The World According to Brooks

February 23, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

David Brooks

By Marie Burns:

Inadvertently, in his New York Times “Conversation” with Gail Collins, David Brooks explains his philosophy of governance:

I do think it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic. In fact I’d argue dynamic capitalism requires a stringent and coherent social order to help guard against its savageries — tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest.

You might have missed the “government” part of Brooks’ philosophy of governance. We’ll get to that. What Brooks has written here speaks not just to his own views but to those of the entire cult of what we might call conservative intellectuals (if we didn’t think “conservative intellectual” was something of an oxymoron). It also obliquely gives a theoretical foundation to what we have long known: that Republican politicians gin up “morality” issues – in which they have no interest or intention to apply to their own lives – to gain and maintain a base of compliant voters.

Brooks’ revelation was in answer to a remark from Collins: “I’m being driven crazy by people who are obsessed with limiting the scope of government, but feel perfectly free to demand that government get involved in women’s most personal choices.” This is a typical liberal response to the standard Republican platform. Liberals just don’t understand why conservatives want to shrink the government while expanding the police state. We think it’s hypocritical. Brooks, at least partially, explains why it is not.

Liberals and conservatives agree that the purpose of government is to serve. That’s why we call government officials “public servants,” even as the servants grow wealthy in their “service” careers. Where we differ is on the object of that service: if the government is the servant, who are the masters? Liberals believe government serves the people. Conservatives believe government serves a small, elite group. Conservatives are not entirely undemocratic; they think the make-up of that elite group can change, and the mechanism for that change is capitalism.

The conservative view is not some recent historical anomaly. It has always been so. It was conservative – not revolutionary – views that founded the nation. The Boston Tea Party, so revered by modern right-wing “pro-America” populists, was not a revolt of ordinary people against a tyrannical British government. It was instigated by the capitalists of the day: Boston tea merchants, who – because the British were manipulating the price and availability of tea – were losing business, either because the Tea Act reduced the price of tea to make it cheaper than the Dutch tea the Boston merchants had been purchasing from smugglers or because they did not have deals with the British East India Company to purchase newly “cheap tea.” The “price of tea in China” was not the issue. It was the price the merchants had to pay at the docks. “Taxation without representation” was all about American capitalists’ rights, either those in the tea business or those who were worried the Parliament would extend Tea Act-type laws to other kinds of merchandise. It didn’t help, of course, that one of the Parliament’s bright ideas had been to tax newspapers – the 1765 Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty, who organized to oppose British colonial policies from the Stamp Act to the Tea Act – were from the merchant class. They used the power of their presses and their positions in society to both instigate and control “the masses,” a dual task that was always problematic. It still is. That is David Brooks’ concern.

That capitalistic, “pro-America” view found its way into our Constitution. When conservatives tout originalist interpretations of the Constitution, they are being intellectually consistent. The founding fathers – and they were “fathers” – never envisioned the masses as equals. When the founders enscribed the first words of the Constitution in great big letters – “We the people” – they did not view “the people” as “the population.” “The people” they had in mind were people like themselves – a small group of white, male, landed aristocrats and businessmen.

The problem is that the Constitution is a document in tension with itself. Constitutional experts often describe that tension as one between rights and obligations, between liberty and order, or between one provision and another. But the Constitution also defines a federal government that is a “union” of states. That tension between states and the national government has never been, and likely will never be, resolved under the the Constitution as it stands today. While the central issue of the Civil War was slavery, Southerners are not entirely wrong when they claim the “War of Northern Aggression” was over states’ rights. The Civil War was, of course, a revolution over the Southern states’ rights to continue to enslave some of their residents, and ultimately, to opt out of the union.

For the founders, the states proved to be problematic from the get-go. Even to get the states to ratify the Constitution, the founders had to tack on a Bill of Rights. And the Constitution left the individual states – those “laboratories of democracy” – with the right to determine who, within their states, was qualified to vote. Initially, most of the states stuck with limiting voting rights to elite white males. But that standard changed rather quickly. “Jeffersonian Democracy” soon gave way to “Jacksonian Democracy,” a reaction to what Andrew Jackson called the “monopoly” of government by elites. By 1820, Jacksonians in most states had enacted suffrage laws enfranchising “the common man” and abolishing property tests. (Jackson also was a strong opponent of the Electoral College, but some bad ideas never die.) Over the years, four Constitutional Amendments and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further expanded the franchise to African-Americans, women, and the poor. This really was not what the founders had in mind.

The problem for today’s conservatives – the ideological heirs of the founders – in this messy democratization of power was how to control enfranchised “common people.” We are ever so unruly. David Brooks thinks he has the answer. Brooks is decidedly secular, and he is uncomfortable with the right’s employment of “the opiate of the masses” as an instrument of control. As he wrote in his “Conversation” with Collins,

Free market beliefs and socially conservative beliefs require each other, so long as those socially conservative beliefs are traditional, not theological…. When Rick Santorum talks about this stuff in the way he does, it’s theology, not sociology. And believe me, there are very few Americans who are strongly theological, even the ones who attend services every week.

