Tag Archives: David Brooks

Moderation Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I really loved the introduction to Eugene Robinson’s July 2d column.

Never-Trump Republicans and independents may be shocked to hear this, but the Democratic Party is likely to nominate a Democrat for president. That means they’re not going to nominate someone who thinks exactly like a Never-Trump Republican….

I, for one, have pretty much had it with the chorus of center-right voices braying that the Democrats are heading for certain doom — and the nation for four more years of President Donald Trump — if the party picks a nominee who actually embraces the party’s ideals. Elections are choices.

As Robinson notes, these Never Trumpers will have to decide whether to vote for the eventual nominee, “in the interest of ending our long national nightmare,” or “stick with a president who kowtows to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.” (To which I would add: And is manifestly unfit for any public office.)

A recent, more academic version of Robinson’s argument was made by Jeffrey Isaacs in Public Seminar. Isaacs notes that a number of conservatives have strongly opposed Trump, “distancing or even divorcing themselves from the Trumpist Republican Party” and promoting a centrist politics of “moderation.”

He then goes on to make a very important point:

While they are “against Trump,” and indeed sincere in their basic commitment to constitutional democracy, they do not go very far in their critique of Trumpism, laying too much responsibility at the feet of Trump himself, and not enough at the feet of a political-economic system in need of substantial reform, and even less at the feet of the Republican Party, and its long-term rightward shift, which has brought us to our current crisis.

Isaacs points to the punditry decrying Democrats’ supposed lurch to the left, and its insistence that only “moderation” will defeat Trump.

progressives do not need to be “schooled” about this by conservatives who have been cast adrift by Trumpist barbarism and are now seeking a politically safe harbor….

There is something very self-righteous, and indeed immoderate, about the way that some “Never Trump” conservatives have been writing about these challenges.

Isaacs particularly takes David Brooks to task for one of his recent, self-important columns.

What Brooks fails to note is that this polarization has a very long history and that, as most serious political analysts have long observed, it is a history of asymmetrical polarization. The Republican Party, in short, has moved much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left… Trump is an exceptional and exceptionally terrible and dangerous President. But Trump became President by bending the Republican Party to his will, rather easily bringing its own deeply racist, sexist, and inegalitarian tendencies out into the open, and then exulting in and intensifying them. There is a clear line linking Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Palin, eight years of rather vicious anti-Obama obstructionism, and Trumpism. And conservative and neoconservative writers who often offered aid and comfort to these forces, working for Republican leaders and editing pro-Republican journals, thus played an important role in the rise of Trump, even as they quickly became horrified by the monster they had helped to create.

Isaacs emphasizes the reality that Republicans have moved much farther to the right than Democrats have moved left. (The reality is that–despite hysterical accusations from the GOP and Fox News– America doesn’t have an actual Left, at least not as Europeans define that term. We have at most a center-Left.)

Because the partisan polarization has been so markedly asymmetrical, and because the Republican move to the right has involved so many especially egregious assaults on democracy— from a deliberate political strategy of voting rights abridgment to immigration restriction to assaults on reproductive freedom to support for the militarization of policing to the gutting of environmental regulation and social citizenship — and because all of these things came together in a perfect storm to bring us Trumpism, a strong and passionate resistance has emerged on the left.

This resistance is an explicable reaction to the manifestly reactionary nature of Trumpism. It is a political mobilization that is necessary in order to defeat Trumpism, which will require not median-voter centrism but the energizing of activist campaigns across the country capable of contesting abridgements of voting rights and mobilizing millions of new voters. And it is an ethically exemplary form of democratic civic activism and political empowerment. This does not make it perfect or above criticism. Indeed, this resistance contains a multiplicity of tendencies and is characterized by sometimes serious divisions and debates. But it is a resistance nonetheless, and one fueled by broadly progressive impulses and commitments to greater political, social, and economic democracy.

You really need to read the whole thing.

Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.

 

When He’s Right, He’s Right

David Brooks can be a maddening columnist. He is often thoughtful and perceptive; obviously highly intelligent and unfailingly civil, he rarely comes across as doctrinaire. On the other hand, he often produces analyses that are surprisingly naive and occasionally even uninformed.

I read his columns regularly, because when he’s right, he’s really right. (And to be fair, even with his more off-base musings, there are usually nuggets worth considering.)

