The Usual Slop From David Books

David Brooks begins his latest column this way:

There are two major political parties in America, but there are at least three major political tendencies. The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.

So, Brooks says, orthodox liberalism is “a belief in using government to maximize equality.” What does he mean by “equality”? If he means “equal treatment under the law,” then I agree. If he means equal opportunity, I agree. But I infer that’s not what he means, based on what he writes later. But first let’s deal with the next sentence.

“Free-market conservatism,” Brooks says, is “the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.” But “maximizing freedom” is not at all what “free-market conservatism” does. In effect, “free-market conservatism” is about turning most of the population into a cheap labor resource, to be exploited for the benefit of the wealthy few. In truth, there is little “freedom” in the lives of most workers under a “free market” system, especially during times when jobs are scarce and quitting one means cutting yourself off from health care, not to mention losing your home.

But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility. This tendency began with Alexander Hamilton, who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed. It matured with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans, who created the Land Grant College Act and the Homestead Act to give people the tools to pursue their ambitions. It continued with Theodore Roosevelt, who busted the trusts to give more Americans a square deal.

The “Civil War” Republicans, more often called “Radical Republicans” in the history books, were the flaming liberals of their day. They not only drafted civil rights legislation that would have been considered radically liberal a century later, they also created what I believe was the first large-scale social welfare federal bureaucracy, the Freedmen’s Bureau. The purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to assist newly freed African Americans in their transition from being slaves to being productive members of an industrial, capitalist society. Unfortunately, the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau was effectively kneecapped by President Andrew Johnson, so that most of the freed people were little better off “free” than they had been before.

Brooks mentions Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal.” The Square Deal was, IMO, the real foundation of American “orthodox liberalism.” And TR was no “small government” guy. He believed strongly in using the federal government in a pro-active, progressive way to balance the interests of the “little guy” against the “big guy.” TR was not against the accumulation of wealth, but he was very much against even a whiff of plutocracy.

But Brooks cannot have anything called “liberalism” be the hero of the story. So he re-invents liberalism as something in favor of a sloppily defined “equality.” What does he mean by “equality”? And how is “equality” different from “freedom”? I think most of us liberals would argue that there is no freedom without equality (meaning, equal protection under the law, equal opportunity, equal access to justice). But I think Brooks is using “liberalism” to mean something closer to “socialism,” and liberal orthodoxy in America was never socialistic. There have been and are moderate socialists among us, yes, but they were never a majority. I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad, just that that’s how it is.

Anyway, after re-defining American liberal orthodoxy into something it never was, Brooks then takes genuine American liberal orthodoxy, waters it down a lot, and re-names its proponents “Americanized Burkeans, or to put it another way, progressive conservatives.” See, anything virtuous has to be called “conservative.” It’s a rule.

Brooks continues,

McCain shares the progressive conservative instinct. He has shown his sympathy with the striving immigrant and his disgust with the colluding corporatist. He has an untiring reform impulse and a devotion to national service and American exceptionalism.

Translation: McCain is a standard “free market conservative” whose soft bleatings about immigration are more about cheap labor than altruism. He has also paid lip service to ending corruption but hasn’t accomplished much in that direction. His economic policy ideas are still all about favoring the rich and powerful at the expense of workers. And “national service and American exceptionalism” is code for “he’ll start more stupid wars.”

“McCain would be an outstanding president,” Brooks says, without offering much in the way of evidence. It’s possible the McCain that lives in Brooks’s head would make a decent president, but the flesh-and-blood McCain who is actually campaigning would be a disaster.

See also No More Mr. Nice Blog, Prairie Weather, and M.J. Rosenberg at TPM Cafe.

Update: Some rightie actually refers to “Bull Moose conservatism.” Please. TR’s Bull Moose party was progressive, not conservative.

