Vanity, All Is Vanity. David Brooks Gets One Thing Right.

June 12th, 2012

Today (emphasis mine):

Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Or more aptly: rising distrust has more to do with vanity than anything else.

This nicely encapsulates an explanation I’ve been coming to for what’s the matter with Kansas — an explanation for the frantic, desperate-seeming, reality-denying, and self-contradictory rhetorical contortions that tea partiers and the Republican right constantly resort to.

They’re protecting, and stroking, their egos.

If America is exceptional, then they’re exceptional. If Sarah Palin isn’t exceptional, then they might not be — probably aren’t, in fact.

If government programs have been necessary to their success, their success might not be primarily a result of their own noble efforts.

If well-off people’s self-serving belief system results in less economic opportunity, they are hard-pressed to plausibly trumpet their clear-eyed pragmatism and serene virtue in empowering and enriching the deserving poor.

If the marketplace does not reliably reward personal merit, their place in life (however modest or grand), has little to do with their personal merit.

If CEO performance is largely a matter of luck (right company, right time), the heroical, captains-of-industry self-regard of those CEOs is a delusion.

It’s easy to add to this list. And it’s also easy to see why stoking this conflagration of self-regard — telling voters that “they are better than everything else around them” (notably government) — would be an excellent political strategy. (How do you know when a politician is lying?)

Combine this strategy with the world’s oldest political pander — “I’ll cut your taxes!” — and you have a pretty good explanation for thirty years of otherwise-inexplicable political ascendancy.

Hat tip: Ecclesiastes.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

  1. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 11:08 | #1


    As someone who is sympathetic to traditional conservatism, let me try to add an alternative perspective.

    When I read stuff like Brooks’s column, what I see is member of America’s elite who doesn’t understand why he isn’t more loved by the public. Wasn’t he anointed by God? Isn’t he a guardian of the Truth? Doesn’t he love the people with all of his heart? That goes without saying. Therefore, Brooks thinks: “Americans don’t trust us, because Americans are stupid”.

    This is, as I think you rightly note, a variant on the “what’s the matter with Kansas” puzzle that isn’t really any sort of puzzle at all, except to people for whom the NYT represents the moderate centre ground.

    An alternative explanation for Mr Brooks is: Americans don’t trust you guys, because you aren’t trustworthy. How could that be–doesn’t Brooks love his stupid little brothers in the interior?

    Well, maybe. On the other hand, he doesn’t understand them at all. At the very least, he doesn’t think much of them. In this, he is fairly representative of America’s institutions in toto. That, at least, is the opinion of this outsider. American institutions are run be people who are hostile to the values of most Americans. Further, they are run by people who are hostile to Americans qua Americans.

    Now, you may say that this describes the Reps as much as the Dems, and you may well be right. But at least the Republican Party pays lip-service to American values and interests. The Democrats have long since transcended this all this and focused on loftier goals of transforming America out of existence.

  2. Tom Hickey
    June 12th, 2012 at 11:50 | #2


    David Brooks is William F. Buckley lite, which is likely not coincidental since WFB was Brooks’s mentor.

  3. June 12th, 2012 at 11:52 | #3

    @vimothy :

    As someone who is sympathetic to traditional conservatism, let me try to add an alternative perspective.

    First, let me point out that I am wildly sympathetic to (at least some aspects of) traditional conservatism.

    Brooks thinks: “Americans don’t trust us, because Americans are stupid”.

    No: Brooks thinks, “Real Americans love us. All those phony Americans don’t love America, so they don’t love real Americans like me.”

    a variant on the “what’s the matter with Kansas” puzzle

    Absolutely right. Rather as Data and Picard’s evil dopplegangers are variants of Data and Picard.

    American institutions are run be people who are hostile to the values of most Americans.

