I believe that the political change that would most benefit America would be a conservative movement that was able to extract itself from the Republican Party and refocus is energies on ideas and policies. Then and only then can we (Americans, progressives) look forward to a the beginnings of a rigorous, healthy debate in this country over our shared future.
Lately, David Brooks, everyone’s favorite punching bag at the New York Times, has either been abducted and secretly replaced or has become so fed up with the GOP and what it has done to American conservatism that he’s lashed out against it. While it still may be the case that we do not always (often!) agree with his opinions, let’s give credit where credit is due and applaud his rebirth.

In his latest column (behind subscription wall), Brooks writes:

[C]onservatism has been semi-absorbed into the Republican Party. When conservatism was in its most creative phase, there was a sharp distinction between conservatives and Republicans. Conservatives chased ideas, while Republicans were the corporate hacks who sold out. Now that conservative Republicans are in power, that distinction is obliterated.

Whoa! Wait a minute there! That almost sounds like an accurate representation of what happened! Are you sure you’re feeling okay, Brooksie? You have become very perceptive. I’d say it has become more than “semi-absorbed,” but I suppose that if you bear in mind that George Will still has the occasional good day and there must be a few people out there who still read Patrick Buchanan’s stuff, it hasn’t quite devolved into a case of complete absorption. So, score one for Uncle Davey….

Brooks goes on to admit that the party’s coöptation of the movement has led to an emphasis on message discipline instead of rigorous ideas and has allowed corporate interests to hijack the GOP’s stated 1994 mission: reduce government spending. Brooks talks about “intellectual flabbiness” and even goes so far as to admit that the “liberals” don’t really control the media. “Now conservatives can be just as insular as liberals,” he writes, “retreating to their own media sources to be told how right they are.” I hope no one tells his employer about this line! They might think that their crazy pinko-commie ideas aren’t brainwashing all the kiddies anymore. (Oh, right….)

Furthermore, Brooks points out that

To win, Republicans depend on white rural and suburban working-class voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Conservative Republicans offer almost no policies that directly benefit these people. Americans at that income level tend to be financially risk-averse. But the out-of-touch Republicans offered a Social Security plan that increased risk.

This might not explain what the matter is with Kansas, but it at the very least exposes that teh conservative movement is waking up not only to the fact that they’re being used, but that they’re not the only ones.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly for both conservatives and those of us on the progressive side of the spectrum, Brooks’s pièce de résistance comes when he states what is most obvious and most important: the Republican party takeover has prevented the conservative movement from engaging the questions that matter for this generation and the next one:

Conservatives have not effectively addressed the second-generation issues. Technological change has really changed the economy, introducing new stratifications. Inequality is rising. Wage stagnation is a problem. Social mobility is lagging, and globalization hurts hard-working people. Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this). The health care system is ridiculous. Welfare reform is unfinished. Conservatives have not addressed these second-generation issues as effectively as their forebears addressed the first-generation ones.

Perhaps Republicans are just scared that Bush’s poll numbers are in the tank (when 40% is a good sign….) and are trying to reposition themselves in order to maintain their legislative majorities next fall. But I’d rather think that we’re witnessing something of a rebellion in the ranks. Even if the modern Republican Party offers little to America except for soundbites and carefully-crafted visuals, Conservatism has had and can again have ideas. If the conservative movement is able to wake from its slumber and begin articulating them, it can be the start of a new debate in America.

And progressives ought not be frightened of this: we must embrace it, hope for it, encourage it and celebrate its every nascent step. An engaged conservative movement offers the left a debating partner. This will push us to refine our ideas and think more about whether they’re right and why they work for us, for our constituents and for America as a whole. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that the conservative-Republican matrix isn’t the only corner of American politics where the ideas of a movement are mixed up a bit too much with the interests of a party….

So, let’s congratulate Mr. Brooks (please note that I don’t say “agree with”) on his recent transformation. I hope that it is the sign of things to come: the opportunity to move our national conversation back to one about ideas and ideals. Then Progressivism will have the chance to shine and talk about what it believes in to an audience that is listening.

Crossposted at Daily Kos

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