David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who is billed as the conservative op-ed voice at the paper, reached back into the far regions of American political history the other day in search of a bit of advice for President Obama. He
This is a curious analytical illustration for any conservative, which raises the question whether Brooks is truly a conservative. The answer is that he isn’t one. He is a thoughtful and often creative political commentator with some conservative instincts but also an overarching penchant for sidestepping the messy political clashes of our time and pursuing instead ancillary lines of thinking that keep him above the fray. Nobody ever seems to make him mad, certainly not liberals.
The columnist’s sojourn back to the time of the Whig Party illustrates this aspect of Brooks’s work—but also offers an occasion to ponder just what might be the lessons to be derived from the brief story of the Whigs, founded by Henry Clay as a counterweight to the hated Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, and crushed just two decades later in the crucible of the country’s fearsome slavery debate.
Brooks portrays it as focused on "enhancing opportunity and social mobility" and dedicated to giving "marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy." It fought against the "divisive populist Jacksonians" in championing big public-works projects—roads, canals, bridges—designed to propel America into greatness. Brooks adds the party "believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion."
Even allowing for its brevity, this is not a particularly accurate rendition of the Whig political sensibility, and it finesses some of the lessons of the party’s brief history, particularly for conservatives. In point of fact, the Whigs were the forerunners of today’s big-government Democrats. They believed in high taxes (tariffs), flexibility in interpreting the Constitution so government could be expanded, relatively easy money, government-corporate alliances and the ability of governmental elites to shape the country’s future.
They were not for social mobility, as it was understood in that time, or for loose immigration policies. Indeed, the greatest lever of social mobility in those days was government-owned land—more than a billion acres of it in the West and the South. The Whigs wanted to make it available to the highest bidders, meaning well-heeled Easterners, in order to generate massive federal monies that could be used for governmental projects. For them, these lands represented a great infusion of cash for greater federal activity and control.
Democrats, led by Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, advocated a system of graduated prices, with free grants to actual settlers who would promise to develop the land. Benton argued the country could benefit most by making these lands readily available to ordinary citizens who would raze the foliage, till the soil, build wealth through hard work, establish communities, and, in the process, expand the culture of American democracy. Elites weren’t needed, in this view, because the people would build up the nation from below. The Whigs took a particularly rough political hit when an internal report was leaked indicating some party leaders also wanted the land sold at high prices in order to keep cheap labor in place for Eastern manufacturers. Social mobility hardly seems to be the motivation here.
As for immigration and assimilation, Michael F. Holt, author of the most comprehensive recent history of the Whig Party, has written, "To immigrants and Catholics, the Whig party seemed impossibly hostile and bigoted." The Whigs nominated for U.S. vice president in 1840 a former New Jersey senator named Theodore Frelinghuysen, described by Holt as being associated with not only "zealous Protestant do-gooders but also fanatical anti-Catholic bigots." Although Holt does note that the country’s most virulent nativists "found the Whigs’ anti-Catholic and anti-foreign credentials too suspect," it was the Democrats of the day, not the Whigs, who most heartily welcomed immigrants.
The purpose here is not to malign the Whig Party, or particularly to set Brooks straight on some important American history, but to take a cue from Brooks and channel the Whig experience of fifteen decades ago into lessons for our own time. Brooks’ portrayal of the Whigs as genteel politicians, however overblown, leads him to suggest Obama should modernize the Whig impulse and then "travel the country…questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines." He wants the president to foster probing inquiries into whether the government can "improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments." He wonders if there are ways to improve Head Start, expand early childhood education intelligently, restructure neighborhoods so teenagers can more likely thrive, subsidize the lives of young men so they can afford to get married, or craft job-training programs for middle-aged workers.
He also suggests the president should stock his White House staff less with former campaign workers, who are adept at passing legislation, and more with "social entrepreneurs," who may be more suited to an agenda strategy based on bypassing a recalcitrant Congress. These social entrepreneurs would seem to be rather akin to the people described by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1970 book entitled Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, which the author described as a "cautionary tale about the role of university-based experts in the formulation of social policy."
Thus it can be seen that in one important respect Brooks has the Whigs down pat. No doubt they would be inclined, once brought forward to our own day, to applaud the idea of inserting the federal government into ever greater aspects of American life, including schools, neighborhoods, family activity, the marital prospects of young men, and the like. But it’s worth noting that the Whigs were never particularly successful with their governmental agenda. In their brief twenty-two-year span, they elected just two presidents, both military heroes. Neither survived his presidential term, and the Democrats reclaimed the White House four years later in each instance.
Later, at the instigation of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the country shook off its aversion to governmental expansion and interventionist policies designed to address pressing problems of national scope. In that sense, the Whigs were more successful in giving the country a philosophy of governmental potential than they were in implementing it themselves.
But the people have been wary of going much beyond the legacy of those four presidents. Indeed, Obama’s Affordable Care Act may represent the last hurrah for Democratic welfare-state liberalism in America. If so, the Democrats will have to craft a new approach to governing; but, then, in like manner, so will the Republicans have to move beyond their own obsessive opposition to Democratic welfare-state liberalism. For both parties, new thinking will have to emerge to reflect the new political realities of our time.
And there’s maybe one area where the two parties can come together in this emerging new era—the national need to smash corporate cronyism. It’s everywhere. When Andrew Jackson thwarted the Whigs by killing the Second Bank of the United States, it was because he hated the idea of an expansive government aligning itself with a corporate entity that subsisted on governmental largesse—and then perpetuated itself by extending in turn special emoluments to members of Congress and other government officials. (Daniel Webster was particularly avid in pursuing interest-free loans.)
But now we have this situation in spades—big Wall Street banks getting special treatment from Treasury and the Fed and extending in turn huge infusions of cash into selected political campaigns; Fannie and Freddie, playing a big role in creating the financial crisis of 2008 (like the big banks) and then continuing to thrive based on special governmental loan guarantees and sophisticated lobbying; start-up renewable-energy companies, run by friends of the Obama administration, operating artificially on infusions of governmental funding; a tax code ripe for the plucking by big corporations and rich fat cats with legions of highly compensated lawyers and accountants; potent public-employee unions with the money and influence to fire their members’ employers and hence to wring from governments special health and retirements benefits that taxpayers can’t afford—and can’t get at their own places of employment.
Students of the Whig era know that all this is in part a legacy of the Whig impulse, which favored expansive government aligned with big societal institutions—all in the name of national progress. But is it possible that an effort to address this problem could scramble up the old political fault lines, as Brooks seems to favor, and create a new coalition bent on saving the country from this ongoing strangulation? And could the country actually embrace some of the zeal of those "divisive populist Jacksonians" who went after the Whig outlook with such zeal?
Difficult to know. But this may be the real lesson of the Whig era. Maybe even David Brooks could embrace this challenge, notwithstanding its boldness.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.