David Brooks is the prodigal son of the Democratic Party. As an undergrad at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, he identified as a democratic socialist. But upon graduating he got caught up in the spirit of Reaganism, starting off as an intern for William F. Buckley Jr. Now, after more than three decades of being a formidable Republican advocate, Brooks is ready to return to the Democratic fold.
In an essay in the January/February issue of The Atlantic originally titled “I Remember Conservatism,” Brooks concedes that the Republican Party is likely to remain enthralled by some version of Trumpism, a degraded and bullying populism that threatens American democracy.
“A lot of my friends are trying to reclaim the GOP and make it a conservative party once again,” Brooks notes. “I cheer them on. America needs two responsible parties. But I am skeptical that the GOP is going to be home to the kind of conservatism I admire anytime soon.” Having abandoned the Republicans, Brooks has decided “to plant myself instead on the rightward edge of the leftward tendency—in the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.”
The Gospel of Luke teaches that the prodigal son should be welcomed back with joy. Charity demands that the repentant sinner be given a second chance. But before we slay the fatted calf, it’s worth asking if the wayward wastrel has really reformed himself. Did he actually learn anything in his years of debauchery?
While Brooks has given up on the Republican Party, he remains faithful to conservatism, an intellectual tradition that he persists in seeing in literally romantic terms. “I fell in love with conservatism in my 20s,” Brooks enthuses. “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.”
In this account of his conversion to conservatism, we already see how little Brooks has changed. Responding to Brooks’s essay, the historian Rick Perlstein tweeted:
There’s a high end condo on the lakefront with the exact same design as a CHA highrise. Have THEY “disrespected the residents by turning them into unseen, passive spectators of their own lives”?? How come lakefront condo buildings in that style didn’t become “national symbols of urban decay”?? Projects decayed because they were starved of government funds the moment they became file cabinets for Black people while taxes subsidized suburbs for white people, and decayed exponentially worse when the conservatives in the Reagan White House and Congress of the generation David Brooks celebrates as if solons from some philosophical Olympus CUT THE FEDERAL HOUSING BUDGET BY 75%.
Most of Brooks’s essay is devoted to a selective and potted account of some of the great conservative thinkers who enthralled his young mind, teaching him the value of prudence and the organic evolution of society. His roll call of names includes Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. A few oddball intellectuals are thrown in: Willmoore Kendall, Peter Viereck, and James Q. Wilson, as well as Buckley himself.
This history is weirdly denuded of complexity and particularity: Hamilton and Jefferson were foes—and they surely influenced liberals as much as conservatives. Both were revolutionaries, as was Lincoln. Even Theodore Roosevelt was a reformer.
We get Burke the lofty exalter of “little platoons”—but not the Burke who, absurdly, enthused over Marie Antoinette and the age of chivalry, the Burke who derided the “swinish multitude,” or the Burke who urged a total war against France. Willmoore Kendall is just name-dropped, with no mention of his support for Joseph McCarthy, his advocacy of preemptive war against the Soviet Union, or his promotion of biological racism. James Q. Wilson’s thoughts on morality are quoted without reflection on his key role as a promoter of mass incarceration.
About conservatism and race, Brooks writes: “To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime. American conservatives never wrapped their mind around this. My beloved mentor, William F. Buckley Jr., made an ass of himself in his 1965 Cambridge debate against James Baldwin. By the time I worked at National Review, 20 years later, explicit racism was not evident in the office, but racial issues were generally overlooked and the GOP’s flirtation with racist dog whistles was casually tolerated.”
This is a whitewash of a much nastier and more consequential history. The Buckley-Baldwin debate is the least of it. National Review celebrated Jim Crow in the United States and apartheid in South Africa and promoted the “Southern strategy,” which polarized American parties along racial lines and paved the way for Trump. When Brooks was an intern in 1985, National Review still employed senior editor Joseph Sobran, whose open anti-Semitism and racism were notorious. It took Buckley many years to reprimand Sobran, who was eventually fired only for criticizing his employer.
As Spy magazine reported in 1989:
Senior editors Sobran and Jeffrey Hart have swapped jokes about crematoriums and gas chambers. Race relations is also a popular subject. In November 1986 NR ran a cover story, “Blacks and the G.O.P.: Just Called to Say I Love You,” that outlined possible GOP strategies for attracting black voters. Presiding over the traditional post-issue recap, Buckley quipped, “Maybe it should have been titled ‘Just Called to Say I Love You, Niggah.’” During another editorial meeting, Jeffrey Hart reflected wistfully that “under a real government, Bishop Tutu would be a cake of soap.”
Sam Tanenhaus, Buckley’s biographer, reports that the National Review editor in chief decided Brooks couldn’t be his successor because he’s Jewish. This seems to have caught Brooks off-guard and even caused some hurt feelings.
The history of conservatism is much uglier than Brooks admits even now. Leaving the GOP isn’t enough. Before we hold a feast for this prodigal son, he has to honestly reckon with his life of cavorting with a debauched ideology.