You Say You Don’t Want a Revolution
Conservatism, radicalism, and democracy in 2015
The New York Times’ David Brooks has long been the conservative that liberals hate to love (or at least like). It is easy to see why. Brooks accepts the possibility of reasonable disagreement with the likes of liberals such as Mark Shields or E.J. Dionne, is rarely shrill, and seems to acknowledge the idea that argument and civil discourse are important aspects of a pundit’s professional life on any point of the spectrum. He is, if nothing else, “genteel” — a virtue prized and often exhibited by the sorts of liberals or leftists whose coffee-infused Sunday morning read usually involves The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Then again, Brooks’s gentility has served as cover for all manner of nonsense, the most egregious of which is his idea that Democrats and Republicans share equal responsibility for the mess that is the United States Congress in particular, and the republic in general. His mantra has consistently been “a plague on both your houses.”
This now seems to have changed. His October 13th column, entitled “The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus,” is a welcome, if belated, awakening to the fact that the Republican majority in Congress cannot govern itself, no less the nation, because it is being held hostage by “The Freedom Caucus,” a collection of Tea Partiers and far-right ideologues uninterested in compromise and hell-bent on breaking things until they get their way. Like The Joker in Batman, they would rather “watch the world burn” than give an inch (the main difference being that The Joker was a tad less nihilistic).
My first reaction to all this was that it was news from nowhere, and unsurprising because cluelessness was an abiding characteristic of Mr. Brooks’s columns for a long time. But better late than never. It was interesting to see Brooks quoting Max Weber and to read the likes of the following, which draws an important distinction between “conservatism” and “the radical right”:
The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions, and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.
That last assertion — that all revolutions lead to Robespierre-esque terror — is debatable, to say the least. (The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia? The end of the British Raj? 1776 and all that?) But it is refreshing for Brooks to ask what is so conservative about the Republican Party circa 2015. What do they want to “conserve”? The question is rhetorical.
By contrast, Brooks’s conservatism is basically that of Edmund Burke in both form and substance: an appeal to settled tradition, to longstanding habit, a case for institutional continuity, for stability and compromise. It is the conservatism of Taft and Eisenhower, Michael Oakeshott, and George Kennan — even Bismarck, the conservative architect of the “liberal” social welfare state. It is a conservatism that looks on in horror at the antics of F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Glenn Beck.
But soon enough Brooks goes off the rails, and reverts to his usual overgeneralizations, which, ironically, reveal the fatal flaw in Burke’s “traditionalist” conservatism:
Conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance, and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured, and responsible … Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love … But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and did not respect its traditions, its disciplines, and its craftsmanship. They do not accept the hierarchical structures of authority inherent in political activity.
To be fair, this is half right. The far-right faction of the Republican Party does not believe in governance — put bluntly, in democracy — and is using force, “revolutionary” force if you will, to hold the less-far-right faction in bondage to their will. Not to mention the rest of the country: the districts filled by Tea Party/Freedom Caucus representatives were gerrymandered by state legislatures into permanent fiefdoms for the far-right, and even though they contain only a small percentage of the population, they effectively call the shots. This is not democracy.
But it is the wrong half of Brooks’s argument that matters most. Burkeans think of “authority” and “tradition” as displaying a kind of sacred aura. Burkeans habitually contrast these to “reason,” and then habitually scorn an overreliance on “reason” as blind to human frailty or “Original Sin.” (Insert habitual references to France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 here.) “Hierarchy” for Burkeans is very much what its etymology indicates: “Holy” + “Origins.”
But what Burkean conservatives miss is twofold. First, authorities are authoritative only insofar as their views hold up to rational scrutiny when the situation demands it. As Jeffrey Stout puts it, in a democracy authority (or tradition, or institutions, or settled convention, etc.) is something that is to be respected, but which is nonetheless defeasible, capable of being challenged by members of the political community when necessary. Second, sometimes “authorities,” “traditions,” and so on, are in contradiction with themselves, and can only be preserved by being negated and transcended, changed by methods more radical than “piecemeal reform.” Radical, revolutionary change is often necessary. And the radical disruption is just as often a way of retrieving a good thing that has been long and sadly lost. Revolutionaries often hark back to an earlier time than the corrupt present for a standard and standpoint to criticize the status quo. John Brown appealed to the Bible; Gandhi to the Indian pre-colonial era. And sometimes conservatives wind up not conserving anything, but destroying things in their very obsession against change. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it: “when a tradition becomes Burkean it is already dying or dead.”
