David Brooks discusses conservatism otherwise known as authoritarianism: the autocratic, dictatorial, despotic, tyrannical, draconian, oppressive, and undemocratic regime of G.W. Bush.
From Freedom to Authority
By David Brooks
The New York Times
Psychologists joke that two sorts of people need therapy: those who need to be loosened up and those who need to be tightened up. Now, in the political world, we're moving from what you might call loose conservatism to tight conservatism. We're seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority. Many of George Bush's problems come from the fact that he's awkwardly straddling the transition point between the two.
In the 1970's and 80's, conservatives felt the primary threat was the overweening nanny state. Ronald Reagan tried to loosen the structures that restricted individual initiative and led to national sclerosis. He and Margaret Thatcher deregulated, privatized, cut tax rates in order to liberate entrepreneurs. The dominant formula was simple: less government equals more freedom. "Government is the problem," Reagan declared, expressing the organizing conservative principle of the day.
Times change. Now the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder. The biggest threats come not from nanny states but from failed states and rogue states. There is less popular fear of bureaucrats possessing too much control than of ungoverned forces surging out of control: immigration, the federal debt, Iraqi sectarianism, Islamic radicalism, Chinese mercantilism, domestic rage and polarization.
American society doesn't feel stagnant, but rather segmented. The authoritative central institutions that are supposed to organize hurricane relief, gather intelligence or pass bills into laws don't seem to be functioning.
The chief challenge these days is to restore legitimate centers of authority.
Middle-class suburbanites understood this shift far more quickly than the professional conservatives in Washington. What people wanted post-9/11 was Giuliani-ism on a global scale — someone who was assertive and decisive enough to assume authority and take situations that seemed ungovernable and make them governable.
In many ways, President Bush was sensitive to the changing nature of the times. Bush had never believed that his job as president was to cut government to enhance freedom. He never promised to reduce the size of government. His education reforms didn't enhance personal choice; they turned the federal government into an accountability cop.
Since 9/11 he has sweepingly sought to assert authority. He has exerted executive power, created a new Homeland Security Department, tried to transform the State Department and C.I.A., tried to intervene aggressively in the Middle East to reverse the downward spiral into radicalism. In Commentary, Daniel Casse called this approach strong government conservatism.
But even while he has done this, he — in a hangover from the old conservatism — has never felt comfortable with government and its institutions. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book "Rebel-in-Chief," Bush and his team operate in Washington like an occupying army of insurgents, an "alien in the realm of the governing class." Ever the visionary, Bush told Barnes that his interest "is not the means, it is the results."
But statesmanship consists precisely of understanding the relationship between the means at your disposal and the ends you seek to pursue. Bush has had trouble exerting authority because he and some of his advisers have been aloof from or hostile to the inescapable and legitimate institutions of authority in this country.
The first job of any Republican administration is to figure out how to use government agencies, which are staffed by people who may be liberals, but who are also professionals. The tightly controlled Bush White House has not successfully done that. Can anyone imagine a more thankless job than being a Bush cabinet secretary (unless you happen to be Donald Rumsfeld)?
Furthermore, Bush and his team have generally not shared information with the people with whom they share power. They've been slow to open reciprocal communication with people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington who could do them some good.
Finally, members of the Bush administration did not respect government enough to understand that a strong one had to be established in postwar Iraq. They had too much faith in spontaneous social order, a libertarian myth from the 1980's that has been sadly refuted by events.
A political age built around authority rather than freedom will elevate different sorts of disputes, of which the N.S.A. flap is only a precursor. Elections will revolve around the question: Who can best maintain order — in the home, neighborhood, culture and around the globe?
For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state, but that debate's basically done. The next one will be over where the state should erect guardrails in a mobile and fragmented world.
Photo credit: David Brooks. (The New York Times)