David Brooks, throughout his long history as a pundit, consistently seems to love drawing sweeping generalizations from just a handful of anecdotal examples. Sometimes even just one. In his latest column, he’s resorted to using an imaginary one.
Brooks retells the fable of the ant and the grasshopper through an imaginary middle-American voter he calls “Ben.” Ben is the ant. Ben came from a broken home, but “worked hard” and got “decent grades” and went to a couple of mediocre colleges to study hotel management, in which field he’s worked for the past 20 years, only to find himself increasingly disenchanted with America’s political culture… in a fashion, Brooks imagines, that’s manifested in last Tuesday’s primary results, in which incumbents of both parties got a drubbing. (IMHO a well-deserved one; I was delighted to see Joe Sestak take down Arlen Specter, to see Bill Halter force Blanche Lincoln into a runoff. Even Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky bodes well from certain angles. And the victory in PA-12’s special election, where Mark Critz (D) defeated Tim Burns (R) in a district that actually swung for McCain in ’08, was a pleasant surprise that confounded lots of pundits.)
But since Brooks is making up the example to suit his predetermined thesis, he gets to ignore inconvenient realities. His little fable elides quiet a few along the way, some of them rather significant…
The Big Point of Brooks’ exercise in thumbsucking comes in the middle:
For Ben, right and wrong is contained in the relationship between effort and reward. If people do not work but get rewarded, that’s wrong. If people work and do not get rewarded, that’s wrong. But Ben believed that America is fundamentally a just society. He loved his country because people who work hard can usually overcome whatever unfairness is thrust in their way.
But when Ben looked at Washington, he saw a political system that undermined the relationship between effort and reward. People in Washington spent money they didn’t have. … People in Congress were caught up in a spoils system in which money was taken from those who worked and given to those with connections. Money was taken from those who produced and used to bail out the reckless, who were supposedly too big to fail.
Yet today’s political center, Brooks tells us, once occupied by “moderates like Abraham Lincoln,” now lacks a governing philosophy, so Ben was drawn toward “extremists.”
How much is wrong with this? Oh, so much…
1) Bottom line, Ben is a sucker. Apparently “Ben believed that America is fundamentally a just society. He loved his country because people who work hard can usually overcome whatever unfairness is thrust in their way.” Problem is, this has never been true. It’s a myth. Horatio Alger stories notwithstanding, “working hard and playing by the rules” (to use Bill Clinton’s infelicitous phrase) has never been either necessary or sufficient to succeed in this society. Ben could’ve partied his way through college and done better for himself, if he’d made the right connections.
2) Ben has apparently never been downsized, and is pretty lucky still to have a job at the moment. But he’s practically a case study of classic false consciousness if he really thinks that his economic role as a mid-level hotel manager amounts to “creating something of value” in the world. (Writing artlessly bland opinion columns for the New York Times doesn’t really fill the bill either, frankly. Although I’m sure it pays much better.)
3) Ben apparently focuses his ire rather narrowly. He looks at Washington and sees injustice, but what does he see when he looks at Wall Street? Or Wal-Mart? The centers of capitalist power are every bit as corrupt and short-sighted as the centers of government power, but with even less accountability. Indeed, they’re largely responsible for making the government so corrupt.
4) Ben really isn’t very well informed, since he believes (so Brooks says) that taxpayer money was spent “to bail out people who’d bought homes they couldn’t afford.” This, too, is a misdirection of his anger, since he’s ignoring the facts that (A) those were the only kind of homes available in a lot of markets in recent years, and more critically, (B) homeowners weren’t bailed out, as any number of reality-based homeowners could tell him if they weren’t so busy trying to bargain with recalcitrant banks.
5) Most importantly—and this part is all Brooks, not “Ben”—the piece goes out of its way to draw false equivalencies. Brooks claims that “The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes.” But this Broderite “pox on both their houses” pose simply rings false. Bill Halter is anything but an “ideological hardliner.” The GOP and the Heritage Foundation and Fox News and the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page may be organs of the increasingly reactionary right… but institutions like the Democratic Party and the Brookings Institution and MSNBC and the New York Times are fundamentally organs of the center. There is hardly a trace of an organized left in America these days, notwithstanding a few stalwarts in the blogosphere. When an occasional spurt of left-of-center conviction actually emerges—e.g., when a few principled diehards insisted that health care “reform” that amounts to corporate welfare for the insurance industry wasn’t necessarily such a great idea—it’s predictably beaten back by those more inclined to go along to get along.
Frankly, most of the institutions that Brooks imagines to be of “the left” have, as he entreats, been bending over backwards trying to “compromise,” even against their own best interests and those of the public.
But it takes two sides to do that. And all the extremists on the other side have been refusing to play along.
Brooks isn’t wrong to see a lot of empty posturing in Washington. He’s just wrong to portray it as an evenly balanced left-vs-right thing… and to pretend that the centrists he romanticizes don’t exist.
They do. They just don’t stand for much of anything beyond their own short-sighted interests, as has historically been the case with centrists. Unfortunately, the Democratic party is afflicted with most of them these days, since they’ve been forced out of Brooks’ party of choice. Would more mature, public-spirited deliberation be a positive thing in Washington these days? Of course. But there’s no evidence it’s more likely to be found in the so-called “center.”
Fundamentally, Brooks has built his entire career on defending the Establishment. He can’t conceive of this being anything other than a “center-right country”—even though that’s simply not true, as I’ve written before. But people with actual political principles (in contrast to his condescendingly imagined “Ben”) are calling him out on this, from both the “left” (e.g., the Huffington Post) and the “right” (e.g., The American Conservative). The NYT‘s comments section on his column isn’t buying what he’s selling, either; a couple of the best responses are quoted here.
If one wants a more insightful analysis of what justifies the current anti-incumbent mood, and what it might portend, one could do worse than to look to a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald. If one wants a broader perspective on just what voters who are paying attention might be “outraged” about, beyond Brooks’ clichés, one might start with the work of Chris Hedges (until it drives you to despair). Even Brooks’ fellow conservative columnist at the Times, Ross Douthat, seems to have a better grasp than Brooks of what’s really going on with the current populist moment when he writes, in a moment of uncharacteristic perceptiveness,
From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.
…And, BTW, I know Brooks loves his simplistic caricatures, but seriously: Abraham Lincoln, “moderate”?!? Yeah, because the country wasn’t polarized at all back then…Tags: centrism, conservatism, David Brooks, media, voting