In his December 7th New York Times column, Brooks didn’t just hit it out of the park, he hit it out of the county.

Brooks is an old-fashioned Republican, conservative in the principled, Burkean sense of that term. I will readily admit that even in my most conservative days, I’ve never fallen into that particular category. Unlike the white nationalists and other morally repugnant political figures who have hijacked conservatism, however, Burkean conservatism was an entirely respectable approach. I’ve watched Brooks wrestle with that hijacking, and watched his efforts to give positions with which he clearly differed an (unearned) benefit of the doubt.

His lede describes that attitude, which he attributes to a generalized category of “good Republicans.”

A lot of good, honorable Republicans used to believe there was a safe middle ground. You didn’t have to tie yourself hip to hip with Donald Trump, but you didn’t have to go all the way to the other extreme and commit political suicide like the dissident Jeff Flake, either. You could sort of float along in the middle, and keep your head down until this whole Trump thing passed.

The column makes it pretty clear that Brooks has (finally!) turned a corner.

That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.

In this week’s Times, Peter Wehner–once on the staff of the Reagan White House, and a proud conservative Evangelical–comes to much the same conclusion in a column titled “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.”

Brooks recognizes that the rot that now infects the entire GOP didn’t start with Trump.  With Sarah Palin and Fox News, the party traded a previous “ethos of excellence” for an “ethos of hucksterism.”

The Republican Party I grew up with admired excellence. It admired intellectual excellence (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley), moral excellence (John Paul II, Natan Sharansky) and excellent leaders (James Baker, Jeane Kirkpatrick). Populism abandoned all that — and had to by its very nature. Excellence is hierarchical. Excellence requires work, time, experience and talent. Populism doesn’t believe in hierarchy. Populism doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said. Populism celebrates the quick slogan, the impulsive slash, the easy ignorant assertion. Populism is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.

Compare the tax cuts of the supply-side era with the tax cuts of today. There were three big cuts in the earlier era: the 1978 capital gains tax cut, the Kemp-Roth tax cut of 1981, and the 1986 tax reform. They were passed with bipartisan support, after a lengthy legislative process. All of them responded to the dominant problem of the moment, which was the stagflation and economic sclerosis. All rested on a body of serious intellectual work…

Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

As readers of this blog know, I was a Republican for 35 years. In 2000, I left. I realized that the party  for which I’d worked so long no longer existed; I said then (and continue to maintain) that I hadn’t left the party, the party had left me.

Brooks is not engaging in hyperbole in that last line. Every day, I run into good, thoughtful people I used to work with–in party politics, in municipal government–who echo his lament. They no longer see the GOP as a traditional political party with a political philosophy based on a distinctive moral vision. They certainly don’t see anyone pursuing excellence.

They see what David Brooks finally sees: an immoral cult pursing its tribal interests to the detriment of the country.

Defining Moderation

New York Times columnist David Brooks is given to periodic meditations triggered by the political environment; recently, he mused at some length over “what moderates believe.” 

I’m not ready to endorse Brooks’ entire definition, which is a bit too formulaic and pietistic for my tastes, but I do think that one sentence describes the fundamental difference between “wingers” and moderates:

Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.

I would probably phrase this differently, but I agree that moderation is an approach, an attitude, an openness to complexity rather than a set of rigid beliefs. A moderate is someone who recognizes the increasing ambiguities of modern life, someone who can make peace with a world where there is less black and white and more shades of gray without feeling disoriented or panicky.

Moderates use terms like “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Moderates reject justifications for the use of violence in service of ideology; they recognize that whether it is the Nazis or the Antifa who oppose them, a resort to the use of force places zealots outside the norms of acceptable political discourse, undermining both the rule of law and fundamental American principles.

The True Believers of both the Right and Left are the enemies of functioning government. These are the judgmental, “my way or the highway” purists who prefer losing to taking half a loaf, who don’t understand that sustainable progress is almost always incremental, who have learned nothing from the history of revolutions.

The GOP has pretty much rid itself of its moderates–it has actually made “moderate” a dirty word– and the party’s current inability to govern despite controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency is a direct result of its radicalization. Once-thoughtful elected officials now pander to the party’s rabid base in order to avoid being primaried–and it’s hard not to wonder if and when they’ll regret trading their souls and the tattered remnants of their integrity for another term in office.