    That may well be true, if you:

    1. Define “Americans” using Charle’s Murray’s test. (“How many times in the last year have you eaten at an Applebee’s?”)

    2. Assume that “most Americans” would pass that test.

    I really wonder: what percent of Americans have eaten at Appleby’s — ever? I’d guess 20%, tops. The same diminishing and yes, dimwitted 20-something percent that still cling to the insane notion that W did a “helluva job”? Are the rest not real Americans?

    Further, they are run by people who are hostile to Americans qua Americans.

    Again no. If they’re anything like me, they’re hostile to people who (see first indented item above, in the current post) believe that since America is exceptional in some important ways, they are exceptional — just because they’re American. And even more so, because they believe that they are “true” Americans while those who disagree with them aren’t. That presumptuousness, that overweening pride so justly condemned by true Christians, truly turns my stomach.

    at least the Republican Party pays lip-service to American values and interests.

    Again no. They seek to define their beliefs as the only ones that represent American values and interests. (But yes: they frequently only pay lip-service even to those values, while endlessly sabotaging them in practice.)

    The Democrats have long since transcended this all this and focused on loftier goals of transforming America out of existence.

    I’ll agree with you. That is their goal — if you assume that “America” is the portion of America that seceded in 1860. Transforming that portion of America out of existence is a worthy goal.

  4. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 12:06 | #4


    It’s all relative. From where I stand, David Brooks is about as far from a traditional conservative as it’s possible to be. He’s the sort of person that National Review writers regard as being a bit wishy-washy.

    Another way to think about David Brooks is that, like the David Frums and Burce Bartletts of the world, he fulfils a useful liberal function, which is why he has his gig at the NYT. He’s the kind of conservative that liberals think conservatives should take their cues from, i.e., he’s a moderately conservative liberal.

  5. June 12th, 2012 at 12:31 | #5

    Are Burke and Eisenhower “traditional conservatives”? They are by my lights. Unlike the radicals that have gone by that name since the rise of Reaganomics, neoconservatism, and the tea party.

    Brooks has far more in common with those traditional conservatives than the radicals do.

    Edit: Brooks can justifiably claim to have far more in common with those traditional conservatives than the modern-day libertopian radicals do. Hell, so can Obama.

  6. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 12:40 | #6


    None of the people you list in your post on Ron Unz are traditional conservatives. They are basically centre right liberals.

    When you write that you sympathetic to traditional conservatism, I take it from your post that mean to the extent that traditional conservatives share liberal economic goals. Many of those goals are indeed laudable, and I think it’s a shame that American conservatism has been tied to the horse of an idiotic libertarianism that is hostile to traditional values and seemingly only exists to secure tax-cuts for the rich. That said, the economic plank of traditional conservatism is not a central one.

    I’m a little bit thrown by your comment on “real Americans” and the what’s the matter with Kansas puzzle. They seem to contradict what you were saying in the OP. Do people mistrust their institutions? You seem to initially suggest that they do, but then here seem to claim that these people don’t exist. I’m taking as my premise the idea that “vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions”, and claiming that this is because their institutions aren’t worthy of trust.

    You are free to disagree, of course. And in fact, I took your position to be the same as Brooks: the vast majorities are occluded. That’s why I’m a bit confused by your comment. Is there a Kansas puzzle? Is Brooks saying something which makes sense?

    I think there is something there to explain. My explanation, which is predictive, is that the values of the New York Times are not the values of the vast majorities. Thus, the vast majorities hate and fear the New York Times, despite the obvious love of the NYT for its fellow man.

  7. Tom Hickey
    June 12th, 2012 at 13:46 | #7


    Libertarianism with its emphasis on individual sovereignty is inherently opposed to traditional conservatism, which is nationalistic and respectful of government as the bringer of order to society under the rule of law. The proper order is that the mos fit rule and that is the basis of
    “natural” privilege.

    Milton Friedman’s Freedom to Choose is often confused with traditional conservatism. Friedman’s philosophy is grounded in political Libertarianism and economic neoliberalism. He equates genuine democracy with individual freedom and market fundamentalism, the obvious result of which is establishment of privilege for wealth and its transfer by birthright through inheritance as a market outcome.

