David Brooks Abandons Goldwater and Reagan

David Brooks makes a couple of fundamental errors his current column in believing Republican rhetoric and in lumping all government actions together. Brooks may not understand the right course for the country, but at least he is coming around to realizing that Republicans are out of touch with the voters. He realizes that all the talk from conservatives of moving back to the Goldwater-Reagan days is folly:

There is an argument floating around Republican circles that in order to win again, the G.O.P. has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days. It has to once again be the minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism and states’ rights.

This is folly. It’s the wrong diagnosis of current realities and so the wrong prescription for the future.

Back in the 1970s, when Reaganism became popular, top tax rates were in the 70s, growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Federal regulation stifled competition. Government welfare policies enabled a culture of dependency. Socialism was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model.

In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into their minds — the idea that big government means less personal liberty.

But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people’s future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation.

Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The “liberty vs. power” paradigm is less germane. It’s been replaced in the public consciousness with a “security leads to freedom” paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.

People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities.

Brooks realizes that conservative rhetoric is not of interest to independents:

The Republican Party, which still talks as if government were the biggest threat to choice, has lost touch with independent voters. Offered a choice between stale Democrats and stale Republicans, voters now choose Democrats, who at least talk about economic and domestic security.

The Democrats have a 15 point advantage in voter identification. Voters prefer Democratic economic policies by 14 points, Democratic tax policies by 15 points, Democratic health care policies by 24 points and Democratic energy policies by 20 points. If this is a country that wants to return to Barry Goldwater, it is showing it by supporting the policies of Dick Durbin…

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.

Brooks realizes Republicans have a problem, but he does not fully understand the problem due to the errors I noted at the beginning. He discusses the problems the Republicans have with running on a platform of freedom and small government, but the real reason this failed is that Republicans never delivered either. Republicans support less government when it means lowering their own taxes or evading regulations, but they oppose an overall expansion of freedom. It has also been Republicans who have eroded the checks and balances which limit the power of government and preserve our liberty.

Republicans talk of small government but deliver not only a bigger government, but a big government which is more intrusive in the lives of individuals. While Republicans lump all government together as the enemy in their rhetoric, the average person recognizes the difference. Some government actions limit freedom much more than others, and Republicans tend to support those measures which do restrict the free choices of individuals. Where Republicans due argue for reducing government, this is often in areas which most do not see as involving freedom. There are few retired people who see themselves as becoming less free by losing their Social Security and Medicare. The prospect of free market solutions to replace Medicare doesn’t sound very enticing considering how difficult it is for anyone who is older or ill to obtain medical coverage if not provided by their employer.

The ultimate reason Republicans are failing is that for an increasing number of voters, the choice is between freedom and authoritarianism, with Republicans on the wrong side of that divide.

This discussion is continued in the next post, Realignment on Issues of Liberty Versus Authoritarianism


  1. 1
    Nick says:

    For all the talk about “Reagan democrats” in the 1980s (and in the 90s after the GOP takeover in 1994)there are two factors that are often forgotten about the 1980s:

    1. Reagan’s greatest support levels came from those in the upper half-if not upper third-of the income level, indeed if only middle income quintile voters had voted in 1980 Jimmy Carter wins!

    2. The backdrop of inflation- While Reagan was a great communicator he was also lucky. Reagan’s role in bringing inflation down is debatable, it was clear that inflation came down on his watch. So scared was the public (even working class Democratic voters) of inflation that the large swaths were willing to ove rlook Reagan’s economic views (even if it didn’t jibe with theirs). With high inflation a fading memory but stagnating wages, exploding health care costs, and job insecurity a reality, Democrats’ economic views are getting a second look for many voters-even ones in upper-income strata.

    Of course Iraq and the GOP’s intolerant stance on a whole host of social issues helps Dems too, but the fading specter of high inflation no longer enables many voters to overlook their social values too.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    There were additional factors. Carter was ineffective as President, and appeared especially weak due to the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Any Republcan might have been able to win that year. Reagan’s political skills also made a huge difference. People voted for Reagan not because he was far right, but despite that. Besides, Reagan on longer seems like such an extremist compared to the current Republicans. Reagan said the right things to string the religious right along, but this was a very low priority for him once in office.

