Noam has some smart insights that touch on the subjects raised by David Brooks in his New York Times column today. But unlike Noam, I thought the Brooks column itself was confused. Brooks starts out by arguing that we are entering an era of "epic legislation" in which the government will take an acitivist role on issues like energy, human capital, and financial market regulation. The problem is that Brooks--in high, McCain-swooning gear-- draws a strange lesson from history.
Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule. It’s as if voters understand that they need big changes, but they want those changes planned and enacted by leaders who will restrain the pace of change and prevent radical excess.
Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.
If these are the best two examples that Brooks can cite of voters wanting conservative leadership in eras where government activism was necessary, his thesis needs some work. For starters, Roosevelt was only elected president once, in 1904, after an election campaign in which you have to perform a lot of mental gymnastics to describe TR as the "conservative" candidate. And his platform is so far removed from the current Republican nominee's, and so distinct from what we would define as conservative, that the analogy is almost useless.
As for Disraeli, whose new conservative party was created out of opposition to free trade(!), his second premiership may indeed have led to the introduction of numerous social reforms. But voting was so restricted during that time--and the issues of the campaign so far removed from those of our own time--that to imply "the people" of the 1870's wanted incremental change from "conservative" politicians is almost absurd (Disraeli actually lost the popular vote in the crucial 1874 election). Disraeli's imperialism and nationalism are interesting to compare to Roosevelt's, but any comparison to modern-day America is downright silly.
(For a fascinating essay on the schisms in Britain leading up to Disraeli's rule, check out this John Brewer piece in The New York Review of Books.)