[Mb-civic] A Vision, Bruised and Dented By DAVID BROOKS-NYTimes
michael at michaelbutler.com
Thu Mar 23 09:17:17 PST 2006
The New York Times
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March 23, 2006
A Vision, Bruised and Dented
By DAVID BROOKS
The big question in Democratic circles is, Who can win? The big question in
Republican circles is, What do we believe? The setbacks in Iraq, the failure
to limit the size of government and plummeting poll numbers have changed the
way Republicans talk and govern.
If you wanted to put these changes in a nutshell, you'd say the Republicans
have gone from soaring Bushian universalism to nervous, dumbed-down
Just over a year ago, Republicans were thrilling to the lofty sentiments of
President Bush's second inaugural: that freedom is God's gift to humanity,
that people everywhere hunger for liberty. To explain his efforts to
democratize the Middle East, Bush hit all the high notes of the American
creed, while not dwelling much on the intricacies and stubbornness of
Today, many Republicans have lost patience with Bush's high-minded creedal
statements. Like the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, they
have come to believe that culture matters most. Lofty notions about
universal liberty splinter on the shoals of Arab customs. Heartfelt
convictions about reducing the size of government disintegrate inside the
culture of Washington. Many Republicans have lost faith in efforts to
transform patterns of behavior, and come to believe that we shouldn't
exaggerate how much we can change.
In the realm of foreign affairs, we have seen the rise of what Richard Lowry
of National Review calls the " 'To Hell With Them' Hawks." These, Lowry
writes, "are conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have
little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they
consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying
to redeem." They look at car bombs and cartoon riots and wonder whether
Islam is really a religion of peace. They look at the mayhem in the Middle
East and just want to withdraw. After all, in his book "The Clash of
Civilizations," Huntington didn't want to change the Muslim world he just
called for less contact with it.
In the field of immigration, Republican sentiment seems to be shifting away
from the idea that the United States is a universal nation, where immigrants
come from across the world to work, rise and join in the pursuit of
happiness. Now Republican rhetoric emphasizes how alien immigrant culture
is; how slowly the Mexicans assimilate, if at all; how much disorder and
strain their presence creates.
There is a chance that in the next few weeks, the G.O.P. will walk off a
cliff on the subject of immigration. In the desperate effort to win back
their base, Republican senators may follow Bill Frist and embrace a
draconian enforcement-only immigration bill (which will lose them Florida
and the Southwest for a generation).
Finally, there is the issue of domestic poverty. Hurricane Katrina rekindled
a brief resurgence of compassionate conservatism, at least for President
Bush. But Republicans in Congress were having none of it. They appropriated
the money they had to, but they had no confidence that the federal
government could do anything effective to transform the culture of poverty:
the out-of-wedlock births, the family breakdowns and so on.
In short, Republicans seem to have gone from believing that culture is
nothing, to believing that culture is everything from idealism to fatalism
in the blink of an eye.
Recently, I've spilled a lot of ink stressing the importance of culture as
we think about poverty, development and foreign affairs. But it's dismaying
to see so many Republicans veer overboard into a vulgarized version of
Huntingtonist cultural determinism.
European conservatives from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott usefully
remind us of the power of culture and tradition. But American conservatives
from Hamilton to Reagan have never taken that path precisely because
they believe in the power of the American creed, precisely because they have
an Enlightenment faith in the power of reason to change minds.
Whether in Iraq or the barrio, history is not a prison. Culture shapes
people, but cultures are changeable.
Fortunately, there is a great Republican leader who understood the balance
between culture and creed: Abraham Lincoln. In this spring of Republican
discontent, his approach and governing method will make a good subject for a
Last Sunday, I wrote that Plato used the word "eros" to signify the
appetitive part of the soul. This isn't the first time I've been led astray
by the power of eros. The correct word is "epithymia."
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