    Traditional conservatism, on the other hand, accepts privilege as a social given given different categories of people based on genetic makeup. Traditional conservatism emanates from Britain and it is the prevalent thinking of the privileged there. While less pronounced in the US as a class thing, it is still operative as a cognitive bias.

  8. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 15:00 | #8


    Libertarianism and traditional conservatism are antithetical philosophies. Libertarianism is a branch of liberalism that got kicked out of the club. The only thing it shares in common with traditional conservatism is that leftists don’t like it very much.

    Sadly, you are completely wrong that traditional conservatism dominates the thinking of the privileged classes in the UK. Like privileged classes everywhere in the modern world, our bureaucratic robot overlords are entirely given over to liberalism.

  9. June 12th, 2012 at 15:56 | #9

    I’ll answer your question if you answer mine first:

    Are Burke and Eisenhower “traditional conservatives”?

  10. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 16:29 | #10


    You’ll have to pardon my ignorance, but I’m afraid that I don’t know very much about Eisenhower’s philosophy. My first thought is that if he was about today he would be regarded as a raving right-wing maniac, but that he was probably a moderate at the time he was in office. Perhaps you could say something about his views. Would he have agreed that the highest good is maximising preference satisfaction for the maximum number of people, or some similar statement of liberal principle? If offered a choice between traditional faith and modern science, which would he choose?

    There is certainly an authentic conservative tradition that derives from Burke. An example of a prominent contemporary Burkean conservative thinker whose work I find valuable is someone like Jim Kalb. On the other hand, Burke can be problematic. As someone else (I forget who) once observed, arguments that start by tying conservatism to Burke have this suspicious tendency to end by concluding that true conservatism consists of capitulating to liberalism–slowly.

    So Burke represents one part of the current, but not the whole thing.

  11. Tom Hickey
    June 12th, 2012 at 17:38 | #11


    Thatcher to Hayek: “You want me to be a (traditional) Liberal but I am a Tory (traditional Conservative).

    Maybe you have a different definition of “traditional conservative”?

  12. vimothy
    June 12th, 2012 at 17:59 | #12


    Just because Thatcher was a member of the Tory Party doesn’t mean she was an actual Tory–in the same way, you can be a member of the Chinese Communist Party without being an actual communist. The statement you reproduce notwithstanding, Thatcher was basically a libertarian.

  13. Tom Hickey
    June 12th, 2012 at 19:07 | #13


    Well I can go for that. Milton Friedman was a Libertarian politically and a neoliberal economically. Thatcher was pretty much in that boat. The reality is that this “Libertarianism” begins with the status quo and everyone accepting the of the privilege of existing wealth and status. In this environment Friedman’s “freedom to choose” is the economic opportunity of purchasing lottery tickets.

  14. June 13th, 2012 at 08:13 | #14


    I guess I don’t know what you mean by “traditional conservative.” I’m sort of guessing it’s what I would call a modern-day conservative. Post-Reagan. (Maybe you’re younger than me.) I would characterize that group as those who preach small government, low spending, and low debt/deficits, while promulgating large government, high spending, and high debt/deficits.

    Yes, modern-day conservatives would view Eisenhower as a radical lefty. I view him as a traditional conservative — sober, sensible, respectful of the government that our founders and predecessors have endowed us with — and them as the radicals.

  15. vimothy
    June 13th, 2012 at 09:30 | #15


    I would call people who preach small government, low spending, low debt, etc, libertarians or classical liberals. I don’t know what I’d call libertarians / classical liberals who promulgate large government, high spending, etc. Hypocrites, perhaps. I’m not sure that a separate category is needed for them. Since it’s obviously not a coherent political philosophy, I don’t think it makes sense to treat it as one.

    Modern day conservatives are far from what I would call traditional as a rule. Contemporary conservatism in the Anglo-Saxon world is basically slightly out of date liberalism with added foreign policy hawkishness. That’s why you get people thinking that revolutionary democratic imperialism is a conservative position. It’s hard to imagine a more complete inversion of what conservatism means.

