Moderation for moderation’s sake

by Henry on March 3, 2009

David Brooks has been getting a “lot”:http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/strategist/2009/03/the_ultimate_david_brooks_colu.php of “flak”:http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2009/03/03/on-moderation/ for this “column”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/opinion/03brooks.html?ref=opinion (which is a follow up from this “one”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/opinion/24brooks.html?_r=1 a week earlier).

We [moderates] sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. … But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. … a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor … an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new. … U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment … All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward. … U.S. … skeptical of top-down planning. … U.S. has traditionally had a relatively limited central government. … Obama … actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice. …The first task will be to block the excesses of unchecked liberalism. … up to moderates to raise the alarms against these ideological outrages. … moderates will have to sketch out an alternative vision. This is a vision of a nation in which we’re all in it together — in which burdens are shared broadly, rather than simply inflicted upon a small minority.


As he specifically notes in his earlier column, Brooks considers himself to be a Burkean – someone who believes that radical changes are in general a bad idea, and that it is better to allow slow, organic change to take place instead. Hence, his claim that this budget is a form of social engineering. I actually think that this kind of conservativism, if done right (and Brooks has done it both “right”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/opinion/05brooks.html?ex=1349323200&en=be34753a10997e4e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss and “horribly wrong”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9905E1D9143EF934A15751C1A9659C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all ) has something of considerable value to offer to public debate. Large scale efforts to re-engineer society usually don’t work out all that well. But the evidence that this _is_ a vast experiment in social engineering is scanty. For example, as notorious leftist fire-breather “Ed Kilgore”:http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/strategist/2009/03/the_ultimate_david_brooks_colu.php points out, Obama’s proposals to increase taxes on the richest 5% (which, if the amount of space devoted to it is any guide, is Brooks’ most serious concern) effectively return us to the _status quo ante_ of 2001 or so, and hence are hardly unprecedented-in-America class warfare under any reasonable definition of the term.

But there’s a broader weakness to Brooks’ argument (which is endemic to his version of Burkeanism). It doesn’t really have anything to offer beyond a defence of the status-quo – an implicit assumption that _any_ effort to redress economic inequality is _ipso facto_ class warfare. John McGowan expresses this nicely in his “book on American liberalism”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FAmerican-Liberalism-Interpretation-Eugene-Lillian%2Fdp%2F0807831719%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1236098725%26sr%3D8-1&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325.

Mystery, our inability to know enough and thus to act wisely and necessities (either of complexity, of order, or of human nature) that frustrate any human effort to alter them – these are constant conservative watchwords against the dangerous human innovators who would dare to improve things. …Yet improvements do occur – and conservatives are constantly in the embarrassing position of having to admit that innovations they fervently opposed in the past are actually changes for the better now that they have arrived. Jerry Falwell “has apologized for his segregationist views” and presumably Russell Kirk does think the abolition of American slavery a good thing even though he tells us that America’s antebellum conservatives North and South “could not prevail against Abolitionists and Fire-Eaters,” which led to “the catastrophe of the Civil War.”

And this is the problem with the piece. It does contain some sweeping claims about American traditions that are being trampled by this proposed budget – but all these traditions are vaguely described, and have historically accommodated greater deviations from the purported true path than are being proposed here. So if looked at closely, it really amounts to little more than a statement that the status quo should be respected because it is the status quo.

As John suggests, this is a generic problem for conservatism. Ross Douthat (if I remember correctly; I can’t find the reference) has admitted that his brand of conservatism would likely have obliged him to oppose the Civil Rights movement if he had been around in the 1960s, although he clearly doesn’t oppose it now.

In short, Burkean conservatism, unless it is tempered with an implicit liberalism (as Burke’s own conservatism arguably was, at least in part) amounts to a defence of the status quo, _even when that status quo is itself the product of direct political manipulations._ It doesn’t (and shouldn’t be thought to) provide a case against ambitious political measures (which fall short of major experiments in social engineering) without further – and quite specific – arguments as to why these measures are problematic. And Brooks doesn’t provide these arguments, or anything like them.

