April 06, 2005

Column 2005-4-05 Commentary

(note: this should have been up yesterday, but blogger and my web connection took turns dying)

Brooks's latest addresses the idea, which has been steadily circulating in liberal circles, that a major component of the Republican successes of the past 20 years or so has been the perfection of their message machine. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and their cohorts work together with ruthless efficiency to blanket the American public with conservative doctrine, while Democrats struggle to get their ideas out. Anybody who says "But what about the liberal media?" at this point is instructed to go to www.dailyhowler.com and not come back until you realize that "liberal media" is simply a weapon conservatives use to prevent almost all substantive criticism of the Republican party in the media. Brooks does not use the liberal media canard to refute the idea of the conservative message machine: instead, he resorts to an argument that is, amazingly, even more ridiculous. In fact, Brooks says, conservatives argue all the time: they are "split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly." Indeed, he urges liberals to argue more amongst themselves. According to Brooks, it is the liberals who march in grim uniformity, toeing the party line, while conservatives drift along in happy, productive disunity. To anyone who knows anything about politics, such an assertion is ludicrous. One of the most surprising results of the Schiavo case was the development of small cracks in the previously impenetrable Republican front. Meanwhile, the longstanding tendency of the Democratic party to split into bitterly feuding factions is well known, and is in fact exploited by the Republicans: the centrist to center-right DLC vs. the left wing, as represented by MoveOn.org, is only the most recent fight. The main problem is that the Democratic party is the original big tent party, a melange of unions, environmentalists, feminists, blacks, gays, Jews, academic liberals, secular humanists, etc., etc. While these groups have interests that overlap sufficiently to allow them to work together most of the time, when it comes to something like foreign policy there is a tendency for this unity to fracture. Also, liberals tend to focus on ideas rather than power: not that conservatives are focused solely on power and have no ideas (well, not all of them, at any rate, I think), but they are better at realizing that sometimes it's better to band together to elect someone with whom everyone can agree on most issues than to fight over a few issues and end up with someone who agrees with you on practically nothing (for example, there was this guy named Nader who ran for president four years ago).

Considered logically, then, Brooks's assertion that the Republicans are constantly squabbling while the Democrats march in lockstep is ridiculous. But then one reads the rest of the column and realizes that Brooks has made an elementary error: he has conflated conservative Washington pundits with the Republican party as a whole. The evidence for his assertion that conservatives are constantly fighting (aside from quoting Whittaker Chambers, who died in 1961) is the following: "The major conservative magazines - The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary - agree on almost nothing." The problem here is that the vast majority of Republicans don't read these magazines, and really don't care what they have to say, in the same way that the vast majority of Democrats don't read The Nation, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and all the major liberal magazines. As per usual, Brooks's elitism has caused him to make a serious error: he looks at minor philosophical squabbles among the conservative elites and sees the Republican party as a whole as engaging in healthy, informed debate. In fact, the rank-and-file of the Republican party are listening to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk on talk radio, watching Fox News and often quite conservative local television stations, such as those owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, and reading ultra-conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or Washington Times, which make up, to the surprise of nobody but Brooks, the extremely effective Republican message machine. And its effectiveness is enhanced by a process of positive feedback in which its success drags the rest of the media rightwards -- a phenomenon that is most pronounced in cable news, where CNN and MSNBC are doing their best to out-Fox Fox (especially the latter, which employs both Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough) -- allowing the conservative message machine to move further right without seeming crazy. This is what liberals both condemn and envy; this is what they regard as one of the main reasons that the Republicans have had such success recently; and this is something that Brooks completely fails to address in his column. Clueless elitism or sneaky, underhanded dodging of the question? Like a certain "news" channel, we report, you decide.

Having ignored the point the liberals are making, Brooks goes off on several tangents. First, he claims that you can see evidence of conservative feuding by looking at changing conservative attitudes. Naturally, he postulates no mechanism by which arguments among conservative elites cause the opinions of Republicans to change, and also fails to acknowledge that the percentage of Republicans who are interventionists, the example he chooses, might be influenced by events such as 9/11 which have nothing to do with arguments within the Republican party. But his evidence for a change in Republican attitudes is actually very shaky. "Once, Republicans were isolationists," Brooks declares, as if this was received wisdom. But what about Nixon, who escalated in Vietnam, went to China, and was so unpopular he was re-elected to a second term? What about Reagan, who was so invasion-happy that he even invaded Grenada? What about Bush the First, who invaded Panama and Iraq (yes, he only got one term, but that was because of the economy)? And Vietnam intervention started on Eisenhower's watch. When Brooks says that Republicans were once isolationists, is he referring to Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover? And if so, is he willing to concede that overall changes in the U.S. might have more to do with the less isolationist nature of the party than debates within the conservative movement? And then we have his claim that according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, "most Republicans . . . believe the U.S. should try to change dictatorships into democracies when it can." I believe that Brooks is referring to this poll (pdf version with actual questions and responses broken down by party here), and the actual figure is 51% of Republicans. While most is technically accurate, the image of a firmly pro-interventionist party that it conveys is not accurate at all. But hey, what's a little intellectual dishonesty when you're evading the entire point of the argument you're supposedly refuting anyway?

