David Brooks wants a conservatism of manners, not a conservatism based in eternal truths. He actually fears any movement that claims to base its principles on truth rather than manners and tradition. That includes his former colleagues at National Review. “I didn’t quite have their firm conviction that there is a transcendent, eternal moral order to the universe and that society should strive to be as consistent with it as possible,” Brooks wrote in 2007.
That explains just about everything about the strange tale of David Brooks. A lack of belief in “a transcendent, eternal moral order” as a basis for his worldview explains why Brooks thinks it quite reasonable that a man should be able to marry a man and that same-sex marriage represents “a victory for the good life.” It explains why he ignores the natural family and decries the nuclear family as a mistake, arguing for “forged families” as a communitarian alternative. His disavowal of a transcendent moral order is what explains his concerns about abortion. What caused his reconsideration of the pro-choice position? In his own words, “experience and moral sentiments.” But he ends up proposing that abortion be freely available for the first trimester. Moral sentiments aren’t enough to defend the unborn in the period when most abortions are performed.
If there is no transcendent, eternal moral order, then morality is just a process of civic negotiation and everything is up for grabs. David Brooks can affirm same-sex marriage and early-term abortion and indict the nuclear family as a mistake—and yet remain comfortable within his worldview of manners and moral sentiments. Conservatism lives or dies on the belief that we are conserving created reality and serving eternal truths. Otherwise, all that remains is custom, manners, and moral sentiment—and they are no match for the forces of progressive morality.