{ 52 comments }

1

Harry 03.03.09 at 4:55 pm

Link to McGowan’s book needs fixing.

2

riffle 03.03.09 at 4:59 pm

If Brooks’ house was on fire, he would urge the firefighters to take an incrementalist approach and try to reduce the flames slowly rather than t taking the radical approach of dousing them with water.

3

Adam Kotsko 03.03.09 at 5:10 pm

When has the status quo ever been anything but the product of direct political manipulations? Perhaps in the Garden of Eden?

4

Bloix 03.03.09 at 5:19 pm

Modern conservatives claim to be followers of Burke but they are actually disciples of de Maistre.

5

Henry 03.03.09 at 5:20 pm

fixed, thanks.

6

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 5:44 pm

I think that it’s an enormous mistake to take Brooks at face value. He’s an operative with an assigned task, which is to soften up the rightmost sector of the Democratic prosperous, educated, sophisticated middle class. Life the Republicans working with Jews and blacks he doesn’t have to change many minds to be a success. If he can wedge away 1% or 2% of the Democratic moderates, he’s done his job.

He answers both to the Republicans and to the Times, and he can play them off against one another. He has to keep his Republican cred, but the Republican pros know his game and will be easy on him. He has to keep his sanity cred and a bit of “moderation cred, but the Times can’t fire him because he’s a Republican plant / commissar / zampolit. He shows a little independence to maintain his cover, but at all key moments he does his job.

Yes, I think that this is actually true. The Times has been pressured into hiring “conservatives”, and conservativism is part of Brooks’ job description. he can’t change much, and the Times can’t fire him.

7

ejh 03.03.09 at 5:59 pm

I always get annoyed bythe phrase “social engineering” – because as far as I can see if some children are raised in poverty while others have wealthy homes, public schools (in the UK sense) and inheritances, that constitutes social engineering. Oddly though it is never used to mean that.

8

StevenAttewell 03.03.09 at 6:03 pm

One thing that particularly got up my craw: “U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment.” Oh really? The Great Railroad Strike of 1872, Homestead, Haymarket, the Pullman Strike, the Harlan County Wars, Ludlow, Coxey’s Army, 1919, the entire 1930s, etc. etc.

Hell, America’s political system in the 20th century was riven by class resentment, and arguably remains riven to this day.

Why is Brooks considered an intellectual, again? He doesn’t know anything!

9

Adam Kotsko 03.03.09 at 6:07 pm

Brooks is a kind of social scientist, without the “science” part, of course, but also without any real eye for the “social” (i.e., the systemic, the things that are more than the sum of individual decisions). For Brooks, social trends just mysteriously happen, because people unaccountably decide to start behaving in a certain way en masse.

10

Raghav 03.03.09 at 6:13 pm

I think this must be the Douthat post you were looking for:

With this mind, I think there’s something to be said for simply conceding that support for segregation – as deep-rooted and “conservative” an institution as has ever existed in America, in a sense – simply was the conservative position in the 1950s, and that the liberals were right that the injustice of the practice required a deeply un-conservative response, as they have been right (and will be right again) on other points as well.

11

Uncle Kvetch 03.03.09 at 6:15 pm

What John Emerson said. Brooks is a partisan shill with a very specific role to play, and he plays it well…any number of self-identified “liberal” Americans will tell you that, yeah, he’s a conservative, but at least he’s one of the “reasonable ones.”

Was he anywhere near as leery of “social engineering” when it was a question of remaking the entire Middle East in our image through the application of American military force? (Rhetorical question, obviously.)

12

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 6:16 pm

Riffle, “If Brooks’ house was on fire, he would urge the firefighters to take an incrementalist approach and try to reduce the flames slowly rather than t taking the radical approach of dousing them with water.”

I don’t think you understand Burkean arguments very well. Dousing flames with water is an established method of putting them out and has been for at least as long as civilization has used fire. Putting out fire with water is about as an extreme case of something that would be ok under the argument as I can think of.

