David Brooks, radical conservatism, and milquetoast
David Brooks is a radical conservative. Contrary to the belief of many, the term radical conservative isn’t an oxymoron. It’s in fact a tautology, they necessarily go together given the historical reality of what it means to be conservative.
Corey Robin has provided some very valuable insights into the nature of conservatism in his recent work “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin”. At its heart, according to Robin, conservatism is a reaction against democracy, a class project defending itself against the threat of the “agency of the subordinate classes”. Liberty is its byword but only the “liberty for the highest orders and constraint for the lower”. What the conservative “sees and dislikes in equality is not a threat to freedom, but its extension (in which) he sees a loss of his own freedom”. In opposing the equality inherent in democracy and therefore opposing the interests of the broad masses, conservatism is necessarily radical, “its raison d’etre”. To succeed, it must be an activist doctrine that brings “the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate”. “The conservative adapts and adopts the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy”. “Making privilege palatable to the masses is the permanent project of conservatism”.
So when Brooks today claims he and other conservatives are the true radicals while the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the dormant left mere “milquetoast radicals”, he’s not very far off the mark. His misuse of tax statistics, noted by Krugman, is sneaky and his implication that the protestors are somehow anti-Semitic is absurd, but his fundamental point that conservatives are more radical than today’s mainstream left is certainly true.
Brooks and the conservatives are forced by current events into admitting there are deep structural problems in the global system. When you strip away the populist rhetoric, though, you find nothing other than an aggressive radical defense of hierarchy. After spending a good part of his article defending the top 1% and attacking even the very idea that any problem can be “productively conceived” from an inequality viewpoint, he ends with a regurgitation of proposals that, among other things, “slash(es) corporate taxes and raise(s) energy taxes”, “require(s) national service”, “balance(s) the budget by 2018”, “replace(s) the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment” and institutes consumption taxes. All radical conservative ideas that do nothing but reinforce the power of hierarchy.
The OWS movement opposes extreme hierarchy, as in “We are the 99%”, and is therefore anti-capitalist to the extent capitalism is by its nature hierarchical. The values of the left are the values of democracy and they are in direct opposition to the reality of capitalism (not necessarily markets per se) and the political philosophy of conservatism. Demands that don’t confront both the radical nature of today’s hierarchy and conservatism itself are, per Brooks, mere milquetoast.