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January 31, 2014 4:45 PM David Brooks’ Neo-Whiggery

By Ed Kilgore

My regular complaint about New York Times columnist David Brooks (whom I do not dislike the way many progressive writers do) is that he stands for an imaginary “centrist” constituency in ways that more often than not happen to coincide with the contemporary needs of a Republican Party he purports to disdain. His invisible constituency problem is nowhere more evident than in his latest column, in which he urges President Obama to appoint Bowles-Simpson style commissions to deal with all the problems associated with poverty and inequality, and more generally (that not being preposterous enough) stand for a revival of the Whig tradition in American politics. Seriously.

Jonathan Chait has already conducted the requisite mockery of the blue-ribbon-panel-to-solve-intractable-problems idea:

If you define the goal of Bowles and Simpson as creating policies outside the political process that can be held up by centrists as emblematic of the failure of both parties in equal measure, then the Bowles-Simpson commission succeeded brilliantly. Why not extend the power of the Bowles-Simpson brand beyond mere deficit scolding to other policy areas? What about a Bowles-Simpson commission for everyday life decisions? The husband says we should spend $5000 to repair our car, the wife says we can’t afford it. Then they hire a Bowles-Simpson commission to tell them they should reject that debate and instead ride around on an invisible unicorn.

Indeed, if David Brooks were to found his own political party, its symbol could well be an invisible unicorn flying above the grubby battles of the elephant and the donkey.

But Brooks has his own party model in mind, and yes, it’s the Whigs, those high-minded but dirty-deal-prone bourgeois busybodies of the antebellum period.

It’s Friday afternoon, and neither you nor I probably have the time or energy for deconstructing Brooks’ characterization of the Whigs and batting it around. But I would make one observation: the Whigs expired primarily because in all their deal-making and internal improving they could not come to grips with the central moral and political challenge of their time, slavery. When avoiding or compromising on the issue no longer was possible, and the Whigs’ utility to slave-owning southerners came to an end, they vanished with remarkable speed. I can think of no example less suitable to serve as a model for how twenty-first century America deals with the moral and political challenges on which we are experiencing so many—to use the phrase of Whig-turned-Republican William Henry Seward—irrepressible conflicts.

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.

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