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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

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6 Responses to “David Brooks, daring upholder of shallow conventional wisdom”
  1. joshkilroy says:

    Wow! What a concise expression of most of what is bad about the left (you left out identity politics, union lethargy and corruption, and empty proceduralism – which you had already displayed in an earlier exchange). Your post is sheer ignorance coupled with jaw-dropping arrogance. Where to start?

    First of all, Ben is instantly recognizable to me, and I venture to say to most Americans, as a member of my family and community. I’ve known scores if not hundreds of men and women just like him. And the quotation from Brooks about the relationship between work and reward is right on the money. and represents the key normative and historical value for America’s vast middle class. Slavery and Jim Crow made a cruel mockery of this value of course, but even so it has absolutely been true for most Americans (and it is true now for most African Americans).

    Any politics that doesn’t put this relationship front and center will be shallow and achieve only fleeting success. That is the undeniable reality that Brooks analyzes. Clinton at his best understood this far better than any other politician since at least LBJ and probably since Truman. I think – and suspect that Brooks thinks – that Obama at his best gets it so that there is some hope for a truly transformational administration.

    Ben is not a sucker. Virtually everyone who succeeds in America does so because of persistent effort. Not only is it the way forward economically, it is morally ennobling. You entirely fail to acknowledge the part of Brooks analysis that states that reward without effort is wrong. There’s the critique of Wall Street that you missed! You are so obsessed with mapping the various means of oppression you fail to see that it is only a small part of the story.

    Ben produces something of value. Well-managed hotels provide an important service for people in a highly mobile society such as ours. Furthermore, such hotels create a harmonious work environment for their employees. It is vitally important that you see the utterly unearned arrogance at work here – that somehow you can determine what is of value better than the participants in the transaction. Not likely.

    I have already pointed out the implicit critique of Wall Street in Ben’s worldview, which is why we are in the middle of passing landmark financial reform legislation. While Ben may be aware of Walmart’s poor labor record, he appreciates their skill at providing so many diverse goods at a cheap price. Ben would certainly not deny impoverished communities the benefits of cheap goods (plus all the jobs, which are still much better than unemployment) the way so many so-called progressives do.

    You conclude with some silly tit for tat stuff. Brooks point – which is largely true – is that there is no force in our politics driving us to where the American voter is – which is in the center, even if their actual beliefs are often a little confused. If you had ever filled out questionnaires for a candidate or helped them raise money, you would know that the process drives them from the sensible middle. Contrary to your claim, there are many progressive special interest groups – many of which I like (eg The Sierra Club) – that have highly detailed questions committing candidates to highly provocative positions.

    But even more than not having formal interest groups, there is a lack of a fully formed centrist philosophy, although there are many thinkers who are pointing the way (Cass Susstein is certainly one of the best). My own guess as to the eventual rubric of such a political philosophy will be something like “personalized government.”

    Finally, Brooks is absolutely right about Lincoln. It was his steadfastness in standing against the treason of the South and the immoderation of the Radical Republicans that make him America’s best president. His was the best kind of moderation and it stemmed from a well-worked out philosophy.

    I hate to be so negative in responding to your posts but the arrogance toward middle-class Americans is truly disturbing. It is like you can read the notes but you can’t hum the tune. We are doing something special in this country that continues to set the world on fire, in spite of our own limitations. You should respect that.

  2. Hey, thanks for dropping by the blog! I always appreciate in-depth comments; too few people take the time. I’ll try to sidestep the ad hominems and get at the substance.

    What’s interesting here is that based on past conversations, I don’t doubt that you and I agree in lots of ways about what exactly would constitute an ideal, just society. On many issues — be it civil liberties, economic policy, environmental protection, corporate regulation, you name it — we seem to have considerable common ground. Click through some of my other political posts and you’ll see what I mean.

    However…

    …when it comes to looking at politics as “the art of the possible,” we evidently part ways in terms of interpreting what that means and how to achieve it.

    On Brooks’ approach: of course Ben is “recognizable.” That’s because Brooks deals in stereotypes, as so pointedly demonstrated in the PhillyMag piece I linked in the first paragraph. But stereotypes, even when they feel right, aren’t necessarily based on genuine evidence. Brooks is worlds away from, say, Nate Silver here. He doesn’t look at the actual demographics or electoral dynamics of the races about which he’s trying to generalize, or the polls, or the pertinent issues in those states, or anything remotely empirical. Hell, he doesn’t even find a real-world person to serve as his anecdotal example. He just trusts that if one is predisposed to see things his way — as you, among others, evidently are — that one will find Ben familiar and go along for the rest of the ride. It’s classic confirmation bias.

