David Brooks describes Conservatism’s paternalistic core

This week as David Brooks and Gail Collins discussed “Who Decided That This Election Should Be About Sex?” Brooks laid bare the core of the Conservative philosophy:

“I do think it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic. In fact I’d argue dynamic capitalism requires a stringent and coherent social order to help guard against its savageries — tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest.

Free market beliefs and socially conservative beliefs require each other, so long as those socially conservative beliefs are traditional, not theological. I’m for traditional values, with government playing a small role to support them. I get worried when some politician begins trying to legislate his faith’s version of Natural Law.”

This statement seems almost unintentionally revealing to me. Isn’t it interesting to see what makes it into his statement of core values and what gets left out? He has a definite view of what constitutes a “stringent and coherent social order” and “tight families”: he admits that his approach is explicitly paternalistic, as though empowering women to lead their own lives out from under the thumb of male control leads to the breakdown of the social order and rampant “savageries” (a charged word if there ever was one!).

Brooks thinks that government can play a “small role” to support “traditional values” while the Republicans are currently trying to legislate what happens inside our bedrooms and inside women’s bodies. Only a man could see current Conservative causes such as state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds as non-invasive small government.

But what is really at the core of our country’s problems as we try to recover from the worst recession in memory? Look what has happened as capitalism has run unfettered and unregulated in the past decade–near economic meltdown which required a bailout of Wall Street and untold behind the scenes shenanigans by the Treasury department (see for example quantitative easing and the $7 trillion secret loan program).

David Brooks can come across as a reasonable guy at times, which makes him even more interesting to me. We can’t afford to ignore the core of the worldview he is laying out. It is not consistent and it is certainly not inclusive. It asks for small government when it doesn’t want interference but has no problem trying to get laws or constitutional amendments passed that restrict other people’s very personal liberties (“personhood” for zygotes and amendments to “protect” marriage by limiting which relationships can be defined as legal partnerships). Brooks’ whole framework is clearly protecting the interests of those in power, as defined by wealthy, heterosexual white men. Even “pretty nice” people can feel that they are not actively racist, sexist or homophobic but they want to preserve a system that structurally reinforces their privileges–privileges that may be invisible to them, but very real to the rest of us. Racism is no longer culturally acceptable, but controlling women and the sexuality and relationships of gay people shows how threatening the Right feels by anything other than their paternalistic world view.

It is time for Progressives to stand up and shake off our “live and let live” tendencies to realize that we need to fight for fairness, inclusiveness, and equality on many fronts. Here in North Carolina we are facing a vote on a proposed Constitutional Amendment that not only would ban gay marriage, which is already illegal, but it would invalidate any domestic partnership other than marriage between a man and a woman. This has far-reaching implications for many issues such as domestic violence. By encoding these restrictions into the state Constitution, domestic violence laws could become unconstitutional. It is very scary to think about what happens when we start encoding this kind of discrimination and liberty restriction into our Constitution–it feels like we’d be messing with society’s “source code” without understanding all the damage that could be done. Bad amendments are even worse than bad laws because they are much harder to overturn. Even Jim Crow Laws enforcing segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws, which banned marriages between people of different races, were enacted through laws and not Constitutional amendments. By the way, if anyone can tell me how the bans against gay marriage are fundamentally different than the bans on interracial marriage, I would be very interesting in hearing a substantive argument on that.

I will leave you with two thoughts that illustrate the world views we will be voting on in this election year:

Ellen Degeneres:
“I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated, and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values.”

or more from David Brooks: “So let’s return to our normal subject. Men, men, men. Let’s go back and have a normal election: men talking about themselves. The love that won’t shut up.”

In 2012, the choice is ours and the differences couldn’t be clearer.


2 Responses to “David Brooks describes Conservatism’s paternalistic core”
  1. Amy Tiemann says:

    I was hoping that someone would appreciate the reference to “source code.” It is an important point for everyone to realize how difficult it is to undo a Constitutional amendment once it has been passed. This is serious business.

  2. Patty Ayers says:

    I appreciate the way you’ve broken this down, Amy. And I like the comparison of the Constitution to source code. 🙂