David Brooks
Credit: Library of Congress Life/

I think maybe David Brooks needs a little more editorial oversight. Consider his latest column in the New York Times. He begins by telling us that he needs to make a choice.

A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.

Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.

And then he ends the piece by saying that he refuses to make a choice:

I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.

That’s a pretty fundamental flaw. Faced with a decision between Trump and Sanders, Brooks decides to punt. The reason is that he doesn’t see either of them as defenders of democratic liberalism, which is really just a term of art that means the American Establishment.

To make his case against Sanders, he engages in his own form of extremism. Right out of the box, he brings forth the specter of Soviet Russian totalitarianism.

We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.

And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.

To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.

It takes a certain amount of historical revisionism to write the history of the Cold War is such a simplistic manner. Brooks doesn’t talk about the 1954 American-sponsored coup d’etat in Guatemala that removed a leftist government, set off a 36-year civil war, and cost 200,000 people their lives. He doesn’t talk about the 1973 American-sponsored coup d’etat in Chile that removed a leftist government and replaced it with a right-wing dictatorship that killed, tortured, or imprisoned over 40,000 people for strictly political reasons. Brooks says nothing about American complicity in Operation Condor.

In 1975, six South American military dictatorships conspired to concoct a secret plan to eliminate their left-wing opponents. Not only would the intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay trade information with each other and kidnap, disappear and kill their own domestic foes, they would also cooperate in identifying and killing exiles from partner countries who had taken refuge elsewhere.

By the time Operation Condor ended in the early 1980s, as many as 60,000 people may have been killed.

He doesn’t even ponder whether or not the CIA’s relentless drive to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro may have contributed to Cuba’s tyrannical approach to dissent and security. You don’t have to have any sympathy for communism to understand that criticism of America’s approach to Latin America during the Cold War was often based in a defense of liberal democracy and self-determination rather than a decision to side with the Soviets. In any case, left-leaning governments there had no monopoly on violence and America’s best allies had little to no commitment to human rights. That was certainly the case in Nicaragua, which is why President Carter forced Anastasio Somoza Debayle out of power in 1979, citing his human rights abuses.

Brooks may or may not actually believe in his fairy tale version of the Cold War, but it’s quite evident what really bugs him about Sanders.

Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal. This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.

This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.

Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.

I think Sanders’ record as a legislator in the House and Senate is quite a bit better than “useless,” although I’d tend to agree that his effectiveness as a senator has been limited. He’s made his contributions here and there, notably on veterans’ issues and the Affordable Care Act, but he hasn’t worked well enough with others to be in the same category as Hubert Humphrey and Teddy Kennedy. But Brooks isn’t bothered by Sanders’ relative lack of effectiveness. He is bothered by the way Sanders talks about the system as “irredeemably corrupt.”

If Sanders thought the system was truly irredeemable, however, he wouldn’t be running for president and promising to redeem it. The problem for Brooks is that he doesn’t want to see any redemption through “revolutionary mass mobilization,” and he fears that Sanders would “rule by majoritarian domination.” It’s unclear how he thinks that would happen given the power granted to the minority in the Senate and Sanders’ opposition to removing the legislative filibuster. That’s the kind of establishmentarianism that Brooks normally celebrates, but it’s Elizabeth Warren who is championing filibuster reform.

Yet, Brooks would vote for Warren over Trump and not for Sanders. This must be in part because he sees Sanders as cruel, bitter and vindictive. It’s a wonder he doesn’t think Bernie has horns:

Liberalism celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism. Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

This is just an uncharitable caricature of Sanders and his movement which fails precisely because it refuses to examine the positive motives behind the rhetoric.  In the context of the 2020 election, it’s really an extreme form of both-siderism where Trump’s xenophobia is equated with Sanders disdain for billionaires.

Brooks complains that “Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is,” which is possibly true, but also less relevant than the fact that he’ll never be able to enact 99 percent of his agenda because Brooks’ cherished system will never allow it.

It takes a certain amount of insanity to see Sanders as an equal threat to liberal values as the current occupant of the White House. If Brooks can’t choose between them, maybe he can just take the rest of this election cycle off.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com