    On work and reward: “If people do not work but get rewarded, that’s wrong. If people work and do not get rewarded, that’s wrong.” It’s not a bad ideal, actually. (Although it’s basically a labor theory of value, pretty far removed from conventional capitalist ideology, an angle which Brooks does not explore.) When it comes down to structural trade-offs, though, I think the second half of the formulation is far more important than the first, and it’s perfectly tolerable to violate the first part so long as we adhere to the second. Unfortunately, in our system as it stands, we often violate the first (generally on behalf of already wealthy elites) without upholding the second.

    That failure to live up to a worthy ideal certainly justifies citizen anger. It does not, however, justify imagining some past golden age when America was actually a meritocracy. This set of values was never actually normative, and America’s “vast middle class” was largely an artifact of the unique circumstances of the global economy after World War II. It may have seemed like a perfectly fair, indefinitely sustainable state of affairs to educated white males (one of whom Brooks of course casts as his embodiment of “most Americans,” a conceit with which you go along), but that was never actually true.

    I’ll cheerfully stipulate that “persistent effort” toward personal goals is an important part of a satisfying life, at least when there’s some reasonable balance between one’s challenges and one’s skills. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi elaborated on this fairly convincingly in Flow and his subsequent books on happiness. However, that’s slightly different from saying that it’s “morally enobling.” That sounds almost like a religious conception of things, and has nothing to do with politics, economics, or psychology.

    Of course I claim the right to assess the social value of various activities “better than the participants in the transaction.” That’s not arrogance; it’s an absolutely essential third-party POV necessary to avoid surrendering the fate of our society completely to “the market.” Market forces are good (sometimes) at allocating the distribution of goods and services in ways that tend to increase future productivity. However, they have no inherent connection to democracy, justice, morality, personal satisfaction, or any other form of social value not measured in terms of economic productivity.

    The critique of Wall Street in Brooks’ piece is very “implicit” indeed. The part about Washington, however, is very explicit, front and center. That’s not an accident. It’s a choice. Your (and Ben’s) defense of Wal-Mart goes even further in terms of special pleading on behalf of one particular set of malefactors. Why make excuses for profit-driven corporations, yet heap opprobrium on public officials?

    The Sierra Club is a decent organization, but it’s not an “extremist” or “hardline” organization in any sense of the term. Most of its positions today are decidedly mainstream and consistent with the values of majorities or large pluralities of Americans. (The very notion that environmental protection would be shoehorned into a left-right political spectrum is IMHO an inappropriate framing that mostly serves the interests of its opponents. I could say the same about the ACLU and civil liberties. But I digress…)

    I’m honestly not sure what kind of positions you consider “provocative,” but more to the point, I’m not sure what you think is wrong with being “provocative.” Historically, it’s people (and organizations) who are willing to stake out positions just outside the mainstream who succeed in shifting the Overton Window, in reshaping public opinion and ultimately in achieving meaningful policy changes (for good or ill).

    Look back over the past 100 years, and tell me: what important reforms have been achieved by the efforts of dedicated centrists? Not women’s suffrage. Not collective bargaining for labor. Not the New Deal. Not civil rights and the end of Jim Crow. Not LGBT rights. Not anything.

    Cass Sunstein has written a lot of things. Many of them are interesting. To the extent that they’re interesting, however, they’re not centrist, and to the extent that they’re centrist, they’re not interesting. IMHO, of course. YMMV; I’m curious what examples you may have in mind. In particular, I’m curious how exactly you conceive of “personalized government.”

    I’m not arrogant toward middle-class Americans. Honestly. Quiet the contrary: precisely because I’ve been brought up in that class (and as a straight white educated male, to boot), I’m extra cautious about not taking for granted things that people like me may casually take for granted. I am, however, perfectly happy to be caustic and dismissive toward pundits like Brooks who don’t bother with such cautions, and who thereby (arrogantly) presume to speak for vast swaths of people.

  3. Thanks for your post, i love to read it, so cant wait for your nearly post.

  4. Andrew says:

    I sort of understand him, still not sure if he is totally right in what he says … we may never know tho.

  5. Michelle says:

    You have a great blog here, with very well written articles. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  6. Kelly says:

    Some interesting cat facts: A cat has 32 muscles in each ear. Cats are amazing. Here is another interesting fact – A cat has approximately 60 to 80 million olfactory cells, in contrast to humans with only between 5 and 20 million.
    You can check out some really interesting info on cats here: Cat Facts
    Cheers
    Kelly

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