David Brooks is in an angry and spiteful mood. Perhaps he’s even getting to be a bit unhinged, as history is putting his vision of American conservatism onto its rubbish heap.
When I read the preface, I thought: What a great story awaits the reader. The authors of The Constitution: An Introduction, Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen, father and son, spent nine summer vacations together discussing the original Constitution and the Amendments. I wish I could have been privy to the conversations. Did the father ever say to the son, “you changed my mind on this point?” Did the son ever say to the father, “you changed my mind on that point?” After all, I think, the key to introducing America is by way of a dynamic conversation within and between the generations. Their aim is both lofty and restrained: to write an introductory book that is “rigorous, accurate, and scholarly” yet at the same time “brief and readable.” But they fall short.
Robert Nisbet was certainly a conservative theorist of some prominence, as Mike Rappaport indicates. Mike was picking up on Steve Hayward’s post, which called to task today’s “quantum conservatism” for its uncertainty principle. For good reason, Mike holds Nisbet as an exemplar of the differences between conservatives and libertarians. But like Tocqueville, whose insights his best work elaborated on, sociologist Nisbet overlooks the core of American politics, which is the Declaration of Independence. Unless conservatives are selective about what it is they are conserving, they are no better, theoretically, than the radicals they claim to be combating. And libertarians cannot claim to defend…
In politics, our myths are more important than our history. The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress. Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil. In 2008 the nation needed a useable myth that could tap into American populism and turn this potent political force into a conserving power. Obama’s myth has not created a sustainable narrative of America, but it might have weakened the very capacity of the nation to believe in and live as part of a better story of ourselves.
The closing of the XXX Olympic Games, in both French and English, reminds me of Charles Dickens who in the nineteenth century wrote famously about the Tale of Two Cities—Paris and London–separated by a channel of water. Paris was experiencing in 1789 the fervor of what Karl Marx was to later call “revolution in permanence,” and London was, following Edmund Burke, muddling through with reforms here and there. But the 2012 Olympics confirm that London, and not Paris, is the city of Europe. There are no longer two competing European tales.
But it would be wrong to conclude that the more sober tale of London has triumphed over the more intoxicating tale of Paris. It would be more accurate to say that the victory of London is the result of the ascendency of Parisian intoxication over the sobriety of the Londoner. What we witnessed at the closing of these games was not the display of good old-fashioned pomp and circumstance, or simply good old-fashioned British fun in the performance of Eric Idle’s famous Look on the Bright Side of Life skit. This was revolution in permanence. Or more delicately stated, Paris and London are now two cities with One Tale: democratic perfectionism.