Friday, July 18, 2008

David Brooks and History

I tend to ignore David Brooks when he goes off on pedantic generalizations, but today’s column is worth noting for a bit of historical blindness.

We’re entering an era of epic legislation. There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.


All of this means that the next few years will be an age of government activism. You may think, therefore, that this situation is ripe for Democratic dominance. The Democrats are the natural party of federal vigor. Voters prefer Democratic approaches to issues like health care and education by as much as 25 percentage points.

Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule. It’s as if voters understand that they need big changes, but they want those changes planned and enacted by leaders who will restrain the pace of change and prevent radical excess.

He then goes on to cite Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt as great conservative reformers. I’ll buy the argument about Mr. Disraeli, but in the case of TR, Mr. Brooks is twisting history to make it fit his mold. Theodore Roosevelt was not a typical Republican of the age; he infuriated the status quotidians of the GOP with his attacks on “malefactors of great wealth” and his — for then — radical approach to land conservation, and the Bull Moose Party of 1912 was not exactly a conservative movement.

And as long as Mr. Brooks wants to make the claim that the “periods of great governmental change have been periods of conservative rule,” I’ll leave him with the periods of 1933 through 1949 and 1961 through 1969, when America instituted some of the most sweeping governmental changes in our history, including Social Security, Medicare, rural electrification, banking reform, civil rights, and many other programs and changes that we take for granted, and note that not only were they enacted under Democrats — Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson — but that conservatives fought each one of them tooth and nail every inch of the way.

A word of advice to Mr. Brooks from the immortal Mark Twain: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”