    The people who run the conservative movements in the States and here in the UK are not conservatives in a global sense, but in merely in a local sense. That is, they are more conservative than today’s liberals—a function of the ever-leftwards-shifting Overton Window—but by the standards of history, they are dangerous radicals.

    So if you want to know what I mean by traditional conservatism, a good start would be to take modern-day movement conservatism and turn it on its head.

  16. June 13th, 2012 at 09:51 | #16

    Maybe you could name some people who you consider to be traditional conservatives.

  17. vimothy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:06 | #17


    A nice summary of different conservative intellectual currents is here:

  18. June 13th, 2012 at 10:32 | #18

    Yeah but I’m wondering who you consider to be “traditional conservatives.”

  19. vimothy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:38 | #19

    Well, each of those categories is a type of traditional conservative, and the author gives examples.

  20. vimothy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:41 | #20

    If you’d like me to name some names: As far as contemporary figures goes, I can’t think of any politicians or mainstream journalists. Roger Scruton and possibly Peter Hitchens in the UK; Jim Kalb and blogger Lawrence Auster in the US… It’s not a big group.

  21. June 13th, 2012 at 12:57 | #21

    Okay then, how about from the past? If they’re “traditional,” there must have been lots of them back then — the majority.

    I’ll check out the names you mentioned. Don’t know them.

  22. Tom Hickey
    June 13th, 2012 at 14:51 | #22

    From Wikipedia on traditionalist conservatism. It’s a long entry. Here is the intro:

    Traditionalist conservatism, also known as “traditional conservatism,” “traditionalism,” “Burkean conservatism”, “classical conservatism” and (in the United Kingdom and Canada), “Toryism”, describes a political philosophy emphasizing the need for the principles of natural law and transcendent moral order, tradition,hierarchy and organic unity, agrarianism, classicism and high culture, and the intersecting spheres of loyalty.[1] Some traditionalists have embraced the labels “reactionary” and “counterrevolutionary”, defying the stigma that has attached to these terms since the Enlightenment. Having a hierarchical view of society, many traditionalist conservatives, including a few Americans, defend the monarchical political structure as the most natural and beneficial social arrangement.

    Traditionalism— not being an exact political model— has existed since the inception of civilization; its contemporary expression, however, developed in 18th century Europe (particularly in response to the English Civil War and the French Revolution). Not until the mid-20th century did traditionalist conservatism in the United States begin to organize itself in earnest as an intellectual and political force. This more modern expression of traditionalist conservatism began among a group of U.S. university professors (labeled the “New Conservatives” by the popular press) who rejected the notions of individualism, liberalism, modernity, and social progress, promoted cultural and educational renewal,[2] and revived interest in the Church, the family, the state, local community, etc.

  23. vimothy
    June 14th, 2012 at 04:31 | #23

    That Wikipedia page is a mess, but a reasonably informative mess. It gets the general idea roughly right, even if it confuses the Burkean branch with traditional conservatism proper and completely ignores French thinkers.

  24. June 14th, 2012 at 06:48 | #24

    I’m not all that interested here in what is generally thought to be a “traditional conservative.” Genre definitions and arguments aren’t all that interesting to me. See.

    I’m wondering who Vimothy thinks is a traditional conservative.

  25. vimothy
    June 14th, 2012 at 07:34 | #25


    I’ve linked to a list of people who I consider to be traditional conservatives and the Wikipedia entry constitutes another. I could list names at random if you like: Goethe, Disraeli, Bonald, Burke, Voeglin, Alastair McIntyre, Hilaire Belloc, Chateaubriand, Cardinal Newman, Russell Kirk, TS Eliot, Maurras, Metternich, etc, etc, etc…

  26. Tom Hickey
    June 14th, 2012 at 10:20 | #26


    Maybe edit the page, if you have time? Certainly addition of the French thinkers would be a worthwhile contribution.

