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Post Partisan
Posted at 02:30 PM ET, 05/29/2012

David Brooks and our Hamilton argument


David Brooks, my NPR sparring partner, offered a kind mention of my new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” in his column today — “engrossing,” he called it — and he both agreed and disagreed with me, which I suppose is a habit for us.

David and I agree on the importance of Alexander Hamilton to our past and future, and in particular with Hamilton’s view that the national government has played and should still play a constructive role in our country’s development.

In my book, I call attention to one essay in the Federalist, No. 27, that conservatives don’t quote very much these days. (They always quote Nos. 10 and 51.) Hamilton argued that “national authority” should be “intermingled in the ordinary exercise of government,” and that the federal government should deal with “matters of internal concern.” That’s exactly the opposite of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s promise last August “to make Washington, D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.” David writes, “The question is not whether government is inherently good or evil, but what government does.” That’s right.

I disagree with David (and he with me) on two counts. David writes that my book “argues that the Hamiltonian and Jacksonian traditions formed part of a balanced consensus, which has been destroyed by the radical individualists of today’s Republican Party. But that balanced governing philosophy was destroyed gradually over the 20th century, before the Tea Party was even in utero. As government excessively overreached, Republicans became excessively antigovernment.”

His description of what I argue is fair enough. But I profoundly disagree that that Republicans have become so antigovernment because “government excessively overreached.”

Where, exactly, does David think government “excessively overreached?” (I could make a case that we overreached in Iraq, but that’s not what David means.) What specific overreach over the last few years would explain the rise of the tea party?

The health care plan is the obvious answer, I suppose, but I don’t believe it explains the tea party. And I very much doubt that David really wants to repeal environmental or consumer protection laws, or that he believes that tougher regulation of the financial system is out of place after the crash. And while he may want to contain entitlements, Medicare and Social Security are not the reasons the tea party rose, especially since so many of its members are near, at or older than 65 and support these programs.

I don’t think any specific form of government overreach explains this new radically individualistic strain. Rather, it is rooted in short-term politics (a reaction to George W. Bush’s failures and the rise of President Obama himself) and a move in the Republican primary electorate to the right because moderates have been leaving GOP ranks for decades. (The Outlook piece I wrote explains this in a bit more detail.)

In the book, I note that the tea party has also reacted against Bush’s compassionate conservatism, and Greg Dworkin of DailyKos (he writes under “DemFromCT”) pointed out this weekend that compassionate conservatism included some of the very best parts of the Bush legacy, including PEPFAR — the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — and pandemic flu preparations. I am pretty sure that David doesn’t see these worthy programs as “overreach,” either.

David also writes: “Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?” Here, I would take issue with what I see as a false dichotomy. Does security make a citizenry less energetic and less enterprising? I believe not. Indeed, more secure people are more inclined to take risk.

To pick just a couple of examples: Knowing that you’ll have health coverage if you change jobs makes you more willing to take a crack at some other work. In August 1997, I visited Silicon Valley and discovered that entrepreneurship in the high-tech world was encouraged by the fact that a failed start-up did not lead to penury for the person who tried to get a new thing going. Most of those who failed were quickly absorbed by other companies or other projects. Ian Morrison, author of “The Second Curve,” a book on the then-new tech world, put it nicely, saying the Valley had not a “safety net” but a “safety network.” A certain amount of security goes hand-in-hand with risk-taking.

That’s a longer argument between David and me, and I am sure we will keep having it. In the short run, I’m glad that he picked up on the Hamiltonian idea, and I appreciate his comments on the book. And I have to add, I have told David that one of the rewarding aspects of writing it was the way in which the time I spent researching and thinking about our past allowed me to figure out why he is cross-wise with American politics these days: David is the last surviving American Whig, a pure Hamilton-Henry Clay-Abe Lincoln guy. I hope that more American conservatives will join David in embracing this highly constructive side of their tradition.

Postscript: I am also glad David gave favorable mention to Michael Lind’s new book, “Land of Promise.” I have not had a chance to read it yet — David called it “illuminating” — but I am a longtime admirer of Lind’s, and he has been onto the importance of what he calls the Democratic Nationalist tradition for many years. I hope this Hamilton-Clay revival will also revive interest in a brilliant collection of speeches and essays that Mike edited in 1997 called “Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition.” Lind’s publisher should put out a new edition right now.

By  |  02:30 PM ET, 05/29/2012

 
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