Tea Party vs. the ’60s left

David Brooks is the very embodiment of a New York Times editor’s picture of a “responsible” conservative.

He supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and dismisses Sarah Palin as an ignoramus without table manners. He considers Glenn Beck a clown and disdains the traditional conservative desire for limited government, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility. Perhaps most outrageously, however, Brooks last week managed to equate the Tea Party movement with the Weather Underground, SDS and the radicals who crawled out of leftist fever swamps in the ’60s, dedicated to destroying the America the Tea Partiers profess to love. 

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After the GOP electoral losses in 2006 and 2008, Brooks dismissed the notion that Republicans lost mainly because they had performed poorly in office and instead warned that the basic values of conservatives had destroyed the Republican brand. In BrooksWorld, Republicans lost because conservatives just hadn’t come to grips with modernity. Goldwater and Reagan, he hinted, spoke for a different time, to a different electorate in a different voice. The country and politics had changed, and the time had come for conservatives to grow up.

Mostly, of course, this meant modulating the reflexive conservative opposition to a growing government and the Europeanization of America. It meant accepting the enlightened view of government that one encounters at Manhattan cocktail parties. Brooks and other critics of limited government conservatism argued articulately, if not convincingly, that people wanted more rather than less from government and the time had come for conservatives to simply accept this reality.

It meant rejecting politicians who came from the wrong places, had graduated from the wrong colleges and universities and are all too cynical about the motives and wisdom of their betters. But in equating the folks who are attending Tea Parties to demand that their elected representatives listen to those who vote for them with the likes of Abbie Hoffman and the lunatics who in the ’60s worshipped Mao, Che and Ho Chi Minh, Brooks has gone too far, tried to rewrite history and maligned the men and women who are today taking exception to the direction the folks he seems to admire are taking their country. Those of us who lived through the turmoil of the ’60s know the difference. The Tea Partiers are often found carrying copies of the Constitution and are fond of quoting the nation’s Founders. The people who took to the streets in the ’60s to root for a Communist victory in Vietnam and to demand a revolution in America carried copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and harbored a deep hatred for this country and its Founders.

I was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the ’60s. In those days the smell of stale beer and cooking brats was periodically overwhelmed by the tear gas in the air. A student was killed by a bomb, and anyone who even hinted that this isn’t all that bad a country was shouted down by students demanding a violent revolution.

The radicals of the ’60s didn’t seek transparency or responsive elected officials; they wanted blood. I once debated a fellow student in front of an audience of some 600 in Madison on U.S. foreign policy. My opponent, who later served on the Madison City Council, got up when I finished, told the audience that he didn’t intend to dignify anything I had said by even trying to rebut it, and simply assured them that “when we make our revolution, people like him will be among the first to die.”

That David Brooks doesn’t see any real difference between people like that student and the housewives attending today’s Tea Parties says far more about him than about them.

Brooks thinks both the Tea Partiers and the ’60s radicals are profoundly anti-conservative because in his mind both movements revel in public demonstrations and share a profound if naïve belief in the innocence and goodness of “the people,” an unwarranted distrust of elites and a desire to completely break with the past to remake America. 

Obviously, Brooks has bothered neither to attend a Tea Party nor to listen closely to anyone who has. He seems to be writing more to please the Manhattan high tea set than anyone outside his world.

The leftists radicals of the ’60s sought to destroy the nation passed on to them; the Tea Partiers of today seek to guarantee that what they inherited will be passed on to their children and grandchildren.

David Brooks and his friends may not be able to distinguish between them, but most Americans can. 

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.