Tag Archives: David Brooks

How Gerrymandering Gave us Donald Trump (And Bernie, too)

Last night was another Republican debate, this time minus “The Donald.” It’s difficult to believe that this assortment of wannabes is the best a once-serious political party can muster.

How have we come to this?

David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, is a thoughtful observer of the American scene, and while (in my opinion) he often misses with his analysis, he also often contributes to our understanding of the America we inhabit.

In a recent column, Brooks honed in on the public’s pervasive feelings of powerlessness:

The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.

These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”…

There are, as Brooks points out, many reasons for these perceptions of powerlessness, and certainly not all of them are political. That said, however, a case can be made that one of the great frustrations fueling the palpable anger in today’s electorate is the realization by so many citizens that their votes don’t count.

The American message has always been that we have political choice. If we don’t approve of the behavior of our political representatives, we can vote them out. Increasingly, that’s not true; gerrymandering has produced Congressional districts that would re-elect dead people if they ran with the correct political label.

At the federal level, the House of Representatives is unrepresentative of the American public, and likely to remain that way. In the last Congressional cycle, Democrats garnered a million more votes than the Republicans who nevertheless remain firmly in control—and, thanks to checks and balances—able to obstruct and defeat policies favored by a popularly-elected President.

I’ve written previously about the lack of competitiveness that gerrymandering produces, and about other deleterious consequences of the practice. Brooks points to one I omitted: the frustration experienced by citizens who feel—with considerable justification—that they have no voice.

Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.

When voters feel powerless, they are vulnerable to simple messages, identifiable villains, and candidates who channel their anger.

If history is any guide, that has never turned out well.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

David Brooks’ New York Times column this morning was depressing.

Brooks was discussing academic research that traced a variety of adult anti-social behaviors and failures to cope back to certain “adverse” childhood experiences, including abuse, incarceration of a parent and similar destabilizing experiences.

The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.

There’s more–all linking troubled childhoods to adult dysfunctions, both behavioral and medical.

This is depressing because our ability to intervene productively in an individual’s psyche–the ability of professionals or parents to “kiss it and make it well” is still in its infancy. If the conclusions being drawn from this research are accurate–if the problems reported by the adults are actually caused by the identified childhood traumas, and not just correlated with them–social service agencies and psychologists have a very limited ability to help.

It’s also depressing because–despite all the pious political concern expressed about “families” and the sanctity of each life–our public policies are anything but family-friendly. Forcing women to bear unwanted children raises the odds of unhappy childhoods. (Not to mention the studies–admittedly contested–that have tied easing of the access to abortion to lower crime rates twenty years later.) Punitive welfare policies all but ensure familial stress. Our insane approach to drug prohibition deprives thousands of children of their fathers without any corresponding benefit to society. Demonizing homosexuality torments the childhood of GLBT youngsters, disproportionate numbers of whom commit suicide.

As someone recently said, too many people who claim the label “pro life” are really only “pro birth.” Once the child has emerged from the womb, they lose both  interest and compassion.

We may not be able to cure the effects of “adverse childhood experiences,” but rational public policies could help ameliorate those effects. If we really cared about children and families, a lot of our priorities would change.

Framing the Wrong Argument

I like David Brooks. I even agree with a significant part of what he writes. But his column in yesterday’s New York Times not only missed the boat, it swam in the wrong ocean.

Brooks characterized the Obama ads attacking Romney’s performance at Bain as an attack on capitalism, and essentially framed the current Presidential race as a contest between “big government” and “capitalism.” This is wrong on so many counts, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I am an ardent believer in capitalism and free markets.  In my opinion, Mitt Romney is the poster boy for a destructive and distorted vision of market economics that is giving capitalism its current bad name.

The sort of capitalism that works, the capitalism that originally made this country the most productive in the world, is characterized by transparency and a level playing field. Transparency means marketplaces with willing buyers and willing sellers who both possess the information relevant to their transaction. There are obviously areas–like healthcare–where that sort of information symmetry is impossible; in such areas, markets cannot work. Markets work extremely well, however, when buyers and sellers both have access to sufficient information on which to base their economic behavior.

The metaphor of a level playing field goes well beyond parity of information, however. A level playing field requires rules against cheating–and authorities willing and able to enforce those rules. Crony capitalism is the antithesis of a level playing field. Gaming the system by sending your lobbyists to Washington to buy influence, obtain favorable tax treatment, gut regulations and subsidize your endeavors are hallmarks of oligarchy. Such behaviors bear no relationship to a true market economy.

The notion that Mitt Romney represents true capitalism is delusional. So, for that matter, is the charge that Obama represents “big government.” As even the Wall Street Journal has conceded, growth in government spending under the Obama administration has been the lowest since the Eisenhower administration. The charge of “big government” rests on two aspects of Obama’s presidency: the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and his continuation of George W. Bush’s policies on surveillance and national security.

I agree with critics of Obama’s national security policies. Those policies infringed civil liberties when Bush inaugurated them, and they are no less ill-conceived and dangerous simply because the President pursuing them can pronounce “nuclear.” But the widespread belief that the ACA is anti-capitalist and pro “big government” rests on the same fundamental misapprehension as Brooks’ column: that anything done by the private sector is by definition “capitalism.”

The basic question to be answered when constructing a government is: what is its role? What tasks must we do collectively,through this governing mechanism we have created, and what tasks should be left to individuals, businesses and/or nonprofit organizations?

In areas where markets work, we should let them. But there are areas where markets don’t work, or work only with substantial assistance. Think public safety, national defense, infrastructure provision. Healthcare is an area where markets demonstrably do not work and have not worked. Every other western industrialized nation has come to that conclusion. The cost of ignoring that reality is draining our treasury and increasing the inequities that are splintering our polity.

Recognition of reality is sanity, not preference for “big government.”

If we really need to frame the electoral choice we face, I’d suggest “a contest between ‘I’ve got mine’ and the common good.”

Essential Reading

This morning’s column by David Brooks is a dead-on accurate description of what has happened to the GOP.

I was going to excerpt a paragraph, but I couldn’t decide which one, because Brooks goes from pointed observation to perfect analogy and back. (He notes that the primaries haven’t been about policy differences; rather, they’ve been a “series of heresy trials.”)

David Brooks is exactly the sort of thoughtful conservative who used to exemplify the Republican Party, back when I was an active member of the GOP. Now–next to the raging troglodytes and the culture warriors and the know-nothings who want to keep kids out of college and repeal the Enlightenment–he is an anachronism.

He has a lot of company.

Read the column. And weep.

Another Kind of Polarization?

In a column justt before the South Carolina primary, David Brooks relayed a number of conversations with Republican primary voters. His treatment of them was what one might expect of the always civil Brooks–sympathetic and respectful.

But one line in particular struck me.  After commenting on the nostalgia expressed by several voters, Brooks noted that such sentiments–however understandable–make for “an incredibly backward-looking campaign. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.”

As if to underline that observation, yesterday a number of people posted to Facebook an exit poll that broke down the composition of the GOP primary electorate–how many males, how many females, how many who self-identified as Evangelical, etc.

South Carolina is 26% black. The racial composition of South Carolina’s GOP primary voters was 99% white.

Whatever conclusions one might draw from those numbers, one seems pretty safe. In a country that continues to diversify, a political party that cannot appeal to Americans of all races and ethnicities has no future. If and when the demographics of South Carolina’s GOP reflect the demographics of the national Republican party, the party’s over.