Henry: “In short, Burkean conservatism, unless it is tempered with an implicit liberalism (as Burke’s own conservatism arguably was, at least in part) amounts to a defence of the status quo, even when that status quo is itself the product of direct political manipulations. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t be thought to) provide a case against ambitious political measures (which fall short of major experiments in social engineering) without further – and quite specific – arguments as to why these measures are problematic. And Brooks doesn’t provide these arguments, or anything like them.”

Well yes. Revolutionary concepts untempered by conservative instincts tend toward disaster. Conservative instincts untempered by liberal sensibilities tend toward calcification. Probably the most useful poltical voice has a good political sensibility which is the opposite of whatever trend is going on at the time. When liberal tinkering is ascendant you should be listening to conservative critiques. When conservative calcification is entrenched you should be listening to liberal ideas for change.

But the idea that Burkean conservatism is merely status quo with no good argument is misunderstanding the whole thing. First the caution to revolutionaries is “if you can’t explain to me why this fence was here, you can’t just take it down”. The idea being that societies evolve in fitness, and your lack of understanding about why they evolved in a certain way isn’t enough to radically tear it down. You should be able to experiment around the edges (if we shorten the fence is there a problem? if we put a gate in does it cause problems that overwhelm the good we get from the gate?). But if you want to just tear it down you better be able to demonstrate excellent understanding of why it was there in the first place. (Of course most revolutionaries paper over this step anyway by claiming everything they want to change was designed to oppress their favored class with no other useful function but misuse of theory doesn’t have to discredit the theory).

And I’m pretty sure that Burkean framework works pretty well to integrate into specific criticism. Take Friedman’s argument against radically progressive taxation programs, and for his ideal tax structure (and I paraphrase from memory).

Burkean insights: successful economies seem to have voting populations that seem connected to the costs and benefits either by having a tightly knit community with similar values (Nordic countries) or by keeping the tax structures relatively flat such that you avoid a situation where a majority can vote up its own benefits without feeling a large part of the cost. Successful economies also seem to take care of their poorest members without taxing them. So in arguing against a large disparity in taxation rate, he is using Burkean insights with a specific argument about why very progressive tax rates are bad (they divorce the cost/benefit analysis that is necessary for good governance by radically divorcing the benificiaries from the people paying). In arguing for his ideal taxation system (again from memory) he is offering experimental tweaks–exclude the poorest from taxation entirely (already done), transition them toward the basic tax rate smoothly to avoid disincentives (fairly minor tweak with clearly understood ramifications), tax everyone else in a fairly narrow band I believe he suggested that the top tax rate should be no more than around 10 points higher than the basic rate and raise the rate smoothly (avoiding the cost/benefit divorce and avoiding tweaking disincentives at step-points). This proposal isn’t really that far from what we have now, and would be an acceptably Burkean evolution rather than a revolution throwing away whatever benefits there are in what we currently have.

As far as I can tell, that is how a good Burkean criticism works. Which isn’t to say the argument WINS every time. Just that it seems to me that it is very well worth considering and not at all the same as a blind defense of the status quo.

13

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 6:31 pm

Contemproary conservative claim to be disciples of Strauss but really are disciples of Schmitt. IE, what Bloix said.

14

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 6:35 pm

Let’s keep Burke and Brooks separate. I’m not too crazy about Burke, but he deserves serious attention. Brooks is a hack.

A lot of radical experiments are status quo by now. Few conservatives are Burkean about attacking Social Security, or Keynesianism, or century-old progressive regulations, or the National Parks and the Smithsonian — etc. They’re all still radical experiments to conservatives.

15

bianca steele 03.03.09 at 6:36 pm

Brooks has been going on and on about what he’s calling “moderates” for weeks. Here’s part of what I blogged about his Feb. 6 column:

In the model Brooks is praising this morning, moderates are destructive — and yet somehow automagically creative as well. . . . I wonder whether Brooks could explain to his readers how persistent, unrelenting negativism could create a functioning center where previously there had been nothing.

I have a guess: He seems to imagine that any objection made must necessarily have some substance to it. By saying no until no can no longer be possibly said, the “moderates” Brooks envisions will discover the true form the legislation ought to take.

