“The quintessential new warrior scans for confirmation of the president’s villainy, avoiding facts that might complicate his hatred.” —David Brooks, NY Times. [I posted a blink to Todd Gitlin’s appraisal of Brooks here.]
This sounds suspiciously like a right-wing echo of the ‘echo chamber’ conversation I had several weeks ago with Rebecca Blood and Lyn Millett, both on FmH and continuing over on Lyn’s Medley. Brooks makes the fundamentally flawed argument that, just because there is another side to the argument, harebrained as it might be (in this case, to suggest that Bush is anything less than inept and craven), one can be impeached for having some confidence in a firmly held conviction (in this case, that Bush is nothing but inept and craven). It is a tactic of the right to suggest that criticism is merely ideological bias (or, to Brooks, worse than passionate ideological difference: “The culture wars produced some intellectually serious books because there were principles involved. The presidency wars produce mostly terrible ones because the hatreds have left the animating ideas far behind and now romp about on their own.”); look for it and you’ll see this rhetorical argument throughout their discourse. Me, I still prefer dismissing and excluding the harebrained.
Brooks casts this as an extension of the ‘culture wars’ of the ’80’s, in which ideological and ethical gaps were unbridgeable. They remain so (sorry, Rebecca) no matter how much we style ourselves a pluralistic democratic society in which people are entitled to their opinions. But Brooks, aspiring to be the clever new kid on the op-ed block, has to take it further, suggesting that the ‘presidency wars’ are a new phenomenon beyond culture differences. He is wrong on two counts.
First is the newly fashionable observation (how many times have you read or heard it in just the last two weeks?) that the left’s Bush-loathing is ‘just like’ the right’s Clinton-loathing during the last administration. On the surface of it, this is an appealing tack. I heard a poignant piece from some NPR commentator last week who used her contempt for Bush as a vehicle to a new empathic connection to her mother, whose Clinton-bashing she had endured through the second half of the ’90’s. We all do it, its one of our cherished little foibles, Brooks says. Only consider the asymmetry.
Clinton-bashing from the right was not met with uncritical kneejerk contravention from the left. Clinton often offended the left mightily. Progressives did not so much like the man or support him as much as they argued the irrelevancy of the right’s attack on a deeply morally flawed man to his fitness to govern. As much as I agree that I would probably hate Bush if I got to know him personally, I would probably hate the smarmy Clinton as well. In contrast, have you ever heard an apologist for the current administration, an ideological conservative, acknowledge Bush’s personal flaws? This may be firmly embedded in, rather than transcending in any way as Brooks attempts to suggest, the ‘culture wars’ (rigid and moralistic thinkers with an inherent bias toward respecting authority and a difficulty distniguishing the man from his privilege and title vs. moral relativists whose belief in the corrpution of politics and government makes them nonplussed by the idea of a moral failure as President).
In a second sense, the ‘presidency wars’ are a perfect reflection of the ‘culture wars’ rather than something different. Bush-hating is merely the latest, greatest fruition of anti-elitist progressive bitterness at the failure of the meritocratic ideals on whose promise they were raised.
Jonathan Chait’s New Republic piece Mad About You, the case for Bush hatred, which takes some jibes at David Brooks and to which Brooks’ piece seemes to be a reply, does an excellent job establishing the significant differences between Bush hatred and Clinton hatred; in comparison, Brooks’ column is empty handwaving in feeble response. Chait finds Bush hatred entirely justified on ideological grounds alone, although he warns of the rabid fringe of Bush haters whose rage gives voice to ill-thought-out conspiracy theories (we invaded Iraq just to boost Halliburton’s profits; oh, that’s Cheney’s motivation, not Bush’s [joke…]) and worries that Democrats blinded by their hatred will choose a Presidential candidate merely on the basis of his ability to vent their rage for them (a vast misintepretation of what Dean’s appeal is all about, IMO) rather than one who can beat Bush. (Dean may not be able to appeal to the vast heartlands who would have to vote Democratic, but it is not so much because they are on the other side of the ‘presidency war’ as that they are across the ‘culture war’ gulf…). By the way, the companion New Republic piece by Ramesh Ponnuru, Hate Crimes: the case against Bush hatred, also does little more than agree with Chait that Bush hatred may lead Democrats to strategic mistakes.
