Interrupting my usual enjoyment of the Sunday NYT crossword this past week was the magazine’s cover story, in which conservative media darling David Brooks tried to outline a new “progressive conservatism” for 2008. Given my interest, historical and otherwise, in reviving progressivism in any form, I applaud Brooks for giving it the ole college try here. But this piece suffers from a couple of serious problems.
For one, there’s not much “new” here. Writers like Michael Sandel have already thoroughly outlined this project, the case for a Hamiltonian revival was done better in Michael Lind’s Hamilton’s Republic, and even George Will anticipated much of Brooks’s argument on government, culture, and fostering independence twenty years ago with Statecraft as Soulcraft.
More problematic, Brooks seems totally unacquainted with his own party. “[A]lmost every leading official acknowledges that we should have as much of a welfare state as we can afford.” Oh, really? On education, “[m]ore and more conservatives understand that local control means local monopolies and local mediocrity.” Coulda fooled me. “Most Republicans, happily or not, have embraced a significant federal role in education.” Well, somebody should tell these guys.
I don’t want to harsh on Brooks too much, because at least he’s trying to make the case for something close to a progressive resurgence (“But through much of American history there has always been a third tradition, now dormant, which believes in limited but energetic government in the name of social mobility and national union.”) But first he’s gotta realize that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants here, and should say as much. And, more importantly, if we really wants to see a return to progressivism, he’s probably looking in the wrong party. As Bill Moyers recently and eloquently restated, progressivism was ultimately a reaction against the corporate domination of politics that afflicted the Gilded Age, and somehow that doesn’t seem to bother the current GOP too much. Dubya and Rove apparently aspire to be William McKinley and Mark Hanna respectively, and the closest thing the GOP had to a TR is now gleefully prostrating himself before his corporate overlords. So, we’re probably going to have to search elsewhere for our Teddys, Woodrows, and Crolys these days.