Political Animal


May 29, 2012 12:50 PM Hamiltonians For Hoover

By Ed Kilgore

One of the oldest memes for understanding the perpetual debate in American politics over the role of government is that of the centralizing Hamiltonian tradition and the decentralizing Jeffersonian tradition. But now comes David Brooks (one of the progenitors of the vague, pseudo-Hamiltonian “national greatness conservatism” of the late 1990s) to tell us that modern liberalism has broken the mold by exceeding the very limits on federal power that the arch-centralizer Hamilton himself insisted on, and that Americans faithfully followed until the 20th century, when everything began to go to hell.

[T]he federal role has historically been sharply limited. The man who initiated that role, Alexander Hamilton, was a nationalist. His primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.
This version of economic nationalism meant that he and the people who followed in his path — the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives — focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now. They had their sights on the horizon, building the infrastructure, education and research facilities required for future greatness. This nationalism also led generations of leaders to assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor. People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots.
Finally, this nationalism meant that policy emphasized dynamism, and opportunity more than security, equality and comfort. While European governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on protecting producers and workers, the U.S. government focused more on innovation and education.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

[T]his Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned. The abandonment came in three phases. First, the progressive era. The progressives were right to increase regulations to protect workers and consumers. But the late progressives had excessive faith in the power of government planners to rationalize national life. This was antithetical to the Hamiltonian tradition, which was much more skeptical about how much we can know and much more respectful toward the complexity of the world.
Second, the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was right to energetically respond to the Depression. But the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive. Politicians since have paid less attention to long-term structures and more to how many jobs they “create” in a specific month. Americans have been corrupted by the allure of debt, sacrificing future development for the sake of present spending and tax cuts.
Third, the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson was right to use government to do more to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of capitalism. But he made a series of open-ended promises, especially on health care. He tried to bind voters to the Democratic Party with a web of middle-class subsidies.

And here, of course, comes the clincher, where Brooks rationalizes today’s Republican anti-governent craziness as a sad but unevitable product of Democratic overreaching:

[The] 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.

So the beautiful constitutional design that prevailed when women and southern African-Americans couldn’t vote (or for that matter, much earn a living) and working people were quasi-serfs was ruined, and it’s taking an overreaction to re-achieve the kind of balance that a proper Hamiltonianism—you know, the Hamiltonianism of David Brooks, or perhaps Mitt Romney—would achieve. Maybe women and minorities can’t be disenfranchised, but at least we can “reform entitlements” and get rid of labor unions, right?

David Brooks has always been a master at redefining “the center” to coincide with his own views, and at identifying the immediate needs of the country with the tactical positions of the Republican Party. But this takes the cake: Republicans—the sane, non-Tea Party Republicans—are today’s true Hamiltonians! Those wanting a vigorous, proud politics of common good should be pushing the Ryan Budget, lest the excesses of 20th century liberalism unleash the Jeffersonian Tea Party furies. If there existed an ideological Olympics with a gymnastics competition, Brooks would be the gold medal winner time and time again.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • howard on May 29, 2012 1:09 PM:

    one of the giveaways of the pure hack - and we are talking about david brooks here, who's as pure as they come! - is the reference to the supposed belief by anyone on the left of the genius of "government planners."

    we will never have national greatness as long as people like david brooks are considered part of the conversation.

  • Ron Byers on May 29, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Why waste your time on David Brooks' phony view of history and his childishly simple view of America?

  • Ralf on May 29, 2012 1:14 PM:

    David Brooks has entered the wingnut black hole, but manages to send back 800 word disquisitions couched in NPR tones with a soupcon of libertarian detachment. But he's still gone all-in with the Ryan madness.

  • c u n d gulag on May 29, 2012 1:16 PM:

    Gee, 'Dour Miss Brooks, "[T]his Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned."
    Ya think?

    Maybe because, you FECKIN' IDJIT, we're no longer a nation of slave-holding white male citizen farmers and shopkeepers, and their non-voting wives.


    We are now a modern, industrialized nation, you FECKIN' IDJIT, and the most advanced on in the world - or, at least we WERE, until people like you and the reactionaries you worship got a hold of the reigns of power.

    And Davey, I know that you've made an entire, insipid, career out of bending the words of the Founding Fathers to agree with your opinion, but it's really getting old.

