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April 05, 2005

Sez Sage Brooks

Unlike some others, I don't see much to laud in Brooks's column this morning. From my vantage point, it's just another trite outing in which Sensible David explains that it's not lockstep ideological rigidity combined with top-flight institutions that has made conservatism the handsome superforce it is today, but a long process of healthy intramovement argument and deep study of their philosophical forebears. In other words, more on how wonderful Republicans are and why Democrats should take off their horns and copy their opponents. The column ends with one of those now overused conclusions that most liberals, sad to say, probably couldn't tell you their favorite philosopher if you asked them to. That, of course, is what's wrong with the Democratic party. Bush can name Christ, Brooks can name Burke, but leftists don't think quick enough to say Rawls.

But which Democratic party has Brooks been watching? Because I've certainly missed the incarnation he noticed, with its painless ideological evolution and lack of internal dissent. The party I'm part of spent the 90's arguing over free trade and NAFTA, welfare and health care, before turning its attention to a bitter discussion over the use of preemptive force in 2003. Before that, the 80's had the beginning of the battle between solid progressives and more business-minded folks, the 70's and late 60's were a war over Vietnam, the 40's and 50's showcased the ejection of Wallace and his band of "softs" that Beinart constantly memorializes -- where's the consensus? You can't read a book on the Clinton-era without being impressed by the ferocity of the intraparty arguments he presided over, and in some cases instigated. So where's the refusal to face up to big disagreements and ideas? For that matter, what serious factions are missing and therefore leaving converts no place to join up? Is there no DLC, no MoveOn, no place for liberals and greens and law-and-order types and moderates? Because, correct me if I'm wrong, but don't Marc Cooper and Al From pledge allegiance to the same ticket every four years, but spend the intervening periods screaming at each other?

Or is this just about philosophers? More than any other, I've grown to despise the who's-your-ideological-forefather parlor game. It's like the intellectual one upsmanship that danced around dinner tables in the academic community I grew up in. What Derrida said isn't so important as whether or not you can synthesize his point with a Focaultian analysis in order to make an elementary argument sound brilliantly grounded. Liberals could, if needed, turn to an endless number of sources to find their inspiration. I'm currently reading Robert Parker's massive biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, and he certainly seems a candidate. Studs Terkel's got something to say, or at least something to transcribe, and Charlie Peters certainly had points to make. Do they suffice? Should I be referencing Chester Bowles or Henderson? Or are they not "philosophers"?

Liberalism has been chock full of great minds toiling in the public sphere to make the world better, and if we wanted to glom onto their writings and work so we could present an intellectual pedigree for our thoughts as if they were pups at a show -- yeah, don't worry, my idea has papers! -- we certainly could. But this weird game of name a philosopher or face op-ed scorn; it makes no sense. And we shouldn't pretend it does. Maybe Brooks is trying to make a point that a vibrant internal discussion produces powerful and lasting institutions because they have to emerge in a competitive environment rather than spring forth full born, as, say, CAP has done. But that's not true either, Heritage emerged from the thigh, and wallet, of Joseph Coors and in the words of its founder, Paul Wyrich, was specifically created to match Democratic strengths:

"If your enemy has weapons systems working and is killing you with them," he once explained, in typically belicose language, "you'd better have weapons systems of your own." [Page 82, The Right Nation]

In recent months, various folks -- notably Mike Tomasky -- have called for liberals to learn or relearn their history, to understand their evolution. They're right to do so. But they've been joined and, in some cases, mixed up with the David Brooks and Jonah Goldbergs of the world, conserva-scolds who wear their semi-functional knowledge of Hayek and Hobbes on their sleeves, all the better to allude to the moral and intellectual grounding they've got that progressives don't. It's absurd, and we shouldn't buy into it. Knowing our history is critical to understanding the genesis and thus root causes of contemporary problems, but that imperative shouldn't be expanded to transform politics into a game of trivial pursuit. If philosophers aid your understanding of your values, fine, great, I suggest you read them. But no Republican needs to know Burke's views on the French Revolution in order to comprehend their movement and no liberal needs to rattle off philosophers to conservative columnists in order to have her beliefs judged legitimate.

Update: Digby has more.

April 5, 2005 in Strategy | Permalink

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Comments

Another fine, fine post.

Do you think Brooks reads his own columns? Last week the Republicans were the party of K Street and rampant corruption. This week they're the party of Edmund Burke and high minded philosophical debate. How does he reconcile that?

I think it's pointless to say of Brooks this or that column was any good, if only all his columns like that one. Brooks' schtick is disingenuous to a degree that makes even his good columns lies---Brooks' routine is to pretend that he is the voice of the Republican Party and contemporary conservativism, and not those obscure characters Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney. If Brooks is the reasonable conservative he pretneds to be he would acknowledge this and place himself firmly with the loyal opposition. Instead he turns out columns like this that are meant to help other supposedly reasonable conservatives pretend they have nothing in common with Rove and DeLay et al.

