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Where David Brooks Got it Wrong on Orthodox Republicanism March 9, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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David Brooks, the in-house, right-leaning centrist for the NY Times, has written yet another thought-provoking article (this on March 8, 2016). This is not news.  He usually does this, and does so rather eloquently, though he lacks the true intellectual firepower and vocabulary of George Will.  This is not to be held against him:  who does have such capacity as Will?  Hands, anyone?

Thought-provoking as his most recent article may be, entitled “It’s Not Too Late,” there are some problems with his thesis.  Yes, he did get some things right, but he also got some key things wrong.  But in which respective areas?

Let us start with what the article is all about.  Brooks clearly recognizes the urgency within the Republican primary at the moment.  That is to say, the majority of the GOP electorate recognizes what a disastrous candidate Donald Trump would be in the general election, and his would-be GOP nomination must be thwarted at all costs.  Moreover, Brooks proceeds, further down in the article, to lay out the systemic problems behind Trump’s cult of personality.  He outlines that Trump’s populism is premised on an active, big government that is energized to help the American working class, but doing so in negative, defensive ways.  The blowhard wants to build walls, to close trade, to ban outside groups, and to otherwise smash enemies.  Put all your trust in Trump (half-sarcastically described in source-synonym form as “The Great Leader”), and he’ll take all enemies down.

This dovetails nicely into where Brooks made some very insightful observations, and also some caveats.  Let us look at where he “got it right” and “got it wrong” simultaneously.  He points out that Goldwater and Reagan positioned the Republican Party as that of those who are free-market and anti-government.  He got the first part correctly, the second part, not so much.

Goldwater and Reagan, for example, were trying to tackle the issues to make the marketplace freer after decades of Democrat interference via excessive regulation, excessively high taxes, union-friendly laws and trade-protectionist laws that ended up raising costs for consumers, allowing consumers fewer options, and stymying the economy in so doing.  Reagan helped re-energize America by doing away with most of such hindrances.  Today, the market is freer and taxes are much lower than they were prior to Ronaldus Magnus.

Since “Dutch” left office, most folks in the GOP have been searching for “the next Reagan”.  Here’s the problem, though:  since Reagan, new challenges have emerged.  Today, the economy has become much more unforgiving (“crueler” is Brooks’ adjective of choice).  Technology – particularly automation – has displaced workers and globalization has dampened wages.  Also, the social structure is far more atomized and frayed than it was 30 years ago, especially among the less-educated.  If that is not enough, demographics have also shifted, though to my mind, the previous item is part of this last item mentioned.

So far, Brooks is spot-on in listing some of the major domestic challenges that Americans face today.  Each one deserves lengthy, multi-installment analysis.  But where Brooks gets things wrong is by saying that “Orthodox Republicans” (embodied by Ted Cruz – Brooks describes him as the “extreme embodiment”, emphasis mine) are out of date.  Indeed, allowing free people to freely transact with one-another, abiding by sensible regulations and sensible laws, is never out of date.  Those were Reagan’s principles, and they still work today:  indeed, they work in any era, because human nature has not changed since the dawn of Man.

The other part of Brooks’ erroneous assertion is that Orthodox Republicans see no positive role for government.  Orthodox Republicans / doctrinaire conservatives do indeed see a positive role for government, but only in areas where they rightly recognize the things for which government is built to do effectively.  The Federal Government, for example, is built to defend our country, which is why conservatives call for a strong military.  Conservatives/Orthodox Republicans also recognize that the Federal Government is there to deliver the mail.  It can also help out with the national infrastructure (i.e., interstate highways, bridges, etc.), and is also there to regulate interstate commerce (see:  Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution), though vigilance must be maintained to keep said regulation sensible and thus to keep it from getting out of hand, as it is apt to do if we elect too many big-government liberals to Congress.  Beyond that, you leave it up to the States to decide, as it is written in the Tenth Amendment.

What Brooks has also overlooked is that, yes, while new challenges have emerged for America since Reagan’s time, some of these challenges can be addressed by Orthodox Republicans.  For example, lots of jobs have been killed by excess regulation.  It paralyzes innovation, it stymies companies trying to expand, and thus kills job growth.  Many of us want more manufacturing jobs in this country, but that will not happen with the EPA being allowed to run amok under the Obama Administration, for example.  An Orthodox Republican like Cruz would put a stop to that.  Same thing goes for the amazing potential to create jobs for the educated and under-educated alike in, say, the energy sector.

Another aspect of Orthodox Republicanism that could help meet the challenges of today would be to allow for more local control over education, so that educational reformers have more flexibility to be more innovative.  The idea behind this is that doing so could help us improve our human capital.  The part of American society that has atomized could improve themselves through fundamental improvements in education, but that will not happen under a top-down approach from the Federal Government, where innovation is stifled through bureaucracy.

Granted, Cruz has his own problems, but they’re more about him than the ideology.  He managed to alienate just about everyone in the Senate in both parties since he was elected in 2012.  These are the same people with whom he must build coalitions if he wants to accomplish anything through Congress so he could sign it into law as President.  His rigid, immoderate tone could alienate too many moderate voters as well.  Goldwater was way too rigid as a candidate, and that is why he lost as badly as he did in 1964.  Reagan, conversely, was just as conservative as Goldwater, but he was much more moderate in his tone.  This in turn allowed for the Gipper to successfully position himself as a pragmatic problem-solver, allowing him to win over enough moderates, who joined the conservative voters in allowing him to win comfortably in 1980, and even more so four years later.

Cruz likes to think that he is Reagan’s ideological heir, but to truly find his inner Gipper, he too must moderate his tone.  It remains to be seen whether or not he can.  At least Brooks, to his credit, was on to something when he pointed out that both Marco Rubio and John Kasich are viable alternatives to the rigid (at the moment) Cruz and to the authoritarian Trump.  He even proceeds to hint at the potential of both Rubio and Kasich as potential candidates to successfully position the Republicans as a party of reform, which is desperately needed at the Federal Government level for America to continue to be a viable power both at home and abroad.  I personally would, at this time, favor either over Cruz, to say nothing of Trump, who, just to remind everyone, must be stopped at all costs, lest the efforts to roll back big government be set back for a generation.

Nevertheless, Brooks conveniently overlooks some important tenants of the conservative ideology, and how they would still work today.  If he meant to say that Cruz’s tone was out of date, he was partly right:  it never has been palatable to the national electorate.  But Orthodox Republican/conservative principles are timeless because they recognize that the nature of mankind is permanent.  No doubt these convenient dismissals on Brooks’ part are ongoing symptoms of his Stockholm Syndrome to which he has succumbed after all those years with the New York Times.

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