It’s been a while since I’ve devoted a post to David Brooks, but I see he hasn’t improved. As witness a recent column arguing that the real problem with our dysfuncitonal government isn’t our leaders, it’s us and our damned individualism.
Sure, the next president could tell Congress that “We’ll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” and change the tone in Washington, but what’s really important is “the social context politics is embedded in.” If society worked, Brooks says, we’d be members of many extended families — church, recreational groups, neighborhood watch, PTA, our employer’s company. “But starting just after World War II, America’s community/membership mind-set gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mind-set. The idea was that individuals should be liberated to live as they chose, so long as they didn’t interfere with the rights of others.” Which according to Brooks is a Bad Thing, so the obvious course is to “scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far … If each of us fulfill all of our discrete individual desires, we end up with a society that is not what we want at all.”
Brooks in wrong in multiple ways. Most obviously, a miraculous reconciliation after the next election isn’t possible, and that’s primarily because of the Republicans. They’re the ones who said their primary goal after 2008 was to make Obama a one-term president; who are actively restricting the vote to reduce the Democratic turnout; and who insist that everything Obama does (and Bill Clinton before him) is totally utterly wrong. Heck, David Brooks once wrote a column (can’t find the link) that said Obama proposing things like Hurricane Sandy relief was a hardball divisive tactic because not all Republicans would agree: a true conciliator would only propose policies that get 100 percent Republican buy-in. I have never heard him express a similar suggestion about the Republicans (and here’s some more Brooks discussion of how Obama is divisive.).
I’m also struck by his reference to our employers as one of the families we should be embedded in. Yes, that would be nice; I’ve been good friends with lots of coworkers and some bosses. But in a world where employers outsource jobs to China because the shareholders want more money, how much community can develop? It’s not like corporate America hasn’t been telling us for years that we’ll get loyalty from employers as long as we’re useful to them, no longer. Of course, Brooks has listed employees switching jobs as a sign of moral decline, so he’d certainly like us to feel we’re family who should loyally support our bosses, even as they slit our throats.
The rest is mostly standard Brooks. The man hates individualism and loves the days past when America’s elite fit everyone into a box and demanded they stay there. Our duty as ordinary people is to shut up and do what our leaders tell us. People who defy the party elites and vote Trump are so very, very wrong.
It is true, as Brooks says, that we’re not as group-oriented as we used to be. As Robert Putnam says in the book Bowling Alone we don’t join as many clubs, groups, churches, lodges, etc. as we did a century ago. But Putnam doesn’t offer any nice pat explanation like “we’re too individualistic” — he specifically points that no matter how you breakdown the figures (age, gender, faith, Internet use) the decline is there. So unless Brooks has some actual facts to offer, I’m going to put him down as defining the problem to fit his pre-existing solution.