Brooks, Cities, Cowboys
May 5, 2009
David Brooks sees a problem in the GOP’s obsession with cowboys. Namely, that cowboys need towns to have a story, and the GOP doesn’t really have any concrete policy points for the town (and city!) crowd:
If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.
Then they will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.
Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party. The Republicans know they need to change but seem almost imprisoned by old themes that no longer resonate. The answer is to be found in devotion to community and order, and in the bonds that built the nation.
To me, the operative question, as Brooks mentions, is that the Right does not understand the communities of cities in the way it intuitively understands the communities of small towns, and thus is lost when it comes to civic virtue. The city through their lens is contradictory and largely negative: its a place for the thriving of free-enterprise, a place riven with contradictions arising largely from government failures to encourage the markets, a place incapable of becoming the Real America because it is so dominated by cowboys and bureaucrats and so lacking in real people, a place where ethnicity plays a constant role and where communities are innately in flux. What they fail to see, by and large, is that cities have much more diffuse but equally present communities which can be quite strong, which often can be augmented by good policy decisions, and which can be a foundation for the stability the country needs.
Now all of this wasn’t a problem for the GOP so long as their electorate was distributed between small towns and suburbs in the West and Midwest, huge swaths of the South, and enough of the coasts’ urban areas. But as the country becomes more urban, more racially diverse, and more divided by class contradictions, the GOP will have to come up with some way to speak to precisely the groups Brooks lists, the young, the middle class, and the upper middle-class, all of whom are increasingly concentrating in urban areas. As much as the branding problem Brooks points to is about personality, it is also about location: Obama is fully comfortable in the urban milieu, and can speak the language of that milieu far better than any major Republican figure, especially the likes of Sarah Palin or even John McCain.
And I think that may be the ultimate test for the Republican part in the coming years: whether or not it can get past the language of the cowboy, and even the townsfolk, and learn to speak in the language of the neighborhood.