What I’ve Learned, and David Brooks (Perhaps) Still Hasn’t


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Among all the major right-wing voices of America’s mainstream journalistic establishment, David Brooks is perhaps the most difficult to pin down. Ross Douthat is a millennial Christian conservative–smart, pop culture-friendly, lacking in the hang-ups of the Jerry Falwells and Ralph Reeds of decades past, but often lacking in their constancy as well. George F. Will was once a genuinely provocative and insight commentator, but his aristocratic Tory rigor has long since crumbled into Republican party hackery, with only the occasional glimmer of his old wit. But Brooks? The man is often sloppy with his facts, clumsy in the way he injects broad and simplistic sociological or historical reflections into narrow and detailed policy arguments, and condescending in a cloyingly liberal way (which in some ways is worse than Will’s noblesse oblige, which at least used to have some real elitist dignity to it). For all that, though, he’s a serious man, who can’t help but look at the passing scene and connect what he sees to serious concerns–and the connections he makes are usually worth reading.

Brooks has made it absolutely clear that he considers the now-all-but-inevitably election of Donald Trump as the Republican party’s presidential candidate to be catastrophic–for the party, but also for the country as a whole. (For the record, Douthat and Will have been contemptuous of Trump as well.) But in a column last Friday, Brooks did something a little unusual for him: he apologized, sort of.

This election–not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also–has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century. This declinism intertwines with other horrible social statistics. The suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high–a sure sign of rampant social isolation. A record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach. And for millennials, social trust is at historic lows.

Trump’s success grew out of that pain, but he is not the right response to it. The job for the rest of us is to figure out the right response. That means first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata–in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

We’ll probably need to tell a new national story….I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today….

We need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together. The author R. R. Reno has argued that what we’re really facing these days is a “crisis of solidarity.” Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism.

It is admittedly a little rich to see a man who made his name exploring (many would say exacerbating) ambient class and cultural divisions in American society, and connecting those divisions with a story of the American polity which ultimately–in a shoulder-shrugging sort of way–embraced the idea that people (middle-class and better ones, that is) could and should find a degree of virtue and happiness by just making their own bourgeois worlds for themselves, talking now, in the face of the possible total collapse of his preferred political party, of a “new national story.” But I should give him some credit. Brooks has spent the past few years thinking and writing about character and society. His civic-republican and communitarian side has always been clear, but too often his invocations of community seemed somewhat boutique and nostalgic, something that liberal individualists needed to remember and be inspired by and perhaps sometimes feel vaguely guilty about abandoning, but never as a way to explore or critique liberal individualism or American-style late-capitalism itself. To see him write here about ripping himself out of his professional demographic is hopeful, to say the least.

But perhaps not much more than that: hopeful. Because towards the end he writes:

[A]t the community level we need to listen to those already helping. James Fallows had a story in The Atlantic recently noting that while we’re dysfunctional at the national level you see local renaissances dotted across the country. Fallows went around asking, “Who makes this town go?” and found local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that give, say, high school dropouts computer skills. That solidarity can be rekindled nationally. Over the course of American history, national projects like the railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and the NASA project have bound this diverse nation. Of course, such projects can happen again — maybe through a national service program, or something else.

Fallows years-long investigation into America’s cities (which is much more complete than the short summary article Brooks’s references) does indeed make the case–a case I completely agree with, by the way–that the best kinds of innovation, conservation, and conversation are taking locally, not nationally. But even for Fallows, the lesson of his observations don’t challenge his commitment to the centralizing myth of American life, that everything outside of the overarching collective consciousness of America’s destiny or way of life must be preparatory or supplementary, not constitutive. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Brooks, in recognizing that he needs to get out into the diverse local communities of our country and consider the reasons behind political responses which he doesn’t understand, still ends with an expected nationalization of the resources he hopes to discover.

