David Brooks, the famous columnist for The New York Times, is one of my favorite conservatives. He is one of my favorite conservatives because, among his other virtues, he is not a Tea Party nut. These days you get bonus points for being both a conservative and politically sane.
Normally I find Brooks to be a thoughtful man of the right, even if I frequently find myself scratching my head and wondering, given all that the right has become in the age of Rush Limbaugh and Fox “News,” why such a bright man remains a man of the right. Then, every now and then, Brooks gives us a hint as to why he continues to fight on the same side that people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul fight.
A few days ago, the Times published his latest column (“The Stem and the Flower“), his first “in three months” he told us, and if you read the piece closely, you can see why he persists in addressing us as a conservative.
He begins by asking this question:
How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?
He ends by answering:
I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.
Hmm. How nice of Mr. Brooks to quantify for us how much of our mental resources should be devoted to politics. He may or may not have the number right. It might be a little more or it might be a little less. Or much more or much less. I confess I don’t have the slightest idea what a healthy dose of politics might be. I suppose it depends on where you stand, or maybe where you have fallen.
But what I do know is that rich people, especially in post-Citizens United America, can devote themselves to politics all day—every day—because their politically dedicated money never sleeps, even when they do. It never stops working for the political interests of its donors, even if those donors choose to spend time reading Nietzsche or, more likely, Nozick. While the rest of us, if we ever had the fleeting luxury of not worrying about our jobs or our health care or our children’s education, might be thinking about philosophy or about culture or about having fun, all the political money that wealthy people invest in politics and political advocacy would just keep right on working to make sure it accomplishes the mission it was sent out to do.
And Mr. Brooks, a very smart man, never bothers to mention that. He doesn’t bother to mention that our politics is distorted by the influence of moneyed interests. He ignores the fact that the policies our politics produces are often carved into puzzle-like shapes, pieces that when put together happen to nicely complete a picture of a society in which, increasingly, the rich get richer while most everyone else struggles for stagnation.
Yes, it would be nice if all of us had enough free time to enjoy philosophy, culture, and, for sure, having lots and lots of fun. But the truth is that most people have to work hard and hope that their job doesn’t get shipped overseas and that their health holds up long enough for them to enjoy, in their retirement years, the freedom to ignore politics.
As sad as it is that Brooks neglected to mention the primacy of money in our political system, that’s not really the most revealing idea in his column, in terms of why the non-Tea Party writer and thinker continues to call plays for the Republican Party offense. He writes:
We should start by acknowledging that except for a few rare occasions — the Civil War, the Depression — government is a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks.
Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? He is right that people who go to the park for a picnic usually don’t remember the government’s role in maintaining it, or remember its role in creating and maintaining the roads or rails that got them there. That’s certainly true. But it’s also true that if the park were run down and dirty, if there were weeds everywhere and the roads were filled with potholes, or there were no public transportation available that enabled people to get to the park, then people would certainly remember that, wouldn’t they? They would remember government’s failures, if only because a willing gaggle of journalists would be eager to point out those failures, even to those who have never picnicked in a park or who would never want to.
What Brooks is saying is that if government does its job well, if it provides a public space that is readily usable, if it provides the infrastructure that makes public spaces and picnics in the park possible, then people will focus on the food and the fun. He’s right about that. But then he continues:
Government is the hard work of creating a background order, but it is not the main substance of life. As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.
You can see how much sense that seems to make. Who among us thinks that government is “the main substance of life”? Or who would go to the theater just to see the sets on the stage? But when you think about it, when you think about picnics or plays, you can’t ignore how initially vital it is that there are such things as parks and theaters, park workers and stage hands, those resources that make “the main substance of life” possible. But Brooks strangely concludes:
So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing.
No! An emphatic and comprehensive no! There is nothing mundane or limited about government. It is the greatest invention of mankind. Or, if you want, it is the greatest gift given to us by a God of Love. However we got it, government is an absolutely extraordinary thing that does deserve our passionate devotion. A thing so singularly marvelous, so thunderously important, that to call it mundane and limited is to call the civilization it supports mundane and limited. To call it mundane and limited is to exalt the wooden cart at the expense of the flesh-and-blood horse that pulls it.
To borrow Brooks’ reference, public parks, those green manifestations of the civilization that government makes possible, aren’t dull and ordinary places. And there’s nothing limited about them. They are themselves theaters in which Americans can write their own unpublishable scripts and act out their own unfathomable plays. They are places where children run and play, where kites are flown, where lovers meet, where books are read as people lounge on blankets tossed on soft, government-cut grass. Parks are open-air cathedrals where balls are thrown, songs are sung, sometimes in solitude, and Frisbee-chasing dogs make us laugh. They are common only in the sense that they are the commons, belonging to us all, and yet to none of us.
This particular government of ours, the one that provides us parks and peace, is a we-the-people government. Because of that fact alone it won’t do to call it mundane or limited. Given the history of humanity, our collective effort to govern ourselves is not ordinary. And we are limited only by the kind of vision of government that Brooks endorses, a vision that reduces government’s role to one that merely maintains “the essential background order.”
As I said, I like David Brooks. He represents the best of what conservatism has to offer. But I will leave you with a contradiction in his piece, a contradiction born of his need, as a man of the right, to push government into the background. Here is the penultimate paragraph:
So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing. Government is essential, but, to switch metaphors ridiculously, it’s the stem of the flower, not the bloom. The best government is boring, gradual and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.
It is here that we can see that Brooks’ Burkean view of government necessarily misses capturing the glory of the thing he is describing. He says that government is “the stem of the flower, not the bloom.” And he finishes by saying that government “doesn’t deliver meaning.” Yet, as his flower metaphor demonstrates, there would be no bloom without the stem. The blossom is not held up by some sort of ethereal scaffolding. It is held up by the stem, a real and splendid piece of essential architecture. The sturdy and stupendous stem does in fact deliver the bloom, and government, because it is the foundation of civilization, does therefore “deliver meaning.”
Government delivers meaning in the same way that a government-sponsored postal service delivers a letter from a loved one, in the same way a government-invented Internet delivers an email from a friend, in the same way a government-maintained park delivers Brooks’ “creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.” Government, to be sure, doesn’t create meaning; it doesn’t write our letters or emails or cook up our food or conversations during a picnic of fun. But in a civilized world, in a world make possible by government, it makes all those things and, yes, even meaning possible.
Government is, indeed, a stem. It supports the many fruits of civilization. Without it, without that stem, this would indeed be a most barren existence. Without it, there would be no flowers. And maybe the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals aim to cultivate the blooms of civilization by making sure the stem is healthy and strong, by unapologetically championing and nourishing the human ingenuity that supports, or the miracle that sustains, that thing we call government.