David Brooks’ Real America

January 4, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Louisiana St. Francisville

By Marie Burns:

David Brooks, who has lived most of his life in large metropolitan areas – Manhattan, Chicago, and now Bethesda, Maryland – would seem to prefer life in a tiny hamlet in rural America, rubbing shoulders with ordinary working people as they cling to their guns, religion and compassionate, old-timey ways. In any event, Brooks has taken a short hiatus from misunderstanding economics to celebrate the holidays by waxing poetic about Real America, a land where white Christian compassionate conservatives help out their neighbors in need.

In his New York Times column last Friday, titled “Going Home Again,” Brooks wrote about Ruthie Leming, a schoolteacher in a small Louisiana town of about 1,700 people, whose husband Mike is a fireman. The couple have three young daughters. Ruthie died of “a virulent form of cancer.” During her final illness, Brooks writes, “The entire town rallied around her. There were cookouts to raise money for her medical care.” In April 2010, on “Ruthie Leming Day in St. Francisville, more than half the town went to a fund-raising concert.” Ruthie's brother, Rod Dreher, a prominent conservative blogger and a friend of Brooks', wrote movingly of the concert and the townspeople's compassion: “It’s so beautiful to see it’s almost painful, and so unreal in its generosity that you think it must have been a movie.” Later he wrote, “The outpouring — an eruption, really — of goodness and charity from the people of our town has been quite simply stunning. The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe.” In her last moments, “Mike, her husband … wrenched his back trying to perform C.P.R. on her.” Dreher and his wife were so moved by all this they decided to leave their elitist East Coast home and move to St. Francisville. “Even with all the sadness, there’s no place else in the world I’d rather be.”

What could possibly be wrong with this glowing, if bittersweet, picture? Prof. Peter Dreier does a nice job illuminating one obvious answer. First he notes the implicit fallacy of Brooks' implication that “neighborliness and compassion are ... unique to small towns.” But, Dreier writes, the larger issue for him is this:

as Brooks extols his vision of compassionate conservatism, he casually and conveniently passes over the major outrage of Ruthie Leming’s last year on earth — the fact that her community had to hold fundraisers so her family could pay her medical bills. Brooks wasn’t writing a column about health care policy, but implicit in his story is the notion that charity is an adequate substitute for government regulation or funding to meet basic needs.

In no other civilized nation would the Leming family face this double tragedy of debilitating illness and deep debt. Indeed, people in other well-off countries view America’s lack of universal health care as cruel and barbaric, as indeed it is....

The real 'community'-wide solution to our health care crisis is universal insurance, which can only be achieved with government setting the rules and providing subsidies....

Last year the nation took a step forward in addressing these problems with a health reform law that requires every American to have insurance, provides subsidies for those who can’t afford it, and restricts insurance companies from discriminating against sick people. While America was debating health care reform, the insurance companies, big business, and the Republican Party spent tens of millions of dollars — in TV ads, campaign contributions, and lobbying — to oppose and weaken the bill. Now every Republican candidate for president has pledged to dismantle what they call 'Obamacare' before it even has been fully implemented....

In what kind of society do we allow teachers and firefighters to rely on charity to help pay their medical bills?

What Brooks is advocating for here in his “feel-good” piece is, as Dreier writes, “cruel and barbaric.” And it is bedrock, across-the-spectrum Republican policy. The GOP is not just nasty to poor people, it is cruel and barbaric to everybody who does not have unlimited funds to finance setbacks like catastrophic illness. That is, GOP policy will ruin almost everyone except the very wealthy. The Lemings were that virtuous, idealistic “real American” family that Sarah Palin and David Brooks extol – a middle-class family of five nice white people living in a small Southern town where the parents worked in community-oriented jobs. They could not get by without financial help from the community.

In fairness, I should add that Rod Dreher finds people like Dreier (and me) who used Brooks' column to “make a political point ... deeply annoying.” Although Brooks wrote that the good folks of St. Francisville “raised money for her medical care,” Dreher claims that is not true. He writes,

Ruthie’s medical expenses were paid, entirely or mostly (I’m not sure which), by her health insurance. Doctors and hospitals aren’t the only entities that need paying, though. There was the matter of the maid Ruthie had to hire to clean her house, because she was too sick to do it on her own. After her diagnosis, Ruthie was too sick to work. She had retirement, but money was still tight.

Dreher's post – in which he discusses the advantages (“incredibly beautiful and life-giving goodness”) and disadvantages (sometimes the guy who comes to your door is a serial killer) of small-town living – is both worth reading and exceedingly treacly. (Remember, as you read, that Dreher has not been home long.) Whether or not his sister had health insurance, Dreher does have thoughts about those who rely on public healthcare providers. In a separate post, he writes about the “underclass” who live in Baton Rouge's “poorest neighborhoods” (read, “black people”) who “don't want to work,” are “unscrupulous” and are “wholly dysfunctional.” Dreher opines that “our discussion of health care in this country, especially for the poor, is uninformed by a realistic understanding of the lives many of the poor lead, and the lack of moral scruple and sense of responsibility to themselves and to the wider community.”) In Right Wing World, white people = good, and black people = bad.)

