A Vision, Bruised and Dented

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

March 23, 2006

The big question in Democratic circles is, Who can win? The big question in Republican circles is, What do we believe? The setbacks in Iraq, the failure to limit the size of government and plummeting poll numbers have changed the way Republicans talk and govern.

If you wanted to put these changes in a nutshell, you'd say the Republicans have gone from soaring Bushian universalism to nervous, dumbed-down Huntingtonism.

Just over a year ago, Republicans were thrilling to the lofty sentiments of President Bush's second inaugural: that freedom is God's gift to humanity, that people everywhere hunger for liberty. To explain his efforts to democratize the Middle East, Bush hit all the high notes of the American creed, while not dwelling much on the intricacies and stubbornness of foreign cultures.

Today, many Republicans have lost patience with Bush's high-minded creedal statements. Like the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, they have come to believe that culture matters most. Lofty notions about universal liberty splinter on the shoals of Arab customs. Heartfelt convictions about reducing the size of government disintegrate inside the culture of Washington. Many Republicans have lost faith in efforts to transform patterns of behavior, and come to believe that we shouldn't exaggerate how much we can change.

In the realm of foreign affairs, we have seen the rise of what Richard Lowry of National Review calls the " 'To Hell With Them' Hawks." These, Lowry writes, "are conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying to redeem." They look at car bombs and cartoon riots and wonder whether Islam is really a religion of peace. They look at the mayhem in the Middle East and just want to withdraw. After all, in his book "The Clash of Civilizations," Huntington didn't want to change the Muslim world he just called for less contact with it.

In the field of immigration, Republican sentiment seems to be shifting away from the idea that the United States is a universal nation, where immigrants come from across the world to work, rise and join in the pursuit of happiness. Now Republican rhetoric emphasizes how alien immigrant culture is; how slowly the Mexicans assimilate, if at all; how much disorder and strain their presence creates.

There is a chance that in the next few weeks, the G.O.P. will walk off a cliff on the subject of immigration. In the desperate effort to win back their base, Republican senators may follow Bill Frist and embrace a draconian enforcement-only immigration bill (which will lose them Florida and the Southwest for a generation).

Finally, there is the issue of domestic poverty. Hurricane Katrina rekindled a brief resurgence of compassionate conservatism, at least for President Bush. But Republicans in Congress were having none of it. They appropriated the money they had to, but they had no confidence that the federal government could do anything effective to transform the culture of poverty: the out-of-wedlock births, the family breakdowns and so on.

In short, Republicans seem to have gone from believing that culture is nothing, to believing that culture is everything from idealism to fatalism in the blink of an eye.

Recently, I've spilled a lot of ink stressing the importance of culture as we think about poverty, development and foreign affairs. But it's dismaying to see so many Republicans veer overboard into a vulgarized version of Huntingtonist cultural determinism.

European conservatives from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott usefully remind us of the power of culture and tradition. But American conservatives from Hamilton to Reagan have never taken that path precisely because they believe in the power of the American creed, precisely because they have an Enlightenment faith in the power of reason to change minds.

Whether in Iraq or the barrio, history is not a prison. Culture shapes people, but cultures are changeable.

Fortunately, there is a great Republican leader who understood the balance between culture and creed: Abraham Lincoln. In this spring of Republican discontent, his approach and governing method will make a good subject for a future column.

Correction

Last Sunday, I wrote that Plato used the word "eros" to signify the appetitive part of the soul. This isn't the first time I've been led astray by the power of eros. The correct word is "epithymia."