    How many of these, "Well, some say this, and some say that, but thinking people all agree on one thing - that I'M RIGHT!" columns can the NY Times tolerate?
    Are you and Thomas Freidman holding some sort of contest to see who can be wrong in the most boring was possible, and as often as possible? 'Cause the one losing's the reading public.

    Besides, who outside of some Liberal bloggers, and the DC Village's "Village Idiot's" still read Brooks?

    I don't, 'cause early in his writing career, I realized he had nothing to say, and certainly not anything new, but liked just getting paid to say it.

    Will no one free us of this insipid and inane drone?

  • bigtuna on May 29, 2012 1:18 PM:

    I stop reading when the words "David Brooks" are written ...

    seriously. My daughter's High school AP History class has a more nuanced view of constitutional history than David Brooks does

  • golack on May 29, 2012 1:18 PM:

    No, no, no, it wasn't FDR who destroyed our government, it was Lincoln. He didn't just get rid of slavery, but effectively abolished indentured servitude. And that's what really started our national decline.

  • stormskies on May 29, 2012 1:22 PM:

    We need to remember too the incredible role Teddy Roosevelt had after he became the president. He took on the then corporations and the oligarchy almost by himself .. and introduced the progressive tax code to boot ...and was a Republican .. a kind that no longer exists

  • LL on May 29, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Howard, at the top of the thread, said it best.

    I'll just further note that why anyone with an ounce of brain-matter takes Brooks at all seriously is utterly beyond me. The man is a disingenuous hack, who has been wrong about virtually everything for a very long time now. He's our new David Broder (and I'm sure that's his ultimate goal in life), which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him.

  • jjm on May 29, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Amen to the sentiments above.

    Brooks is also, I have to add, one of the poorest writers around. When I first read his column, I though, "Gee, I wonder why the NY Times gave a C- English student a column?"

    By any measure, he's boring, dull and plodding, and all to push transparently right wing ideas.

    There's really no reason to read anything he writes: it's all grist for a mill that turns out the most boring, predictable right wing heaps of nonsense ever.

  • SBcardinal on May 29, 2012 1:48 PM:

    Gulag, your rant has me in stitches. Thanks for the laugh after having to read Bobo's idiocy.

  • kindness on May 29, 2012 1:56 PM:

    David Brooks is a sack of shit. No other need to say anything more of the cretin.

  • Topey Schwarzenbach on May 29, 2012 2:42 PM:

    I always get suspicious of David Brooks, just about the time, he writes, "People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots."

    I would note that throughout his article there is not one citation of fact to anchor the argument. Just David Brooks breezy assumptions about what various Federalists really thought, which, amazingly turns out to be exactly what David Brooks currently thinks.

    I do wish I knew enough of the historical context to debunk Brooks' self satisfied argument. And i do wish Ed Kilgore would find and post an historically accurate version of the Hamiltonian moment.

  • Keeping Track on May 29, 2012 2:46 PM:

    I guess since Hamilton's goal was "not to make individuals rich" or to "divide the country between haves and have-nots" he must've had nothing to do with his cronies being tipped off that worthless US gov't debt would be honored in full, so they could snap up the notes at fire-sale prices, from the poor saps that actually funded our Revolution.

  • zandru on May 29, 2012 3:21 PM:

    per bigtuna "I stop reading when the words "David Brooks" are written ..."
    I even turn off NPR - NPR!!! - when he comes on. Perhaps I should use my time more wisely to complain to NPR every time Brooks comes on. Let's do it.

  • Col Bat Guano on May 29, 2012 3:26 PM:

    Shorter David Brooks:

    "She made me hit her!"

  • bluestatedon on May 29, 2012 3:35 PM:

    "But the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive."

    So David Brooks believes that the efforts to make sure that families and their children had enough to eat during the Depression was corrosive? Does he also believe that rural electrification was corrosive? That Social Security—for millions of elderly the only difference between a life of limited means and outright impoverishment—was corrosive?

  • DC Mike on May 29, 2012 5:00 PM:

    Here's my favorite sentence in Brooks's column: "A government that was trusted and oriented around long-term visions is now distrusted because it tries to pander to the voters’ every momentary desire."

    I wonder if it ever occurs to conservatives like Brooks that government is distrusted because of the conduct and policies of conservatives in government. For example: The lies and lawlessness of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Plame-gate, and WMD and the Iraq war; the policy failures of the Laffer Curve, laissez-faire financial deregulation, and trickle-down economics; and the cynical refusal of Republicans to engage in legislative compromise as well as their willingness to put the country's credit and financial standing at risk by threatening to refuse to extend the debt ceiling.