  27. Tom Hickey
    June 14th, 2012 at 10:39 | #27

    Vimothy, would you say that the philosophical basis of traditional conservatism is a hierarchy of being ontologically and natural law ethically? In that why one can legitimately “oughts” out of “is.” Of course, this is contested as a Humean form of the naturalistic fallacy, deriving “ought” from “is” in finding a “natural order of things” that is actually just a set of norms defining a worldview relative to other world views. In other words, the criterion of “natural” is within the worldview and therefore inapplicable to other world views as a criterion that transcends both.

    Or put in another way, it’s a claim that there are absolute criteria and the traditionally conservative worldview is the one that has them. In philosophy, this is considered to be a kind of dogmatism based on putative self-evident first principles and a natural law deontology that stands in opposition to philosophical relativism, skepticism, and scientific naturalism/ethical consequentialism.

  28. vimothy
    June 14th, 2012 at 13:58 | #28


    Traditional conservatism is a denial of modernity in general and liberalism in particular. Therefore, conservatives reject materialist ontology, empiricist epistemology, hedonist ethics and radical politics.

    As you’ve correctly identified, conservatism is grounded on a particular vision of Authority and natural law ethics. I think that the two can be usefully separated; here I will try to address the latter.

    From the modern point of view, meaning is something that exists subjectively, “in the eye of the beholder”, and is projected onto inert and intrinsically meaningless matter. Ethics have to be constructed. Institutions are arbitrary and artificial, whatever we want them to be, certainly not “natural”. The idea that our bodies can dictate terms to us seems weird and absurd.

    So why would anyone care about natural law? One reason is that it represents the consensus position of mankind. Argue with natural law and you are really arguing with human society itself. All peoples in all places have believed in natural meanings. Even though there is variation in the particularities, institutions like family, religion and ethnicity are remarkably stable across time and place.

    This isn’t good enough for the philosophe, of course: human society doesn’t make sense and needs to be reformulated along rational-technocratic lines to maximise some social welfare function (or whatever). But even then, natural meanings have a tendency to creep in. Who doesn’t think that parents have a duty to their children, and that children have a right to be cared for by their parents, or that children have a duty to their parents?

    But let’s say we grant the dreams of the philsophe: do you imagine that we would end up with utopia? It’s hard to see that we would. Any system in which natural law was totally abandoned suggests a nightmarish Kafkaesque dystopia, with Communism and the Terror mere preludes to the abyss. Who wants to live in a world in which efficiency is the organising principle of human society? You would have to be an economist or a liberal to countenance such a thing.

  29. Tom Hickey
    June 14th, 2012 at 16:45 | #29


    Philosophically, I am a traditionalist (perennialist) so I tend to sympathize with traditional conservative worldviews. There are different manifestations of traditionalism, however, and traditional conservatism as you have defined is only one of them. My own view is that there is a ;perennial wisdom locatable in the testimony and teaching of the saints and sages, masters and mystics, and prophets that lies at the core. As you say, history validates this wisdom since these are the widely acknowledged teachers of humankind across time and place. It would be rather hypocritical to count them wise and then reject what they say, especially when the core of it exhibits an underlying agreement. But, of course, it is entirely possible to reject them as wise and count them merely as representative of a more primitive stage of cultural development. All one can do in the face of that is roll one’s eyes.

    However, I am also a relativist in that I don’t think that any worldview can be justified as the “correct” worldview in a logically or factually compelling way based on objective criteria. Worldview comes down to a leap of faith for those who study these matters in depth. it is a preference for others who approach it naively. Usually, people simply educated into a worldview and assume it as “reality.”

    While I am completely convinced by my rationale, which has a non-rational component, I get that if one rejects non-rational components, then the rationale doesn’t work. As a result traditionalists and traditional conservatives generally mount consequentialist arguments also for those that don’t “get it.” But that doesn’t make consequentialists of those who do this as a strategic compromise .

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