Brooks v. Tomasky

by Henry on January 4, 2008

“David Brooks”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/04/us/politics/04elect.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin interprets Mike Huckabee’s win last night as the harbinger of a populist sea-change in the Republican party.

Some people are going to tell you that Mike Huckabee’s victory last night in Iowa represents a triumph for the creationist crusaders. Wrong. … Huckabee won because he tapped into realities that other Republicans have been slow to recognize. … First, evangelicals have changed. Huckabee is the first ironic evangelical on the national stage. … He’s funny, campy … and he’s not at war with modern culture. … Second, Huckabee understands much better than Mitt Romney that we have a crisis of authority in this country. … he sensed that conservatives do not believe their own movement is well led. He took on Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and even President Bush. The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed. … Third, Huckabee understands how middle-class anxiety is really lived. Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. … Huckabee’s victory is not a step into the past. It opens up the way for a new coalition. … A conservatism that recognizes stable families as the foundation of economic growth … A conservatism that loves capitalism but distrusts capitalists … A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year … Huckabee probably won’t be the nominee, but starting last night in Iowa, an evangelical began the Republican Reformation.

This makes for an interesting contrast with Michael Tomasky’s “article”:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20937 about the Republican party’s structural problems in the current _New York Review of Books._

the generally ignored story of this race so far is that in truth, dramatic ideological change among the Republicans is highly unlikely. Despite Bush’s failures and the discrediting of conservative governance, there is every chance that the next Republican president, should the party’s nominee prevail next year, will be just as conservative as Bush has been—perhaps even more so. … How could this be? The explanation … reflects … the central hard truth about the components of the Republican Party today.

That is, the party is still in the hands of three main interests: neoconservatives; theo-conservatives, i.e., the groups of the religious right; and radical anti-taxers, clustered around such organizations as the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Each of these groups dominates party policy in its area of interest—the neocons in foreign policy, the theocons in social policy, and the anti-taxers on fiscal and regulatory issues. Each has led the Bush administration to undertake a high-profile failure: the theocons orchestrated the disastrous Terri Schiavo crusade, which put off many moder-ate Americans; the radical anti-taxers pushed for the failed Social Security privatization initiative; and the neocons, of course, wanted to invade Iraq.

Three failures, and there are more like them. And yet, so far as the internal dynamics of the Republican Party are concerned, they have been failures without serious consequence, because there are no strong countervailing Republican forces to present an opposite view or argue a different set of policies and principles.

Of the two, I suspect that Tomasky is much more likely to be right. I haven’t seen any evidence yet (this isn’t of course to say that there _isn’t_ such evidence) that Huckabee has broadened his appeal beyond evangelicals. This is obviously a _sine qua non_ for creating the kind of genuinely populist conservatism that Brooks is looking for. Nor is Huckabee as anti-Republican establishment as he looks at first glance – he passes Grover Norquist’s “babies, guns and taxes test”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/weeklyties.pdf (PDF) without any problem. Finally, a populism based on the putative economic advantages of healthy families etc doesn’t seem likely to have broad appeal; it’s all too obviously trying to square a circle that can’t be squared (US conservatives have been failing for generations to explain how free markets and stable social structures don’t undermine each other, and they’ve been failing for very good reason), and to put an economic gloss on things that religious conservatives want for different reasons anyway. But Huckabee-style populism doesn’t seem to have any more than this; certainly Huckabee’s own proposed tax reforms, as well as being completely loopy, are likely to hurt poor people considerably more than rich people.

If Huckabee represents a new Republican populism, that populism is a pretty weak brew. Not only that, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the dynamics of the race for the Republican nomination. Other Republican contenders for the nomination haven’t (at least so far) tried to use more populist language, much less tack towards adopting populist policy prescriptions.

The contrast with Edwards’ effect on the Democratic race is instructive. It may very likely be, as Brooks argues in the piece, that Edwards’ goose is cooked. Nonetheless, as “Matt Yglesias notes”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/01/mickey_kaus_is_making_sense.php (update: see also “Ezra Klein”:http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=01&year=2008&base_name=what_edwards_won#103502 ), Edwards has pulled the Democratic race considerably further to the left than it otherwise would have been. One of the main reasons that the most left-wing candidate hasn’t won the Iowa caucuses is that the other main candidates have had to tack closer to the left-wing (in their policies more than their rhetoric) than they would otherwise have done. That Huckabee hasn’t had anything like this effect suggests that Tomasky’s arguments about the internal rigidities of the Republican party are on-target. Huckabee hasn’t deviated that far from the Republican consensus, and to the extent that he has deviated, others haven’t felt the need to follow him.