For their part, the Democratic Party’s purists are responsible for that party’s recurring “circular firing squads.” Here in Indiana, several have announced that they won’t support incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly because he is “insufficiently progressive.” Their defection is likely to give Indiana a Republican zealot in his place–hardly an improvement, but evidently satisfying to those for whom ideological purity is more important than retaking the Senate. For the record, I am considerably more progressive than Donnelly, but he will vote against the upcoming attempts to eviscerate the social safety net in order to give huge tax cuts to the 1%, and every Republican running to replace him will enthusiastically vote for those measures. Should the Democrats retake the Senate (something they probably cannot do if Donnelly loses), Donnelly will also be a vote to replace Mitch McConnell–that alone is reason enough to support him.

Politics has been called “the art of the possible.” Moderates acknowledge that reality, and are willing to take something less than perfection if that “something less” is an improvement over the alternative.

Come to think of it, perhaps “moderate” simply means “adult.”

Our Mr. Brooks….

In the early days of television, Eve Arden played “Our Miss Brooks”– a sardonic, wise-cracking and self-aware observer of life around her.

David Brooks, our present-day “Mr. Brooks,” is a columnist for the New York Times who often produces perceptive analyses of governance and American society–and sometimes follows them with truly bizarre “meditations.”  The link is to one of the latter.

He opens the column with a broadside:

The campaign of 2016 was an education in the deep problems facing the country. Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

As Robert W. Merry put it recently in The American Conservative, “When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem.”

It has become fashionable among highly-educated and self-important writers commenting on current American schisms to sneer at “elites,” a category they themselves rather clearly inhabit. (We live in an irony-free age.)

I don’t know what “faculty lounges” Brooks has visited, but conversations among my colleagues in the halls of academia (we’re a state school–we don’t have lounges) are rarely characterized by “political correctness”–unless that category includes bitching about grading papers and the inability of students to write a grammatical sentence.

Most of Brooks’ column was devoted to the subject of alienation, which he has apparently decided is the explanation for many if not most of the ills of American society.

Alienation breeds a hysterical public conversation. Its public intellectuals are addicted to overstatement, sloppiness, pessimism, and despair. They are self-indulgent and self-lionizing prophets of doom who use formulations like “the Flight 93 election” — who speak of every problem as if it were the apocalypse.

Alienation also breeds a zero-sum mind-set — it’s us or them — and with it a tribal clannishness and desire for exclusion. As Levin notes, on the right alienation can foster a desire for purity — to exclude the foreign — and on the left it can foster a desire for conformity — to squelch differing speakers and faiths.

Here, Brooks paints with a very broad brush. Are there people who exhibit these behaviors–who are “self-indulgent and self-lionizing”? Certainly. Are there partisans who divide all of humanity into “them” and “us.” Indubitably. Do these descriptions fit all, or even most, of those on either side of the political divide? I don’t think so–and I don’t think such facile characterizations of entire groups of people advances either  public understanding or civility.

The truth is, I know some privileged people who are wonderful human beings, and I know some who are assholes. Some disadvantaged people are saintly, and some are real jerks. Humans are complicated that way.

Brooks makes several points with which it is hard to disagree: America does need a political establishment– people who have been educated to actually know something about public policy problems, people with government experience and a commitment to ethical public service.

But then he gives us this:

Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take an active role in their own self-government.

As someone who has spent the past 40 years trying–largely in vain– to encourage greater civic participation, first in City government and later in a number of voluntary organizations and  in the classroom, this paragraph made me want to strangle its author. Bromides like these join other endless Sunday sermons and pious political exhortations: We should all welcome the stranger, fight injustice, get out the vote, encourage poor people to eat better….the list of what we should do is endless; the all-important “how” is hotly contested when it isn’t totally ignored.

What Brooks is yearning for requires broad culture change, and cultures don’t change quickly or easily. They certainly aren’t changed by “devolving” social welfare programs–i.e., turning the money and rule-making authority over to the states. We’ve done that in the past, and the consequences weren’t pretty.

The great irony of Trump’s improbable election is that it has done more to prompt civic engagement (albeit not always as courteous an engagement as Brooks might like) than people like me–and Brooks– have done in half a century. We can only hope that the very real concerns that are sending people into the streets will ultimately move the civic culture toward more participation and inclusion–not to mention more self-aware punditry.

A bit more “Our Miss Brooks” and a bit less smugness.