David Brooks’ New Traditionalism and a Better GOP

I’m neither a conservative nor a Republican. But as a citizen, I believe that the United States would benefit from having a better Republican Party and conservative movement—one more committed to human dignity and the common good. Our system does not function well with divided government and extreme polarization. The ideological purification of both parties is a grave hindrance to having a political system that functions well. Political reform therefore seems necessary. But even with reform, the reality is that the country desperately needs a new center-right approach to conservatism in terms of its ideals and ideas.

In a recent column, David Brooks called for a cultural revival in four ways:

We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.

Brooks states, “Rather than fighting endless losing battles over sexual identity, we need a better culture war. We need a new traditionalism.” His critique diagnoses the flaws at the heart of contemporary American conservatism, not just our larger culture. It is suffused with rhetoric and policies that are rooted in extreme individualism. Its fanatical devotion to a deified market is rooted in a fundamentally materialist mentality, and it fuels a utilitarian mindset—the throwaway culture, in which human persons are objectified and cast aside when they lack utility.

Meanwhile, moralism exists where personalism should reign. Hateful culture warriors manufacture conflict and outrage while ignoring real threats to human flourishing. And critically, as Brooks says, “Our culture is overpoliticized and undermoralized.”

Brooks calls for a new traditionalism:

A tradition, whether it’s Thanksgiving dinner, an annual family reunion or a burial ceremony, takes a physical activity and infuses it with enchantment. There’s a warmth to our traditions and rituals that is fueled by love and contact with the transcendent.

That has to be the opening assertion of a new traditionalism — that we’re not primarily physical creatures. There’s a ghost in the machine. We have souls or consciousness or whatever you want to call it. The first step of a new traditionalism would be to put the spiritual and moral implications of everyday life front and center.

Instead of maintaining a right-wing version of bourgeois liberalism that is rooted in materialism and the belief that humans are just self-interested animals, Brooks is calling for a new traditionalism rooted in a belief in the transcendent—and one that is truly animated by this belief. For personalists, the very notion of human dignity is rooted in this belief, and it provides the foundation for human equality and personalists’ commitment to solidarity, as all persons are made in the image of God with immortal souls and immeasurable worth.

American Conservatism, despite its outward commitment to certain moral and religious causes, is largely detached from a belief in the transcendent and its personalist, communitarian imperatives for a couple of reasons.

One, American conservatism has deeper roots in social Darwinism and individualistic theologies than more personalist or communitarian worldviews such as Catholic social teaching or even traditional religious conservatism. This is particularly true of its economic agenda. The Republican Party may be the most pro-market mainstream conservative party in the world. Christian Democratic parties and others shaped by communitarian influences maintain certain principles that would not allow their parties to become vessels for a free fundamentalist ideology. The GOP’s economic agenda, meanwhile, has become its centerpiece and key litmus test since conservatives took full control of the party.

But this extreme individualism extends beyond economics and can be seen in other libertarian impulses, such as opposition to sensible laws that protect people from harmful cigarette smoke or gun violence. Individual license is valued above the common good and human flourishing.

The other reason is that American society is increasingly atomized. Community life in the United States has perhaps reached its nadir, and it is in community where we experience love and communion—the most tangible ways to experience the transcendent. In its absence, nihilistic libertarianism and the scapegoating of others find fertile ground.

People are lonely. They are isolated. They lack trust in others. They lack relationships with people upon whom they can rely. Even those of us who believe in community increasingly live lives of practical individualism, caught up in our own private worlds. In such an environment, charlatans, including (but not limited to) Donald Trump, successfully stoke fears of ‘the other’. They seize on economic insecurity and social isolation to foster or empower anger, hatred, fear, and bigotry. And the Republican Party has used these immortal tactics to build a base of working class voters for a party that’s central purpose is to redistribute wealth to the rich (which some right-wing economists might see as beneficial to all, but is difficult to sell straight up to regular American workers). A belief in the dignity of all is set aside to pander to the worst instincts of millions of frustrated, alienated voters.

Instead of addressing the marriage crisis that is afflicting all but the affluent, gay marriage was framed as the preeminent threat to marriage. Instead of crafting policies that reflect the dignity of immigrants and religious minorities, conservative politicians have encouraged a crass utilitarian mindset (that often distorts the actual utility of their policies). Instead of rebuilding community and civil society, many conservatives have fostered greater isolation and autonomy.

Brooks explains the difference a new traditionalism might make:

If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers. We would comfortably tell them that sex is a fusion of loving souls and not just a physical act. We’d celebrate marriage as a covenantal bond. We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.

What Brooks is talking about it is virtue, including a politics of virtue. The belief that human flourishing is necessarily intertwined with living virtuously is critical to creating a better conservatism or new traditionalism. The current disconnect on this matter is why millions of American voters can vote for someone as vile as Donald Trump. But it is not really his lack of personal virtue that exposes the pervasive utilitarianism that afflicts many (even religious) conservatives; it’s a vision for the country that is detached from a genuine sense of duty and justice. He tells voters they will “win” and be great again if he is elected. He promises to be “greedy” for them and the country. He calls for a nationalistic “America First” foreign policy. He plays to the individualism that is rampant among conservatives and crowds out authentic religious sensibilities.

A better conservatism would go beyond divisive culture war fights and address the individualistic, materialistic culture that frays communities and undermines virtuous, joyful living. The greatest threats to marriage are individualistic values and economic injustice rooted in individualistic economic policies. When people are treated like economic commodities and maximizing pleasure is seen as the ultimate good, lectures on sexual chastity are likely to be ignored or mocked. Only by fostering a more communitarian culture that respects human dignity can marriage be revived and human sexuality be valued as the good that it is.

Brooks explains how this concern for virtue and the everyday acts of life changes things:

If we talked as if people had souls, then we’d have a thick view of what is at stake in everyday activities. The soul can be elevated and degraded at every second, even when you’re alone not hurting anybody. Each thought or act etches a new line into the core piece of oneself.

The awareness of that constant process of elevation and degradation adds urgency to a bunch of questions. For example, what are we doing to a prisoner’s soul when we throw him in solitary? Can we really tolerate having so many people falling out of the labor force and unable to realize the dignity that comes with steady work? In what ways do our phones lead to attachment or isolation? When is shopping fun and when is it degrading?

By focusing on virtue and human flourishing, a better conservatism would see the dangers of consumerism. It would be more equipped to resists excessive faith in free market ideologies. It would be more compassionate and generous. It would have no place for fanatical anti-government inanity.

But it would do more than move away from its libertarian excesses. It would help to create a more pragmatic Republican Party that is more focused on people than ideology. It would inculcate civic virtues that are essential in a democracy. It might help to stall the consolidation of power by wealthy, secular liberal elites in the Democratic Party. A better conservatism would help to address the underlying cultural problems that will not be solved by greater economic justice alone.

Brooks is absolutely right that we need a culture that is less utilitarian, individualistic, rationalistic, and materialistic. To get there, we need both parties to move away from fostering these values. And we need a new conservatism (and/or a new traditionalism) if we want a more responsible, moral Republican Party.