One plausible alternative to Brooks’ prognostications might be that if Huckabee fails (as Brooks expects) to get the nomination, it will help speed the departure of evangelical Christians from electoral politics. Godfrey Hodgson, in his book on the rise of the American right, notes that evangelicals have gone through cycles of alternatively engaging directly in electoral politics and withdrawing from it in disgust at the political compromises that it involves (he argues that the current high level of evangelical engagement was precipitated by the efforts of US authorities in the 1970s to crack down on home-schooling, thus forcing evangelicals into direct political action). If Huckabee loses the race for the nomination, and if this loss is perceived by evangelicals as the result of machinations by leading figures in the Republican party, this, together with the recent outbreak of sex scandals, may be enough to make evangelicals stay home in disgust on election day. This is, of course, only one among many possibilities, but it seems more likely to me than a resurgent evangelical populism taking over the Republican party and transforming it.

Update 2: The above is of course based on the assumption that Huckabee can’t win. But what if he can? Philip Klinkner had an “interesting post”:http://polysigh.blogspot.com/2007/12/southernization-of-gop.html a few weeks back arguing that the Republican delegate system may give him an important edge.

Because the party awards bonus delegates to states that support Republican candidates, the South gets a major boost at the Republican convention. For 2008, the Republicans allocated a total of 483 bonus delegates. Of these, 219 (45 percent) went to 13 Southern states (the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky). The other 37 states, DC, and various territories received only 264 bonus delegates.

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Huckabee «
01.05.08 at 5:48 am

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1

Steve Laniel 01.04.08 at 4:24 pm

Two things, both fairly minor:

1. In re evangelicals abandoning electoral politics, you might want to check out “Wayward Christian Soldiers.” It’s an excellent attack on the ethical compromises necessary to make evangelicals a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GOP.

2. It’s sad that our structural problems have become such that a tiny fraction of voters have such an effect on electoral outcomes. Hopefully the National Popular Vote will help fix that.

2

alwsdad 01.04.08 at 4:50 pm

“But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact.”
And what does Brooks think Mike Huckabee can do about any one family’s threat from divorce? Brooks is completely off the mark. And this:
he’s not at war with modern culture…
Anyone who believes in 7-day creationism, is, by definition, at war with the culture. I guess Brooks thinks that having Chuck Norris at your side is the same as embracing “modern culture”.

3

Uncle Kvetch 01.04.08 at 5:09 pm

Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. …

Could somebody please translate this into English?

4

Uncle Kvetch 01.04.08 at 5:11 pm

Snark aside, I think Brooks’ clumsy pop-sociology is most easily interpreted as the beginning of the Republican establishment coming to grips with Huckabee. “We just might get stuck with this guy–better learn how to live with it.”

5

Henry 01.04.08 at 5:18 pm

I read it differently. Brooks has been writing for months now in various ways about a new form of populism, whether Democratic candidates like Edwards or Republicans could best capture it etc. I think that he is actually quite sincere when he writes about the need for a conservatism that reflects the interests of lower income earners. That said, I think that his argument that we are seeing the birth of same is implausible, and his claim that Huckabee represents a more modernity-friendly version of evangelism is completely off the mark for the reason that alwsdad mentions and for others.

6

Seth Finkelstein 01.04.08 at 5:22 pm

I don’t think those are too much in conflict if you adjust for the editorialist’s need to see revolutions around every corner. Huckabee is not a radical reformation of Republicanism. But he does seem to be pulling off the balancing act of tapping into the evangelicals effectively without driving everyone else away screaming.

The thing about “Other Republican contenders for the nomination haven’t (at least so far) tried to use more populist language, much less tack towards adopting populist policy prescriptions.” is that it’s working from the wrong direction. Huckabee is starting from the ground of having the evangelicals, and being less-than-ultraright enough for a Republican to attract non-evangelicals, while not driving away his base. The other candidates already have non-evangelicals, and haven’t been able to attract evangelicals. They wouldn’t be helped as much by being populist, if anything it might hurt their own bases. Essentially Huckabee has kept his base and taken some of the others, versus the others have not been able take much of his. They’ve tried – e.g. Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani. It doesn’t seem to have worked. What I think Brooks means by “he’s not at war with modern culture” is that the traditional way of courting evangelicals is to go gay-bashing or feminist-hating or atheist-baiting, which Huckabee hasn’t done (he may personally believe those sentiments, but he hasn’t made it a campaign strategy as far as I know).

Brooks is wrong though in that Huckabee’s strategy is not widely practiceable by modern Republicans, given the need to get the evangelicals in the first place.