Brooks seems oblivious to the prospect that sometimes drastic rather than piecemeal change is warranted. I think this is one of those times, which puts me in the company of both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz — an unlikely pair. The important question has always been: what kind of radical change? The crypto-revolutionary right of which Cruz is the poster-boy has its own agenda, and it is unapologetically antidemocratic: nativist, theocratic, authoritarian, militaristic, turbo-capitalist. It is at antipodes to the kind of quiet revolution that Sanders endorses: egalitarian, participatory, secular but not secularist, in favor of social democratic and/or democratic socialist reforms such as reviving Glass-Steagall and breaking up the banks, a reinvigorated public sphere, and so on. (Insofar as Sanders’s rhetoric harks back to The New Deal, and to older forms of democratic participation, one could see it as simultaneously revolutionary and conservative.)
Liberals, progressives, democratic socialists, and others on the left would be unwise to place all their bets on Sanders, partly because a Sanders victory, though welcome, remains unlikely, and partly because, as Sanders himself admits, more radical, structural change is needed than a mere change in administration: an end to the rule of money and the era of Citizens United, an end to gerrymandering, revisions in the rules and the very structure of federal and state government. None of these changes will hinge on who is elected, in both the executive and legislative branches, in November 2016. What is at stake right now, however, is the future of democracy in the United States.
Brooks sees this clearly:
Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and the Freedom Caucus … These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong! … People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t accept tradition, institutions, or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction … These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed.
There is a savage irony in all this. Brooks has, whether intentionally or unwittingly, usually positioned himself as the voice of the Republican Establishment, which runs the small gamut between good upper-middle-class burghers of Westchester or Georgetown to the Executive suites of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. This diverse group may give feeble nods to “socially progressive” causes like gay and women’s rights, or equally feeble nods to “family values,” but they are mainly concerned with preserving their money, privilege, and power. They nursed a right-wing populism, a cadre of “useful idiots” feeding on covert racism and overt resentments of those on lower economic rungs, to further their frankly elitist cause. The “Frankenstein” meme is now common coin: the Republican Establishment, disdainful of “the great unwashed,” nevertheless created this “monster” and now has to bend to the will of Tea Party dogmatists that they loathe, and face the juggernaut of Donald Trump. Insofar as they capitulate to the populist right their wealth probably isn’t threatened — see Trump’s tax plan for ample confirmation of that — but their power has been diminished. It stinks for them. But more importantly it is the death of true democracy.
While Hannah Arendt was ambivalent, at best, about democracy, she did a wonderful job elucidating the elements that lie at its core: isonomy or equality of citizens, natality or the ability to give rise to something new by common action, collective political power as opposed to sheer force, debate centered on the weighing of opinions, and rational as well as rhetorical persuasion. It comes close to John Dewey’s definition of democracy as not just a set of institutional procedures, but the basis for common life as such. So while radical, even revolutionary change might be urgent, it is important to note, as Brooks does not, that revolutionaries come in different flavors. Brooks is right to describe the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party as revolutionaries of the far right, and equally right to reject them as enemies of democracy. But they are not enemies of democracy because they are radical or revolutionary. They are enemies of democracy — just as the “establishment” corporatocracy is — because they reject the domain of the political, as Arendt described it, and are scornful of the spirit of democratic community life, as Dewey understood it. Burkean conservatives like Brooks have a difficult time discerning this because their conception of the political is so constricted: politics for them is not so much engaging in and with traditions and institutions as it is making sure they remain encased in amber.
But it is also tempting for those on the left to conclude from the fact that the far-right is also challenging elites that there may be some common ground to share. (Ralph Nader, for one, has claimed as much in his recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.) This would be a serious mistake. The ancient Sanskrit proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” gives a false and dangerous counsel. What now needs the most vigorous defense, as well as our most intense loyalty, is neither piecemeal reform nor radical revolutionary change, but the democratic ethos that makes both forms of political action worthwhile.
Acknowledgement is due to Richard J. Bernstein for insight into Arendt’s position on democracy.