I used to be right there with him–or, rather, I used to be where he was, attempting to wrap my thinking about civil society and community and culture around nationality. I don’t dismiss entirely those arguments I used to get into, more than a decade ago; I still reject the bottom-line libertarian identification of the state, even when it arguably serves as democratic expression of a national body, as a majoritarian, coercive instrument, and never an empowering one. There really is a sense, I think, in which anyone who takes the political (not to mention the Christian) value of egalitarianism seriously, as I do, needs to engage in at least a little abstraction, and be able to broadly see people as citizens, not just neighbors and not-neighbors. But Brooks was all of that idea at one time: conceiving as citizens (and the taxes they pay, and the service they do) as being ever enlisted into various nationally, culturally, and morally-shaping projects. There is evidence that he’s learned to connect–or at least to respect those who connect–his conception of community to something more local (he’s even at times sounded almost like a Porcher!). But as the above column shows, Brooks hangs on to his ideas pretty tightly.

What killed off that idea for me? Well, as I just admitted, it hasn’t died entirely–but I am far, far less willing today to write about the imperative of community, tradition, conservation, and sustainability, in terms which presume that it is the American state, or the nation as a whole, that serves as the proper venue by which said imperatives must be realized. Reading James C. Scott (and others) on anarchism, particularly in connection to what the “anarchist squint” can tell us about city life, has been a huge part of my change in thinking here. Reading (and sometimes being chastened by) some smart libertarian thinkers has influenced me also. And so has been my own reconsideration of communitarianism, and my internalization of the fact that the best, most lasting ideas which came out of that philosophical and ideological movement tended to point towards actual lived communities, not culturally or ideologically “imagined” ideal ones. (Maybe Brooks needs to go back and re-read his Tocqueville in light of the last 20 years.)

But most of all has simply been involving myself in the struggles of my own city of Wichita. By really getting involved in politics and activism and reform movements in a particular place–which, I suppose, might be included in Brooks’s wish to break out of his usual professional demographic–one’s eyes can’t help but be opened, I think, to the reality of the teaching, serving, innovating, organizing, building, and preserving which happens amongst people who actually share physical space, who actually interact together over food or projects or plans, who adapt to actually changing circumstances, and not solely to arguments on the internet. That’s the sort of energy which America’s communities are harnessing. To leap from there, as Brooks clumsily does, to solving America’s political and structural breakdown on the highest levels (and what can be higher than the race for the presidency?) is to misunderstand the shared enthusiasm and felt needs and experienced familiarity which generated the energy in the first place.

No, I think Brooks needs to learn that the answer to America’s multiple dysfunctions will almost certainly have to involve many diverse answers, answers which operate locally in response to larger conditions that, however wonderful it might be to address them holistically, almost certainly cannot be in our present condition, because the structures of discourse, information, and consensus, both politically and technologically, have changed–they’re faster, more expensive, more divided, and less friendly to compromise than they were only a generation ago. (Brooks is right about the decline of civic trust.) Should those structures be challenged, set back to what they used to be, at least as much as possible? In many ways, I would agree there is nothing more important. But such broad efforts–overturning Citizens United, rebuilding the grass-roots infrastructure of political parties, prying the distancing meritocracy away from our schools, revivifying participatory democracy, generating smaller supply chains for most goods, getting people off their damn iPhones and into town meetings–may well depend upon local efforts at connection and experimentation, on creating locally enriching cultures through our churches and neighborhood associations and places of work, ones which are not simply reflections of (and thus often magnifications of) media-conveyed or generated agendas which can undermine collective efforts by situating us all demographically before they can even get underway. In a place-bound community, the possibility exists for genuinely shared interests which transcend abstract groupings of individuals of a certain class or ethnicity or race, and allow, instead, for actually effectual ones. That, far more than some new national service program, is likely to do the kind of healing Brooks is wishing for.

Of course, for those who don’t see American individualism as at all a problem, but rather something to be celebrated and magnified, any talk of community, whether national or local or anywhere between, always implies a fascistic moralism or coercive planning or both, and so for them even the humbled, localized version of Brooks’s argument I’m talking about is just a cover for tyranny. They’re wrong, I think, but that doesn’t mean we don’t incorporate them into the conversation. After all, they live in our places (or we live in their places) too.