7

Dan S. 01.04.08 at 5:57 pm

Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact

Most likely real lower-middle class families have to fear that the immediate consequences of free trade pacts will a)create the kind of economic stress on couples that can make divorce more likely, and b) make managing the results of divorce far more difficult, both especially in combination with policies which fail to expand the social safety net in response to freetrade shock&awe (telling people to ‘get more education’ isn’t sufficient) or worse, continue weakening it.

8

Colin Danby 01.04.08 at 6:02 pm

Huckabee’s a good politician and he scored a convincing win last night. Maybe we should update our priors.

9

Uncle Kvetch 01.04.08 at 6:10 pm

Maybe we should update our priors.

Feel free to update your priors, colin. Me, I’m going to focus on updating my resume, and committing all the information on the “Immigration Canada” website to memory.

10

Sk 01.04.08 at 6:13 pm

Feel free to update your priors, colin. Me, I’m going to focus on updating my resume, and committing all the information on the “Immigration Canada” website to memory.

Thank goodness.

Sk

11

Watson Aname 01.04.08 at 6:16 pm

committing all the information on the “Immigration Canada” website to memory.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em ?

12

Barry 01.04.08 at 6:45 pm

Any analysis of Brooks should start from the fact that he’s a lying wh*reson whose job is to feign being an intellectual sociologist while passing along right-wing lies.

Given that, I think that Unlcle Kvetch had it right in #4:
“Snark aside, I think Brooks’ clumsy pop-sociology is most easily interpreted as the beginning of the Republican establishment coming to grips with Huckabee. “We just might get stuck with this guy—better learn how to live with it.” ”

If Huckabee is winning the GOP nomination, Brooks will spin that as Good for America. If Romney won it, Brooks would be writing ‘Mormon in America’. If Giuliani, ‘Amtrak will run on time’.

13

Henry 01.04.08 at 6:52 pm

But he does seem to be pulling off the balancing act of tapping into the evangelicals effectively without driving everyone else away screaming.

Jury is still out on this, at the very least. According to “the NYT”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/04/us/politics/04repubs.html?_r=1&ref=politics&oref=slogin entrance polls suggest that more than 80% of Huckabee supporters were self-described evangelicals.

14

Crystal 01.04.08 at 6:58 pm

Dan S. @ 7 beat me to the comment I was going to make. The research of Steven P. Martin (and others) has demonstrated that divorce rates amongst educated, middle-to-upper class folks has been dropping like a stone since the ’80’s. OTOH divorce amongst poor people has been high and rising. Joblessness contributes; as does joblessness to rates of non-marriage in poor communities – women don’t want to marry men who can’t or won’t hold down a job.

That’s why I say a vote for Edwards is a vote for family values – Edwards has attempted to address the economic problems so many Americans face.

15

mds 01.04.08 at 7:00 pm

And what does Brooks think Mike Huckabee can do about any one family’s threat from divorce?

Well, he could try to make block transfers to states dependent on their adoption of “covenant marriage” aka “till death do us part, double plus infinity, no takebacks.” That and pushing for a beefier version of the Federal Marriage Amendment to fend off the homos should do the trick.

16

bh 01.04.08 at 7:12 pm

Given that Huckabee’s economic platform is, in substance, still really conservative, I’m genuinely unclear why the Republican establishment is so horrified by him. (And feigned horror at his ignorance of issues will not, after 7+ years of GWB, cut it.)

It does start to look like, even outside of money, a pure class issue. It isn’t enough to keep redistributing wealth upwards (go FairTax!). You have to be From Good Stock as well.

17

joseph duemer 01.04.08 at 7:45 pm

@4/14: Respectfully disagree. I read Brooks’ column as the first instance of the post-Iowa Republican drive to anoint St. John McCain as the only candidate acceptable across the Republican board.

18

ScottS 01.04.08 at 7:48 pm

Tomasky is probably correct about 2008; once the GOP field has been narrowed to Huckabee and non-Huckabee, non-Huckabee will probably win the nomination. Then, that poor guy will be eviscerated in the general election by Obama and the trends that Brooks is writing about will be more operative.

Tomasky writes that the status quo will hold “…because there are no strong countervailing Republican forces to present an opposite view or argue a different set of policies and principles.” Not yet. The coalition he writes about has yet to be smashed, but that seems more likely than ever given the underlying reality of Iraq, Afghanistan, debt, impending stagflation, the normalization of homosexuality, and myriad other failures of the Bush team.

PS: Sneering liberals who haven’t read Brooks’ _Bobos in Paradise_ really should; it pretty well explains why “Obama Republicans” is about to replace “Reagan Democrats” in the party coalition lingo. (Also useful: the analysis of anti-elitism in _The Right Nation_). Brooks is so obviously not a hard-right ideologue that calling him such says more about you than him.

