Arthur Brooks and the Desperate Search for a Smarter Conservatism

The ubiquity of Arthur Brooks reveals a self-defeating desperation for smarter conservatives.

By Nathan Pippenger

Earlier this week, President Obama spoke on poverty at Georgetown University, and there was something slightly unusual about his appearance: He shared the stage with a conservative critic. Event planners needed to find someone of suitable stature to sit alongside the president. They chose Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Brooks is a key part of semi-official Washington: a figure who doesn’t serve in government, but who helps maintain the city’s nexus of politics, media, lobbying, and social life. Among other things, this nexus undergirds professional and intellectual networks, provides employment for people moving from the public to the private sector (and vice versa), and, on good days, advances the public interest. To critics, it inspires derisive terms for D.C. like “the Village.” In the Village, a figure like Brooks matters immensely. He stands in for respectable, intelligent conservatism. The people at his institute are the staff of past and future presidential administrations; their reports are fodder for conservative politicians. When he speaks, he does so as a major figure in the nexus. His position comes with frequent lecture gigs, regular appearances in national newspapers, and the occasional appearance to argue with the president.

This fits nicely with Brooks’s expertly crafted image, which lies somewhere between conservative pundit and motivational speaker. He regularly contributes to The New York Times pieces with titles like “Love People, Not Pleasure.” Many of his columns are not about politics, but rather discuss love, happiness, and how to find meaning in life, and they offer pearls of wisdom such as: “It is hard to find a better life purpose than the pursuit of higher consciousness and benevolence to others.” A recent piece warned against the “hamster-wheel life” and quoted “the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre” and Bach, “considered by many to be the greatest composer who ever lived.” (In this sense, his place at the Times is very odd. After all: they’ve already got a conservative named Brooks who likes quoting philosophers and draping his morals in pop-social science.)

These are professedly apolitical banalities, but Brooks’s partisan bromides have the same airy style. When defending conservative policy views against liberal criticisms, Brooks relies on arguments so broad that they could only work as responses to the crudest straw men. Hence the preponderance of worthless observations masquerading as devastating rebuttals, such as: “The irony is that, by wide margins, Americans support free enterprise.” Or this argument defending tax cuts for the wealthy: “But if America is an opportunity society — if you have the chance to work harder, get more education and innovate — then rewarding merit is fair, and it is fair for some to make more money than others. Most Americans believe we live in an opportunity society.” Or this, against regulating Wall Street after the 2008 crash: “It wasn’t free enterprise that was at fault; it was the lack of free enterprise.”

The need for somebody to reassure D.C. that a respectable conservatism still exists means that Brooks will never be without an outlet or an audience. But if the fledgling reform conservatism movement—of which Brooks has been called the “godfather”—is real, this is a weirdly self-defeating way of promoting it. Brooks’s feel-good gobbledygook is of a piece with his paeans to free enterprise: They’re both better suited for motivational posters than a serious political program. His perpetual presence in the Post and the Times is evidence not of his intellectual heft, but of a desperation for conservatism that, if nothing else, at least sounds smarter and doesn’t come across as heartless. Any illusions about the intellectual heft of Brooks’s AEI should have been dispelled by its purging of David Frum for his mild Obamacare apostasy.

In spite of all this, Brooks’s free pass persists—born of establishment institutions’ genuine desire to promote alternatives to the worst of Tea Party know-nothingism. But that’s a dangerously low standard. The intellectual deference granted to Brooks is akin to the endless credulity extended to Rand Paul by people who will excuse the kooky neo-Confederate ties because they hope he’ll be a vehicle for saner drug laws. I doubt that strategy will work in Paul’s case, and I’m certain that it won’t in Brooks’s. The way to revive an intellectually robust conservatism is to insist on high standards, not to settle for low ones.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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