“Up to moderates to raise the alarm”? Sounds like the same thing.

I know a little about Burke, but not enough to say whether he would praise persistent, unrelenting negativism as a way to preserve traditional societies.

16

geo 03.03.09 at 6:44 pm

“Moderation for moderation’s sake” is a defensible position. Go slow, doubt oneself, look for the wisdom of what already exists, etc. This is honorable conservatism, Burke’s and Coleridge’s. But as we all know, it has nothing to do with the Republican Party since Reagan, whose apologists are engaged purely and simply in the defense of privilege and the rationalization of plunder.

The bastards have been waging class war since they put down Shay’s Rebellion. Neither Buckley nor Brooks nor (I fear) Douthat ever did or ever will acknowledge this.

17

geo 03.03.09 at 6:55 pm

Sebastian@12: if you want to just tear it down you better be able to demonstrate excellent understanding of why it was there in the first place. (Of course most revolutionaries paper over this step anyway by claiming everything they want to change was designed to oppress their favored class with no other useful function but misuse of theory doesn’t have to discredit the theory).

A little test for you: We liberals want to tear down the tax and regulatory policies of the Bush administration, on the theory that the whole corrupt structure was designed “in the first place” to enrich investors and executives at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment. Do you agree (with whatever minor qualifications)? Or do you insist that we are entitled to do no more than tinker with them and experiment around the edges?

18

c.l. ball 03.03.09 at 7:07 pm

Well, put. I found the column bizarre. I don’t know what “social engineering” he is talking about. It is not like the budget embeds a radical healthcare proposal in it, and from what we know of Obama, he has no plans for a radical healthcare proposal.

The class warfare stuff was nonsensical. The idea that the wealthiest 5% will pay a greater share under Obama, in later years, than they did under Bush does not constitute class warfare.

19

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 7:19 pm

“We liberals want to tear down the tax and regulatory policies of the Bush administration, on the theory that the whole corrupt structure was designed “in the first place” to enrich investors and executives at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment. Do you agree (with whatever minor qualifications)? Or do you insist that we are entitled to do no more than tinker with them and experiment around the edges?”

I’d suggest that the Bush tax structure was a tinkering that failed and can thus be abandoned in favor of the previous system under Burkean principles.

I don’t know about ‘regulatory policies’ in general. I think you’d have to ask me about individual cases for me to decide. (Which is the Burkean answer too).

So I’m not sure your ‘gotcha’ worked very well unless I’m misunderstanding your intentions.

20

geo 03.03.09 at 7:27 pm

I was trying to get you to acknowledge that Republicanism since Reagan has been a determined, even fanatical, effort to dismantle the New Deal. “Tinkering” hardly describes it. They were trying, in the immortal words of that great (and far more influential than Burke these last twenty years) conservative Grover Norquist, “to shrink government until it can be drowned in a bathtub.”

I couldn’t remember whether you’d ever repudiated this radically debased ideology with the contempt it deserves, so I wanted to offer you the opportunity.

21

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 7:29 pm

You expanded the question rather dramatically from the one you initially posed to me. Was that intentional?

22

geo 03.03.09 at 7:36 pm

I don’t see the dramatic expansion. Reaganism, Gingrichism, and Bushism are all of a piece, all one project. But I don’t mean to fence with you; I just wanted to press home the point that the last several decades of Republican rule have been radically destructive and that very extensive social repair is necessary and justified.

23

Michael Bérubé 03.03.09 at 7:37 pm

Putting out fire with water is about as an extreme case of something that would be ok under the argument as I can think of.

Clearly someone hasn’t been following current affairs closely enough.

24

roy belmont 03.03.09 at 7:56 pm

Adam Kotsko #9 –
Yah, and there’s an element of sadism in it, bondage fetish. Where the game is that the dominant player has some kind of moral imperative for what’s base gratification of perverse desire and power exchange.
Brooks speaks for the creators of mass impulse, manipulators of mass ideas about the world. There’s sickness there, wound, perverse catharsis.
Part of the game is that stance of near-innocent reaction, decisive, impelled by an active conscience, but it’s a reaction to an artificial circumstance the reacting agency has created .
It’s taboo to acknowledge how thoroughly the mass opinion Brooks responds to is controlled. Because then the game won’t work.