19

Ben Alpers 01.04.08 at 7:53 pm

What I think Brooks means by “he’s not at war with modern culture” is that the traditional way of courting evangelicals is to go gay-bashing or feminist-hating or atheist-baiting, which Huckabee hasn’t done.

Actually, I think Brooks means that Huck plays the bass, issued a pardon to Keith Richards, and likes appearing with Chuck Norris. Of course, evangelicals–with the notable exception of Jack Chick–have been embracing rock and youth culture (or at least ersatz rock and youth culture) for decades.

Like so much else that Brooks writes, this observation suggests a nearly complete lack of knowledge of life in the fly-over states with a tendency to focus on the shallowest details of any sociological phenomenon he thinks he sees.

20

Russell Arben Fox 01.04.08 at 7:59 pm

That’s why I say a vote for Edwards is a vote for family values – Edwards has attempted to address the economic problems so many Americans face.

Crystal is exactly correct–the proper “family values” populist vote right now should clearly be for Edwards. But you have to see where the Republican rank-and-file stands now to appreciate what Huckabee can possibly, just maybe, mean. Tomasky is probably correct that, for many reasons (most of which boil down to structural idiocies in our campaign finance laws and election practices), the counterveiling forces that could successfully open up the Republican party to a true rethinking simply aren’t there, or at least aren’t there yet. But nonetheless, lower-class and struggling middle-class social conservatives are out there, talking a populist language without anyone serious promising to do anything about it. (This is obvious; it’s pretty much all anyone has been arguing about ever since What’s the Matter With Kansas? came out.) Edwards could try to reach out to these folks, and probably would connect with at least a few of them given the chance, but the progressive cultural/social commitments of more powerful factions in the Democratic party make it unlikely that Edwards go very far in that direction. And yet, their populist longings, even if not articulated that way, remain. Suddenly, here’s Huckabee: folksy, anti-abortion, an up-from-his-bootstraps hick who is occasionally willing to bash Bush and Wall Street and ring the populist, let’s-help-out-the-poor-a-little drum. He sounds pretty good; certainly better than that dude from Massachusetts who talks like a robotic CEO from Jupiter. So they’ll vote for him. And maybe he’ll effect a little change–just here and there–in Republican political possibilities. I’m not a Huckabee supporter, but I am a fan–because so long as we’re stuck with this infuriating two-party corporate system, cracking up one lousy coalition (the walking-dead Reagan one) is, in the long-run, better than nothing.

21

aaron 01.04.08 at 8:38 pm

I think Huckabee might win the republican nomination simply by process of elimination. I mean, who is going to beat him? Huckabee’s the only republican candidate who’s caught on to the fact that most republicans are willing to ditch Bush if given a clear alternative. Romney will fall because he’s a Bush-backer and a blue-stater; McCain may have run too many times to excite many Republicans; Giuliani is the craziest of them all. Huckabee will struggle to win the nomination, but I wouldn’t count him out just because at the moment his support is coming from the evangelicals. As for the presidency, I don’t see how any Republican could win.

22

Uncle Kvetch 01.04.08 at 8:49 pm

What I think Brooks means by “he’s not at war with modern culture” is that the traditional way of courting evangelicals is to go gay-bashing or feminist-hating or atheist-baiting, which Huckabee hasn’t done.

Huckabee doesn’t have to “court evangelicals” because evangelicals know that he’s already one of them. As for gay-bashing, he may not be making it a major part of this particular campaign, but he’s made no effort to backtrack on any of the very explicit and very strident gay-bashing he’s done in the past. The fact that he isn’t out there fulminating like Falwell at every opportunity may be enough to convince Brooks that he isn’t really “out there”–or, like I said, maybe Brooks’ column is a first salvo in the “He’s really not *that* scary” campaign.

23

seth edenbaum 01.05.08 at 2:10 am

Huckabee may pass Norquist’s test in theory but in action he ignored it.

24

Davis X. Machina 01.05.08 at 3:02 am

…the need for a conservatism that reflects the interests of lower income earners.

Such a conservatism didn’t exist when Disraeli invented it, and doesn’t exist now. There is no ‘populist’ version of a world where some few are born booted and spurred, and the many are born saddled, and ready to ride.

25

bernarda 01.05.08 at 12:13 pm

Citing Brooks is about as useful as citing Goldberg, except maybe for counter-examples to reason and logic.

Actually, I think the Huckster might be a closet atheist or at least agnostic. He frequently makes even rather good jokes about religion. He is a sort of Elmer Gantry or Marjoe Gortner and now he is pushing the extreme end to assure his base.

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