David Brooks Wants You To Have A Midlife Crisis

Sorry to comment on an op-ed that appeared on Monday–eons ago in the insta-blogging world of Political Animal–but I don’t think Steve wrote about it, and as with everything David Brooks publishes, there is a segment of the chattering classes that will nod at his sagacity even when he approaches self-parody.

I’m not among those who actively dislike Brooks. He’s occasionally quite entertaining if not always enlightening, and I’d like to think he means well, if not for his extraordinary skill at hovering above every issue with “centrist” detachment before landing, almost infallibly, at a place that coincides with the positions or interests of conservative Republicans.

A case in point is his December 26 column entitled “A Mid-Life Crisis.” In classic Brookesian fashion, he views our dyspeptic society from the high perspective of history, lamenting our old and sclerotic habits and institutions, our decadent morality, our loss of faith in ourselves. It’s not a superficially right-wing piece; Brooks lauds the Progressive Era and deplores America’s growing income inequality and persistent poverty.

Ah, but then the eagle nears land, and it turns out all this sad decline calls for a very different approach than progressives used to prescribe:

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.

In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.

By “the country,” Brooks clearly means those whose “self-indulgence” has not earned them sufficient wealth and opportunity to avoid the need for “decaying structures,” or a “welfare state.” The “old disciplines,” it seems, are reserved for Americans who are not as fortunate–and apparently not as virtuous–as David Brooks. He doesn’t come right out and say that this wastrel nation demands the tough love of a Romney administration or a Paul Ryan budget to provide it with the bracing experience it needs to recover its lost youth. But then such explicit lesson-drawing would spoil David’s reputation as an independent thinker and “centrist.”

So shape up, America, or you will continue to richly earn your afflictions!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.