For decades, conservative values have been central to Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s political beliefs, and the Republican Party was the vehicle to extend those beliefs into policy. But in recent years, both the party and a radicalized conservative movement have left them feeling alienated in various ways. Now, with an extremist fringe seemingly in control of the House, the G.O.P. bears little resemblance to the party that was once their home. Bret and David got together to suss out what happened and where the party can go.
Bret Stephens: Lately I’ve been thinking about that classic Will Rogers line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” A century or so later, it looks like the shoe is on the other foot. Is it even possible to call the Republican Party a “party” anymore?
David: My thinking about the G.O.P. goes back to a brunch I had with Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza in the ’80s that helps me see, in retrospect, that people in my circle were pro-conservative, while Ingraham and D’Souza and people in their circle were anti-left. We wanted to champion Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and a Reaganite foreign policy. They wanted to rock the establishment. That turned out to be a consequential difference because almost all the people in my circle back then — like David Frum and Robert Kagan — ended up, decades later, NeverTrumpers, and almost all the people in their circle became Trumpers or went bonkers.
Bret: Right, they weren’t conservatives. They were just illiberal.
David: Then in 1995 some friends and I created a magazine called The Weekly Standard. The goal was to help the G.O.P. become a mature governing party. Clearly we did an awesome job! I have a zillion thoughts about where the Republican Party went astray, but do you have a core theory?
Bret: I have multiple theories, but let me start with one: The mid-1990s was also the time that Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House and Fox News got started. Back then, those who were on the more intelligent end of the conservative spectrum thought a magazine such as The Weekly Standard, a channel such as Fox and a guy like Gingrich would be complementary: The Standard would provide innovative ideas for Republican leaders like Gingrich, and Fox would popularize those ideas for right-of-center voters. It didn’t work out as planned. The supposed popularizers turned into angry populists. And the populists turned on the intellectuals.
To borrow Warren Buffett’s take about investing, the conservative movement went from innovation to imitation to idiocy. It’s how the movement embraced Donald Trump as a standard-bearer and role model. All the rest, as they say, is Commentary.
David: I think I’d tell a similar story, but maybe less flattering to my circle. The people who led the Republican Party, either as president (Ronald Reagan through the Bushes), members of Congress (Jack Kemp, John McCain, Paul Ryan) or as administration officials and intellectuals (Richard Darman, Condi Rice) believed in promoting change through the institutions of established power. They generally wanted to shrink and reform the government but they venerated the Senate, the institution of the presidency, and they worked comfortably with people from the think tanks, the press and the universities. They were liberal internationalists, cosmopolitan, believers in the value of immigration.
Bret: I’d add that they also believed in the core values of old-fashioned liberalism: faith in the goodness of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, free speech, political compromise, the political process itself. They believed in building things up, not just tearing them down. I would count myself among them.
David: Then the establishment got discredited (Iraq War, financial crisis, the ossifying of the meritocracy, the widening values gap between metro elites and everybody else), and suddenly all the people I regarded as fringe and wackadoodle (Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, anybody who ran CPAC) rose up on the wave of populist fury.
Everybody likes a story in which the little guy rises up to take on the establishment, but in this case the little guys rode in on a wave of know-nothingism, mendacity, an apocalyptic mind-set, and authoritarianism. Within a few short years, a somewhat Hamiltonian party became a Jacksonian one, with a truly nihilistic wing.
Bret: Slightly unfair to Jackson, who at least opposed nullification, but I take your overall point.
David: After many years of the G.O.P. decaying, the party’s institutional and moral collapse happened quickly, between 2013 and 2016. In the 2000 Republican primaries I enthusiastically supported John McCain. I believed in his approach to governance and I admired him enormously. But by 2008, when he got the nomination, the party had shifted and McCain had shifted along with it. I walked into the polling booth that November genuinely not knowing if I would vote for McCain or Barack Obama. Then an optical illusion flashed across my brain. McCain and Obama’s names appeared to be written on the ballot in 12-point type. But Sarah Palin’s name looked like it was written in red in 24-point type. I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly before, but I voted for Obama.
Bret: I voted for McCain. If I were basing my presidential votes on the vice-presidential candidate, I’d have thought twice about voting for Biden.
On your point about populism: There have been previous Republican presidents who rode to office on waves of populist discontent, particularly Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But as presidents they channeled the discontent into serious programs and also turned their backs on the ugly fringes of the right. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and expanded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Reagan established a working relationship with Democratic House leaders to pass tax reform and gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. What’s different this time is that populist feelings were never harnessed to pragmatic policies. As you say, it’s just populism in the service of nihilism.
David: So where does the G.O.P. go from here and where does the old core of the conservative movement go? Do they (we) become Democrats or a quiet left-wing fringe of what’s become Matt Gaetz’s clown show?
