David Brooks scripts the 'Big Sweep,' and its ideological subplots:
American history can be seen as a series of centralizing events — the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.
Many liberals have tended to look at this centralizing process as synonymous with modernization — as inevitable and proper. As problems like inequality get bigger, government has to become more centralized to deal with them....
Many conservatives have looked at these inexorable steps toward centralization with growing alarm. Complicated problems, many have argued, are best addressed by local people on the ground.
In general, that's a pretty fair characterization. But we should take deeper note of Brooks' internal reconstruction of history, i.e., his progression of history as a "series of centralizing events" to liberals' view of these events as a "centralizing process" to conservatives' dismay of "these inexorable steps toward centralization."
In liberals, we find a pragmatic acceptance of, essentially, "it is what it is"; there is virtually no daylight between Brooks' designations of American history as "centralizing events" or as a liberally accepted "centralizing process." The Civil War, for instance, was irrepressible, as were larger and (ideally) more efficient central authorities to fight it. The same held true for our global belligerencies, as well as domestic struggles to overcome the socioeconomic injustices of corporate hegemony, the Great Depression, structural poverty and Jim Crow.
My point is that all these "events" and their internal, "centralizing" processes were, as Brooks concedes, inevitable -- which throws his additional characterization of "proper" (as exclusive "liberal" territory) into some question, since inevitability has a way of rendering propriety moot. Mighty is the task of casting Abraham Lincoln as a modern-day liberal: he was, rather, a pragmatic conservative who saw what needed to be done, and did it -- yet that is roughly but strikingly true of the pragmatically liberal FDR, LBJ and Barack Obama, too. (Progressives, that is, those of the Progressive Era, careened all over the ideological road: they were an admixture of millenarianism and pragmatism, which, predictably, produced admixed results.)
Hence what has tied American history together isn't so much centralization or the enduring competition between liberalism and conservatism as the triumph of pragmatism -- which was once a hallmark of conservatism and, since the New Deal, has in general typified liberal thought. It's true that "many conservatives" viewed "inexorable steps toward centralization with growing alarm," but authentic conservatives subordinated their alarm to the inexorabilities.
Within the healthcare debate, Brooks attempts a synthesis: "there has always been a Hamiltonian alternative: centralize the goals, but decentralize the means people take to get there." In short, heave the immense complexities of achieving a less expensive, more efficient healthcare system on a "decentralized premium support model" -- in other words, think RyanCare, which has been critically butchered by just about every conscientious healthcare economist.
Brooks rather dejectedly labels Obama's truer synthesis (near-universality meshed with private health insurance and once-Republican individual mandates) of "ObamaCare," however, as yet "another crucial moment in the move toward centralization." I should hope so, since the challenge of providing every American quality, affordable healthcare is indeed a national challenge -- one sufficiently along the necessary lines of centralized offensives against disunion, depressions, and inequality. In time, it is to be further hoped, Obama's synthesis will morph into the higher synthesis of single-payer.
All that, though, is something of a digression from the larger point to be reinforced: The Rooseveltian-Johnsonian-Obamian liberal is a proud pragmatist, which authentic conservatives once were; and should the two temperamental schools ever join forces, there are -- short of perfecting human nature -- no national challenges we couldn't responsibly meet.