David Brooks has penned another insipid column, but this one is really poorly constructed, too. Once again, he relies on a dichotomy to try to explain a many-sided problem. So he introduces the least novel of insights, which is that societies experiencing abundance are more tolerant and optimistic than societies that are experiencing scarcity. In his telling, things have broken down politically on a global scale (but particularly 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 appeal to 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 the decisions and choices of human beings. If a person can look at the performance of the Bush administration across the board, or the trajectory of the conservative movement from the Gingrich Revolution until today and see the problem with our politics as having originated post-recession, there’s really no reason to take them seriously.
But Brooks still enjoys some choice real estate on the Grey Lady’s opinion page, so we have to occasionally respond to what he’s arguing. 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.” But, remember, the real culprit here was set up to be scarcity, not style and adherence to principles.
This is why Brooks abandons the criticism of conservatism and Trumpism mid-column and reverts to something more related 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 that 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 then built a postwar infrastructure designed to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of their childhood. It seems pessimistic to believe a new generation can’t rise to the same types of challenges, and it’s an uncharitable description human nature and an ahistorical characterization of own history.
By this point in the column, the effort to maintain some kind of coherent theme has completely broken down. 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 with to intolerance with intolerance 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 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 our 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 approaches 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 a some kind of Great Awakening where we suddenly realize that all the stuff we disagree about is not worth fighting about too vigorously. 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 that problem. It’s also not new at all. It’s actually the norm in representative democracies. In addition to that, if we’re talking about European-style, then 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?
And how does this explain the problems that the parliamentary systems in Europe are currently experiencing? If he hasn’t noticed, Europe has its own own far right problem and people there still disagree about stuff despite their multiparty systems.
If scarcity caused this, why can’t abundance solve it? Isn’t there some idea he come up with that doesn’t depend on political disagreements essentially dissolving overnight that make fundamental changes to the structure of our government possible? Why does this man still have a job at the New York Times?