Brooks and Levin on the Limits of Compassion

If you have the time, I urge you to listen to my old boss David Brooks and my friend Yuval Levin discussing Michael Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism. You won’t regret it. By way of a preview, I’ll briefly reproduce what I see as Yuval’s central insight.

Speaking to the middle, it seems to me is the crucial task of any serious American political program, conservative or not. And speaking to the middle is not a necessary evil in the politics of a democracy. It’s crucial not just because that’s where voters are, and not just because that’s where political pressure comes from, it’s crucial because that’s where our great strength is – in the great and stable and usually pretty sensible middle. That’s where the culture lives, it’s where economic strength is grounded, it’s where our families are, it’s where idealism comes from, too, and what it depends on. I think it’s where we’re strong and why we’re strong. And conservatives know that first and foremost, our politics have to sustain the sources of our strength, and to grow from there.

This means, I think, that our politics has to be fundamentally oriented to the middle class; to its needs and to its aims and to its hopes and to its ideals – to its aspirations. That’s not where the goals of politics end – they have to include the kind of goals Mike lists here – but it is, I think, where the work of politics has to start. Humanitarianism is, I think, not an adequate foundation for political life. It’s a worthy and a necessary end, but it can’t do in itself. And it relies on other foundations – on a society that values freedom and family, that encourages self-reliance and entrepreneurial energy and industrious virtues and civic virtues – and all of these depend on a politics that speaks to the middle class in a constructive way about their present and future concerns; that approaches the task of governing in a responsible way, including a fiscally responsible way.

The most important part of Yuval’s project, and the same is true of Ramesh Ponnuru and (ahem) my work with Ross, is that it offers an alternative to the dark, cramped vision of the neopopulists. Many neopopulists rail against the right for accusing them of waging “class warfare.” And it’s true, there’s something frustratingly reductive about the term. At the same time, it seems clear that the neopopulist view of the economy is founded on a fundamental antagonism between the interests of the rich and the rest, and that it sees a middle class that’s being pauperized rather than a middle class plagued by “the paradox of choice.” Life in a free society has always been demanding, and in some ways it seems even more so in recent years, particularly for parents and particularly for working women. There is a role for government here. But glib and underinformed action on, say, carried interest (like the kind, er, I’ve called for personally) represents the worst kind of posturing.