It is always a bit of a shock when a well-know conservative says something sensible, so imagine how stunned I was in this past week when TWO (count ‘em!) prominent rightist talking heads talked sense.
Here was New York Times columnist David Brooks, addressing the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico on June 18:
“The balance between federal oversight and local control is off-kilter. We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.”
Now, it is surely clear that this massive undersea blowout and the response to it show that huge corporations cannot be relied upon to act in the public interest, and cannot even be relied upon to act efficiently in their own interest. They are just too big. But it is also hard to defend the ponderous, bureaucratic response of the federal government, notwithstanding its getting on the job quickly and committing enormous resources. The feds have repeatedly been too late, too inflexible, or too unclear about who’s in charge. And neither BP nor the federal government have gotten the hang of “feeling the pain,” like Bill Clinton knew how to do.
Brooks is onto something here that progressives should appreciate. Remember how enthusiastic we were in the early 1970s with the publication of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. Big government is not an end in itself. The Left has at times been subject to a kind of romanticism of central control that is directly parallel to the romanticism of the market that the Right so often voices. Local and state governments can often respond to crises more effectively than larger organizations, if provided with the resources. The federal government would probably get more bang for the buck by sending money (with careful auditing) than by administering programs itself.
Of course, Brooks is scarcely a true right-winger: he’s regarded with suspicion or contempt by many of the tea partiers (at least those who read). But George Will’s right-wing credentials are impeccable. Yet he has forcefully opposed our continued presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, publishing columns in The Washington Post last September, much to the displeasure of the neoconservative establishment of the Republican Party. This week, he returned to the theme on the occasion of the self-immolation of Gen. McChrystal, repeating his conviction that the war in Afghanistan simply cannot be won:
“It may be said that McChrystal’s defect is only a deficit of political acumen. Only? Again, the mission in Afghanistan is much more political than military. Counterinsurgency, as defined by McChrystal’s successor, Gen. David Petraeus, and tepidly embraced by Barack Obama for a year or so, does not just involve nation-building, it is nation-building.
“This does not require just political acumen; it requires the wisdom of Aristotle, the leadership skills of George Washington and the analytic sophistication of de Tocqueville. But, then, the grinding paradox of nation-building is this: No one with the aptitudes necessary for it would be rash or delusional enough to try it.”
Here again, progressives ought to take note of this analysis. Many in our movement are strongly opposed to both wars, a position now assumed by one of the stalwarts of the conservative movement. Even if Will’s reasoning is distinct from the typical antiwar thinking, there is a basis for common cause here.
Grassroots government and opposition to war: can conservatives be progressive? Perhaps. Nurturing sclerotic bureaucracies and defending imperialist wars: can progressives be conservative? You bet.
Substantively, we have here the chance for important cross-fertilization of ideas. Strategically, there is the chance to drive a wedge into the Right. What’s not to like?
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University