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David Brooks, radical conservatism, and milquetoast

October 11, 2011

David Brooks is a radical conservative.  Contrary to the belief of many, the term radical conservative isn’t an oxymoron.  It’s in fact a tautology, they necessarily go together given the historical reality of what it means to be conservative.

Corey Robin has provided some very valuable insights into the nature of conservatism in his recent work “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin”.  At its heart, according to Robin, conservatism is a reaction against democracy, a class project defending itself against the threat of the “agency of the subordinate classes”.  Liberty is its byword but only the “liberty for the highest orders and constraint for the lower”.  What the conservative “sees and dislikes in equality is not a threat to freedom, but its extension (in which) he sees a loss of his own freedom”.  In opposing the equality inherent in democracy and therefore opposing the interests of the broad masses, conservatism is necessarily radical, “its raison d’etre”.  To succeed, it must be an activist doctrine that brings “the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate”.  “The conservative adapts and adopts the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy”.  “Making privilege palatable to the masses is the permanent project of conservatism”.

So when Brooks today claims he and other conservatives are the true radicals while the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the dormant  left mere “milquetoast radicals”, he’s not very far off the mark.  His misuse of tax statistics, noted by Krugman, is sneaky and his implication that the protestors are somehow anti-Semitic is absurd, but his fundamental point that conservatives are more radical than today’s mainstream left is certainly true.

Brooks and the conservatives are forced by current events into admitting there are deep structural problems in the global system.  When you strip away the populist rhetoric, though, you find nothing other than an aggressive radical defense of hierarchy.  After spending a good part of his article defending the top 1% and attacking even the very idea that any problem can be “productively conceived” from an inequality viewpoint, he ends with a regurgitation of proposals that, among other things, “slash(es) corporate taxes and raise(s) energy taxes”, “require(s) national service”, “balance(s) the budget by 2018”, “replace(s) the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment” and institutes consumption taxes.  All radical conservative ideas that do nothing but reinforce the power of hierarchy.

The OWS movement opposes extreme hierarchy, as in “We are the 99%”, and is therefore anti-capitalist to the extent capitalism is by its nature hierarchical.  The values of the left are the values of democracy and they are in direct opposition to the reality of capitalism (not necessarily markets per se) and the political philosophy of conservatism.  Demands that don’t confront both the radical nature of today’s hierarchy and conservatism itself are, per Brooks, mere milquetoast.

  1. David Brooks is an idiot. I’ve stopped reading his nonsense long ago. What the left must learn is that sometimes it is healthy and appropriate to simply ignore idiots.

  2. I’d have to disagree – Brooks isn’t an idiot. He’s one of the more powerful proponents of conservatism in the US. Conservatism isn’t idiotic either, it’s an anti-democratic ideology of power that draws a lot of working class people into it.

  3. Andrew permalink

    Brooks really doesn’t understand that the government can make money forever. He’s obsessively worried about the debt and the unsustainability of the social safety net, though he is wrong in worrying about these things. He is serious and earnest, he’s just uninformed, I think. He’s also part of this silliness about our broken education system, which isn’t broken, but rudderless and coercive. He worries about wage stagnation, but I am sure would dislike raising the minimum wage or setting a maximum wage, though you must give him credit for being open to raising taxes, which is one tool to eliminating the extreme equality, and hence, wage stagnation.

    I don’t understand how smart people don’t understand.

  4. Andrew,

    I think you misinterpret who Brooks is and what he represents. He’s a direct descendent of William F. Buckley and his position at the NY Times is based on his defense of the conservative view. I think Brooks’s rhetoric must be taken as the best way (only way) to convey conservative philosophy in a democratic society – he’s a pragmatic conservative. And I don’t mean to say he’s necessarily insincere.

    As far as credit for taxes, note that his proposals are for consumption based taxes that would be highly beneficial to the upper crust. He’s even calling for the elimination of income taxes.

    It’s not that smart conservatives don’t understand or smart people on the left don’t understand. There’s a very real difference in political philosophy on where power should rest.

  5. Tom Hickey permalink

    David Brooks is a shill for the 1%. People like him know that cronies and minions get paid well for being water-carriers and toadies.

    Capitalism is incompatible with democracy, which is why there are no actually democracies other than in a few tribal societies in which everyone has a voice and consensus rules. Once a state is injected, the state has a monopoly on violence and uses state power to advance the interest of the ruling class.The ruling class then begins expropriating the commons and turning it into private property under their ownership.

    Capitalism is an economic system which favors, well, capital. “Capital” in the economic sense means ownership. The ruling class is the power elite which aggregates property (wealth) to itself. The purpose of the state is to protect the security of the ownership class and to protect their property. This is the basic conservative position.

    There were two factions active at the time of the founding of the US, the democratic faction that wanted rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, and the republican faction, which wanted rule by men of property (women being chattel). The latter won, the US became a republic in which the propertied class controlled the state, and the democratic faction was subsequently suppressed. See the work of historian Willam Hogeland, for example, at Hysteriography—Hogeland’s commentaries on populism, liberalism, and conservatism in American history, politics, and poetics ( Some of his posts on the founding of the US are aggregated at New Deal 2.0 here (

    The way a republican system works, especially a two party system like the US, is that the ruling elite funds the political process and controls the media. Through its influence, it chooses the candidates that get the funding needed to run a successful campaign and the all important media coverage that publicizes them. The people then get to choose between two alternatives nominated by the parties, who are actually picked by the elite and beholden to the elite.

    On the other hand, socialism, that is, recognition of the primacy of the commons, is compatible with liberal democracy, however, because it is, well, social. That is is say, it is about the ordering and governance of society by all the members of society equally for the good of each and all. Liberal democracy is the basic liberal position, which sets commonly agreed upon public purpose over private gain.

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