Bret: When people get on a bad path, whether it’s drinking or gambling or political or religious fanaticism, they tend to follow it all the way to the bottom, at which point they either die or have that proverbial moment of clarity. I’ve been waiting for Republicans to have a moment of clarity for a while now — after Joe Biden’s victory, or Jan. 6, the midterms, Trump’s dinner with Kanye West. I had a flicker of hope that the Kevin McCarthy debacle last week would open some eyes, but probably not. Part of the problem is that so many Republicans no longer get into politics to pass legislation. They do it to become celebrities. The more feverish they are, the better it sells.
On the other hand, some Republicans who conspicuously did well in the midterms were the “normies” — people like Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia and Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio. It gives me hope that the fever will eventually burn itself out, maybe after a few well-earned defeats. The solution here is some kind of Republican version of the old Democratic Leadership Council, which yanked left-wing Democrats back to the center after three consecutive presidential wipeouts and paved the way for the election of Bill Clinton.
Which raises another question for me, David: Where are the old brains and money trusts of the G.O.P., to give life and energy to that kind of effort?
David: Well, it’s not going to be me! Even in my red-hot youth, when I worked for Bill Buckley at National Review, I didn’t see myself as a Republican, just a conservative. I maintain a distance from political parties because I think it’s always wrong for a writer to align too closely to a party. That’s the path to predictability and propagandism. Furthermore, I belong in the American tradition that begins with Alexander Hamilton, runs through the Whig Party and Lincoln, and then modernized with Theodore Roosevelt, parts of Reagan and McCain. I wasted years writing essays on how Republicans could maintain this tradition. The party went the other way. Now I think the Democrats are a better Hamiltonian home.
Bret: I’m part of the same conservative tradition, though maybe with a heavier dose of Milton Friedman.
David: Our trajectories with the G.O.P. are fairly similar, and so are our lives. I’m older than you, but our lives have a number of parallels. We both grew up in secular Jewish families, went to the University of Chicago, worked at The Wall Street Journal, served in Brussels for The Journal, and wound up at The Times.
Bret: We also probably had many of the same professors at Chicago — wonderful teachers like Nathan Tarcov, Ralph Lerner, François Furet, and Leon and Amy Kass — who taught me that Lesson No. 1 was to not succumb to the idea that justice is the advantage of the stronger, and to always keep an open mind to a powerful counterargument. That’s not a mind-set I see with the current Republican leaders.
David: When people ask me whether they should end a relationship they’re in, I answer them with a question: Are the embers dead? Presumably when the relationship started there was a flame of love. Is some of that warmth still there, waiting to be revived, or is it just stone-cold ash? In my relationship with the G.O.P., the embers are dead. I look at the recent madness in the House with astonishment but detachment. Isaiah Berlin once declared he belonged to “the extreme right-wing edge of the left-wing movement,” and if that location is good enough for old Ike Berlin, it’s good enough for me.
Bret: I wouldn’t have had trouble calling myself a Republican till 2012, when I started to write pretty critically about the direction the party was taking on social issues, immigration and foreign policy. In 2016 I voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in my life, did it again in 2020, and I think of myself as a conservative-minded independent. If I haven’t finalized my divorce from the G.O.P., we’re definitely separated and living apart.
David: I suppose I went through stages of alienation. By the early 2000s, I came to believe that the free market policies that were right to combat stagnation and sclerosis a few decades earlier were not right for an age of inequality and social breakdown. Then the congressional Republicans began to oppose almost every positive federal good, even George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Trump brought the three horsemen of the apocalypse — immorality, dishonesty and bigotry. The party, complicit in all that, is dead to me, even though, I have to say, a good chunk of my friends are Republicans.
Bret: I’m loath to give up completely on Republicans only because I believe a successful democracy needs a morally healthy conservative party — one that channels conservative psychological tendencies into policies to check heedless progressivism while engaging productively with an evolving world. I see no other plausible vehicle to advance those policies. Still, the party’s road to recovery is going to be long and hard. And it’s going to require some courageous and credible conservatives to speak up and denounce the current direction of the party.
David: As for who is going to lead a Republican revival, I guess I’d start in the states. One of Al From’s insights in leading the Democratic Leadership Council was that change was going to come from the young and ambitious state legislators and governors, like Bill Clinton — a new generation of politicians from moderate parts of the country. But the Democrats had a strong incentive to change because they lost a lot of elections between 1968 and 1992. The country is now so evenly divided, it takes only a slight shift to produce victory, and nobody has an incentive to rethink his or her party.
Bret: And, of course, when Republicans lose, they console themselves with the thought that it’s because the other side cheated.
David: If the Republican Party is to thrive, intellectually and politically, it will have to become a multiracial working-class party. A lot of people are already thinking along these lines. Oren Cass at American Compass has been pushing a working-class agenda. The Trumpish writers and activists who call themselves national conservatives are not my cup of tea, but they do speak in the tone of anti-coastal-elite protest that is going to be the melody of this party for a long time to come. To my mind, Yuval Levin is one of the brightest conservatives in America today. He runs a division at the American Enterprise Institute where the debates over the future of the right are already being held.
