[Paleopsych] Brooks: A House Divided, and Strong
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Tue Apr 5 18:00:00 UTC 2005
A House Divided, and Strong
Opinion column by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5.4.5
We're living in the age of the liberal copycat. Al Franken tries to
create a liberal version of Rush. Al Gore announced his TV network
yesterday. Many Democrats have tried to create a liberal Heritage
The theory is that liberals must create their own version of the
conservative pyramid. Conservatives have formed their foundations,
think tanks and media outlets into a ruthlessly efficient message
machine. Liberals, on the other hand, have been losing because they
are too fractious, too nuanced and, well, too freethinking.
Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining
their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that
maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that
this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at
odds with reality.
Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined
and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they
are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these
factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves
conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.
In the early days of National Review, many of the senior editors
didn't even speak to one another. Whittaker Chambers declared that the
writings of Ayn Rand, a hero of the more libertarian right, reeked of
fascism and the gas chambers. Rand called National Review "the worst
and most dangerous magazine in America."
It's been like that ever since - neocons arguing with theocons, the
old right with the new right, internationalists versus isolationists,
supply siders versus fiscal conservatives. The major conservative
magazines - The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American
Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary - agree on almost
This feuding has meant that the meaning of conservatism is always
shifting. Once, Republicans were isolationists. Now most Republicans,
according to a New York Times poll, believe the U.S. should try to
change dictatorships into democracies when it can. Meanwhile, 78
percent of Democrats believe the U.S. should not try to democratize
Moreover, it's not only feuding that has been the key to conservative
success - it's also what the feuding's about. When modern conservatism
became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it
wasn't even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued
about the order of the universe, and how the social order should
reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different
philosophers - Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson - to define
what a just society should look like.
Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their
intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy.
That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of
admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because
they think that movement's views about human nature and society are
Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year
ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who
his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could
have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this
subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.
Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern
liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition,
liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism,
multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other
influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.
As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as
good at talking about a universal order.
If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn't want message
discipline. I'd take this opportunity to have a big debate about the
things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and
John Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the
In disunity there is strength.
In my last column, I mangled the contents of Sulmaan Wasif Khan's
paper. It's true that Donald Zagoria was one of the independent
writers whose perceptions about China were far more accurate than the
C.I.A.'s. But it was Allen Whiting who correctly predicted China's
willingness to improve relations with the United States in the early
E-mail: dabrooks at nytimes.com
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