David Brooks’ Scant Self-Awareness

Above it all

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This morning, David Brooks published an enigmatic column titled “The Thought Leader” that basically offers a satirical recounting of the life and times of a member of America’s opinion elite. The column set off a lot of intra-office debate, in part over the question of how self-aware Brooks was while writing the piece. Something I learned in the discussion is that Brooks and his longtime wife, Sarah, were getting divorced as of last month. That’s an awful experience, and it’s hard not to feel sad for anyone going through it.

At the same time, I really do think it puts the question of self-awareness squarely on the table. Brooks’ columns have frequently worried about the “dangerous level of family breakdown” in America, and have specifically put this crisis of family stability at the center of class politics. You’ll never see a Lorenz curve plotting the drastically inegalitarian distribution of capital in the United States in a David Brooks column. Instead you’ll hear about how that kind of thing is a distraction from the real issue of the lower orders’ own misbehavior:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

Brooks urges the left to drop the “materialist fallacy” and embrace “bourgeois paternalism” as the only real hope for social uplift.

If Brooks were a truly self-aware columnist, I think this is the issue he’d be revisiting in light of the breakdown of his own marriage. My anecdotal experience growing up in affluent circles in Manhattan was that parental marriage disruption is very hard on kids, even on rich kids. But that’s hard meaning that it’s sad, not meaning that it’s a substantial barrier to the kids going to college and maintaining a high socioeconomic status. My guess is that Brooks’ kids will find their parents’ breakup to be pretty upsetting but that they’ll also get along fine in life, possessing all the various advantages that come from being David Brooks’ children.

But based on Brooks’ previous writing I take it he disagrees and sees marital stability per se as the key to the elite class’s ability to reproduce itself:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

No disagreement that the time and money spent on enrichment are a big boost here, but that sounds a lot like a materialist fallacy. How about the organized families part? Is the Brooks family breakdown consigning them to misery? Does he need a good dose of bourgeois paternalism from the rest of us? Or does he recognize now that money is really useful in papering over lots of different kinds of problems, and maybe working class kids would be better off if they and their parents had more of it? Otherwise, I think there’s not much more self-reflection here than the time Brooks assigned his own columns as required reading for a class on humility.