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