In his latest column, David Brooks argues that “conservatism has lost the balance between economic and traditional conservatism.” Today’s Republican Party, writes Brooks, “appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.”
In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.
There’s no denying that conservatism consists of a variety of flavors and factions and that today’s Republican Party lacks tact and sincerity in conveying a holistic conservative message. But this applies to modern conservatism at large, not just Brooks’ so-called “traditionalist” camp.
Mitt Romney & Friends may offer plenty of platitudes on deficit reduction and government dependency, but they are just as quick to pair this language with technocratic solutions and protectionist assurances. Further, of all the Republican nominees last cycle, it was second-place contender Rick Santorum who boasted the most “traditionalist” flair and received a brief stint of wide support for precisely that.
Now, Rick Santorum is no Ronald Reagan, never mind Russell Kirk. But Mitt Romney is also no Barry Goldwater, never mind Milton Friedman.
Wherever one looks, modern conservatism is stuck in a season of disarray — on messaging, on marketing, and, more fundamentally, on a robust understanding of its own basic principles. But this confusion is in part due to our inability to make the integral connections between economic freedom and preserving the social/moral order, even more so, I would argue, than with inherent, irresolvable conflicts between the priorities themselves. We need a new conservative fusionism: a new way of framing matters of economic liberty and social preservation as the partners that they are.
Unfortunately, despite some brief National Review nostalgia, Brooks seems less interested in fostering a new fusionism than he is in elevating his own lopsided version of “traditional conservatism” — one that, from what I can tell, strays quite distinctly from the abstract Kirkian conservatism he glorifies so marvelously up front.
This becomes all too clear when Brooks moves to application:
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.
This is where Brooks believes we must go? Toward government “mobility” programs? Toward “actively intervening” in chaotic neighborhoods?
(Sidenote: Are these things not already happening?)
Resistance to these types of measures is not due to a lack of concern for “stability,” tradition,” and “social institutions.” On the contrary, it’s rooted in the very areas Kirk emphasizes: prudence, a suspicion of political power, a belief in human imperfectability, and an elevation of “voluntary community” over “involuntary collectivism.” Such resistance is deeply connected to what Brooks himself favorably describes as a belief that “power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain.” We can ridicule the economic conservative’s fear of government “dependency” all we like, but it will get us nowhere until we address it as being an issue relevant to Kirk’s “enduring moral order,” not divorced from it.
Conservatism is undeniably in peril, but this is a problem we should be evaluating holistically. Economic and traditionalist themes are both promoted in inconsistent, unappealing, and dysfunctional ways, and if we hope to restore conservatism toward the aims Brooks articulates so well at the beginning of his piece — returning to the promotion of a social, economic, and political order that relies heavily on God and social custom and “encourage[s] people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage” — we needn’t sever the fundamental connections that bring these interests together in the first place.