It is not today exactly a secret of state that neoconservatism has become the dominant expression of what passes for the American “right”—and that its victory is also the reason why it is necessary for more serious conservatives to use the qualifying phrase “what passes for” when referring to the American right and to place the word “right” itself in quotation marks. Much like the proverbial rat race, the controversy between “paleoconservatives” and “neoconservatives” is over, and the rats have won. The best proof is that the major media, when they describe a neoconservative, generally call him a “conservative,” plain and simple, as though he alone were representative of the type. The fact remains that most Americans who call themselves “conservative” almost certainly continue to mean by the term more or less the same thing that paleoconservatives mean, but what “most” of any group think, believe, say, or do usually has little connection with what the minority that defines and directs the group does or how it does it. In political and ideological movements, as in bridge clubs and transnational empires, oligarchies prevail.
Like any other gang of conquerors, the neoconservatives, having taken over and redefined the American right, need to decide what to do with the bottomless pits of wealth and power their victory has handed them and to survey the territory they have gained. In the December 2001 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, neoconservative journalist David Brooks tries to do just that. Mr. Brooks, the sidekick of Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, has for some years now been trying to formulate a refried version of neoconservatism known as “national greatness conservatism,” which is really not much more than a triumphalist tour of various byways of American history and culture viewed through the lens of the current globalist and multiethnic conglomeration of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Culture that prevails in the United States and which it is the main business of neoconservatives to conserve. The subject of his article, Mr. Brooks’ grand tour of what he thinks is America’s heartland, is part of this formulation.
“One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” concerns itself with the political division between what television commentators on Election Night 2000 labeled the “red” and “blue” zones that voted for the Republican or Democratic tickets, respectively. (For the first time since the French Revolution, red became the color of the right.) The political divisions are also symbolic of deeper social and cultural divisions, and that is the problem for “national greatness conservatism.” If we are going to have the sort of nationalism that neoconservatives like Mr. Brooks and his friends at the Weekly Standard favor, then divisions within the nation are rather a no-no. The organic nationalism that actually develops from real subnational, regional differences is what at least some paleoconservatives favor, and the politico-cultural divisions symbolized by the red and blue zones correspond to the territories of what paleos generally call, on the one hand, “Middle” or “Heartland” America and, on the other, the Metropole located in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, among other, lesser urban megalopoli. In paleoconservative theory and strategy, the antagonism between Heartland and Metropole defines the major political issues of the day, and it is through the political mobilization of the Heartland that the hegemony of the Metropole can eventually be smashed and something like a traditional American order be restored. It is Mr. Brooks’ contribution to neoconservative theory and strategy that he tries in his article to define the Heartland out of existence or, at least, out of political relevance, for if the Heartland does not exist, then neoconservatives can expect to preside forever over the national greatness they have succeeded in conserving.
To substantiate his theory that Heartland America is vanishing or, perhaps more precisely, is coming to accommodate itself to the hegemony of the Metropole, poor Mr. Brooks actually was obliged to leave his beloved Washington, D.C., suburbs and go to the Heartland itself. There, much like Sir Richard Burton in 19th-century Africa (or, perhaps, more like Baron Munchausen), he discovered all manner of wondrous things and sometimes even did such things himself. He ate meatloaf in locally owned, family restaurants and came to the conclusion that the availability of restaurants that serve meatloaf marks the geographical boundary between Red and Blue America. He had conversations with men and women who had never been to college. He saw a number of real tattoo parlors. He attended church and spoke to the ministers afterward. Mr. Brooks, to his credit, acknowledges that he does not belong in Red America, that he is entirely a product of Blue America—specifically, Montgomery County, Maryland, which “is one of the steaming-hot centers of the great espresso machine that is Blue America” and “is full of upper-middle-class towns inhabited by lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, and establishment journalists like me.” Red America, for Mr. Brooks, is Franklin County, Pennsylvania, “a rural county twenty-five miles west of Gettysburg” that includes the towns of Waynesboro, Chambersburg, and Mercersburg and which was originally settled by “the Scotch-Irish and has plenty of Brethren and Mennonites along with a fast-growing population of evangelicals.” “The joke,” Mr. Brooks confides to his snickering audience,
that Pennsylvanians tell about their state is that it has Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle. Franklin County is in the Alabama part. It strikes me as I drive there that even though I am going north across the Mason-Dixon line, I feel as if I were going south.
It is amazing that Mr. Brooks did not take a revolver along with him for protection, but he surely must have made certain that his name, address, and blood type were sewn securely into his underwear.
Mr. Brooks went to Franklin County because he wanted to answer certain questions: “Are Americans any longer a common people? Do we have one national conversation and one national culture? Are we loyal to the same institutions and values?” The answer he came up with, despite his discomfort with meatloaf and tattoo parlors, is that we are. Acknowledging that there are differences in taste, income, education, and even some deeper values, Mr. Brooks tries to puncture the theories of the “culture war” put forward by, among others, Pat Buchanan and Gertrude Himmelfarb, and writes that “almost nobody I spoke with understood, let alone embraced, the concept of a culture war.” The editor of a local newspaper assured him that “we would never take a stance on gun control or abortion,” and, Brooks writes,“One finds little crusader zeal in Franklin County.”