25

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 8:00 pm

Geo, you definitely aren’t looking at it from a Burkean perspective. It is about society as evolution. You want to look only at one direction’s reaction and want to exclude what it was reacting to. 70s era crime in the US for example. Or, horrific, community destroying Housing and Urban Development projects run by snobbish Democratic Party technocrats who thought their theories justified the drastic restructuring of underclass neighborhoods in ways that ended up in fact to be awful.

Yes liberals of today aren’t as likely to make those particular mistakes, as they’ve absorbed a less controlling ethic. But that doesn’t retroactively cause the real problems they caused to disappear. That doesn’t mean that for that era, Reagan’s quip about government help didn’t have a legitimate reason to resonate with lots of people.

One of the reasons Democrats look like they might be non-awful at government now, is because they’ve accepted some of the criticisms of how they ran things in the the 60s and 70s (and they did run things, look at Congressional control and number of vetos or their nearly one party control of many of the biggest cities at the time).

It is all evolution. And that is good for the country in the long run. Dramatic reordering rarely end up great, whether in government or in the private world. (Witness the number of big mergers that end up not making things any better than if the two firms had stayed separate.)

26

Phil 03.03.09 at 8:04 pm

Burkean conservatism, unless it is tempered with an implicit liberalism (as Burke’s own conservatism arguably was, at least in part) amounts to a defence of the status quo, even when that status quo is itself the product of direct political manipulations

This reminds me of Sciascia’s critique of the Italian Communist Party’s high-minded approach to the Christian Democrats; he essentially argued that they projected their own Right-Hegelian vision of the Italian Constitution onto the party they saw as its contemporary guardians, heedless of the fact that that party saw itself (and was seen by its voters) as a machine for monopolising and distributing the spoils of power. Their Right-Hegelianism was all too genuine; I’m not sure Brooks’s is.

27

Rich Puchalsky 03.03.09 at 8:06 pm

Let me take Brooks at face value just for a minute — although, as John Emerson says, he really is just a hack, trying any insincere line that may work. What if moderates really did believe something like this?

Well, then moderation is evil, and moderates are carrying out evil. If your reaction to a President engaging in aggressive war and torture is to say “Wait, I agree that those sound like bad things, but we need to get rid of them slowly, and make sure that we don’t lose capabilities we may need” then you’re defending evil. If people are dying every day because of lack of health care and because of a financial system that keeps them poor, and you say that we can’t go to fast to change things, you’re killing them.

I’m not saying that we need to run around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying any foolish thing that may work. But the solutions for these things are well-known and advocated by credible people who have been consistently right during the time when everyone else proves to have been wrong. Reject those solutions because you’re worried about things going too fast — and god damn you to hell.

Moderates will of course go into their usual narcissistic dribble about how all haters are bad, and how this makes them uncomfortable and what politics is about is feeling good, and how they could never trust anyone who seems to think that they are right, and how this is an unworkable politics because it doesn’t pull people like them in, etc. Well, I’m not saying that Obama should propound this politics. He has to be effective, and maybe his way is most effective. I don’t. So any moderates reading this: know that you are scum, and that a good chunk of America thinks that you’re scum, and think about that the next time you’re congratulating yourself on how moderate you are.

28

geo 03.03.09 at 8:15 pm

Yes, I agree that Democratic urban, racial, and law enforcement policies in the 60s and 70s were seriously flawed, and that critics like Moynihan, Glazer, Bell, and even Kristol made valid criticisms of them. (The best criticisms, in my view, came from liberals who stayed liberals, like Jim Sleeper.) But I emphatically don’t agree with the notion that Reaganism was an attempt to correct liberals’ mistakes rather than abandon their goals. Mid- and late-20th century conservatives never accepted the New Deal. They always wanted to roll it back — not incrementally and partially but rapidly and completely. They were radicals, and their successors in the Bush administration were ultra-radicals.

