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Jim Sleeper: The Conservatives' Conundrum -- and Ours

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

What has gotten into George Packer? In Blood of the Liberals he undertook a wrenching examination of American liberalism's agonies and ironies; and in The Assassin's Gate and his play Betrayed, he bore searing, humbling witness to the ordeals of Americans and Iraqis who wouldn't have written for themselves.

Yet Packer's New Yorker account of "The Fall of Conservatism" gives us only voices of people who make their livings making phrases that describe and influence that vast majority of Americans who don't make their livings that way.

Since I, too, turn phrases for money and political salvation, I count it a labor of the gods. But I was always under the impression that writers in a democracy should help non-writing people to speak for themselves, not just have them spoken about.

That should be so even in the New Yorker, which exists to present the American people to bemused collectors of unearned income and Steuben glass and to the intelligent recent college graduate who for some reason wants to be like them and is therefore seeking "the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict," as the critic Robert Warshow once wrote about... yes, the New Yorker.
I don't see how anyone can assess conservatism's travails without confronting readers seriously with some of the new twists in capitalism, but Packer manages it by talking mainly to members of the chattering classes. They would be the last to tell us that conservatives can't reconcile their demands for ordered, civic-republican liberty with their impotence amid riptides of laissez faire capitalism that distort and disrupt every tradition they cherish.

There is plenty of unpaid, unpublished testimony about this out there, yet Packer talks to virtually no one who is actually trying to hold American conservatism together in a church basement, polling station, think-tank boiler room or even executive suite.
Instead, we hear Pat Buchanan, David Frum, David Brooks, George Will, David Brooks, Sam Tanenhaus, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam, an editor, with Douthat, at The Atlantic who once worked for David Brooks. (As you may have guessed, Packer quotes Brooks far more often than anyone else.)

There are also quotations from the work of advocacy historians Rick Perlstein and Sean Wilentz and from conservative politicians, living and dead. But I find only the equivalent of a photo op (politicians call it a "drop in") with actual non-writing conservatives -- in Martin County, Kentucky, where Packer was watching John McCain give a speech.

Packer makes some interesting observations about conservative politicos' talent for displacing people's pains into resentments of others, but he seems especially keen to reopen polite (or not-so-polite) liberal society to Brooks. That highly intelligent and peculiarly serpentine writer has charmed and misled many good people I know, and Packer lets him slide sinuously away from much of what he has written in the Times and in conservative publications for nearly two decades.

It can be interesting and even admirable to follow a sea-change in one's own or someone else's thinking, but when Packer wrote that "Brooks left movement journalism and, in 2003, became a moderately conservative columnist for the Times," I sensed immediately that on reading further I would be assisting at the embarrassing, wrenching political makeover and public repositioning which Brooks has been attempting for two years now from his pew in the bare, ruined choir that is the paper's op ed page.

"I feel estranged" from conservatism; "I don't feel it's true, fundamentally true," Brooks tells Packer, who catches the pass, explaining, for Brooks, that "In the eighties, when he was a young movement journalist," conservatives' "attacks on regulation and the Soviet Union seemed 'true'. Now most conservatives.... are stuck in the past, in the dogma of limited government. Perhaps for that reason," Packer advises us, Brooks, an endearingly passionate truth-seeker, has moved on.

But has he? Or is he just pirouetting? Soon after joining the Times in 2003 Brooks gave a long, ingratiating interview to George Gurley of The New York Observer, replete with his typically stagey self-deprecations and stand-up comic lines about being a pitiable conservative idealist, marooned at snarky liberal dinner parties in Washington and New York.

Brooks told Gurley that as a liberal student he'd been crushed by Milton Friedman in a debate and had realized then that there were other ways of looking at the world. Gurley asked Brooks if he could "ever become a leftist again."

"Sometimes I do think that," he said. "If I was with the Nation left, I'd be depressed. If I was with the centrist-Joe Lieberman left, I'd be happy." With that, the interview ended, to be continued by George Packer five years later.

I myself had some hopes for Lieberman as Al Gore's running mate back in 2000, but Brooks wasn't casting any shy, admiring glances then at that "centrist Joe-Lieberman left." He was busy being a movement journalist for George Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney.

As late as last year, our supposed apostate from conservative journalism was still busy defending Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. It was Lieberman who had moved Brooks' way after 9/11, when both became early advocates of war with Iraq. But Lieberman is no longer received in polite New Yorker society. So why is Brooks?

