I Remember Conservatism
David Brooks’s poignant essay reads like a breakup letter from a disappointed lover. But his disappointment may result from his having held unrealistic expectations of his paramour. Burkean conservatism has always looked better in the wood-paneled offices of elite periodicals and think tanks than on the gritty streets of the real world. The moral sentiments and manners extolled by Burke and Brooks were always relative, obligatory for dealings with other members of the club but not for dealings with the staff. American conservatives have long had a narrow view of which groups qualify for membership, and found utility in rallying support against the “other”: Barry Goldwater and communism, George W. Bush and terrorism, Donald Trump and immigrants.
Brooks talks as though the conservative embrace of racism and wealth inequality emerged from the shadows only upon Trump’s election, but it was Ronald Reagan who demonized so-called welfare queens and told us that the government he ran was the problem, not the solution. Reagan’s conservative heirs have continued to preach his gospel while gutting public institutions. Rather than representing an aberrant and temporary detour for mainstream Republicans, as Brooks suggests, Trump was the logical culmination of their evolution since Reagan.
I hope that Brooks will find a new and more fulfilling love among moderate Democrats.
David Brooks is right to criticize the departure of the Republican Party from traditional conservative ideology in favor of fascism. But his reasoning carefully avoids the uncomfortable reality that fearmongering, ethnocentrism, and the particular populism that is unique to the far right are deeply rooted in conservative liberalism. His failure to acknowledge the not-so-rosy past of conservatism undermines his argument that traditional conservatism remains valuable.
The world Brooks describes as “true conservatism” is a world of fiction, one that has failed to genuinely handle the wonderful heterogeneity of the real world and has paid for it dearly.
It’s very clear from his essay that David Brooks’s fondest wish would be for Burkean conservatism to take hold in our society, strongly influencing our legal and moral decisions. Unfortunately, that won’t happen. That brand of conservatism thrives best—perhaps thrives only—in relatively small, homogeneous, static groups, where day-to-day behavioral expectations do not require us to confront a quickly evolving, complex society.
Brooks calls upon the vague 18th-century concept of “sentiments” to “tell you what is beautiful and what is ugly, what to want and what is worth wanting, where to go and what to aim for.” But living in a multicultural community such as ours, whose sentiments are we required to follow? Who decides for us all? A priest, a rabbi, a minister, an imam? An admired academic? A newspaper publisher? We can’t accept “the latent wisdom that is passed down by generations.” To do so would be to accept slavery and acknowledge the divine right of a king.
There is no doubt that this country and the larger world are under terrific existential pressures. But David Brooks’s idealized conservatism is not our route to salvation.
I appreciated David Brooks’s essay, and wholeheartedly agree that the U.S. requires a responsible center-right party to counter the excesses of the left. I wonder, however, where Brooks sees a durable “rightward edge of the leftward tendency” in the modern Democratic Party. Perhaps with Joe Manchin, currently the most hated man in Washington and the only Democrat who could be elected in West Virginia? To my eyes, President Biden has done nothing but capitulate to the left flank of the party (to no benefit), and moderate seats are vulnerable in the midterms. Does Brooks see a party ready to even consider that it’s veered too far to the left? Brooks should devote his energy to excising Trumpism from the Republican Party; there’s no Burkean conservatism to be found among the Democrats.
Brooks argues that intellectually defensible conservatism died with Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. That is just nonsense. As long as people like Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, and Romney himself are still in the U.S. Senate, responsible conservatism has a voice and a future.
Speaking as an ever-loyal Republican, but one who is well aware that the party currently suffers from demagogic temptation, ideological rigidity, and lack of leadership, I wish Brooks would contribute his considerable talent to helping to preserve its future.
Fact-checkers frequently rely on photographs to verify details in an article—that a source was present at the rally, that the blood spatter formed a certain pattern, that the man’s eyes were really blue. Even when facts are well documented in other media, pictures can enrich our understanding of events. That was the case this month, as Atlantic editor at large Cullen Murphy reviewed Fintan O’Toole’s sweeping “personal history” of Ireland, which intersects with Murphy’s own personal history. As a child, Murphy moved with his family from Connecticut to Dublin, where, though he didn’t know it at the time, they lived near the young O’Toole.
On the morning of March 8, 1966, when the top of Nelson’s Pillar was blown off by an IRA splinter group, both boys’ fathers took them to see the damage. O’Toole writes that “huge lumps of stone were scattered randomly like pebbles,” and his father took a small chunk home as a souvenir. Murphy had the same impulse, and pocketed some pieces (one sits on his desk to this day). Murphy also snapped this photograph, with a Kodak Brownie, capturing what he describes as the “ragged stump” of the monument and a swarm of curious, frightened Dubliners.
Stephanie Hayes, Deputy Research Chief
Behind the Cover
In his cover story, Graeme Wood describes Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, where Wood has traveled extensively over the past three years. The crown prince has enacted reforms many thought impossible; he has also stifled dissent, creating a climate of fear unprecedented in the nation’s history. Our cover employs a minimalist portrait of the man who may rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century.
Oliver Munday, Design Director
This article appears in the April 2022 print edition.