According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, today’s “conservative” Republicans aren’t really conservatives. They’re a bunch of anti-government radicals, who have coarsened our politics, broken the Congress and undermined democracy.

These accusations were especially remarkable because Brooks is a sort of conservative, or at least what passes as one among progressives and socialists.

In fact, Brooks takes political positions that are generally centrist, but he’s not so much a political thinker as a sociological one. He has a keen eye for the ways in which individual achievement can be either helped or hindered by the push and pull of larger social forces. Because society is so complex, he is generally cautious about advocating change; thus he’s more inclined to see the good in what is than to trust the promises of a utopia that might someday be.

As a columnist, Brooks typically embodies the virtues he praises in others. He brings a genial and generous sensibility to his subjects and rarely criticizes an opposing view without looking hard to find some kernels of truth in his opponents’ perspectives.

Not this week, however.

This week he channeled his inner Rush Limbaugh and proved he can be just as “bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced” as he has accused his right-wing opponents of being. He sneered that today’s Republicans are too “ill-educated” to appreciate that the “habits of the entrepreneur” do not translate to the work of politics. He pronounced them “bumbling” and “willfully ignorant” about the realities of Washington politics. And in a line that could have been uttered by Donald Trump on “The Apprentice,” Brooks mocked them as “leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence.”

Nor are Rush, The Donald and the members of the House Freedom Caucus his only targets. His anger at them seems to have provoked him to use the sort of rhetoric he ordinarily scorns, but Brooks’s central claim is that they are what the modern Republican Party wants in its leaders because it has “betrayed” true conservatism.

And all this in a column that accuses Republicans of seeing “the ruination of the republic” in every political disappointment.

Regular readers of this space know that I will not support Trump in the Republican primary, and I have not generally supported the House Republicans when they have provoked doomed, symbolic fights with the president.

But Brooks has allowed his exasperation to obscure his normally keen sociological insight. The modern Republican Party has not evolved in a vacuum. Ours is a competitive, two-party system, and the two parties evolve over time, in tandem, each responding to the other, and both responding to a host of changes in the broader society.

If Trump can be accused of demagoguery and magical thinking for believing that he can get the government of Mexico to build a wall on the border of our two countries, can we not say the same of the socialist Bernie Sanders, current darling of what used to be called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”? Or does anyone really think that we will finally win the war on poverty by spending another $10 trillion or $20 trillion on top of the $20-some trillion we have already spent?

The flip side of the transformation of the Republican Party into a party advocating dramatic change has been the transformation of the Democratic Party into the “let’s keep what we have plus more of the same” party. In essence, Hillary Clinton’s agenda is the same as Sanders’ — but a little smaller and a little cheaper. Somehow, though, these new programs will work better than the failed old ones. Really. They promise.

The most vocal Republicans might scare Brooks, but they are not wrong when they say, for example, that our tax code, which recently grew to exceed 10 million words in length, needs radical surgery, not some modest tinkering around the edges.

Nor are they wrong when they say that Social Security, Medicare and our state pensions systems are financially unsustainable in their current forms.

Nor are they wrong to point out that, even under a Democratic president eager to prove that government can make people’s lives better, the federal bureaucracy has been stunningly incompetent even at implementing President Barack Obama’s signature initiative.

Whether Brooks thinks today’s Republicans are truly conservative enough for him, their message is the same as Ronald Reagan’s was in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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