29

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 8:39 pm

The worst racial mistake the Democrats made in the 60s was the Voting Rights act. That’s where the anger came from.

30

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 9:23 pm

“But I emphatically don’t agree with the notion that Reaganism was an attempt to correct liberals’ mistakes rather than abandon their goals. Mid- and late-20th century conservatives never accepted the New Deal. They always wanted to roll it back—not incrementally and partially but rapidly and completely.”

That is your interpretation. I would suggest that you paint with much too broad a brush if you think that most mid and late century conservatives are/were like that, and that is doubly true for Reagan. Like most human institutional reactions, there was an overreaction that you can see culminating in Bush II, but that isn’t proof that the initial reaction was wrong any more than the horrific Democratic HUD policies proved that the New Deal was wrong.

31

Righteous Bubba 03.03.09 at 9:28 pm

“Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.”
–Ronald Reagan, quoted in Time, May 17, 1976

32

geo 03.03.09 at 9:59 pm

you paint with much too broad a brush if you think that most mid and late century conservatives are/were like that

My condolences, Sebastian. You conservatives have been the victims of a gigantic terminological hijacking, just as we socialists have. “Socialism” means radical democracy, and the misappropriation of the word by Lenin and his successors to describe their party dictatorship was egregious. Of course, you conservatives, whether from ignorance or malice, were only to happy to cooperate with Communists in obscuring the original meaning of socialism. Republicans since (and definitely including) Reagan have misappropriated the once-honorable term “conservatism” to describe their version of rank plutocracy. You had better hope that others are more scrupulous about acknowledging the distinction between conservativism and Reagan/Gingrich/Bush -ism than you and your cohort were about acknowledging the difference between socialism and Lenin/Stalin/Mao -ism.

33

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 10:04 pm

Ummm, OK. I mean if you can’t even tell the difference between Reagan and Gingrich, you don’t have much room to lecture.

34

bianca steele 03.03.09 at 10:59 pm

The way US conservatives — I mean political conservatives, not apolitical people, or even liberals and progressives, who would like their grandchildren to admire Fielding, Matisse, and Wesley, and to “respect” women by considering them best when refined and retiring — use Burke is strange. They don’t stop with the idea that social changes are good only when they arise organically out of the society itself. They go on to abhor the French Revolution, regarding which even the most reactionary Frenchmen have given up.

Some of them (I don’t mean Brooks, because I think he is confused) appear to understand this, but none of them will say it.

That in itself is particularly annoying because liberals have been so willing to appreciate what is good in conservative thought. (For example, I thought Oakeshott was a liberal on account of Rorty’s praise for him.) It is as if they know they are using liberals to do their thinking for them.

35

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 11:09 pm

I think a big part of the problem is that there is a conservative and liberal temperament which really has nothing to do with poltical bent. I have no idea how you would measure it easily, but I’d be surprised if it correlated closely to political affiliation. Conservatives (temperament) offer good caution to liberals (temperament) while liberals (temperament) keep conservatives (temperament) from getting too stuck in their ways. But like ‘love’ we try to use the words to mean too many different things. I love my dog, my daughter, my husband, this book, don’t all mean the same thing. Trying to act as if it does only causes confusion. Burkean conservatism has strong political overtones, but really it is a positive description of the conservative temperament. And that can be found in pretty much any political party. It isn’t just a feature of political conservatives or Republicans. In fact you can argue that many of them are not in fact found there, and that many conservatives (political party) aren’t really temperamentally conservative.

The problem in these discussions is that people go back and forth between temperament and political party without notice, and maybe without even noticing.

36

geo 03.03.09 at 11:24 pm

Ummm, OK. I mean if you can’t even tell the difference between Reagan and Gingrich, you don’t have much room to lecture.

This is exactly as silly and unresponsive as it would be to suggest that I had accused conservatives of seeing no difference between Lenin and Stalin. Perhaps, in order to avoid shallow and unthinking retorts like this, we should agree not to answer each other’s comments for an hour or so after reading them.

