SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Reviewing the proceedings of last Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, the Donnybrook in Danville, New York Times columnist David Brooks conceded that Joe Biden had made an aggressive case for his side. Still, Brooks noted that his “in-box was filled with a certain number of people who would be happy if they could spend the next few weeks delivering some punches to Biden, and not just Republicans.”
Oh, my. Fisticuffs, is it?
Well, I’m your huckleberry, Mr. Brooks. You are welcome to send any of your email maulers over this way. I felt like throwing a few haymakers myself after watching yet another Republican candidate claim that the president of the United States is some sort of un-American weakling who is going around “apologizing for our values.”
I heard this complaint again—all Republican arguments tend to be recirculated by all Republicans—when debating the debate with right-wing Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin on MSNBC Saturday afternoon. Rubin sniffed that Joe Biden’s toothy feistiness had been “unworthy of his office”—a continuation of a charge she had made on her blog that the vice president is the sort of person her neighbor hates to sit next to at church dinners.
What’s more, Rubin wrote, the fact that “lefty bloggers and pundits ate up Biden’s antics is a telling commentary on how vitriolic the left in general has become.” Indeed, now “Democrats are the angry, rude men and women” engaged in “scream-fests at Republicans on MSNBC’s evening programming.” It’s all part of “an unhinged liberal universe” that constantly calls Governor Romney a liar and launches “vicious attacks on his business record and insinuations that he actually killed a woman.”
To call this hypocrisy is completely inadequate, of course, coming as it does from the side that has filled our airwaves with incessant, paranoid ranting for decades. Somebody accused Mitt Romney of killing a woman? That’s terrible. What’s Bill Clinton’s supposed body count up to these days? The entire state of Arkansas? And what of Joe Wilson, who screamed out “You lie!” at President Obama during a State of the Union address? Never mind the wonderful signs that pop up at every Tea Party rally—signs with inscriptions like “The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a Lyin’ African!” Or this fellow. Have it your way, Ms. Rubin: We’re the unhinged ones.
But of course there was a larger point to Rubin’s piece. She was pushing the latest party line: that Biden’s very feistiness has made him an anachronism. This was also a key argument for Brooks, who did his best to dismiss Biden as a relic from “the New Deal era,” a creature of “the kitchen tables in working-class Catholic neighborhoods of places like Scranton, Pa., Chicago, San Francisco, Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia.” It was “a culture in which emotion was put out there on display—screaming matches between family members who could erupt in chest-poking fury one second and then loyalty until death affection the next.”
Ah, yes. And then we’d break out the washboard and the accordion, and dance jigs around the organ grinder until Pa fell headfirst into the growler!
But let’s face it, those happy ethnic exhibitionists are long gone, replaced by the nation of somber introverts we’ve become today—or as Brooks puts it, “people who will practice a more respectful brand of politics, who will behave the way most Americans try to behave in their dealings: respectfully, maybe even pausing to listen for a second. To them, Biden will seem like an off-putting caricature of the worst of old-style politics.” The new style is, of course, embodied by Paul Ryan, part of that cool new generation, “armed with self-awareness. In this generation, you roll your eyes at anyone who is quite so flamboyantly demonstrative as the vice president.” And, I suppose, at Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, Snooki, thousands of Real Housewives, and Herman Cain.
Whatever. It’s a free country, and I guess you’re free to pretend it’s anything you want it to be. I’m just bemused at the fact that, in about every other column—the ones where he’s not carrying water for assorted Republican candidates—Brooks likes to present himself as a classic small-c Burkean conservative.
It was the central contention of Edmund Burke, of course, that the social contract is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Yet here is Brooks dismissing not only Biden and his generation, but also their customs and traditions, and the laws and contracts by which we all live, and have lived for many years now. “A lot of people will look at Biden’s performance,” Brooks warns, “and see a style of politics that makes complex trade-offs impossible.” But neither Ryan nor the party he represents are offering any such “complex trade-offs,” nor any nuanced changes of the sort Brooks claims to want. Instead, Ryan proposes to make radical changes in American society, eliminating time-honored institutions and bringing in a social contract of a kind never tried before.
These changes will include replacing Social Security, undoubtedly the most popular government program of all time, and one that has been serving Americans for almost eighty years, and Medicare and Medicaid, which are nearly as popular and which have been in place for almost fifty years. Ryan would replace Medicare and Medicaid with vouchers, forcing senior citizens to hunt in the marketplace for private health-insurance plans that may not even exist for people their age. He would convert Social Security into a system of private-investment accounts, steering more business to the same Wall Street behemoths that he and Romney have announced their intention to completely deregulate.
To achieve these goals, Ryan and his party have behaved in a decidedly non-conservative, non-traditional manner. They have repeatedly held up budget deals to the point of jeopardizing the nation’s credit in the international markets. They have transformed a rare parliamentary method of last resort—the filibuster—into an everyday tool of obstruction, thereby thwarting the will of an elected majority. They have used sympathetic justices to overturn decades-old campaign-financing laws in the courts. This “cool generation” has also routinely relied on mobs of shouting, spitting, invective-spewing demonstrators to further their cause—disrupting town-hall meetings, intimidating lawmakers going to vote on a health-care bill.
Brooks, in short, has thrown his support in the “battle of generations” to a party and a man pursuing a radical ideological agenda, often through radically revolutionary methods. You can call this conservatism all you want, but it has more in common with Trotsky than with Edmund Burke.
More from Kevin Baker:
Context — November 25, 2016, 11:26 am
Rudolph Giuliani and the politics of personality
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
Number of mine-detecting monkeys erroneously reported to have been given to the United States by Morocco in March:
The Pacific trade winds are weakening as a result of global warming.
In the United States, legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act was advanced by the House Ways and Means Committee after 18 hours of deliberation, during which time the Republican members of Congress passed around candy.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."