Mr. Brooks’ conclusions after his adventures in anthropological research were that
a lot of our fear that America is split into two rival camps arises from mistaken notions of how society is shaped. Some of us still carry the old Marxist categories in our heads. We think that society is like a layer cake, with the upper class on top. And, like Marx, we tend to assume that wherever there is class division there is conflict.
The truth, he tells us, is that society—or at least American society—is more like a high-school cafeteria, in which different categories of students come and go, sit together or apart, and, for the most part, leave one another alone.
All these cliques were part of the same school: they had different sensibilities; sometimes they knew very little about the people in the other cliques, but the jocks knew there would always be nerds, and the nerds knew there would always be jocks. That’s just the way life is.
Mr. Brooks uses this dubious and rather strained metaphor to get to his conclusion, which I suspect was formulated well before he ever rolled into Franklin County:
What unites the two Americas, then, is our mutual commitment to this way of life—to the idea that a person is not bound by his class, or by the religion of his fathers, but is free to build a plurality of connections for himself. We are participants in the same striving process, the same experimental journey.
In other words, we are a “credal nation” committed to nothing save the upward mobility and endless ascent that the creed’s pursuit of happiness guarantees us. It is not class, religion, race, region, or culture that binds Americans together but their “commitment,” their assent to the creed, the “idea,” that we are not really bound at all. Conveniently, Mr. Brooks discovered in Franklin County the very same neoconservatism he left in his cubicle at the Weekly Standard.
What Mr. Brooks is telling us—and perhaps more importantly, telling his neoconservative colleagues—is that the Heartland is really no threat to them or their values. It is not a cauldron bubbling with lynch mobs, brownshirts, and toothless, smelly old men with shotguns in their pickup trucks. Maybe they do eat meatloaf and get tattoos, but a sport like Mr. Brooks can drive all over Franklin County and never get called a bad name. And, if the Heartland is not really a threat to the Metropole, we can all get along in National Greatness as part of the “same striving process, the same experimental journey.” If there is no Buchananite “culture war,” then neoconservatism really is the new national orthodoxy.
I have not been to Franklin County, but I readily grant that Mr. Brooks’ description of it is probably largely accurate. His interpretation, however remains open to question. In the first place, it is not surprising that there is no bubbling cauldron, no “crusader zeal,” or that Franklin County is not Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 or even Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Few places are. Nor is it surprising that residents avoid controversies that have little to do with their personal lives. Most people do, and most people do not ponder subjects like abortion and gun control as much as “establishment journalists” do. The absence of firebrands and crackpots in Franklin County tells us nothing about where it lines up in the culture war; it only tells us that Mr. Brooks cannot quite imagine a culture war that is not waged by firebrands and crackpots.
But the whole point about the culture war that leaders like Pat Buchanan have talked about is that it is a conflict between precisely the “normal” people of places like Franklin County and the real zealots, firebrands, and crackpots in the Metropole. It is not Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, for all their flaws, who are abnormal (let alone most of their followers), but the Susan Sontags, Alan Dershowitzes, Julian Bonds, Kevin Costners, Dan Rathers, and Hillary Clintons. If Mr. Brooks wanted to find weirdos and fanatics who use power to uproot one culture and manufacture another, he should have stayed in Montgomery County.
As for the Karl Marx “layer cake” model of society, Marx was not alone in this observation. Anyone who observes accurately the distribution of power, political and cultural, within a society agrees. The jocks and the nerds may know that each clique will always exist, but you can bet the nerds never wonder which one occupies the top layer. Those who try to convince us that society and the distribution of power within it are not invariably hierarchical, with winners and losers, rulers and ruled, tend to be the rulers themselves—or, at least their allies. That is what they want their subjects to believe.
The local newspaper editor in Franklin County probably has a good reason why she does not want to take a position on such issues as abortion or gun control. Fifty years ago, she would have, and the positions would have been ferocious and dismissive opposition to both. Today, she will not, because support for gun control and abortion has become so powerful, even in places like Franklin County, that a small newspaper has good reason to avoid the controversy entirely. The Metropole, in other words, is winning, if it has not already won. Having made a desert by means of ruthless cultural and ideological regimentation, the Metropole and its neocon apologists now call it the Heartland.
Nevertheless, Franklin County, and all the rest of the Heartland, may yet surprise us. With the right leadership and the right explanations of the threat that it and its culture (which is not in the least anything like an “experimental journey” but a real way of life) are facing from the Metropole underneath its smiling mask, what has become the bottom layer of the national layer cake may still decide to put itself on top again.