37

bianca steele 03.03.09 at 11:33 pm

Sebastian,
I’ve never heard anybody “go back and forth” between political and nonpolitical uses of “liberal” and “conservative.” When I read, “there is a conservative and a liberal temperament,” I interpret this as meaning, “there is one temperament to which the Republican Party appeals and another temperament to which the Democratic Party appeals.”

People who think they can call themselves conservative, and urge others to have “conservative” values, and at the same time support progressive social movements and reforms like feminism or diversity, are trying to have it both ways, and they are deluded.

38

bianca steele 03.03.09 at 11:38 pm

That said, I am open to the possibility that there could again be a liberal branch of Republicanism (“liberal” in the American sense, of course), as may have been true in the 1950s and early 1960s. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. Pretending neoconservatives are liberals won’t make it happen.

39

Righteous Bubba 03.03.09 at 11:41 pm

Conservatives (temperament) offer good caution to liberals (temperament) while liberals (temperament) keep conservatives (temperament) from getting too stuck in their ways.

And there you have described the entire Democratic party.

The radicals and kooks in the Republican party are another matter.

40

Sebastian 03.03.09 at 11:58 pm

“I’ve never heard anybody “go back and forth” between political and nonpolitical uses of “liberal” and “conservative.” When I read, “there is a conservative and a liberal temperament,” I interpret this as meaning, “there is one temperament to which the Republican Party appeals and another temperament to which the Democratic Party appeals.””

And that would be an enormous misunderstanding of my comments. You’re doing worse than going back and forth between the definitions, you’re asserting that they are identical. It would be like saying that I ‘love’ my husband exactly like I ‘love’ a book. Not everything is political. In theory it could be true that conservatives (temperament) are conservatives (political). Someone at least thought it was a good concept from a propaganda point of view at some point. But in the US, if you are thinking conservatives (temperament)=Republicans you either aren’t understanding what I’m saying at all, or completely denying its validity in a weird passive-aggressive way.

41

bianca steele 03.04.09 at 12:29 am

Sebastian,
You must have an enormous sense of entitlement, to think you can insult people in every way (you say that I can’t read what you wrote, that I’m passive-aggressive, and I’m sure you’ll think of some more if I give you the chance), and expect them to debate you in a civil way, such that somebody might learn something.

As regards your last sentence, you are correct that I didn’t understand what you said, and the reason is that I charitably assumed you knew what you were talking about. Find me an American who calls himself a conservative and does not intend his listeners to understand him to be saying, “I vote Republican.” As regards what comes before the last sentence, you’ve written gibberish just to fill out the paragraph, and I would be foolish to attempt to straighten you out.

42

Adam 03.04.09 at 1:10 am

Brooks is the Grima Wormtongue of the republican party. His job is to council democrats to embrace weakness in the name of “realism”, to surrender and despair.

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Sebastian 03.04.09 at 2:09 am

Umm, I am a conservative, and I am not voting Republican now or at any time in the likely future.

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Sebastian 03.04.09 at 2:10 am

And that was the case for my entire family

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John Quiggin 03.04.09 at 3:31 am

The current crisis points up a big problem for the ideas of supporters of “organic, gradual” change, such as (at least in the standard picture I get mostly second-hand of these writers) Burke and Oakeshott. The collapse, rescue and large-scale nationalisation of the global banking system seems to be an ideal example of an organic change – no one drew up any blueprints or plans, it just emerged from the logic of events. But of course the result is change that is anything but gradual.

In this context, I disagree at least in part with Harry and agree to some extent (groan) with Brooks. Granted, there’s nothing remarkably radical about Obama’s tax package or any of his other proposals. But when you take the budget, the crisis and the responses to the crisis together, the result “is more than just the sum of its parts.” If the budget goes through, the rescue measures work, and the economy recovers, the result could easily be a transformation on a par with the New Deal.

The big problem for conservatives, as I’ve suggested, is the lack of an alternative. Since the system they defend has made radical changes inevitable, there is no conservative response possible.

