October 20, 2014
David Brooks wrote an odd column on October 16, entitled "The Case for Low Ideals." Ostensibly he was offering advice to those who might approach politics burdened with high ideals, but his notion of "low ideals" seems really to be the absence of ideals. In any case, his use of the term "ideals" is confusing.
The 2008 campaign, he tells us, "was based on the idea that people are basically innocent and differences can be quickly transcended. It was based on the idea that society is easily malleable and it’s possible to have quick transformational change. It was based in the idea of a heroic savior (remember those ‘Hope’ posters)." That’s a peculiar and tendentious reading, and an idea is not exactly synonymous with an ideal, but never mind. The point he was trying to make, I think, is that politics should be conducted in an atmosphere of compromise and accommodation. As an abstract principle, that is perfectly sensible.
His formula for achieving this is "low idealism," which seems to describe his preferred attitude of the voter, rather than of the official:
[L]ow idealism starts with a tone of sympathy. Anybody who works in this realm [politics] deserves compassion and gentle regard. The low idealist knows that rallies with anthems and roaring are just make-believe, but has warm affection for any politician who exhibits neighborliness, courtesy and the ability to listen. . . . [T]his kind of idealist has a full heart for those who serve the practical work of legislating . . . . Believing experience is the best mode of education, he favors the competent old hand to the naïve outsider.
However, tucked into the first ellipsis is this: "The low idealist understands that those who try to rise above the messy business of deal-making often turn into zealots and wind up sinking below it." That seems to denounce high idealism in the officeholder as well.Returning to the voter, Brooks thinks that the low idealist, in looking for a leader, wants "not the martyr or the passionate crusader or the righteous populist. He likes the resilient one, who maybe has been tainted by scandals and has learned from his self-inflicted wounds that his own worst enemy is himself." I haven’t noticed a tendency on the part of voters to favor those tainted by scandal, but perhaps his low idealist would. "He likes the person who speaks only after paying minute attention to the way things really are, and whose proposals are grounded in the low stability of the truth." What might those proposals be? He doesn’t say; he seems to be advocating a content-free politics: elect a nice, friendly representative, and sit back; all will be well. "Low idealism . . . holds that people can be improved by their political relationships, so it ends up with something loftier and more inspiring than those faux idealists who think human beings are not a problem and politics is mostly a matter of moving money around." I don’t know what the last two phrases relate to, but again here is an empty politics: "something loftier. . . ."
If Brooks’ notion of a voter is theoretical, his view of government is minimalist and reactionary: "The core functions of government are negative — putting out fires, arresting criminals, settling disputes — and much of what government does is the unromantic work of preventing bad situations from getting worse." Perhaps that conclusion follows from this presumed characteristic of his preferred voter: "The low idealist is more romantic about the past than about the future." That person "believes, as Samuel Johnson put it, that ‘The happiness of society depends on virtue’ — not primarily material conditions." Government shouldn’t make people’s lives better on the low moral plane of physical well-being. No, its task is to raise the tone; "better laws can nurture virtue. Statecraft is soulcraft. Good tax policies can arouse energy and enterprise. Good social programs can encourage compassion and community service."
His borrowing of the title of one of George Will’s books is ironic. Mr. Will has moved so far to the right that he may now share Mr. Brooks’ preference for a minimal state but, when he wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft, in 1983, he hadn’t reached that point. He then declared his "belief in strong government, including the essentials of the welfare state" and stated that the values of the conservative tradition "are threatened less by 'big' government than by abdication by the government."
Idealism, if naïve, can be a poor foundation for governing (or for voting, whichever it is that we are talking about), but the problem we face at the present isn’t a surfeit of idealism, but the dire effects of ideology; not high and noble aspirations but a cramped, rigid, uninformed, often deliberately ignorant philosophy of government and of society which issues primarily in servitude to the wealthy. If Mr. Brooks truly is concerned about the influence of attitudes and mental states, and about whom voters should support, he might direct his attention there.
74. Quotes from Statecraft as Soulcraft pp. 12, 22.
74. Quotes from Statecraft as Soulcraft pp. 12, 22.