  1. Very interesting post. Something you quoted from Brook’s article caught my eye;
    “According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century.”

    So, 75 percent of Trump voters will vote for someone that embodies much of why life has gotten worse for many Americans. Until I can wrap my head around that seeming paradox, I won’t be able to move on to the next step of how to enact a measure of healing.

  2. David Brooks is not “a serious man.” No one who could say this: “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant, and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” is anything other than a joke.

    All of his prescriptions of the form “We need to do this, We need to do that…” are fundamentally just him saying “YOU people out there need to do what WE your betters tell you to.” Period. Hence Trump, in all his, um, glory, or something.

    You left out the craziest/most typical one: “We’ll probably need a new definition of masculinity, too.” Um, ok, David. You get right on that.

    But I want to pick up on a throwaway line of yours: “overturning Citizens United”, something you seem to stick in there by reflex. I don’t want to hijack this thread, but I’d be honestly interested in what you really mean by that. Besides, “limit the ability of big corporations to buy elections” I mean. Do you think it should be legal or not to run an ad in a few months time saying “Do NOT vote for Hillary Clinton”? Because that’s what that case was about. Period. End of story. That never seems to be mentioned anymore. Do you want to limit campaign spending while maintaining the ability to run an ad saying “Do NOT vote for Hillary Clinton”, or can the government ban that ad? I could get on board with spending and disclosure requirements much stricter than we have today, but not at the expense of being able to run ads that say “Do NOT vote for Hillary Clinton.”

  3. I was in agreement with you until your last paragraph. Why should I view a “humble local community” initiative from Trump, Clinton, Sanders, or other national talking heads (David Brooks included) as anything other than a cover for tyranny?

    I understand That this is a bit of an ad hominem attack, but given the “pervasive betrayal” that many have experienced, I believe suspicion is warranted.

    You and I may be able to convince individualists in our community of the value of local community, but I don’t think we want or need the advocacy of the national media.

    As far as I am concerned, the idea of national community is untenable for the reasons that you listed.

  4. Jordan, thanks for the comment!

    Mark, I live in a state that re-elected Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014. If you can figure out what’s going on with voters, I’d love to hear it.

  5. Brian, I dialed back some of my criticisms of Brooks in the piece, but you highlight some good examples of exactly what I was talking about when I said the man was clumsy. A new definition of masculinity? Oh, well, I’m sure we’ll all turn to the Op-ed pages of The New York Times to find out what that is! Also, you’re right to suspect that my inclusion of Citizens United was a bit reflexive; obviously the issue of campaign finance is a broad one, and it’s not as though that one decision was the singular event that changed everything for the worse, or that overturning it would change everything for the better. Like so many others, the call to overturn the Citizens United decision is a way of putting a label on the broad argument that certain types of campaign finance requirements and limitations were considered obviously necessary for many decades to the functioning of a mass democracy, and that there’s a need to return to that understanding. Would such an understanding make it impossible to run an ad attacking the near-inevitable Democratic presidential candidate next September? I don’t see why it would; the First Amendment is still the First Amendment, and people ran plenty of negative ads even during the heyday of campaign finance restrictions. The goal is to democratize the playing field, not set up content-based rules that forbid spending money on certain sorts of ads whatsoever.

    • Again, I don’t want to hijack this thread, as there’s plenty to be said about how horrible David Brooks is, but Citizens United was about whether a corporation could run what was basically a feature-length ad on TV saying “Do NOT vote for Hillary Clinton”. The government said they couldn’t. From wikipedia: “The United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that §203 of BCRA applied and prohibited Citizens United from advertising the film Hillary: The Movie in broadcasts or paying to have it shown on television within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries.”

      • Brian,

        Citizens United was about whether a corporation could run what was basically a feature-length ad on TV saying “Do NOT vote for Hillary Clinton”. The government said they couldn’t.