18 thoughts on “The Usual Slop From David Books

  1. It strikes me as bizarre that anyone would mention “American exceptionalism” as a GOOD thing.

  2. I have beeen thinking about where the GOP will go from here – or from what I expect will be ‘here’ for the GOP in 10 days. I think the Brooks ploy is an indicator of how the GOP will attempt to redefine itself as ‘moderate’ WITHOUT changing any fundamental policies or procedures. In other words, in the next election we will see mean-spearited candidates espouse trickle-down economic conservatism and low taxes for the rich as the snake-oil that will cure all ails. But they will call it the ‘moderate’ version of polices that they rolled out in response to the voter revolt of 2008 – but WHAT they offer will be a carbon copy of the OLD policies. IF the voters reject it again, there is finally a trend (2006, 2008 & 2010), then we MIGHT see a reconstitutted GOP in 2012 with new planks in the platform & new blood in the lineup.

  3. Brooks is doing an apples and oranges thing, and dishonestly too, since anyone with a brain can see that conservatives in the USA do not push policies that lead to freedom, rather the reverse. But what Brooks is doing is like saying we have a problem with our planned dinner party, because some people want chicken while others want something that’s fried.

  4. If you were running for President would you remember the 5 Secretaries of State that endorsed you?

    McCain couldn’t on 60 Minutes this morning.

    I’m ten years younger than McCain and I am noticing that things that should be in the front of my mind, especially names of people I have known, don’t come to me right away. I can picture faces and situations, but the names are delayed… sometimes for hours. It is one of the reasons I’d make a poor President.

    Under The LobsterScope

  5. You’re picking on language,

    The point is that conservatives support laissez faire policies, which they believe to be about freedom from government. Liberals believe in using government to create conditions of equality. Whether that equals freedom is also your opinion.

    But your opinion on that is besides the point, David Brooks wasn’t writing an ideological piece, he wasn’t arguing liberalism as bad or conservativism as good—he was–aside from endorsing McCain’s approach–trying to define how John McCain falls between these two lines of thought.

    Teddy Roosevelt in his time, also was considered conservative. As I mentioned on the other blog, his whole platform was seen by contemporaries as trying to achieve liberal goals through conservative means. With old-style whig politicians on one end, and socialist-populists on the other end, Teddy Roosevelt carved out a middle path.

    Abraham Lincoln was also not a so-called “Radical Republican”–Radical Republicans came to power after Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s policy views are derived from Henry Clay, a whig, who believed in high tariffs and mercantilist style internal improvement policies.

    What David Brooks is missing here is not what you say. Its that he believes conservative ideology is an unbroken line from Edmond Burke to the present. McCain obviously doesn’t believe in the Hamilton-Lincoln-Roosevelt model, because he supports free trade.

    People pretend that there’s some unbroken history for both modern conservative and liberal ideologies. There isn’t even an unbroken line for the Republican and Democratic party ideologies. The parties were completely different than they were 100 years ago.

    But I see no point in your attempt to disqualify what Brooks is saying by arguing with his language. I also don’t think you’re right that TR’s style of politics compares more to liberalism today than to conservativism. TR would probably agree with conservatives today on Constitutional matters. Certainly on social policy, as would most anybody then. The big welfare state we have today was hardly a thought in TR’s day, it took the Great Depression to bring us to that–so its hard to know what he’d say on it.

    Its doesn’t make sense to use political anachronisms as a measurestick for today’s ideologies.

  6. Swami,

    actually no, the first progressives were considered conservatives. the progressive movement has changed since Teddy Roosevelt.

  7. redfish — you’re the one stuck in words. I’m describing the real world. Laissez-faire economic policies do not lead to “freedom.” They lead to plutocracy. History shows us that this is inevitable.

    Liberals believe in using government to create conditions of equality. Whether that equals freedom is also your opinion.

    If “freedom” refers to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then equal protection under the law is a prerequisite for freedom. Otherwise, you’ve got “freedom” for some people and “oppression” for other people. Again, history shows us that this is inevitable.

    Teddy Roosevelt in his time, also was considered conservative.