The party will either revive or crack up, the way the Whig Party did. But it’s going to take decades. If I’m still around to see it, I’ll be eating mush and listening to Led Zeppelin Muzak with the other fogies at the Rockefeller Republican Home for the Aged.
Bret: You may well be right about how long it takes. But I don’t think it’s going to do so as a party of the working class. The natural place for the G.O.P. is as the party of economic freedom, social aspiration and moral responsibility — a party of risers, if not always of winners. Its archetypal constituent is the small-business owner. It wants less regulation because it understands from experience how well-intended ideas from above translate into onerous and stupid rules at the ground level. It doesn’t mind big business per se but objects to moralizing C.E.O.s who try to use their size and incumbency to impose left-coast ideology. And it thinks there should be consequences, not excuses, for unlawful behavior, which means it looks askance at policies like bail reform and lax law enforcement at borders.
The problem is that Trump turned the party into a single-purpose vehicle for cultural resentments. It doesn’t help that coastal elites do so much on their own to feed those resentments.
David: We’ve reached a rare moment of disagreement! Your configuration for Republicans was a product of long debates in the 20th century. Size-of-government arguments are going to be less salient. Values, identity and social status issues will be more salient. I think the core driver of politics across the Western democracies is this: In society after society, highly educated professionals have formed a Brahmin class. The top of the ladder go to competitive colleges, marry each other, send their kids to elite schools and live in the same neighborhoods. This class dominates the media, the academy, Hollywood, tech and the corporate sector.
Many people on the middle and bottom have risen up to say, we don’t want to be ruled by those guys. To hell with their economic, cultural and political power. We’ll vote for anybody who can smash their machine. The Republican Party is the party of this protest movement.
Bret: Another way of thinking about the class/partisan divide you are describing is between people whose business is the production and distribution of words — academics, journalists, civil servants, lawyers, intellectuals — and people whose business is the production and distribution of things — manufacturers, drivers, contractors, distributors, and so on. The first group makes the rules for the administrative state. The latter lives under the weight of those rules, and will continue to be the base of the G.O.P.
By the way, since you mentioned earlier the need for new leaders to come from the states, is there anyone who particularly impresses you? And how do you feel about the quasi-nominee-in-waiting, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida?
David: I’m slightly bearish about DeSantis. He does a good job of being Trumpy without Trump, but I wonder if a man who apparently has net negative social skills and empathy can really thrive during an intimately covered national campaign that will last two years. Trump was at least funny, and to his voters, charismatic. Do you have any other candidates on your radar screen?
Bret: Well, I don’t think it’ll be either of the Mikes — Pious Pence or Pompous Pompeo. I like Nikki Haley personally and think she has a good mind and a terrific personal story. But I don’t get the sense of much public enthusiasm for her beyond high-level donors.
Which brings me back to DeSantis. He seems to have figured out that the G.O.P. sits on a three-legged stool consisting of Trumpists, evangelicals and the business community. He’s earned the respect of the first with his pugilistic jabs at the media, of the second with his attacks on Disney and his parental rights legislation, and of the third with an open-for-business approach to governance that has brought hundreds of thousands of people to Florida. Next to all that, the personality defects seem pretty surmountable.
David: Sigh. I can’t rebut your logic here. Save us, Glenn Youngkin!
Bret: Final question, David: If you could rewind the tape to 1995, is there anything you or anyone in our circle could have done differently to save the Republican Party from the direction it ultimately took?
David: In 1996 Pat Buchanan’s sister, Kathleen, worked at The Standard as an executive assistant. A truly wonderful woman. We virulently opposed Pat in his presidential run that year. The day after he won the New Hampshire primary she smiled kindly at us and said something to the effect of: Don’t worry. I’ll protect you guys when the pitchforks come.
Bret: Given what happened to The Standard, it didn’t work out as promised.
David: I wish we had taken that Buchanan victory more seriously, since it was a precursor of what was to come. I wish we had pivoted our conservatism even faster away from (sorry) Wall Street Journal editorial page ideas and come up with conservative approaches to inequality, to deindustrialization, to racial disparities, etc. I wish, in other words, that our mentalities had shifted faster.
But in truth, I don’t believe it would have made any difference. Authoritarian populism is a global phenomenon. The Republicans were destined to turn more populist. The big question is, do they continue on the path to authoritarianism?
Bret: I look back at the world of conservative ideas I grew up in, professionally speaking, and I see a lot worth holding on to: George Kelling and James Q. Wilson on crime, Nicholas Eberstadt on social breakdown, Linda Chavez on immigration, Shelby Steele on racial issues, Garry Kasparov on the threat of Vladimir Putin, and so on. I don’t think the ideas were the core problem, even if not every one of them stands the test of time. The problem was that, when the illiberal barbarians were at the conservative gates, the gatekeepers had a catastrophic loss of nerve. Whether it’s too late to regain that nerve is, to me, the ultimate question.
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