David Brooks's Leninist Vanguardism for Centrists

Use elites to hammer out necessary reforms, then browbeat the masses into going along—where have we heard that before? 
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Comrades (Miller Center/Flickr; Wikimedia Commons)

"It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency," David Brooks writes at the start of his latest column. And then, to keep the U.S.S.R. theme consistent, the columnist takes unexpected inspiration from Vladimir Lenin.

Brooks' complaint is an important one: There seems to be a stagnation of democracies, and an ossification of our own government in particular. While appreciating the way command economies like China and Singapore are able to undertake big projects, he doesn't want to fall prey to the same weaknesses, such as systemic corruption. His solution, "elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions," is questionable, given that Simpson-Bowles has gone nowhere, but the way he describes them is intriguing:

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms—on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc.—and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist.

Where have we heard that before? Sub in "Communists" for "the great and the good" and "working class" for "bipartisan" and suddenly you have Marx and Engels:

The Communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

Lenin took this idea to its logical conclusion, proposing a Communist vanguard of the enlightened who could bring revolution to Russia, then spread it to the masses. So what Brooks is espousing here is a curious hybrid: a sort of centrist Leninism.

There's one glaring and essential difference. Whereas Lenin viewed violent revolution as a useful and appropriate tool for achieving his means, what Brooks is calling for is the opposite: Drab, eggheaded expert panels that can formulate white papers. Yet both hope to use enlightened elites to shatter false consciousness and effect populist change.

The Washington Post's Matt O'Brien makes the data-driven case for why more, rather than less, democracy is a better solution for stalled-out American policy. It's worth adding that the biggest initiatives the United States has undertaken recently—TARP, the 2009 stimulus, and Obamacare, love them or hate them—all came through the traditional channels of the political system. But give Brooks some credit: As a moderate conservative embracing Bolshevik tactics, he's not just calling for bipartisanship; he's practicing it.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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