    No, he wasn’t. He was a conservationist, yes, but not a conservative.

    his whole platform was seen by contemporaries as trying to achieve liberal goals through conservative means.

    He believed in using the authority of government to protect ordinary people from oppression by wealthy. He was profoundly not conservative in that regard. Some of his speeches would be considered liberal even by our standards. Check out the New Nationalism speech sometime; it’s the foundation of modern American liberalism.

    Abraham Lincoln was also not a so-called “Radical Republican”–Radical Republicans came to power after Lincoln was assassinated.

    No, Lincoln was not a Radical Republican, and I didn’t say he was (do learn to read), but the Radical Republicans came to be the dominant force in Congress during the Civil War. They didn’t pop into existence suddenly after Lincoln’s assassination.

    What David Brooks is missing here is not what you say. Its that he believes conservative ideology is an unbroken line from Edmond Burke to the present.

    I understand perfectly well what Brooks believes. I’m saying Brooks is full of crap, and his views are a distortion of both history and political science.

    I also don’t think you’re right that TR’s style of politics compares more to liberalism today than to conservativism. TR would probably agree with conservatives today on Constitutional matters.

    OMG, are you ignorant. Read TRs speeches. Start with this one. By today’s wingnut standards, TR was practically a socialist.

    But this is exactly what I’m talking about. Right-wingers distort American history to validate their ideology. In particular, you people just love to distort the biographies of great Americans to make them seem more like you. All lies.

  8. No I’m not ignorant. I read TRs speeches, and I read the Progressive Party platform. TR wasn’t practically a socialist just because he supported labor laws and anti-monopoly laws. TR was considered a conservative by his contemporaries.

    And I’m not a right winger, I don’t vote Republican. In 2004 I voted for Nader.

    And you are picking on language. Brooks wasn’t making an ideological argument.


  9. Or I mean, he wouldn’t be considered practically a socialist. Most wingnuts today Republicans still support anti-monopoly laws and labor laws. Wingnuts today would be upset at his rhetoric, but they still support his policies

  10. TR was considered a conservative by his contemporaries.

    I don’t believe he was, but in any event the words “conservative” and “liberal” were defined differently then. TR’s domestic policies were not conservative by any definition of “conservative” currently in use. They were progressive. See, the Bull Moose party was the “Progressive Party,” and it came into being during what was called the “Progressive Era.” “Progressive” is not “conservative.” They are opposites.

    TR wasn’t practically a socialist just because he supported labor laws and anti-monopoly laws.

    First, note that I didn’t say TR was a socialist; I said by wingnut standards he was a socialist. In other words, if Barack Obama is a socialist (he isn’t), TR was a flaming Marxist (he wasn’t).

    Second, TR said things like

    “We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”

    “The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted.”

    He made that speech in 1910. The same speech today would have every bobblehead on Faux News screaming about socialism. See more here. And see this:

    … what is telling about this particular difference between Teddy Roosevelt and John McCain is that it is so illustrative of what Roosevelt was really about, and how fundamentally different that was from what Senator McCain and the latter-day Republican Party is about.

    “The truth of the matter is that Roosevelt today would be on the left,” said Mr. Brinkley, who is writing a biography of the former president titled “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt’s and the Crusade for America.”

    Roosevelt believed passionately in regulating industry and curbing the excesses of the great corporations. He favored the imposition of an inheritance tax and fought his party’s increasing tendency to cater to the very wealthy. And, of course, he was a ferocious protector of the environment.

    I’m a passionate American history nerd, and it’s painful to me to see ill-educated persons such as yourself distort it.

    Brooks wasn’t making an ideological argument.

    Oh, for pete’s sake, now I know you’re an idiot. Brooks makes only ideological arguments. He’s good at making them sound kind of soft and fuzzy and not stridently ideological, but his arguments are always ideological.

    Look, son, I don’t have time to argue with you, especially since you have no idea what you’re talking about and I’m not here to give you free history tutorials. However, I suggest you stop embarrassing yourself by parroting right-wing propaganda while claiming you aren’t a rightie.