Because he is more thoughtful than political, in Packer's estimation. Packer reports his expectation that only after conservatives "big defeat" this November will they undertake any serious re-thinking: "I have not yet seen the major think tanks reorient themselves.... You go to Capitol Hill - Republican senators know they're fucked.... But they don't know what to do. There's a hunger for new policy ideas."

That may be true, but what, really, are Brooks' new ideas? He'll tell you that he's more a "comic sociologist" or "cultural anthropologist" than a policy analyst; and that's true, too. But what do they portend for Packer's subject? Might Brooks abandon the idea-less John McCain? In 2004, he worked mightily to re-elect the idea-less and dangerous Bush, lampooning the long lines of Volvo-driving liberal consultants queuing up to shape John Kerry's "brain of sculpted marshmallow."

In an unforgettable Washington Monthly essay in June of that year, Nicholas Confessore detailed Brooks' maddening habit of oscillating between hard-nosed journalism and conservative-movement hackery. In the first kind of column, Confessore noted, Brooks will do some serious reporting or chin-stroking, sounding for all the world like a disinterested public savant. In the next, he'll gyrate and propagandize shamelessly for movement conservatives, the Bush administration, or both.

I've done a little research on this myself. In 2004, Brooks complained that from the start of the Iraq War, "Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy... were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam," and "Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!" Brooks urged Americans to "get a grip" and trust the warmakers, not their critics. The insiders understood that "The Shiite violence is being fomented by Moktada al-Sadr, a lowlife hoodlum" who has been "spectacularly unsuccessful in winning popular support."

Yet two years later, Brooks revealed that while "Everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals, the smartest of them recognized as early as 2004 that the US was ... in the first days of a guerrilla war" and that "it was time to shelve the rosy scenarios." Brooks excoriated not the Chicken Littles this time but Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks and other butt-covering insiders for seeing nothing fundamentally wrong in 2004 and for refusing to heed the critics.

Yet Brooks himself had been denigrating those same critics at that time on behalf of the insiders, calling Kennedy "to the left of [Syria's] Bashr Al Assad" for doubting progress in Iraq."

This year, he wrote, in the portentous manner he reserves for his highest hypocrisies, that Kennedy "has served [the Senate] with more distinction than anyone else now living." Go figure.

Like a weather vane snapping back and forth in a storm, Brooks produced wildly varied columns throughout the 2006 campaigns. One touted Barack Obama's deliberative mind and Periclean prospects. Another defended right-wing pro-life zealot Rick Santorum as a philosopher king whose "discussion of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre... is as sophisticated as anything in Barack Obama's recent book."

In another 2006 column Brooks heralded the end of ideology and piously urged a new civility in public discourse, while yet another column demonstrated his mastery of such discourse by characterizing Ned Lamont's "vicious," "Sunni-Shiite style of politics," whose "flamers... tell themselves their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious, too." In an election post-mortem, Brooks crowed that Lieberman had "defeated the scion of the Daily Kos net roots, Ned Lamont."

All this variety isn't intelligent complexity, much less comity. It's sophistry, driven by an odd desperation which Packer airbrushes away.

To his credit, Brooks was rattled deeply by conservatives' incompetence and cynicism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the Republican Party's bottomless corruption, not least in Iraq, demoralized him. But Packer says nothing about this. He doesn't ask Brooks to account for his constant backing and forthing.

Reading on in his article, I couldn't help thinking of Packer and Brooks as monkeys grooming each another in a corner of the Chattering Classes' Zoo. An endearing image, no doubt, but why would anyone rely on monkeys who are grooming each other for insights into what has become of the conservative movement?

Perhaps Packer means to signal that this is what has become of it, all this stroking and stoking of emotions with phrase-turning instead of policymaking, a pattern that goes back, he tells us, to Buchanan's shrewd political advice to Richard Nixon. Even New Yorker readers deserve better, though, and with more due diligence, Packer wouldn't have given Brooks the floor without making him account more truly for his thinking as well as his movement's.

Doing that might have yielded some insights into the conflict between civic-republican conviction and escapist corporate-consumption that is raging not only within conservatism but also within liberalism and, indeed, within the American soul. Pending a deeper reckoning, most of our writers will remain in the default position sketched well in Robert Warshow's observation, in 1947:

"The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately. The gracelessness of capitalism becomes an entirely external phenomenon, a spectacle that one can observe without being touched - above all, without feeling really threatened."

Read entire article at TPM Cafe