David Brooks: My Conservatism is DeadBreaking News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, David Brooks, extremism, Edmund Burke
I fell in love with conservatism in my 20s. As a politics and crime reporter in Chicago, I often found myself around public-housing projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, which had been built with the best of intentions but had become nightmares. The urban planners who designed those projects thought they could improve lives by replacing ramshackle old neighborhoods with a series of neatly ordered high-rises.
But, as the sociologist Richard Sennett, who lived in part of the Cabrini-Green complex as a child, noted, the planners never really consulted the residents themselves. They disrespected the residents by turning them into unseen, passive spectators of their own lives. By the time I encountered the projects they were national symbols of urban decay.
Back then I thought of myself as a socialist. But seeing the fallout from this situation prompted a shocking realization: This is exactly what that guy I read in college had predicted. Human society is unalterably complex, Edmund Burke argued. If you try to reengineer it based on the simplistic schema of your own reason, you will unintentionally cause significant harm. Though Burke was writing as a conservative statesman in Britain some 200 years earlier, the wisdom of his insight was apparent in what I was seeing in the Chicago of the 1980s.
I started reading any writer on conservatism whose book I could get my hands on—Willmoore Kendall, Peter Viereck, Shirley Robin Letwin. I can only describe what happened next as a love affair. I was enchanted by their way of looking at the world. In conservatism I found not a mere alternative policy agenda, but a deeper and more resonant account of human nature, a more comprehensive understanding of wisdom, an inspiring description of the highest ethical life and the nurturing community.
What passes for “conservatism” now, however, is nearly the opposite of the Burkean conservatism I encountered then. Today, what passes for the worldview of “the right” is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression.
I recently went back and reread the yellowing conservatism books that I have lugged around with me over the decades. I wondered whether I’d be embarrassed or ashamed of them, knowing what conservatism has devolved into. I have to tell you that I wasn’t embarrassed; I was enthralled all over again, and I came away thinking that conservatism is truer and more profound than ever—and that to be a conservative today, you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for.
This essay is a reclamation project. It is an attempt to remember how modern conservatism started, what core wisdom it contains, and why that wisdom is still needed today.
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