  3. 3
    battlebob says:

    Also look at the candidates the Dems ran in 1984 and 1988. Carter was toast in 1980 after his Iran problems; stagflation and a feeling that he was constantly being overcome by events. My own researchg indicates his staff was totally inept. Carter knew what would happen; he just couldn’t stop things from happening.
    In 1984, we had Walter – raise taxes – Mondell who’s campaign pledge was raise taxes. There was very little discussion of solving problems.
    Then in 1988, we had Dukakis who really did not have any ideas on how to do anything. He was truly lost in space; or was it in a tank that ran him around in circles like an expensive merry-go-round.

    Reagan and Bush 1 were easy winners partly because Dems mailed it in. I was a Repub then and we flat beat the crap out of Dems in the Pres. elections. But it wasn’t until the ’90s, Repubs took Congress.
    Was it Gingrinch or Bubba’s performance? Or was it a gradual being fed up with Dems lack of substance on issues. Dems are in charge in Congress and have to remember that Congress could be lost again.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    It was a number of things which cost the Democrats control of Congress, but if I had to name only one thing, it would be Hillary Care.

    Democrats now assume that they are going to win for quite a while after Bush, but there is no guarantee of this. Democrats won with Carter in response to Watergate, but we saw how long that lasted.

  5. 5
    Nick says:


    Not that I consider Mondale and Dukakis to have run optimum campaigns, but there are other factors to consider. With inflation and interest rates down (although Carter had more to do with that than Reagan) and Reagan backing off his ultra-hawkish rhetoric on foreign policy, 1984 was always gonna be difficult for Democrats. Median household incomes were rising as well. Except for Humphrey in 1968, no incumbent party since WWII has lost the White House in a year when median household incomes rose (as was the case in 1984 and 1988, while median household incomes fell in 1980).
    As much as I didn’t want to admit it then or now, Reagan wasn’t gonna lose the 1984 election. Sure he didn’t do well in the debates with Mondale-but unless he showed up to the debates naked and drooling he wasn’t gonna lose.

  6. 6
    Nick says:

    Ron, I agree and disagree

    Carter was much more effective than thought so at the time. He did a terrible job with public relations though. And your right, with the economy in the state it was in in 1980 (and the hostage crisis making him look weak) Carter was in big trouble that year. One interesting aside you might find interesting: Mike Deaver has said that had the hostages come home in the fall 1980 Carter would’ve won! Pretty shocking frankly.

    I agree totally about Reagan not really caring too much about the religious right, he was more of an economic rihgt-winger than a social one. I agree about 1994 but I’m confused about one thing: While Hillarycare was a big reason dems lost in 1994, are you saying that it was the plan’s inferiority that cost Dems, or was it the failure to enact national health care (or anything health related). I think it was both but I give more weight to Cinton’s failiure to get anything done on health care-and he had a Dem Congress (at least that was the scuttlebut around these parts (i.e. Washington DC) back in ’94.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    There’s no doubt that Reagan was unbeatable in 1984.

    He was also unbeatable in 1992, allowing George Bush to win due to the support of all those hoping for a third Reagan term.

    For the average person, what was wrong with Reagan? I’m sure you could list a bunch of things you believe Reagan did wrong, but I bet most of the items would be things that only policy wonks would realize. Even Iran Contra was too confusing and off the radar for most people.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:


    Carter might not have been as ineffective as thought at the time, but the impression of him was pretty bad. He had little cooperation from a Congress controlled by his own party. His reputation out of office has improved, perhaps leading some to judge his years in office more kindly.

    The hostage situation greatly added to the impression that Carter was ineffective. He very well could have won in the hostages had come home.

    The moment when I was convinced that Carter didn’t have a chance at getting reelected (short of getting the hostages out) was when he was quoted as saying he wasn’t in control of the government. He was referring the the entrenched bureaucracy, and what he said very well might have been true for any President, but this just reinforced the impression of Carter being an ineffective leader.

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