Plus, Brooks has got to know that if Democrats suddenly started tossing around the names of philosophers the Republicans and their propaganda machines would have a field day painting them as pointy headed intellectuals counting angels on pinheads while the manly Republicans focused their attention and their energies on solving the problems of the here and now.

Not to mention that Brooks is probably about as well-read in the works of Edmund Burke, John Dewey, and Thomas Paine as he showed himself to be in the novels of Leo Tolstoy when he wrote that column a few weeks ago suggesting that the great misogynist should be everybody's marriage counselor.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Apr 5, 2005 5:28:52 PM

The Republicans aren't successful because they can name philosphers. That's an utterly absurd notion. Tomasky, etc are correct, in our needing to know our history, but only because we're the minority party searching for direction. All this "name your favorite liberal philospher" stuff smells of bullshit.

Don't you just sometimes get the feeling from Brook's columns that he's just so frustrated with his own party that he's simply making up critiques of the Democrats to keep himself from coming to our side, and thus preserving his beauty sleep? 'Cause I do.

Posted by: Kate | Apr 5, 2005 5:52:34 PM

Niebuhr, Rawls, Walzer, Dworkin. Woooo.

If you go far enough back, I'm going to posit that Republicans and Democrats share many of the great philosophers. We are all liberals, in the academic political theory sense that we all put the individual first - above the community, above class, above market or other historical structures. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have great communitarian traditions. No Marxists, no socialists. We're all liberals. Whereas modern Democrats think government intervention in the economy enhances individual freedom, modern Republicans think government intervention in the economy subtracts from individual freedom. Individual freedom rules, either way.

It's not like it is in Britain, where Labour traces its history to Fabian Socialism, which sought gradual socialism through the parliament and focused on community rights to property and rents &c, and so comes from an altogether different place when compared to the classically liberal Tories or the modernly liberal LibDems. [The Liberal Democrats, of course, being an odd philosophical merge of the Liberals and the Social Democrats.]

Anyway, the point is, Hobbes and Locke were both liberals, and Republicans and Democrats share them both. The differences between Republicans and Democrats are simply much narrower philosophically than we might admit.

Posted by: mikey | Apr 5, 2005 8:01:16 PM

Also, I want to make a distinction between Left and Liberal. Internationally, and academically, these are not the same. Postmodern scholars might consider themselves to the Left, but they are certainly not Liberal. The very notion of liberalism is rejected by postmodernists as just another meta-narrative. Postmodernists might consider themselves members of the Left, though, because that is the position on the spectrum for Resistance, whereas the Right is the position for Dominance.

Anyway, perhaps too much commenting for one guy on another guy's post.

Posted by: mikey | Apr 5, 2005 8:06:22 PM

My favorite philosopher is Mill. Do I get a cookie now?

Seriously, the "who's your philosopher" game is the most ridiculous of all possible hooks to hang one's hat on. You're telling me that Randall Terry has based his insane positions after careful consideration of Heidegger? Ha! Moreover, while philosophy's great and all, I'm willing to bet 98% of all Americans would be hard-pressed to name any philosopher off of the top of their heads. And that's not a swipe at Americans; the utility of understanding Kant when you're struggling to work your three part-time jobs just to keep from going under cannot be undervalued.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke | Apr 5, 2005 8:12:11 PM

I grew up admiring Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy. You don't need a philosopher to know what's right and what will work. If you need someone else to tell you that children shouldn't go to school hungry or that torture is wrong, then your soul is dead anyway.

Posted by: marvyt | Apr 5, 2005 8:35:05 PM

Brooks is at this point simply a hack. I mean, check out this statement,
"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."
This change in the Republican Party came about as a cover when they failed to find WMD in Iraq. There was no argument over this within the party during the runup to the war. Who was the philosopher who came up with this? P.T. Barnum?

Posted by: Studdle | Apr 5, 2005 8:43:05 PM

Just a thought. As someone studying the Progressives, Anarchists, and Communists around 1900; and someone who grew up in the 1960s, maybe we should look at Brooks' point more closely. The Republicans accept their wingnuts at the table, be they Anarcho-Libertarians or Crypto-Fascist Bob Jones alumni. Democrats used to at least talk to the far left and splinter groups more. Maybe we can try it again.

And tell Beinart and the DLC to sod off.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 5, 2005 8:59:17 PM

Damn Ezra, you're cute when you're fiery. I think you channeled your inner RFK for that one.

My favorite thing about this is that it was only a month ago that we were being berated for being too elitist and out of touch with the common man, unlike the regular joe Republicans who have an instinct fer common sense and good pork rinds. Now we are being told that our biggest problem is that we don't spend enough time having erudite dinner party arguments about Locke and Hume, like the pork rind loving Republicans apparently do.

Man, those Republicans really are rennaissance men, aren't they?

Posted by: digby | Apr 5, 2005 9:07:49 PM

The idea that the American Republican Party has any relationship whatsoever to the political philosophy of Edmund Burke is laughably absurd.

Posted by: John | Apr 5, 2005 10:21:37 PM

Republicans like to pretend that they read philosophers and ground their politics upon them because they know that their party is being run by stupid people.

