A flaw?

From David Brooks's column in today's New York Times:

[T]here is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.Todays Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they dont work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then peoples innate qualities will enable them to flourish.But theres a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I dont see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.

I don't often agree with Brooks, but here I think he's almost exactly right. Only "almost" because what he takes to be "a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa" is actually the vision itself. The GOP's hyperindividualism is the premise from which most its conclusions are drawn. When Republican politicians use the word "community," it's almost always qualified with the words "small" or "local." Their point is that the nation itself is to be understood not as a community, whose members depend on one another for material support, but rather as a collection of autonomous heroes making their own way, their government no more than a backdrop for the triumphs of commerce. At the RNC in Tampa, there was no problem in the world, not even a widow's grief, that couldn't be cured by owning a small business, a category elastic enough to cover everything from a hair salon to Bain Capital. Good citizenship just meant self-sufficiency. Good government just meant less government. But if government is such a low enterprise -- a necessary evil at best -- why would a man like Paul Ryan devote his whole adult life to it? This is one of the great paradoxes of modern conservatism: the hunger for control of institutions one pretends to despise, the obsession with politics on the part of people whose rhetoric is essentially antipolitical.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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