My friend Kate Madison, a health professional, was upset by another aspect of Brooks' column, one well-worth airing. In an e-mail to me, she wrote,

Brooks did not really write about “death with dignity,” though he did imply it – and that this small town in Louisiana had the idea right. It just grinds me when I see sad cases like this romanticized! Death with dignity for whom? Not the poor suffering woman whose husband wrenched his back and probably broke some of her ribs while trying to resuscitate her.... Brooks says nothing about our wonderful system of “compassionate care for the dying.” ...

No. The grieving man and the town become the merciful heroes – and role models for how we should treat our dying. Their support and caring were wonderful, and I get Brooks' point there. But caring for a dying person takes unselfish courage and compassion for the sufferer – not heroic efforts of life saving when life is no longer viable....

David Brooks had an opportunity to speak to this important issue, which is, after all, an essential element of the healthcare debate. Not only did Brooks pass on this opportunity, as Madison says, he romanticized Mike's effort to save his wife's life when it was past saving. One cannot blame Mike, but the suffering he may have inadvertently caused his dying wife is another American tragedy, one that is repeatedly daily because of our inability to accept death as a natural part of life.

Dreher liked Brooks' column about the good white people of St. Francisville, and he liked Brooks' column in yesterday's New York Times, too, about Rick Santorum, champion of the white working class of – you guessed it – small-town America. Here's Brooks:

Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant. For years, he represented the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. He has spent the last year scorned by the news media — working relentlessly, riding around in a pickup truck to more than 370 towns. He tells that story of hard work and elite disrespect with great fervor at his meetings.

Santorum appeals, Brooks writes, to

whites with high school degrees and maybe some college ... [who] generally share certain beliefs and experiences. The economy has been moving away from them. The ethnic makeup of the country is shifting away from them. They sense that the nation has gone astray: marriage is in crisis; the work ethic is eroding; living standards are in danger; the elites have failed; the news media sends out messages that make it harder to raise decent kids. They face greater challenges, and they’re on their own.

Brooks' lede, written in Ottumwa, Iowa: “The Republican Party is the party of the white working class.” His complaint is that the party has “done a poor job responding to their needs” because GOP presidents and presidential candidates like George H. W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney are a bunch of elitists. Assuming that we know that both Romney and Obama attended Harvard Law, Brooks concludes that, “The country doesn’t want an election that is Harvard Law versus Harvard Law.” Rather, Brooks says, Americans want someone like Rick Santorum – if only he could be a little more like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)!

That could be because Sherrod Brown doesn't say stuff like this: “I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” – Rick Santorum, talking to white people in Iowa earlier this week. (The Santorum campaign has claimed the candidate did not say “black” people; he said “blah” people.) Santorum's racial bigotry brings to mind a terrific post, which appeared in Sunday's New York Times, by Columbia journalism professor Thomas Edsell. Edsell convincingly argues that “living and working in Washington for much, if not most, of their time encourages the view that poverty is a black problem.” Yet Edsell notes that “in the entire country, for every poor black there are nearly two whites living under the poverty line.” You might think that Santorum, who has visited every one of the 99 counties in Iowa, would have noticed that white people are poor, too. Perhaps he has. But as a Republican, he is hard-wired to believe – and to spread the story – that white people (whom he defines as “somebody” because only whites are “somebodies”) are giving their money to enrich the lives of black (or “blah”!) people who don't “earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” This is the way Republicans like Santorum and Brooks feed racism and the stereotypes on which racism relies. I've seen no indication that Brooks is actively racist. Rather, his views incorporate what I call “passive racism”; they indirectly mitigate against people of color, but that is not their policy purpose. The result of this type of passive racism, when passed along to the less enlightened, via politicians and others like Santorum, is to nurture direct, full-blown racism.

Brooks mentions that when Santorum and his wife shlepped around the corpse of their child who died at birth, “secular people” tended to find the story “deeply creepy,” even as it was “inspiring to many of the more devout.” Okay. What I find just as “deeply creepy” are Santorum's general view about sex:

[Sex] is supposed to be within marriage. It's supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal… but also procreative. That's the perfect way that a sexual union should happen…. This is special and it needs to be seen as special.