Brooks, like Collins, does not care for “theologically”-inspired controls. He agrees that the government should stay out of people’s bedrooms. Still, he acknowledges that capitalism does “require a stringent and coherent social order to help guard against its savageries.” Brooks’ answer: secular family values mitigated by the advice of reasonable pundits like himself: “tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest.” This is why Brooks is so upset that, as he puts it, “People in the less educated classes … behave like libertines.” The masses are not behaving themselves, and Brooks thinks their faults can be largely attributed to the women in their “class.” As Brooks writes in the “Conversation,”

… the life script that many low-income women envision is simply not correct…. They see marriage as a culmination. They have kids, get a good job and make some money, and then they can afford the lovely wedding. That’s backward. For most people getting married is not the payoff after an upward climb it’s the tool to advance the upward climb. Married people save money. Married people have more settled habits. Married men are much more stable. When people marry first they are more likely to make it later.

These women are not “guarding against the savageries,” which threaten capitalism. They are not taking responsibility to educate their children. Now that lower-income women are earning more than the men of their economic class, and thus have more control over the purse strings than they did when patriarchal “traditional” families prevailed, they are steeped in “materialist values” and “rampant consumerism.” Don’t blame Mad men for making corporate products so appealing; don’t blame banks for loose credit, flim-flam mortgages and usurious interest rates; don’t blame George W. Bush for urging Americans to help with the war effort by “going shopping.” Blame women for falling for such encouragements.

To mitigate the “corrosive culture of greedy self-interest” so rampant among the women of the careless lower class and perhaps among a few Masters of the Universe, Brooks sees the need for “a spiritual public square.” This is where Brooks comes in. People should be turning to him and his ilk to learn how to conduct themselves. Mister Brooks is no Miss Manners, of course. He is writing of issues larger than thank-you notes and napkins. He has in mind to impose “Leave It to Beaver” standards on people of every economic circumstance. Brooks’ mythical cohesive family unit (apologies to the Coneheads) will instill order and useful habits on its members. Everyone will be like Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise:

This is a morality … that doesn’t try to perch atop the high ground of divine revelation.’… ‘[They] like spiritual participation but are cautious of moral crusades and religious enthusiasms…. They tolerate a little lifestyle experimentation, so long as it is done safely and moderately. They are offended by concrete wrongs, like cruelty and racial injustice, but are relatively unmoved by lies or transgressions that don’t seem to do anyone obvious harm…. This is a good morality for building a decent society.

Well, not just like the Bobos. Not everyone will be elite. But they will emulate the elites’ “good morality” and make of it all a “decent society.” If they follow the rules, a few of the working class could actually become Bobos.

We should not be surprised that in Brooks’ prescription for ensuring a “dynamic capitalism,” there is no mention of government’s role. Brooks thinks that proper social pressure and the examples of their betters will stifle the silly whims of shopgirls at the same time it will shame the few greedy capitalists into playing fair. No need for government regulation of Wall Street. What discomfits Brooks is all that theological moralizing. He refuses to acknowledge what people like Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich know – that to control the hoi polloi, you need a dramatic agenda to cleave them to your side. Whipping them into some fervor over issues with which they already agree in principle is a good way to inspire loyalty: ergo, crusade against flag-burning, abortion, earmarks, high gas prices, the government itself, whatever. Republicans’ “dramatic proposals” never infringe on free-market capitalism. They are disposable window-dressing.

Such is the conservative rationale for small government and tight controls of personal liberty. That it is utter fantasy which contradicts the history of the world and the most modest familiarity with human nature does not dissuade David Brooks, much less Karl Rove. And why should it? Their goals are anti-democratic. Their object is to control the populace in service of the elite. Fantasy is a tool in service of this campaign. If expediency means Rove promotes a slightly different path – a path which Brooks occasionally finds distasteful – it does not alter their shared goal. So this is what Brooks means when he writes, “I do think it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic.” In a well-controlled paternalistic society, in David Brooks’ view, government is not necessary. Social engineering will take care of everything.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com


Readers Comments (2)

  1. Mike Wagner says:

    “…for the sweep of history is wide and she reads decades just as easily as she reads individual years.” — Mikhail Bulgakov

    As does Ms. Burns in this piece that sweeps from the Confessions of St. Brooks to the founding fathers, then through two centuries to Rove & Gingrich. I didn’t see it before, but I’m now persuaded that it has been free-market capitalism all the way. The only new twist is the inconvenience of controlling the voting masses.

    It was a breakthrough for me. Ms. Burns is a great analyst.

    Brooks is lucky to have her as well, but who knows if he will benefit? He’s not exactly committed to the therapy. Time will tell. I’m sure there’s many more sessions to come. But at this point, he still has trouble with reality.

  2. alphonsegaston says:

    Agreed, Mike Wagner. Her articles should be required reading for Brooks. But can he follow her reasoning? I too am impressed with the linking of the Founding Fathers to today’s capitalists, which seems so simple once she puts it into words. While I knew all the facts which she uses to construct her argument, I never saw it quite that way.

    I did not know, however, that my hero Jackson was against the Electoral College.



Reload Image

More in NYT WRITERS/REPORTERS, REALITYCHEX (283 of 413 articles)
Khader Adnan