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Sebastian 03.04.09 at 4:34 pm

I guess I just don’t see that as a ‘big problem for conservatives’ in any strong sense. There are things that happen in life where certain temperaments are more suited to respond. There are times (I believe most because I’m temperamentally conservative) where slow organic change is wisest. There are emergencies where you have to act more quickly. That is a challenge, as we hate to operate out of our comfortable temperament, but that is how life works.

Take more personal area–human relationships. People with conservative temperaments want to slowly plod through working on them (good) but will often get stuck in ones that are never going to be fixed (bad). So when they are in abusive relationships they are at a disadvantage compared to those with more liberal temperaments because they are less likely to leave. (Maybe. It could also be that if the shift from non-abusive to abusive is very quick, it will be so jarring to the conservative temperament as to cause retreat).

A person with a liberal temperament may not be so open to the small changes in relationships, they want things fixed now. For actually bad relationships, this can be good. It will help them leave. For basically good relationships with some problems it might be bad, because it will encourage them to hop from one imperfect person to the next, never satisfied because the changes toward better don’t come fast enough.

Each temperament is suited better for different situations. And a really healthy human being (which I certainly won’t claim to be) learns to adopt a little from outside his own temperament when his temperament isn’t well suited to the situation at hand.

So yes, liberal (oriented toward sweeping changes) ideas might make more sense now.

But you should look at the value of organic change too. Who would have thought that even revolutionary change in the US could lead to a black president 30 years after Reagan? Yet in fact it was incrementalist change that got us there.

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E.L. Beck 03.04.09 at 4:44 pm

An extreme response has a way of finding moderation, whether it desires so or not. The Federal government’s initiatives will eventually find their smack down in the bond market.

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salient 03.05.09 at 3:41 am

Yet in fact it was incrementalist change that got us there.

… All I can say is, I do not think you are correct at all. Unless you would also call Hoover-to-Roosevelt “incrementalist change” rather than a strong response to rather suddenly overwhelming stimuli.

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Sebastian 03.05.09 at 4:54 am

In 1979 race relations were pretty awful. They had been worse, but still even then it would have been difficult to imagine revolutionary change that could end with a black man in the white house in 2009. Now I’m not saying that fixes everything, or that race is dead as an important issue, but the fact remains that it would have been surprising even with most conceivable revolutionary changes at the time. But in fact, it didn’t take revolutionary change. And we got there anyway.

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Dr Zen 03.05.09 at 7:03 am

Brooks is a “moderate” compared with shrieking demagogues like Limbaugh, but that doesn’t put him anywhere near the centre. It’s been said enough times that Brooks wasn’t all that concerned by Bush’s radicalism, and he wasn’t, and one suspects that if Obama set out plans to scrap Social Security and straight out replace it with ISAs or the like tomorrow, Brooks would find a way to praise him.

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bianca steele 03.05.09 at 1:38 pm

Brooks starts with ideas that most Republicans and right-leaning independents consider liberal, and that liberals, most Democrats except the rightmost wing, simultaneously, often are not crazy about. When Brooks is done with them, the Limbaugh crowd hates liberals even more than before (especially if they consider Brooks to be a liberal), the “centrists” are inclined to think what they believe both is incontrovertibly true and makes them naturals for the Republican Party, and the liberals either think he’s being ironic or are racking their brains trying to figure out how someone so reasonable-sounding could believe that.

I suspect most libertarians don’t think much of those ideas, either. What I’m not sure about is whether centrists like Brooks are Republicans because they are pro-business (which I’d think would make them libertarian-leaning) or for some other reason (which is what I increasingly think to be the case).

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bianca steele 03.05.09 at 1:52 pm

Furthermore, suppose Brooks’s goal were to push the libertarians out of the Republican Party, and make that party simultaneously more ideological and more socially conservative. He would be doing exactly what he is doing now. He would be drawing in the ideologically inclined among centrists, those attracted to the promulgation of socially conservative “values” such as are said to mitigate the effects of the market society. He would be attempting to marginalize the secular populist wing of the party. As for whether this really is his goal, I’m not yet convinced he’s that . . . um, Trotskyite.

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