David Brooks’ Realignment Won’t Happen

Reading David Brooks is always a mixture of pleasure and pain. On the one hand he does seem to understand reality a little bit better than most of his conservative colleagues, and you can tell that unlike most of his conservative colleagues he genuinely means well. On the other hand, his faulty premises, New England WASPy removal from everyday experience, and judgmental condescension make him a prism into a special kind of insufferable worldview that evades common sense.

Today’s column is a perfect example. Unlike even many progressives who don’t quite see it coming, Brooks is smart enough to realize that a major realignment is on its way. Brooks can see that the traditional left-right divides that have formed the basis of the two major parties since the mid-1970s are rapidly shifting. He’s right about that. But because of his detachment from the experience of regular people, and his hope for a comfortable existence for laissez-faire economics, he’s blind to what that realignment will actually look like.

Brooks correctly sees that there is a comfortable upper crust that is benefiting from automation, globalization and asset prices, and a large declining set of middle and lower castes who are getting caught in the undertow:

That is to say, the most important social divide today is between a well-educated America that is marked by economic openness, traditional family structures, high social capital and high trust in institutions, and a less-educated America that is marked by economic insecurity, anarchic family structures, fraying community bonds and a pervasive sense of betrayal and distrust.

This is true to a large extent. But then Brooks runs off the rails. He posits a future in which the Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street professional classes unite under a Democratic Party banner, while the great faction of millennials and regular workers of all races join a changed Republican Party free of bigotry.

This sort of divide is being replicated all around the world. The distinctly American feature is race. If the Republicans can drop the racial wedges — which admittedly may be a big ask — and become more the party designed to succor those who are disaffected from the globalizing information age, then it might win over some minority voters, and the existing party alignments will unravel in short order.

Polls suggest Democrats will win among college-educated voters and Republicans among whites without college degrees. The social, mental and emotional gap between those two groups is getting wider and wider. That’s the future of American politics. Republicans are town. Democrats are gown. Could get ugly.

It’s pretty obvious that Brooks hasn’t spent much time talking to Trump voters or Bernie voters, nor has he actually looked at the forces roiling the European Union.

The thing about economic anxiety is that it affects different kinds of people in different ways. Affluence also affects people in different ways, depending on their initial inclinations. As we learn more about brain science and sociology, it’s increasingly clear that the cultures in which we are raised and even our very brains have a dramatic impact on how we respond to different stimuli.

People with conservative tendencies react to economic anxiety by trying to preserve more resources for their “tribe.” Especially in America but also elsewhere in the world, that tribalism usually falls along racial lines–but it can also fall along regional and religious ones as well. Those with more liberal tendencies will react by trying to redress injustice and redistribute wealth that they feel (rightly, in this case) has been distributed unfairly to the very few. Those two types will never cooperate in the same political party any more than the Communists and the Fascists did in the 1930s. Millennials are broadly multi-racial and feel strongly that they’ve been taken advantage of not by members of other tribes within their cohort, but by systemic injustices beyond their immediate control. There is no way that they will join forces with older conservative reactionaries, even though they may both be suffering from similar economic harm.

In other words, there is no way to separate racism from anger over economic hardship, because conservative cultures and brains will always default to racism whenever hardship arises. Similarly, affluence hardens conservatives to the plight of the poor, while it leads liberals to feel guilt and noblesse oblige. Wealthy conservatives and wealthy liberals won’t join forces any more than the poor will.

Nonetheless, a realignment is coming. Brooks is right that the divide between comfortable, rainbow corporatist, asset class, Wall Street-friendly social liberals and angry disaffected Democratic socialists will continue to grow. The divide between the Trump conservatives and the Romney conservatives will also grow.

But the coming realignment will simply witness the end of the Romney conservatives: with the failure of supply-side economics to deliver results, the Wall Street Republican no longer has a constituency. Republicans will continue down Trump’s path of racist protectionism–they’ll just figure out how to put a happier, more inclusive face on it than Trump has managed to. And ultimately they will become a regional minority party for a generation because they won’t have the numbers to do otherwise.

Meanwhile, a nationally dominant Democratic Party will spend a generation fighting an internal struggle for control, with some states leading a progressive charge against the more establishmentarian national party. That’s what is happening elsewhere in the world where these clefts are made more obvious by multi-party parliamentary systems. The American version will be similar, but most of the battles will occur within the parties themselves.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.