  11. I didn’t post here to attack you, I just wanted to make my point.

    I want to explain what I mean when I said Roosevelt was considered a conservative–

    He was considered a conservative in the way I told you. Knowing history, you should know that before the progressive faction formed, the Republican Party became controlled by conservatives and the Democratic Party by liberals. When Theodore Roosevelt started his career he worked within the lines of conservative politics, being friendly with business and over time, he started to move his politics to embrace some of the concerns of the left.

    The progressive faction emerged within the Republican Party and they articulated their goals just like I said—-that they wanted to achieve liberal goals, but through conservative means and keeping with conservative values.

    Within the Republican Party, progressives were considered the rival faction to the conservative faction. But they were also not considered liberal. Brooks term “progressive conservativism” or “conservative progressivism” has been used by historians.

    Even as Theodore Roosevelt pushed progressive reforms in his Presidency, he at the same time he also tended to the needs of business. Although today free trade is considered a conservative position, at the time it was considered a liberal position. Businesses wanted tariffs, they wanted infrastructure improvements, and other government involvement in the economy—Roosevelt, in pushing for tariffs, was doing so to help business. Roosevelt was not hostile to business—he believed in a middle ground.

    “I am a man who believes with all fervor and intensity in moderate progress. Too often men who believe in moderation believe in it only moderately and tepidly and leave fervor to the extremists of the two sides — the extremists of reaction and the extremists of progress. Washington, Lincoln . . . are men who, to my mind, stand as the types of what wide, progressive leadership should be.”
    —Theodore Roosevelt

    And short of abolishing banks and nationalizing industry, like populists on the left were calling for, Roosevelt just wanted regulation. In the New Nationalism speech you linked to—Roosevelt talks about how he was under attack on one side as a socialist and on the other as a toadie of Wall Street.

    If Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech today, yes, definitely, the wingnuts on talk radio would rant about socialism, because they would have a problem with his rhetoric. Partly because they’re crazy and are foaming at the mouth half the time. Partly because politics isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago.

    But the Republican Party still believes in the issues that Roosevelt fought for—like anti-trust laws and labor laws. Not everyone in the party believes in a progressive income tax, though I think most people do.

    The Democratic Party likewise, but the idea of progressivism on the left has moved beyond what Theodore Roosevelt argued for. Just because Roosevelt believed in progressivism 100 years ago doesn’t mean he would believe in everything progressive liberals argue for today.

    Progressive rhetoric today also doesn’t tend to seek the middle ground like Roosevelt did. While Roosevelt both defended the common man and defended business interests, rhetoric by modern progressives is anti-business.

    To Roosevelt and his contemporaries, progressivism was a word for what we today call ‘centrism’. Roosevelt himself consistently defined it that way.

    So while if Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech today, he would be lambasted by conservative talk radio hosts, if he were alive today, I don’t think he would be in the progressive movement.

    The closest platform to Teddy Roosevelt in years has been Ross Perot’s in 1992 and 1996, who attacked both the right and the left, called for government reform, trade protectionism, and centrist government policies.

  12. My own liberalism is about equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and a safety net to prevent needless suffering.

    But I do know some “liberals” who think liberalism is about equality of outcomes. In their usual synechdochic fashion, modern “conservatives” conflate these few into a strawman Liberal Bogeyman, and have little trouble finding illustrative anecdotes to email to each other.

  13. This will be the most interesting week of the election as far as I’m concerned. It is the week that the candidates have to sum up all the issues and charges they have raised for months in order to firm up the support they have generated with voters.

    Of course there have been, as the news said last night, about 7,000,000 early voters so far – everyone in my household included – and the reports of an Obama lead (based mostly on post-voting surveys, I guess) could have some influence on those who make up their minds at the last minute. There are always those who merely want to vote with a winner.

    This will be the week of outrageous e-mail, at least from one side. has already awarded a “pants on fire” designation to a new one claiming Obama is preparing to re-design the American flag “to better offer our enemies hope and love.” The fact that there are people who might believe this crap is as scary as the fact that there is a campaign (or its unmentioned support groups) that would put it out.