Santorum also opposes contraception, which he calls “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Jake Tapper of ABC News noted this week that Santorum still opposes a 1965 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a Connecticut law banning contraception. Santorum said, “The state has a right to do that.... It is not a constitutional right, the state has the right to pass whatever statues they have. That is the thing I have said about the activism of the Supreme Court, they are creating rights, and they should be left up to the people to decide.” I'm imagining a presidential debate between Rick Santorum, who thinks anyone who uses contraception is a sinner, and Barack Obama, who doesn't like to think about his daughters having sex so he decided it would be a good idea to make the morning-after pill more difficult for all women to obtain. If there were a god who was paying attention, she would smite them both, mid-debate.

Needless to say, Santorum vehemently opposes a woman's right to choose. Oh, wait, unless the woman is his own wife, who had an abortion at 20 weeks. For every other American woman, here's the Santorum rule: “it's murder, no matter what the circumstances. Doesn't matter if it's incest, or rape, doesn't matter if the victim is eleven years-old.” Exceptions (not counting the one for his wife) are “phony excuses” and doctors who perform abortions should be jailed. Funny, David Brooks does not agree. In an April 2002 New York Times column, he advocated for pro-choice government regulation of abortions. I guess this is a place where Brooks wishes Santorum were a little more like Sherrod Brown.

Santorum's general views about sex are no less creepy than his discriminatory views toward gays. He would repeal the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell because it's wrong for gay servicepeople to shower together. (Chris Wallace of Fox “News” recently conducted a great interview of Santorum on DADT. Wallace was very tough on Santorum, likening his opposition to gays openly serving to earlier opposition of blacks serving in the same units with whites.) Santorum supports a federal ban on gay marriage, saying just last weekend that “any now-legal same-sex marriages would be invalid under a constitutional amendment.” Funny, on contraception – where the Supremes long ago established that a state did not have the right to ban the use of contraceptives – Santorum is a states-rights guy. On gay marriage – where six states and the District of Columbia have validated gay marriage – Santorum is a federalist. Social conservatives are not interested in legal theory; they are interested in telling you who you can have sex with and what you should be thinking when you're doing it. David Brooks, by the way, came out in favor of same-sex marriage in his New York Times column in November 2003; that is, fairly early-on in the movement. He saw gay marriage as consistent with traditional conservative values:

We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.... It's going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage.

Evidently this is yet another instance where Brooks wishes Santorum were more like Sherrod Brown.

Santorum sees heterosexual marriage as the basis for economic stability and – unbelievably – homeland security. Last year he said, “I would argue I'm a lover. I'm a lover of traditional families and of the right of children to have a mother and father ... Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?” He believes “The family is the bedrock of our society. Unless we protect it with the institution of marriage, our country will fall.”

You should know, though, that a Constitutional ban on gay marriage is not Rick Santorum's only idea for improving the economy. Last night, in his Iowa victory speech, Santorum touted Wal-Mart – you know, that mega-corporation that sends American manufacturing jobs to China – as the answer to the country's economic woes. Speaking nostalgically of Brooks' favorite small-town America, Santorum said, “They were towns that were centering around manufacturing and process.... We found those jobs leaving Iowa. Why? Because our workers didn't want to work? No.... Government made workers uncompetitive.... Wal-Mart's not moving to China and taking their jobs with them.”

Maybe I should mention that the Wal-Mart corporation is an old – and big-time – Santorum backer. Charles Pierce, in a take-down of Brooks' column on Santorum, has more on Santorum's economic policy. As a member of Congress,

Rick Santorum was hip-deep in the effort to reinvent the 'corporate or financial wing' of the party by Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.... If you spend a decade making deals with the biggest bunch of pirates since Jean LaFitte hung 'em up, your subsequent credibility on the topic of the influence of corporate money on American politics should at least be a little tattered. Not to mention that Santorum's plan for raising up the middle class is fundamentally the same as Rick Perry's plan for unleashing American entrepreneurship and Michele Bachmann's for reviving the American Dream — namely, cut corporate taxes to practically nothing, allow rich people to keep as much of their money, foreign and domestic as they can, and deregulate everything everywhere and for all time.

So there you have the real reason David Brooks likes Rick Santorum. Once you get past the creepy sex stuff, Santorum is just another Republican hack, shilling for corporate America and wrapping it in a rhetorical pretense of supporting (white) working-class America. Sorry, Sherrod Brown, you so do not fit into the Brooks picture anymore.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (2)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    Good to hear your take on the small town idyll. Just for fun, I submitted a comment to the Brooks article–“I can’t wait to see what Marie Burns has to say about this!”

    Of course it was not accepted.

    Rick Santorum is really creepy. I realize that Brooks had to hold his nose a bit when praising Santorum, and you are surely right that Republican worship of the corporation is at the root of his favorable view. Santorum’s remark about Walmart is rich–I had not heard it before.

    About those who live in D.C. for a long time see poverty as a mainly black issue–I had never thought about that, makes sense.

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