But in a sense Brooks is right that Bush-hating transcends mere principled ideological dispute, as did Clinton-hating. It is no mistake that observers discern ‘presidency wars’ in the furor over the past two presidents. It is not, however, so much because of any essential change in the tenor or nature of political discourse, but because of a run of inappropriate choices we have faced for the presidency. Brooks does not seem to have noticed, but I would cite the beginnings of this landscape of contempt when a two-bit actor ascended to the throne more than twenty years ago. No, let me go even further back, to the worst 20th-century president, Richard Nixon, who inspired visceral rage and contempt quite apart from his dirty campaign tricks and his despicable conduct of the war in Indochina. I recall my terrifying introduction to Nixon and a new dimension of political rage in a piece profiling him, long before his election, in the first issue of Ralph Ginsburg’s short-lived (1968-71) “post pyrotechnic, futuristic bimonthly of intellectual pleasure” Avant Garde — the article, whose author I no longer recall, was responsible for my taking out a charter subscription. [With the input of the likes of Herb Lubalin and Milton Glaser, Avant Garde is remembered these days, when it is, for its graphic and typographic design, rather than its content…] Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Shrub, were in their own ways mediocre men who by rights should have been recognized as unfit to govern (although of course I am reminded of the maxim that a nation gets the leader it deserves). If the tenor of the criticism has become more shrill, it is because the unfitness is more evident and the stakes higher. Here is Chait again, on:
… the oft-posed question of why liberals detest Bush more than Reagan. It’s not just that Bush has been more ideologically radical; it’s that Bush’s success represents a breakdown of the political process. Reagan didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he was; his election came at the crest of a twelve-year-long popular rebellion against liberalism. Bush, on the other hand, assumed office at a time when most Americans approved of Clinton’s policies. He triumphed largely because a number of democratic safeguards failed. The media overwhelmingly bought into Bush’s compassionate-conservative facade and downplayed his radical economic conservatism.
Chait shares my vehemence about Bush’s intellectual unfitness to govern, which longtime FmH readers know has been one of my trademark rants since Bush’s early public appearances during the 2000 presidential campaign. As Chait points out, however, it has become taboo as a subject:
Just as mainstream Democrats and liberals ceased to question Bush’s right to hold office, so too did they cease to question his intelligence. If you search a journalistic database for articles discussing Bush’s brainpower, you will find something curious. The idea of Bush as a dullard comes up frequently–but nearly always in the context of knocking it down. While it’s described as a widely held view, one can find very few people who will admit to holding it. Conservatives use the theme as a taunt–if Bush is so dumb, how come he keeps winning? Liberals, spooked, have concluded that calling Bush dumb is a strategic mistake.
Yes, it took me awhile, but I realized eventually that it was not just that the idea of the president-as-dullard did not seem to concen the voting public; it was downright appealing.
Knee-jerk loyalty to the current president is so out of touch with reality that it would be laughable if it hadn’t turned the country over to Bush’s authoritarian handlers, corporate rapists and world hegemonists, behind the smokescreen of apologistics.
Brooks tries to disarm his critics with facile suggestions that he is ecumenical about his concerns and above the ideological fray:
And for those who are going to make the obvious point: Yes, I did say some of these things during the Clinton years, when it was conservatives bashing a Democrat, but not loudly enough, which I regret, because the weeds that were once on the edge of public life now threaten to choke off the whole thing.
Indeed; but you supported Clinton’s impeachment wholeheartedly. Nice try, David, but no go. Your slip is showing…
Related: What is David Brooks talking about?
We couldn’t help but be a little confused by David Brooks’s New York Times column this morning. The premise of the piece is that the culture wars of the 1980s and early ’90s have evolved into the “presidency wars” of the late ’90s and the present–by which Brooks means that we’ve stopped debating large principles and started acting out our visceral dislike of the other side.
This much we get. But Brooks loses us when he cites a quote from a recent piece by our colleague Jonathan Chait–and, by implication, holds Chait up as the epitome of the presidential warrior. —The New Republic
Addendum: Here, Chait responds to Brooks and others. “A recent article of mine in TNR defending Bush hatred seems to have worked like some kind of conservative dog whistle, silently summoning drooling right-wingers out of their lairs to bay at the moon…Wait. Did I just lump David Brooks together with a bunch of incoherent right-wing knuckle-draggers? I suppose I did. That’s probably not fair, given that Brooks is intelligent and an excellent writer. But of course that’s precisely what he does to me in his column.”
Chait goes on:
Brooks has every right to disagree with me about the relative merits of Presidents Bush and Clinton, but he has no right to distort my argument or the nature of my writing. As a matter of fact, I spend far more time reading the conservative media–in addition to National Review Online, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Andrew Sullivan’s website are all part of my daily fare–than I do reading liberal commentary. My piece on Bush hatred explicitly addressed the arguments of conservatives and mustered facts in rebuttal. And it explicitly compared Clinton–whom I have criticized in print many times before–with Bush. Moreover, I’ve also argued in that piece and elsewhere (a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “Blinded by Bush Hatred”) that liberals shouldn’t allow their distrust of Bush to lead to reflexive opposition to his policies–my primary example being the Iraq war, which I supported. After confessing my personal dislike for Bush, I proceeded to carefully explain why liberal hatred for Bush is understandable given the way he attained his office and has governed since.
The irony is that the exertions of the anti Bush-haters lack even an attempt at analytical rigor. Brooks does not even mention, let alone try to refute, my argument. Novak and Hewitt’s responses are on the level of discourse you’d find at a Howard Dean rally. Brooks’s sadness over the simplicity of the Bush-haters therefore rings a bit hollow.
Chait concludes by placing Brooks’ piece in context: “The timing of Brooks’s plea for civility is a tad suspicious. After Republican culture wars softened up Clinton, and tainted Al Gore, paving the way for Bush’s election, suddenly it’s time to declare president-hating out of bounds.” …as conservatives face the spectre of their new-found arrogant ascendency slipping through their one-term fingers because of the actions of their eminently hate-able man in the White House, too inept to keep pulling the wool over our eyes.