Tuesday, January 17, 2012

David Brooks Defines Republicanism

David Brooks has been in South Carolina, talking to primary voters. He found that hardly anyone was impressed by the ads attacking Romney's business background --these are believers in capitalism. What is on their minds?
I was also struck, as in New Hampshire and Iowa, by the mood of this year’s rallies. Republican audiences this year want a restoration. America once had strong values, they believe, but we have gone astray. We’ve got to go back and rediscover what we had. Heads nod enthusiastically every time a candidate touches this theme.
I agree with the sentiment, but it makes for an incredibly backward-looking campaign. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return. 
Let's unpack that. What values are we talking about? Divorce and out-of-wedlock birth often come up in these contexts, and I agree that it would be better if more kids grew up with two parents. But what on earth is the government supposed to do about it? And if voters are serious, the one thing they could do would be to refuse to support divorced politicians. Yet thrice-married Gingrich is polling well in South Carolina, and I would be willing to bet that Ronald Reagan is still very popular there.

I know the military has a lot of support in South Carolina, and this year's Republican candidates have tried to make hay out of standing up for America, refusing to apologize, and whatnot. But this is a bizarre non-issue. Obama has not been as aggressive overseas as George W. Bush, but his shoot-to-kill campaign against al Qaeda's leadership has certainly been plenty aggressive, and he didn't bother with approval from those wimps in Congress before bombing Libya. How many wars per decade do we need? The standing of the military in American public opinion is very high, even among many liberals. There has been no loss of "strong values" here.

Last night Gingrich gave a great paean to the virtues of standing on our own feet and earning a living rather than getting government handouts. I agree that it would be much better if more poor Americans had jobs. But who is going to hire them? And until they can get jobs, is it really a bad thing to help them put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads? If letting people starve is what Brooks means by "strong values," count me out.

Another thing that often comes up when Americans talk about lost values is community. It is certainly true that fewer Americans live in tight-knit neighborhoods than they used to. But why is that? Because of economic change. The lifelong factory job is a thing of the past, and with it the stable working-class neighborhoods where people like John Boehner grew up. Hundreds of small towns across America have disappeared as the economy has changed. Nothing new there -- Jamestown and Plymouth, two of our first towns, had both disappeared by 1700. But in recent years the pace of change has accelerated, bewildering many people. Is that the government's fault? No, it is not. The reason the country is changing at a dizzying pace is capitalism. It is men like Mitt Romney and entities like Bain Capital that are remaking the country and ripping up one formerly stable community after another.

In America, "conservative" has two meanings: opposing change, and supporting free market economics. Since free market economics is, along with science, the main engine of change in our world, it is not really possible for American conservatives to have a coherent world view. Instead they wallow in nostalgia about the good old days and blame liberals for everything wrong with the world. This may make for successful politics, but not for good government.

1 comment:

David said...

I think one should add a rock-bottom racial aspect to contemporary conservative disquiet. I suspect much of this is only semi-conscious. Very likely many of the oldsters who think our current president "just isn't the sort of person who should be president" also shook their heads deploringly at Bull Connor, or wept piously while watching "Mississippi Burning."

As for Brooks, he's started harping in recent months on this theme of "welfare killed our culture of responsibility." To me the thesis itself is dubious. I don't think people have ever been that responsible; they just used to slink off and die quietly in a boarding house somewhere. (How many nineteenth-century anecdotes end that way? I think more than a few.) It also seems to me a reach that we should throw millions out onto the street because of a philosophical implication.