    But no, the distrust (at least the distrust of the only people David Brooks talks to) comes from efforts by liberals to enact programs that actually serve the needs and desires of "the voters" -- i.e., the large majority of the citizenry.

  • SecularAnimist on May 29, 2012 5:01 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "David Brooks has always been a master at ..."

    David Brooks is a "master" at nothing. He's a bought-and-paid-for corporate stooge and a bullshit artist. And a mediocre bullshit artist at that.

  • emjayay on May 29, 2012 6:19 PM:

    So, why is David the counterpoint to Mark Shields every Friday on the PBS NewsHour? They are both treated as the wise old left and right political insider pros. I suppose it's because it's hard to find a Republican insider writer who's not clearly insane or something.

  • Anonymous on May 29, 2012 10:32 PM:

    I think David Brooks is a sane, intelligent conservative thinker.
    I just disagree with his views.

    the definition of "overreach" is made by historic comparisons of the the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, but other countries that exist today.

    Is he seriously thinking that America, with its vast, industrialized land and 300 million people would be better going back to public spending of 10% of GDP in this modernized global era?

    is the cost of inefficiency of federal government greater than ineffectiveness of state and local governments of the past?

    there is an argument to be made for countries with "big government" like France where its public spending is over 55% of its GDP or state capitalists like China and Russia where independent free enterprises are too weak.

    but the size of government is not America's worry. at least for now.

    Can't he worry about today's problems and actual potential problems of the future instead of its theoretical worry of non-existing big government?

  • David Carlton on May 30, 2012 10:36 AM:

    Oh, let us count the ways:

    "[Hamilton's] primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal." No, Hamilton had no interest in equality, but he certainly had an interest in creating and maintaining a wealthy elite, because he saw the best way of maintaining a strong nation was to make it in the self-interest of that elite to support it over the interests of their states. Hence his assumption of state debts and the creation of a funded debt in which the wealthy could safely invest. To that end he did a lot of good [notably by creating the modern American capital market], but he also played a game of crony capitalism that was ultimately to prove his downfall.

    ". . . the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives — focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now." Say what? Whatever you think of Whig/Republican tariff policy, its objective most certainly was to "provide jobs right now." Jacking up tariff rates was the favored Whig/Republican cure-all for depression up to the 1930s, in much the same way that tax cuts are for the current Republicans. Yes, they were certainly interested in developing institutions and infrastructure, just as Democrats are now--but, also like Democrats, they rejected the false dichotomy Brooks is setting up.

    "While European governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on protecting producers and workers, the U.S. government focused more on innovation and education." This is just breathtakingly ignorant. Is Brooks utterly unaware that the United States was one of the leading protectionist countries in the world in the nineteenth century? That Europeans actually learned economic nationalist arguments from us? Really, this is basic US History Survey stuff. Yes, the US was innovative and pressed for an educated work force--but here again Whigs and Republicans would have been flabbergasted to hear that fostering innovation and education was an alternative to "protecting producers and workers." They saw these as part of a coordinated policy.

    Thanks for reminding me why I don't bother to read Brooks.

  • biggerbox on May 30, 2012 11:22 AM:

    This column sets a new standard for Brooks' trademark style - usually he doesn't put so much work into 'proving' that his self-centered assertions by so thoroughly mangling and misinterpreting American history.

    First, you have to love the false dichotomy between long-term and short-term, as if anyone not writing a tendentious column could clearly separate individual administrations or party platforms into one or the other.

    [Was Eisenhower's Interstate Highway system long-term? But it came after the New Deal, so it must have been short-term. Oh, no! How confusing. Lyndon Johnson spent so much money on feeding people (short-term), but also NASA (long-term). How can that be??]

    Then he puts extra care into combining his favorite techiques, the straw-man, contrarianism, and provocation, into little gems, like calling the (completely mischaracterized) New Deal "corrosive".

    And then, so Brooksian, the rhetorical questions about whether the government will encourage long-term innovation, hoping no one has been paying attention to the Obama administration's ongoing drumbeat about investment in infrastructure, education and innovation, and Romney's focus on making sure government has no money to pay for anything, long-term or otherwise.

    This may rank as the top Brooks column of the year, and stands as a fine exemplar of his work. Truly a fine effort on his part. I'm sure his employers will be pleased.

    Seldom has an utter crock of shit been so carefully and lovingly crafted. Bravo, Mr. Brooks. Bravo.