economic or societal health but exclusively by racial animus. This is the second reason why classical liberalism failed. To deny the requested expansion of state power was to deny that some group—black Americans in the paradigm case—had a legitimate moral claim upon the state. Denying that claim was racist, and its “true” motivation was racism. The standard move was to note (or claim) that not undertaking the requested expansion would disproportionately harm blacks. Thus Democratic lawmakers receive training on how “to portray apparently neutral free-market rhetoric as being charged with racial bias.” Progressives thereby defeated the old right by casting resistance to state expansion within a “racial dialectic” that enabled them to exert narrative dominance. Land explains:
“The ‘conservative agenda’ cannot ever…escape accusations of racism—that’s intrinsic to the way the racial dialectic works. Policies broadly compatible with capitalistic development, oriented to the rewarding of low time-preference, and thus punishing impulsivity, will reliably have a disparate impact upon the least economically functional social groups. Of course, the dialectic demands that the racial aspect of this disparate impact can and must be strongly emphasized (for the purpose of condemning incentives to human capital formation as racist), and at the same time forcefully denied (in order to denounce exactly the same observation as racist stereotyping).”
Ibram X. Kendi’s proposed “Department of Antiracism” is this dialectic’s distilled essence, its logical conclusion: There are no nonracist policies, only racist and antiracist policies, and a policy that impacts blacks and whites disparately is racist.
Glenn Loury has been “radicalized” to the new right because he sees that what progressives continue to do with “public discourse about race,” now elevating “systemic racism” to the status of master category, is narrative suppression. They successfully exclude consideration of legitimate and responsible theories of government and entire modes of inquiry from the elite-controlled public sphere by getting everyone to “understand” that their only possible motivation is bigotry.
Brooks dismisses Loury’s concern. “The NatCons are wrong,” he writes, “to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life.” But the narrative suppression Loury worries about is manifest in Brooks’s own thought. Brooks does not just submit to progressivism’s racial dialectic himself. He demands all conservatives do the same.
“The reasons conservatism devolved into Trumpism are many. First, race. Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust. To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime.”
Not “were,” notice: “America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust.” [Emphasis added.] How so, you ask? Alas instead of specifics we are hit with the very principle of progressive narrative dominance: Conservatism has always been racist. But if conservatism on the matter is “a moral crime,” is racial progressivism the only morally permissible position—for conservatism?
We can extract a lame attempt at a “no” from Brooks in the way he announces his exit from the party: The new-right GOP “is barren ground for anyone trying to plant Burkean seedlings,” he writes, so he is now content to “plant” himself “on the rightward edge of the leftward tendency—in the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.” But this conservatism will totally stand firm against the Democrats’ “progressive wing,” he assures us, for just listen to the noises he emits against how it “sometimes seems to have learned nothing from the failures of government and to promote cultural stances that divide Americans.”
Brooks gives the lie to this plea that he will resist anything progressivism wants throughout his second piece. The block-quote above continues:
“American conservatives never wrapped their mind around this…[when] I worked at National Review…explicit racism was not evident in the office, but racial issues were generally overlooked and the GOP’s flirtation with racist dog whistles was casually tolerated. When you ignore a cancer, it tends to metastasize.”
“Wrap (warp) your mind to conform to the racial dialectic,” and lose in perpetuity. Brooks’s use of “racial issues” and “racist dog whistles” show that the racial dialectic has completed its work of narrative suppression in his mind. Conservatism’s only hope is to resist what Land calls the “translation protocol” that enables “any recommended restraint upon government power to be ‘decoded’ as malign obstruction of racial justice.” The positions of National Review contributors were derived from their small-government political philosophy, but all those motivations are lost, like tears in rain, submerged as Brooks decodes them as “implicit racism.” Could this old right have been motivated by what Land calls the “one iron law” of behavioral reality, “whatever is subsidized is promoted”? Is it permissible to wonder with the old National Review crowd whether things have “metastasized” because of progressive social policy? “No,” says Brooks, suppressing these possibilities. According to the teaching of Brooks’s “conservatism,” when conservatives resist the racial dialectic, they “ignore a cancer.” And it is this, conservatism’s resistance to progressivism, that is responsible for the cancer metastasizing. He thus plays the role of useful idiot to a tee, enforcing for progressivism what Land calls its “political commandment”: “Accept progressive social policy as the only possible solution to the problem of inequality.”