        Well, unfortunately, it was actually about more than that. The specific rule under McCain-Feingold was that corporate entities (who were the recipients and/or made use of various “soft” money-raising practices) were forbidden from spending that money on behalf of “express advocacy” speech within a certain number of days immediately before an election. So the organization “Citizens United” (which was one of those soft-money funded groups) tried to show its film within that time limit, was enjoined from doing so, they sued, the lawsuit went before a special tribunal which the law had set up to adjudicate such disputes, the tribunal found against the corporation, they elected to appeal to the Supreme Court by challenging the whole campaign finance law, and the Supreme Court had the choice of overturning the decision of the tribunal (which was their original determination in conference after oral arguments), or gutting the whole law (which is what they subsequently decided to do). The fact is that the very particular restriction that Citizens United (the organization) challenged was only one small part of McCain-Feingold; the fact that Citizens United (the SC decision) went so far as to basically overturn all existing federal campaign finance laws reflects a determination to read the First Amendment differently than had been the usual manner throughout much of American history, I think.

        • OK, well, we can leave this for some other time. I agree that the Court could have done a much more limited ruling, though the details of doing so quickly become problematic. My understanding is that they initially were planning to do so, but the liberals on the court were vehemently opposed to even that, so Roberts reopened arguments and then the majority went much, much farther. My main problem is that I see liberals refer to this case as something that has to be overturned immediately (what’s stare decisis for again?), and I can’t tell if they want to reimpose spending limits, which may be OK, or want to reimpose speech limits, which would absolutely not be.

  6. Eric,

    Why should I view a “humble local community” initiative from Trump, Clinton, Sanders, or other national talking heads (David Brooks included) as anything other than a cover for tyranny?…You and I may be able to convince individualists in our community of the value of local community, but I don’t think we want or need the advocacy of the national media. As far as I am concerned, the idea of national community is untenable for the reasons that you listed.

    That’s a big can of worms that you open up here, and my response to what you say is somewhat mixed. Working backwards, I’m unwilling to insist that there simply cannot be anything like a “national community,” if only because we know that such things have existed throughout history, and still exist today. The problem is the too-easy assumption that states embody or express “nations,” and that therefore states can effectively act on behalf of the common good of said nation-wide community. That’s an assumption I used to make much too casually, and I’ve realized I was wrong in doing so; my calulus of how much harm can come from state involvement in local community realization, vs. how much state aid can complement it, has definitely changed. I’m ambivalent about the notion, though, that just because I’ve so concluded, I must therefore be hostile to any nation-wide voice or agency speaking out on behalf of local matters. Suspicious, yes–but hostile? Maybe not. Federal grants really have enabled good community developments on occasion. The trick is to be wary of the entanglements which so often follow.

    • Would it be too simplistic to suggest the problem has become one of scale? And that the United States needs to be less united? It would seem inevitable that as populations grow more dense the time will come when cessation from the Union becomes a necessity for any hope of good governance. Or that the inevitable crumbling of Empire will result a new arrangement of states, much like what happened in the “dark ages” following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Few of us complain about the regional flavours and cultural variety of countries like France, Spain, and Italy.

      As a Canadian I can’t help but be amazed that the folks from Washington State are a part of the same country as those from, say, Arkansas.

      • In the United States, centralization was boosted into overdrive about 50 years ago by the one-person, one-vote abomination. Prior to that rural interests were given a fair share of political representation, but the US Supreme Court threw that in the dumpster. Population size is all that matters now.

        • This is why the whole red state/blue state thing is very misleading. Look at the states county by county. The urban counties and their immediate environs are almost invariably blue, while the rural areas and hinterlands tend to the red. This seems to be true almost regardless of state.

  7. I read this and Drehers piece, two excellent reads. Thanks. Arrived at Eliot after a time of thinking about it – April is the cruellest month. I wish Brooks well on his journey. And I’ll admit took a bit for me to get there. I’ve plenty to walk back.

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