Sir, you are not a conservative
David Brooks and the death of conservatism
Writing about his intellectual pilgrimage, New York Times columnist David Brooks once described himself in the 1980s like this: “What followed over the next decade was a journey from one conservative institution to another, as I tried to figure out exactly what kind of conservative I was.”
Fast forward to 2021 and David Brooks may have finally figured out what principled conservatives knew along. David Brooks is not a conservative. In reality, he never was a conservative. His writing is often brilliant, his media presence is smooth as silk, and he is routinely identified as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. But that identification is only half true. He is indeed a columnist at the New York Times. But conservative? Not even close.
David Brooks did work at National Review with William F. Buckley, Jr., but in recent decades he has put a lot of distance between himself and the Buckley tradition. His position on abortion is pro-choice, he championed the legalization of same-sex marriage as a gain for morality, and he recently argued that the nuclear family was “a mistake.” Brooks now identifies with moderate Democrats, and he has made clear his admiration for President Barack Obama. He was absolutely gushing in his support for Joe Biden’s candidacy: “Never in my life have I seen a candidate so confidently avoid wedge issues.” That was shortly after Biden caved to pressure from his own party and pledged to eliminate the Hyde Amendment. Biden adopted the most radical pro-abortion position of any Democratic nominee in history and promised to force American taxpayers into paying for abortion.
Since President Biden’s inauguration, Brooks has repeatedly effused about the wonders of his presidency. “The Biden administration has moved to separate government from the culture wars,” Brooks argued—months after Biden had shifted even further left, endorsing the Equality Amendment and pushing just about every leftward culture war button imaginable.
In recent weeks, Brooks dropped in at the National Conservatism Conference and wrote a piece for The Atlantic warning of the right’s “terrifying future.” In particular, he wrote of his horror at discovering that many conservatives fear that the entire civilization is being undermined before our eyes.
Just days ago, Brooks released an essay asking “What Happened to American Conservatism?” The article reveals David Brooks’s familiar mode of argument—present someone else’s position (usually to his right) as ludicrous and warn of irresponsible positions on the other side (usually his left), leaving Brooks himself as the emperor of reason. He has made a lucrative career of this kind of writing and argumentation, and he is an industry unto himself. He is what the liberal media and academia want conservatives to be. He is reasoned, calm, reassuring, excruciatingly moderate, and ever ready to warn of what will happen if the unwashed conservative horde gets close to power. But his conservatism is not conservative.
David Brooks wants a conservatism of manners, not a conservatism based in eternal truths. He actually fears any movement that claims to base its principles on truth rather than manners and tradition. That includes his former colleagues at National Review. “I didn’t quite have their firm conviction that there is a transcendent, eternal moral order to the universe and that society should strive to be as consistent with it as possible,” Brooks wrote in 2007.
That explains just about everything about the strange tale of David Brooks. A lack of belief in “a transcendent, eternal moral order” as a basis for his worldview explains why Brooks thinks it quite reasonable that a man should be able to marry a man and that same-sex marriage represents “a victory for the good life.” It explains why he ignores the natural family and decries the nuclear family as a mistake, arguing for “forged families” as a communitarian alternative. His disavowal of a transcendent moral order is what explains his concerns about abortion. What caused his reconsideration of the pro-choice position? In his own words, “experience and moral sentiments.” But he ends up proposing that abortion be freely available for the first trimester. Moral sentiments aren’t enough to defend the unborn in the period when most abortions are performed.
If there is no transcendent, eternal moral order, then morality is just a process of civic negotiation and everything is up for grabs. David Brooks can affirm same-sex marriage and early-term abortion and indict the nuclear family as a mistake—and yet remain comfortable within his worldview of manners and moral sentiments. Conservatism lives or dies on the belief that we are conserving created reality and serving eternal truths. Otherwise, all that remains is custom, manners, and moral sentiment—and they are no match for the forces of progressive morality.
About a year ago, David Brooks cited the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and described himself as belonging to “the extreme right-wing edge of the left-wing movement.” Well, in that formulation, the left-wing movement always wins, and that’s the plan.
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