David Brooks Thinks He Can Solve All Our Problems

David Brooks has penned another insipid column, this one especially poorly constructed. Once again, he relies on a dichotomy to try to explain a many-sided problem. His introduction draws on the least novel of insights: societies experiencing abundance are more tolerant and optimistic than societies experiencing scarcity. In his telling, the political situation has broken down on a global scale (especially felt here at home) as a kind of hangover of the Great Recession.

It’s true that the Great Recession had a polarizing effect, giving rise to the Tea Party as well as the Occupy movement and creating a natural enthusiasm for the campaign of Bernie Sanders. But Brooks is taking a bloodless event—a major economic contraction—and assigning it agency, as if it could be fully responsible for people’s decisions and choices. If Brooks can look at the performance of the Bush administration, or the trajectory of the conservative movement from the Gingrich Revolution to the present, and conclude that the problem with our politics originated post-recession, there’s no reason to take him seriously.

But Brooks still enjoys some choice real estate on the Grey Lady’s opinion page, so occasionally we have to respond to his arguments. We might nod in agreement when he writes that Trumpism “is an acid that destroys every belief system it touches” and that the president’s “style of politics…has been a disaster.” We have no cause to dissent when Brooks accuses congressional Republicans of abandoning the conservative principles of “rule of law, fiscal discipline, global engagement, moral decency, [and] the idea that people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” Still, he claims that the real culprit is scarcity, not style and adherence to principles.

This is why Brooks abandons the criticism of conservatism and Trumpism mid-column and reverts to a statement closer to his thesis: scarcity turns us all into warriors.

The fact is that the scarcity mentality and the perpetual warrior style it demands are incompatible with any civilized political creed. At first the warriors seem to be fighting for the creed but eventually they transform it.

Under the influence of this mentality, evangelicalism turns from a faith into a siege-mentality interest group that reveres a pagan immoralist. Under the influence of this mentality, liberalism goes from a creed that values individual rights and deliberation to one that values group separatism and intellectual intolerance.

This supposed maxim is hard to square with my parents’ generation, which went through the Great Depression and a world war and managed to come out of it with an admirably civilized can-do political creed rather than a siege mentality. That generation rose to the challenge of defeating the barbarism that was spawned by hardship and scarcity and went on to build a postwar infrastructure designed to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of their childhood. It seems pessimistic to believe that a new generation can’t rise to similar challenges—it’s an uncharitable description of human nature and an ahistorical characterization of our own past.

By this point in the column, the effort to maintain some kind of coherent theme has completely broken down. According to Brooks, even though scarcity is a kind of determinant factor that swamps free will, conservatives are still to blame for a moral and intellectual collapse in their ranks. Meanwhile, liberals are guilty of responding to intolerance with intolerance of their own and a flawed concern for the civil rights of the out-groups that are the target of a neo-fascist movement.

Brooks needs both sides to be at fault, not only because both sides are composed of human beings who are helplessly turned into “clan warriors” in the face of scarcity, but because he is going to argue that both sides have to somehow magically avoid being in this helpless condition in order to save the country.

As the right pulverizes the left, the left feels the need to pulverize back, and on and on. This is a generational challenge. Trump will be succeeded by some other warrior.

Eventually, conservatives will realize: If we want to preserve conservatism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors. Liberals will realize: If we want to preserve liberalism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors.

Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined.

It’s endlessly fascinating how this man, who also lectures at Yale, can keep telling us that economic factors dictate our actions and adequately explain our political dysfunction and then insist that enough of us will realize the errors of our ways to preserve a democratic way of life.

And what radical idea will we come up with to accomplish this? You won’t be surprised to learn that Brooks gives us a non sequitur. Nothing in the piece even comes close to a predicate for his conclusion.

When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.

The scarcity mentality is eventually incompatible with the philosophies that have come down through the centuries. Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide they need to break from it structurally. They will realize it’s time to start something new.

This is an amazing grouping of words. All we’re waiting for is some kind of Great Awakening where we suddenly realize that all the stuff we disagree about is not worth ruthlessly fighting over. Then, despite structural barriers that include the Constitution to the United States, we might “end up with” a European-style multiparty system.

Where to start with that idea? Sure, it’s impractical no matter how cavalierly Brooks waddles past the various roadblocks. It’s also not even remotely new; it’s the norm in representative democracies. Additionally, if we’re talking about European-style, we’re basically saying that the democratic socialists will get their fondest wish, because even center-right European parties support universal health care and acknowledge things like science and climate change. Is Brooks saying we will someday soon put down our swords and stop fighting so that we can create a government that resembles what we see in Germany, Norway, and France? Is this how conservatives can recover their mojo and their moral bearings?

This also ignores the problems that the parliamentary systems in Europe are currently experiencing. In case Brooks hasn’t noticed, Europe has its own own far right problem and people there still disagree despite their multiparty systems.

If scarcity caused this, why can’t abundance solve it? Isn’t there some idea he could come up with that doesn’t depend on political disagreements essentially dissolving overnight and would make fundamental changes to the structure of our government possible? Why does this man still have a job at The New York Times?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.