Brooks next contends that, essentially, conservatives are cool because they argue about philosophy. Apparently, conservatives spent all their time arguing about philosphy (Brooks namedrops shamelessly here, incidentally: fine, you're educated, we get it already) since the modern conservative movement was formed while the Democratic party was so firmly entrenched in power there was no point in the Republicans thinking about policy, and this gave their movement intellectual credibility and helped recruit people. Apparently, it wasn't ideas like tax cuts, bombing the hell out of godless Communists or brown people (or sticking them in jail if they happen to be in the U.S. already), and saving America from the gays that appealed to the ordinary people who vote for the Republican party: instead, they were thoughtfully agreeing with reasoned arguments about how the ideas of Burke and Aquinas should be applied to the modern world. If this doesn't exactly ring true, that's because Brooks has once again taken refuge in his elitism. Conservatives in Brooks's circle may well have read all the philosophers he mentions, but the vast majority of people in this country have not, and most of those who voted Republican in the last election would probably disdain Brooks as one of those pointy-headed academic types were he to start spouting off about Hayek. After all, Bush is on the record as saying that his favorite philosopher is Jesus, and the growth of the Christian right, one of the major forces behind the ascension of the Republican party in the last thirty years, owes nothing to any of the philosophers Brooks cites or is likely to cite. Interestingly, one of the philosophers Brooks cites is Alexander Hamilton, and yet we heard nothing from Brooks when the Republican party ran roughshod over the independence of the courts, something Hamilton endorsed as absolutely necessary for the kind of government he had in mind in Federalist No. 78 (of course, Brooks could be suggesting that the Republican party has weighed the Founding Fathers and found them wanting, but it seems unlikely, or at least unlikely that he would admit it).

Brooks's elitism also shows as he laughs at liberals for being influenced by postmodernism and multiculturalism, since everybody knows that only dead white males have anything important to say about government, but it is most obvious in his tacit assumption that it is necessary to have read lots of philosophers to be able to think about government. There's nothing wrong with "being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears" but Brooks seems to have confused awareness with not only understanding of these philosophers but also with understanding the world. It is one thing to read Aquinas and think about his arguments in order to expand your mind: it is something else to read Aquinas and then attempt to apply the ideas of someone who was writing in the thirteenth century directly to the modern world. And being familiar with philosophers is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for thinking about government and society. Similarly we find that Brooks actually asked the head of a liberal think tank who his favorite philosopher was. The inanity of this question is well-nigh unsurpassable. It would be equally relevant to ask the head of the physics department at M.I.T. who his favorite physicist is, or, since there is no indication that this man was a philosopher or trained as a philosopher, asking the president of M.I.T. who her favorite physicist is. But if one realizes that Brooks has confused philosophers with philosophy, the question makes perfect sense. What Brooks doesn't understand is that the point is not to have a favorite philosopher: the point is to have a philosophy, one that may well have been informed largely by one philosopher, but which should most likely include the ideas of several as well as some of one's very own. And personally, I'd rather have the heads of liberal think tanks be experts on health care than philosophy, as the former is more likely to have a significant impact on my life than the latter.

This viewpoint does offer potential explanations for some features of the modern conservative movement, though: it certainly seems to be buried in the past, which would make sense if it spent its formative years reading and debating philosophy without ever attempting to think about how that philosophy applied to policy or the modern world. It would also explain the abysmal failures of Republican policy over the past few years: all the thinkers, or what passes for thinkers, in the party know is philosophy, so they're really winging it when it comes to policy, and have a tendency to place their policy above reality. Of course, one should not put too much credence into Brooks's contention that academic philosophy is the backbone of the modern conservative movement, but the attitude that Brooks is describing might contribute to certain aspects of the movement. One thing this attitude does not explain, however, is the success of the Republican party. And Brooks's advice to liberals that they spend the next few years sitting around and arguing about Thomas Pain, John Dewey, and Isaiah Berlin is ridiculous. While the Democrats could certainly use a more coherent philosophy behind their policy message, and reading some of these guys probably wouldn't hurt, it's not guaranteed or even that likely to help, either. Any party that is overly dependent on academic philosophers to craft its message is unlikely to get very far, so it's a good thing for Brooks that the Republican party actually had other sources for its ideas.

Brooks has plumbed a different (not new, as that wouldn't really be possible, just different) low in this colum, the whole point of which seems to be for him to casually refer to as many philosophers as possible. While this is more evidence for the theory that Brooks is ashamed of having gone to the University of Chicago and wishes he had gone to Yale instead, it doesn't provide much of a basis for a column. Of course, this hasn't stopped Brooks in the past, but at some point someone at the Times is bound to realize what is going on here, right? Right? Okay, so probably not, but a man can dream, can't he?