    The Financial Times, surprise surprise, has been added to the Obama endorsements after a long campaign coverage of seeming mostly pro-McCain. I guess this is the reason:

    Mr Obama fought a much better campaign. Campaigning is not the same as governing, and the presidency should not be a prize for giving the best speeches, devising the best television advertisements, shaking the most hands and kissing the most babies.

    Nonetheless, a campaign is a test of leadership. Mr Obama ran his superbly; Mr McCain’s has often looked a shambles. After eight years of George W. Bush, the steady competence of the Obama operation commands respect.

    The focus of both campaigns early in the week appears to be Pennsylvania and Ohio. The basic thinking is that if McCain loses these he loses everything. Expect some pretty heavy mud-slinging here.

    Under The LobsterScope

  14. He was considered a conservative in the way I told you. Knowing history, you should know that before the progressive faction formed, the Republican Party became controlled by conservatives and the Democratic Party by liberals.

    No no no no no. Absolutely not how it was.

    First off , “liberalism” as we understand the term today didn’t exist yet. A “liberal” in the 19th century was someone who advocated Adam Smith’s “free market” policies and believed that laissez-faire economics would evoke an invisible hand that benefits everybody. Sound familiar? “Free market” conservatism of today resembles in many ways what was called “liberalism” in the 19th century.

    As I understand it, it was FDR and a few other guys of the mid 20th century who revised the definition of “liberal” to be closer to what we understand the word to mean today.

    In the late 19th century, before the Progressive Era, the Democratic Party was uber-conservative, as “conservative” is defined today. It was opposed to civil rights, fought tax raises tooth and nail, was deeply “states rights” and nativist in orientation, wanted a small federal government. The Republicans were the economic “liberals” of their time (by the 19th century definition). After Reconstruction they backed off on civil rights, but they were less backward on social issues than Democrats.

    The Republican, William McKinley, was “conservative” by our standards, yet McKinley was more “liberal” (by our definition) compared to most of the Democrats of his day. For example, McKinley promoted pluralism among ethnic groups, which was a fairly liberal (our definition) view for the time. On the other hand, Democrats of his day for the most part opposed progressive reforms.

    So we enter the 20th century with the Republicans being the more progressive of the two parties, and the Democrats more conservative.

    Issues and political theory of a century ago are fairly alien to how most people think today, so in some ways it’s meaningless to hang terms like “liberal” and “conservative” on the parties back then. But before and during Teddy’s time, the Republicans were more “liberal” (by our definition) than the Democrats. Republicans were definitely more progressive than the Democrats.

    And then there was Teddy, who along with Franklin was one of the most progressive presidents in his domestic policies who ever sat in the oval office. To call Teddy “conservative” is a gross bastardization of the English language. I say again, Teddy was the father of today’s American liberalism.

    What you’re doing, son, is taking the twisted definitions of “liberalism” and “conservatism” being promoted by the Right today — liberals are not “hostile to business,” for example — and attempting to shoehorn Roosevelt into them. It doesn’t work, and betrays a gross ignorance of history on your part.

    Certainly Teddy held some views that would be considered right-wing today, particularly on racial issues, but that is irrelevant. The only honest way to fit a politician of a century ago on the liberal-conservative scale is to place him relative to other politicians of his time, and by that measure Teddy was about as liberal as a white man of his day ever got.

    Now, I am done trying to educate you and have no more time to explain to you that you have enormous holes in your understanding of American history. Bye.

  15. TR would probably agree with conservatives today on Constitutional matters. Certainly on social policy, as would most anybody then.

    Well, yeah, since 100 years ago U.S. law horribly restricted the rights of women and people of color.

    The real question is, why would anyone who’s “not a right winger” and “doesn’t vote Republican” would slant history in the manner of today’s righties?

    Misrepresenting oneself, another keystone to their ideology.

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