…which is here, if you haven’t seen it.
It was dumb, but Brooks was trying to make an essentially moderate argument in favor of prohibition: marijuana isn’t the evil it’s made out to be, but, on balance, society is better off if it’s illegal.
This argument is myopic and steeped in privilege and overall wrong, but it also represents a de-escalation, and it’s part of a shift in conservatism that’s been happening over the past couple of decades.
Conservatism, the way I see it, is a political philosophy interested in preserving existing social power structures on the basis that they’ve served us well so far. (This is a philosophy that is especially appealing if you’re someone who has benefited a lot from existing social power structures.) That’s why it makes sense for a conservative to favor reducing regulation of business and to oppose gay marriage: both stances reinforce an existing power structure.
But there are a million different policy areas with which activists concern themselves, and they can’t give equal weight to all of them at once. And the culture of conservatism (n.b. as distinct from cultural conservatism) has been changing, with some issues that conservatives saw as being critically important in my living memory being treated now as political afterthoughts.
Drugs are one of these. As much as we can talk about the insanity of the War on Drugs (and it is insane), we must recognize that today we’re in a period of disarmament. Penalties on marijuana possession are being removed or reduced. Congress reduced the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack. Stop-and-frisk became a salient political issue in the most recent New York mayoral election. The past three presidents have admitted to using marijuana and the past two to cocaine.
This is a long way from the political environment that helped gave us the America we know today! Think not of Reefer Madness, but of the hysterical puritanism surrounding drugs in the Nixon-Reagan era. And think also of the related paranoia about the cultural changes of the 1960s — the fear of a sexually candid society, of promiscuity, of the irreligious, of incivility, and of the ultimate motif of the melange of these vices: the inner city.
Essentially conservatism from the ’60s to the ’90s foresaw cultural apocalypse in a way it doesn’t now. (This is not to say conservatives don’t have a dim view of current cultural trends, but that they must now grapple with the fact that the apocalypse never came; their apocalyptic talk in recent years has reverted to predicting, variously, encroaching socialism or Islamism.) A key concern of the movement during this time was to guard against this catastrophe by rigorously enforcing social order, that is, by viciously punishing activities that symbolized deviance from a white patriarchal norm. This is what gave America everything from mandatory minimums to welfare reform to gated communities.
This, incidentally is why Roe v Wade was so galvanizing. Theological debate about when “life” began was never the point, but feminist convictions that anti-choice activists are obsessively concerned with controlling women’s bodies don’t quite hit the mark. The point is maintaining social order: abortion should not be legal because a properly behaving woman does not do anything so disruptive as have an unplanned pregnancy. (That is, it is about controlling women’s bodies, but from the anti-choice activists point of view, it’s about women making the self-regulating choice to behave correctly.)
And conservatism has changed. They might be dismayed at Miley Cyrus swinging naked on a wrecking ball, but their reaction has been considerably muted compared to the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. Sex before marriage exists, and some conservatives might be happier if Pajama Boy were man enough to have it. Crime — and the intense fear of crime, of which the war on drugs is a part — has diminished and some conservative politicians are even working to reduce prison populations. The celebration of Christian supremacy that is the War on the War on Christmas was a damp squib this year. And folks can’t even really get excited about enforcing the social marginalisation of drug use.
The exception is the escalating assault on abortion rights, which is notable in that it seems to have arrived at the hands of an activist group that is simultaneously smaller and further to the periphery of mainstream views, yet more politically empowered. Strange, but that seems to be the way of conservatism: its affection for normativity is at its most devout when it comes to gender roles.
David Brooks can admit to pot use in his teenage years now because America has changed but also because conservatism has changed. The shift is a remarkable one.
See also: this and this.