The Lazy Route to Reform Conservatism

D.C.'s search for respectable conservatism goes on, and things aren't looking any brighter.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged conservatism

The business of American politics is structured, to some extent, by the peculiar cultural mores of Washington, D.C.—which is why so much of it is easier to explain sociologically than justify rationally. As an example, I recently submitted the prominence of American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks. Brooks is a frequent presence in the Times and the Post, and was even selected to sit onstage alongside President Obama as the conservative voice in a discussion about poverty. I credited this prominence to institutional Washington’s desire for a “respectable conservatism” and its simultaneous disinclination to demand very much of that conservatism (except that it be less uncouth than the Tea Party). Brooks’s latest piece in this past Sunday’s Times is illustrative.

The piece, titled “We Need Optimists,” is typical of Brooks’s Times columns. Instead of discussing politics head-on, it deploys anecdotes and breezy pop-social science to make a vacuous, vaguely motivational point: We need more optimism. Brooks is concerned that Americans feel too pessimistic, and that politicians are tapping into this pessimism with campaigns based in fear and distrust. This not only leads to public disillusionment; it causes America to miss “a major strategic advantage,” since “business studies identify optimism as a core trait of the most successful executives,” and a recent Dutch study found that “a positive, happy leader is judged to be 132 percent more effective.” Reagan (of course) knew this: his “success came from his sunny optimism.” And a political party that followed his example, Brooks predicts, would break “the current negative equilibrium” and “see victory.”

It’s only fair to grant Brooks’s point: the mood in American politics is awfully sour at the moment, and there may well be real advantages to optimistic leadership. But at the same time, can we really blame the public and politicians for feeling pessimistic, given that America may soon “cease to be a free enterprise nation,” a place where “the rewards of success will be expropriated” and everyone will be “permanently poorer”? Do not underestimate the magnitude of this danger. There is a “real risk” that “we will forsake the third unalienable right set out in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.”

I am quoting, of course, from a 2010 Washington Post op-ed by Arthur Brooks. The 2010 Brooks warned that if President Obama’s agenda were allowed to proceed, America as we know it—the great nation in which Reagan had such faith—would be lost forever. You may recall that the President won reelection and that his policy agenda (including much of his domestic economic agenda) has proceeded apace. Brooks in 2010 warned that America itself was at stake; Brooks in 2015 mocks the regular claim, resurfacing every four years, that “this is the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.” Brooks in 2010 warned that “today there is a very real threat” that a radical governing minority “may transform our great nation forever.” Brooks in 2015 rolls his eyes at “competing pessimists who insist that the country is going down the tubes.”

Most writers contradict themselves from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with arriving at a different opinion after considered thought. The striking thing about these two columns is that nobody expects Brooks to explain the discrepancies. The Brooks of 2010 can be a wild-eyed doomsayer, and the Brooks of 2015 a pleasant counselor of optimism. Any intellectual figure whose most strident, high-profile declarations were so directly at odds with each other would be expected to give some explanation. Was Arthur Brooks wrong in 2010? Did the Obama agenda actually not threaten the very lifeblood of America? That would be a noteworthy admission from the head of AEI. It would delegitimize the last seven years of diehard GOP opposition to the President.

Incredibly, nobody will ask Brooks this very reasonable question—not even, I’ll bet, the editors who publish him in the nation’s leading newspapers. The media-political nexus around Brooks likes that he’s the head of a think tank, but it has no real interest in what he actually thinks.

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

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