Brooks had a moment of sanity a while ago, and now is back in his holodeck where the GOP isn't the Political Party for Dummies.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 5, 2005 10:24:40 PM

"Man, those Republicans really are rennaissance men, aren't they?"

That's "rainy sense men." "Renaissance" looks suspiciously French.

Posted by: DaveL | Apr 5, 2005 11:11:07 PM

Mikey,

What are you talking about, no communitarian tradition? Ours is not identical to the European, certainly, but how about Tocqueville with his New England town meetings? My favorite philosopher, if he can be called that, is John Winthrop, and he is a communitarian if that word has any meaning.

"Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 6, 2005 4:43:24 AM

I concede I overstretched, Marshall. I wonder, though, what you make of my claim that today's Democrats and Republicans are both liberals of a sort.

Posted by: mikey | Apr 6, 2005 5:26:31 AM

Well, unfortunately yes. The Democratic party has always had duel liberal and communitarian traditions. I don't think they're inconsistent, but I do think the liberal isn't serving us well at present--we're the party of abortion and gay rights and civil liberties when we should aim at counteracting the economic transformation that so many people see as a threat. Trust me: there is a reaction out there against Republican-style inequality, but it hasn't chrystalized in Democratic politics. It should. And I don't mean we should resist free trade: I mean that labor unions and healthcare and decent education HERE are the solutions to declining and stagnant living standards for the largest part of our population.

Republicans and their Democratic sycophants like to say that America is "aspirational" so that a straight up redistribution policy won't appeal. They're right at the coarsest level: "I want what they got" is not a winning slogan, but a slogan one notch more sophisticated is. And trust me, most Americans are NOT happy with the way things are going.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 6, 2005 7:25:33 AM

The think-tank guy knew that it was a trap, and wisely tried to avoid it, but even the avoidance was used against him. There was no way to really get out of being pilloried, no matter what he said. The smartest thing might have been to say "Marx . . . Groucho" and let Brooks try to spin that somehow.

Posted by: NickM | Apr 6, 2005 9:03:58 AM

Feh. Conservatism's philosophy can be boiled down to 80% Hobbes, 10% Burke, and the 10% remainder being a situational/opportunistic mishmash of Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, etc and (ugh) Rand. Oh, and Jesus.

Posted by: Ranty | Apr 7, 2005 12:17:09 AM

Guthrie?

as far as the cons go, don't forget Strauss.

Posted by: garth | Apr 7, 2005 3:54:28 PM

Ethanol Eco nomics…

Tom McClintock’s Citizens for the California Republic, 06-18-2007


The public policy farce that the “Green Governor” unleashed with AB 32 (the so-called “greenhouse gas” law) continues. Using their newly granted power to slash carbon dioxide emissions, the California Air Resources Board (all Schwarzenegger appointees) has mandated that every gallon of gasoline sold in California must contain at least 10 percent ethanol by 2010.

First, a few basic facts. Californians use about 15 billion gallons of gasoline a year, meaning that the new ten percent CARB edict will require about 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol. Corn is the most common ethanol-producing crop in the country, yielding about 350 gallons of ethanol fuel per acre. That means converting about 4.3 million acres of farmland to ethanol production, just to meet the California requirement. But according to the USDA, California currently has only 11 million acres devoted to growing crops of all kinds. Get the picture?

The entire purpose of this exercise is to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from California automobiles (although Californians already have the 8th lowest per capita gasoline consumption in the country). And that’s where the public policy discussion becomes farce.

As more acres are brought into agricultural production, the demand for nitrogen fertilizer will grow accordingly, which is itself produced through the use of fossil fuels. And the most likely source of new agricultural land will be converting rain forests to agriculture, although deforestation is already the second biggest man-made contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, ranking just behind internal combustion. And here’s the clincher: ethanol is produced through fermentation, by which glucose is broken down into equal parts of ethanol and – you guessed it – carbon dioxide.

Obviously, this edict will hit gasoline consumers hard: ethanol is less efficient than gasoline and it’s more expensive – meaning you’ll have to buy more gallons at the pump and pay more per gallon.

The bigger impact, though, will be at the grocery store. By radically and artificially increasing the demand for ethanol, the cost pressure on all agricultural products (including meat and dairy products that rely on grain feed) will be devastating. Earlier this year, spiraling corn prices forced up by artificially increased demand for ethanol produced riots throughout Mexico.

The CARB regulations will undoubtedly hit Californians hard – but they will hit starving third world populations even harder. Basic foodstuffs are a small portion of the family incomes in affluent nations, but they consume more than half of family earnings in third world countries.

So when the global warming alarmists predict worldwide starvation, they’re right. They’re creating it.

http://www.carepublic.com/blog.html?domain=tom_mcclintock&blog_id=136&category_id=&start=0&arcyear=&arcmonth=&curyear=&curmonth=&curday=

Posted by: Charlie Peters | Jun 23, 2007 12:25:24 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 8:41:30 AM

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