On David Brooks and the Death of Conservatism

Three thoughts on David Brooks’ recent and otherwise excellent “What Happened to American Conservatism?” over at The Atlantic.

First, conservatism naturally requires love of place and people. Conservatism values sentiments cultivated rightly, which happens through people and societies that are not interchangeable. The sentiments in-cultured by the English village are not the same as the sentiments cultivated by the open expanse of west Texas. Certain values may be held in common, but the means of that cultivation is specific to concrete, enfleshed peoples and traditions.  The habituation of communities also instills love of those communities. Conservatives love their communities (neighborhoods, cultural histories, states, nations, families, churches) because they have been formed by them. It is loving your father and mother, civilizationally.

This is nationalism. Not necessarily the racism of Enoch Powell, but the love of country because it is your country. The love of neighborhood because it is your neighborhood. The Black American resistance to gentrification is essentially a conservative (not reactionary) impulse. It’s a resistance to loss of the forming identity (place) beloved by the community. This is why conservatives traditionally are wary of immigration. Not because of racism or ethnocentric bigotry, but because the influx of people from outside the institutions that formed the nation will alter the nation unless the integration of the immigrants is prioritized.

I am surprised that Brooks doesn’t seem to recognize this, especially in light of American conservatism’s recent turn on globalism. The sense of national erasure in order to pursue the liberal world order drove the populist movements of the last five years and has been a central discussion point of the national conservative movement. The Bill of Rights as a liberal document set the guardrails for a conservative society, but they are not all that makes a society. The sense that nations are losing their identity to a mere liberalism is an animating force for conservatives because it is an existential threat to conservatism (see: French v. Ahmari).

Second, Brooks equates the spiritual motivation of conservatism with a kind of Hegelian patriotism. But the real spiritual force in 19th-20th centuries America and Britain was Protestantism. Perhaps because it undercut his use of the European wars of religion, Brooks does not reflect on the decline of the expressly religious spirituality of Britain and America. If he did, he may have been more sympathetic to the allegedly Trumpist issues of critical race theory and transgenderism. Conservatives see the former as institutionalizing hatred for America, which undermines the “glorious legacy” that Brooks calls the spiritual driver of American conservatism. The latter is a rapid social shift in how society understands the nature of people and families (forming institutions of immense value) that contradicts historic Protestant, and therefore conservative, understandings of what people are.

Third, it is confusing how Brooks can identify as a conservative and then plant himself on the “rightward edge of the leftward tendency”, i.e. the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. By all means, reject the GOP as lost or plant yourself as a classical liberal. But the Democratic Party, even its moderate sections, does not have a classical conservative value system (even if it has conservative members), so Brooks’ move here as the conclusion is a political non sequitur that feels more like an abandonment of his own call to action.