This is Brooks’s conservatism: kneeling to history, begging, “which way?”
Real Pluralism vs. Woke Hegemony
Brooks’s Burkeanism would anchor society in moral sentiments, “especially sympathy and benevolence.” These are virtues, but Brooks gives them a specific shape which serves to solidify his conservatism’s place as progressivism’s handmaiden.
This is clearest from his engagement with “Yoram Hazony, the chief intellectual architect of national conservatism.” Brooks reports:
“Hazony argued that the American cultural identity is Christian—and has to be if it is not going to succumb to the woke onslaught. If 80 percent of Americans are Christian, Hazony reasoned, then Christian values should dominate. ‘Majority cultures have the right to establish the ruling culture, and minority cultures have the right to be decently treated,’ he said. ‘To take the minority view and say the minority has the ability to stamp out the views of the majority—that seems to me to be completely crazy.’ The problem in America, Hazony continued, is that LGBTQ activists today, like American Jews in the 1950s, are trying to expel Christianity from the public square.”
While apparently meant to apply to America as a whole, Hazony also considers limiting his suggestion to red states—a limitation needed, I think, for his proposal to become politically possible. I take his suggestion as follows.
Allow states that are (say) 80% conservative Christian and 2% LGBTQ to protect the Christian message that being heterosexual and “cisgender” is natural and normal and that being homo- or transexual is unnatural and abnormal. Give them the power to prevent major institutions of cultural reproduction (schools, media, academia) from encouraging these deviations. Let them “establish the ruling culture” this way, following in the model of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Are LGBTQ individuals’ rights thereby infringed? Yes and no: Their negative rights should be ensured at the federal level, and I take Hazony’s statement that “minority cultures have the right to be decently treated” (or to a “carve out”) to guarantee there will be no return anywhere to sodomy laws and the like. But if you ascribe to them “a positive right to be tolerated” that encompasses “public affirmations of dignity” (Land), and you interpret that to require the public at large to affirm these orientations as natural and normal, then yes, this contradicts Hazony’s proposal, and this “right” is infringed. (That is why “we’re scary.”)
In his “reclamation project,” Brooks writes:
“If, as Burke believed, reason alone cannot find the one true answer to any social problem, each community must improvise its own set of solutions to intricate human concerns. The conservative seeks to defend this wonderful heterogeneity from the forces of bigness and the centralizing arrogance of rationalism—to protect these little platoons when government tries to perform roles best done in families, when the federal government takes power from local government.”
So he celebrates Hazony’s proposal, right? Of course not. “Christians are in no position to impose their values—regarding same-sex marriage or anything else—on the public square.” New righters see a certain species of arrogant rationalism imposing its particular values on the public square with its claim that homo– and transsexuality have equal claims to naturalness and normalcy as heterosexuality and being cisgender. Brooks joins progressives in seeing this as the only permissible moral view. Progressives do not “impose their values.” They conform themselves to truth and justice discerned through pure reason. Resistance to wokeness is bigotry, Brooks teaches, for it “demands that you ignore the actual suffering of the world—the transgender kid alone in some suburban high school.”
Describing how “true” conservatism’s virtues devolve into new-right vices, Brooks writes, “Conservatives are supposed to cherish moral formation—but this emphasis can turn into a rigid and self-righteous moralism, a tendency to see all social change as evidence of moral decline and social menace.” Conservative “moral formation” must not lament a “social change” like the normalization and celebration of homo- and transsexuality. Seeing that as “moral decline” is a vice, “a rigid and self-righteous moralism.” “True conservatism” concedes the moral legitimacy of the latest rachet of “progress.”
Brooks’s conservatism, then, will “defend this wonderful heterogeneity” of “little platoons” —so long as they are all woke platoons. It insists that “to conserve America, you have to love pluralism” —so long as its e pluribus wokum. It will “instill habits” and help “habits become virtues” —so long as these do not offend the sexual-revolutionary left.
Brooks’s conservatism accepts the universal validity of, and thus submits to, an ethical vision that real conservatives recognize as peculiar to progressivism and reject. He is thus not entitled to his rhetoric, for his thought has no space for real heterogeneity, plurality, conservative habit, or virtue. These are all mere sounds emitted by a controlled opposition dutifully performing its role in the self-replicating pattern of progressive dominance.
Daniel Addison is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College.