Changing Bedfellows by David Brooks

The New York Times

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June 15, 2006
Op-Ed Columnists

Changing Bedfellows

If American politics could start with a clean slate today, the main argument wouldn’t be between liberalism and conservatism, words that have become labels without coherent philosophies. The main fight would pit populist nationalism against progressive globalism.

The populist nationalist party would be liberal on economics, conservative on values and realist on foreign policy. It would bring together a wide array of people who are disenchanted with their respective parties’ elites, and who would find they have a lot in common. It would bring Kevin Phillips together with Pat Buchanan, the Virginia senatorial candidate James Webb together with Lou Dobbs, Al Sharpton together with James Dobson.

Here’s how a populist nationalist candidate would sound: “We are the ordinary, burden-bearing people of this country. We are the ones who work hard and build communities. It’s time for us to come together and recognize that our loyalty to our fellow Americans comes first.

“That means we can’t waste our precious blood and treasure on poorly planned, pie-in-the-sky wars to bring democracy to the Middle East. We need to get out of Iraq now. That means we can’t sell our ports to our enemies. That means we must secure our borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants who break the law, take our jobs and drive down wages.

“We need to stand up to the big money interests who value their own profits more than their own countrymen, who outsource jobs to China and India, who destroy unions and control Washington. We need to fight off their efforts to take away our Social Security and Medicare. Instead of widening inequality and a race to the bottom, we need universal health care and decent wages. We need a government that will stand up to Internet porn and for decent family values.

“We’re tired of both the corporate elites and the cultural elites. We want leaders who understand our anxieties and are, like us, tired of a world where nothing is safe, where everything can be swept away by a serious illness, a divorce or a terrorist’s bomb.”

Populist nationalism of this sort would be politically potent. It would be against the war without seeming naïve and dovish. It would be against corporate power without seeming socialist. It would tap the passions aroused by immigration and outsourcing and cohere with the populist uprisings taking place in different forms around the world.

The progressive globalists, on the other hand, would be market-oriented on economics, liberal on values and multilateral interventionists in foreign affairs. The leading spokesman for this movement would be Tony Blair. Domestically, it would be led by the major presidential aspirants, who don’t differ much: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Mark Warner and Rudy Giuliani.

Here’s how a globalist might sound: “We’re inspired by the opportunities a globalizing and flattening world open up before us. We embrace technological dynamism and cultural diversity and reject beggar-thy-neighbor policies. But we understand that globalization means interdependence, and we have to build institutions to ensure everybody shares the new prosperity.

“We have to reform education and improve skills so that more people succeed. We need to reform entitlements so the economy can remain flexible and not buried by debt. We have to work together to address global warming, oil dependence and protectionist barriers. We have to understand that this open, diverse world has enemies. We have to confront Islamic extremism ideologically and militarily, and battle it at its roots with democracy and freedom. We need to manage the movement of peoples without shutting off the flow, open up trade, not shut it down.”

This modernizing progressivism would also be politically potent. It would thrive among the educated, among aspiring suburbanites, among hawks and among immigrants who look to the future more than the past.

Of course these alignments won’t come about instantaneously. Our political institutions and habits have staying power, and the politics of globalization is lagging far behind the reality of it. But the issues that realigned politics in the 1960’s are fading, and issues like immigration, trade and interdependence are rising to the fore. Politics is becoming less about left versus right and more about open versus closed. Or, to put it in starker terms, the populists are getting more populist while the elitists are getting more elitist.



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