One respondent suggested, in commenting on my blog this week about columnist David Brooks, that he is most certainly not a real conservative. This type of argument is easy to make, so long as you define the word "conservative" by a definition that has little to do with the standard definition of the term in political use. Brooks actually defines himself by Edmund Burke, who is the gold standard for the word so far as I can tell. Most writers and thinkers always go to Burke in defining what really constitutes political conservatism in English/American tradition. Brooks is not a libertarian, nor a right-wing conservative or a Patrick Buchanan isolationist. He is a standard historical conservative in the primary sense of the word. For those who are open and interested you can hear the lecture I wrote about on the Wheaton College radio station. I encourage you to listen if you are interested. You may also view the presentation if you have the right tools on your computer. You be the judge. Do not let me, or anyone else, convince you by wrangling over this label unless you have first heard the man for yourself. His explanation of how he became a conservative is both enlightening and insightful. Liberal, libertarian or conservative? The labels are just labels but they do have a point of reference when used properly. And by the way, listing issues and checking them off one-by-one is not how we should define an overall political philosophy. By this standard I suppose I am all over the map and thus cannot use any historical label for what I actually embrace as a political philosophy. And just for the record, Ronald Reagan is not the final standard for a conservative view of government on every issue either.

For another great demonstration of my point check out the great article in the current issue of the National Review by Allen Guelzo on Abraham Lincoln, whom Guelzo argues was a very "conservative" president. I believe he is absolutely right about Lincoln but then there are a load of people who will argue against this passionately, especially if they defend the South's position in the conflict. President Obama argues that Lincoln was a liberal progressive but Guelzo puts this argument to rest, at least in my view. Guelzo, who teaches Civil War history at Gettysburg College, is one of our foremost living Lincoln scholars and a man I much admire and respect. I have had the joy of spending time with him and cannot commend his several books on Lincoln too highly. He is also a trained church historian and a committed Christian.

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  1. Jack Isaacson March 4, 2009 at 6:00 am

    David Brooks describes himself in his article in the New York Times , A Moderate Manifesto, Published: March 2, 2009 as a “moderate-conservative”. As you wrote,”The labels are just labels but they do have a point of reference when used properly”, so by calling himself a moderate-conservative, he does label himself.
    So is a “label” just a Label?

  2. ColtsFan March 4, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Hi John:
    May we discuss this question, “Is David Brooks a Edmund Burkean conservative?”
    I respect David Brooks as a writer. My purpose is not to demonize him. I agree that Conservatism is a political philosophy that should not be defined too rashly by certain contemporary loud voices.
    Rather, Conservatism should be anchored in a well-respected tradition of concepts.
    I agree that labels can be twisted to any which way the wind blows….therefore, I agree that precision and clarity should be paid to the question of, “what is conservatism?”
    David Brooks speaks of the “temperamental conservatism of Burke” when he writes the following:
    “Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.”
    Yet David Brooks was the same guy who supported the major policy of invading Iraq on moral grounds, arguing that American troops would be welcomed as “liberators”. This is not “conservative” at all in the Edmund Burke tradition. This is not “epistemological modesty” at all. Invading countries for the purpose of spreading Western style democracy or freedom is not Edmund Burke type of conservatism. He later jumped ship when the going got tough, but this major policy decision was not Burkean at all.
    I believe David Brooks next makes a legitimate criticism of full-orbed libertarianism:
    “Over the past four decades, free market conservatives within the Republican Party have put freedom at the center of their political philosophy. But the dispositional conservative puts legitimate authority at the center. So while recent conservative ideology sees government as a threat to freedom, the temperamental conservative believes government is like fire — useful when used legitimately, but dangerous when not.”
    The issue of “authority” (Burke uses the word, “Order” frequently) is a dominant motif of Burkean political thought.
    But David Brooks himself has disdain for those conservatives who espouse “legitimate authority” (or order)Burkean themes in policy positions.
    It is indeed Burkean to oppose illegal immigration. It is Burkean to oppose a practice that encourages illegals to profit from stealing USA citizen’s Social Security numbers. It is Burkean to oppose a system that encourages people to engage in credit card theft and document fraud. It is Burkean to oppose a system that rewards illegals with “birth-right citizenship”.
    Brooks insists that the enforcement crowd is “driving Hispanics away”, while ignoring the fact that illegal aliens (except in Cook County wards) can’t vote legally and that many Hispanics themselves oppose illegal immigration such as these American patriots:
    David Brooks appears on PBS NewsHour with Mark Shields arguing which version of amnesty is the best. The true Burkean follower would acknowledge that rewarding illegal behavior 7 separate times since 1986 is not conservative, nor does it fit well with Burkean principles of law and order.
    Is 7 separate amnesties since 1986 an example of “epistemological modesty” that David Brooks mentions? No, 7 separate amnesties is evidence that this country has lost control of its borders, Visa over-stays, and its crazy immigration policy.
    Yet David Brooks himself is at odds with Burkean principles again.
    Brooks also broke with many in the conservative movement when, in late 2003, he came out in favor of same-sex marriage in his New York Times column. He equated the idea with traditional conservative values: “We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity…. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage.” (New York Times, November 22, 2003, A-15.)—from wikipedia.
    Brooks’ support of gay marriage is anything but Burkean. He uses Burkean terms and then defines them differently.
    David Brooks may be a good and interesting writer.
    He is not a Edmund Burke conservative.

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