David Brooks

Why liberals are turning on their favorite conservative.

Cuddly to a fault

If a liberal who’s been mugged is a conservative, what’s a conservative who’s been mugged? Let’s ask David Brooks!

For the past few months, the lovable house conservative of the New York Times and satirical sociologist has been taking a beating. In April, Philadelphia’s Sasha Issenberg fact-checked Brooks’ articles about divided America and discovered that Brooks exaggerated and distorted differences between Red and Blue states to make his pop sociology even fizzier.

And since Brooks’ new book, On Paradise Drive, hit bookstores this month, Brooks’ erstwhile liberal friends have been thumping it—and him. In the New York Times Book Review, Brooks’ pal (and Slatefounding editor) Michael Kinsley jabbed Brooks’ supposed sociology as mere comic shtick. In Salon, Laura Miller wrote that Brooks has made a “brief, ignominious, muddy slide” from “amusing to annoying,” and reviewers in the Nation and the Washington Post Book Review likewise swung baseball bats at his kneecaps. Some switch has flipped: Journalist pals who used to chuckle at “liberals’ favorite conservative” now rage against him.

I haven’t talked to Brooks—who is a friendly acquaintance—since the pummeling started. But I expect he’s agonized and baffled by it. Why so much sneering? Why now?

Some of the reasons are obvious. As a conservative columnist at the Times—a job he has held since September 2003—Brooks is the steer at the steakhouse. Liberals who admired him when he was the jolly voice of reason at the Weekly Standard resent him now that he occupies the throne of American journalism.

And Brooks’ Times column is a drag. Occasionally he reminds us of his talent (and his enormous decency)—as when he gently mocks college admissions or pleads for gay marriage. But after 10 months, it’s become clear that he doesn’t have enough ideas—or anger—to sustain a twice-a-week column. (To be fair, few columnists do.) Consider what he’s done this month:

June 1: “Grading the President.” Almost a parody of an op-ed column, it examined a National Journal survey rating the Bush administration’s economic performance. Brooks eventually concured with National Journal’s grades, then offered an exhortation so tired it was almost Pfaffian: “Let’s address the long-term problems. Let’s talk about the consequences of the aging baby boomers. Let’s talk about reforming the tax code to encourage domestic savings.”

June 5: “Circling the Wagons” inaugurated a series of columns he plans to write on political polarization. He concludes—with solemn regret—that people pick political sides for emotional reasons, not rational ones.

June 8: Brooks credited Ronald Reagan with “a bold and challenging optimism.”

Week after week, Brooks has been dribbling out well-meaning and dreary sentiments: Let’s hear it for the “sensible majority” and “bipartisanship.” Let’s, but somewhere else.

The Brooks bashing can also be attributed to the fact that On Paradise Drive isn’t a particularly good book. A slapdash sequel to his bestselling Bobos in Paradise (what’s with all the Paradise, David?), On Paradise Drive smooshes together bits of comic anthropology (lists of consumer products, essentially) and a few smug chapters about how we Americans are great despite our shallow materialism, because we share a sense of grand mission. As Kinsley points out, a close look at its MO makes it hard to take him seriously as a social scientist and harder to take him lightly as a satirist.

But there’s another reason for the irritation with Brooks. The most interesting section of On Paradise Drive outlines Brooks’ notion that America has become a “cellular” instead of hierarchical nation. No single elite remains, he says. We all live cheerfully in our own separate tents, no group subordinate to any other. Everyone, in fact, feels happily superior to everyone else.

Everyone can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus. You can be an X Games celebrity and appear on ESPN2, or an atonal jazz demigod and be celebrated in obscure music magazines. … Perhaps you are an NRA enthusiast, an ardent Zionist, a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, a surfer, a neo-Confederate, or an antiglobalization activist. Your clique will communicate its code of honor, its own set of jokes and privileges. It will offer you a field of accomplishments and a system of recognition. You can look down from the heights of your own achievement at all those poor saps who are less accomplished in the field of say, antique-car refurbishing, Civil War reenacting, or Islamic learning. And you can feel quietly satisfied about your own self-worth.

The implication of cellularity for Brooks is that Americans get along by not paying attention to each other. Because we all get to achieve in our own way, we don’t need to lord it over others (or even notice them). There’s a sharp insight here: Cultural fragmentation has diffused hierarchy. But because Brooks believes in the primacy of culture, he seems to think that all that excelling means that we don’t clash. This is a delightful view to hold, and it certainly felt true in the late ‘90s, when Brooks was writing Bobos:The economy was booming, the world was at peace, and the big worries were stock options, lattes, and oral sex with interns.

But Brooks’ cellularity wishes away conflict. He ignores that not every distinction is cultural and that much more is at stake than self-esteem. His “antiglobalization activist” isn’t simply happy to wear his hemp shirt, as Brooks suggests; he also wants to shut down the polluting factory where the “Rush Limbaugh dittohead” works. And the “NRA enthusiast” actually believes the Islamic scholar is a probable terrorist who should be jailed or deported. Sometimes it’s not enough to “feel quietly satisfied about [our] own self-worth.” Sometimes we need to kick the other guy in the teeth. The stakes are real in America: We are constantly truncheoning each other for more money, more liberty, more power. By making Americans merely smug emperors of our own little consumer worlds, he ignores the bigger, brutal battles that we fight against each other.

And Brooks also ignores the even bigger, even more brutal battles that we are fighting in the world. Brooksianism helped set the table for the wars on terror and Iraq but ducks from their consequences. In 1997, Brooks wrote an influential manifesto for the Weekly Standard, “A Return to National Greatness.” Brooks claimed the United States was losing the sense of grand national mission that built the Panama Canal, conquered the West, won the Cold War, built the interstates, and walked on the moon. America needed to reanimate itself with a cause, and the federal government needed to “convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.” It didn’t really matter what the cause was—maybe colonizing Mars—but it had to be something.

Brooks’ “National Greatness” notion was again about American psychology and esteem. He overlooked actual events—that conquering the West meant killing Indians, that the Cold War meant Vietnam—because what mattered was the effect on the national psyche. 

National Greatness became a powerful idea in the Republican Party’s Teddy Roosevelt wing, and when Sept. 11 occurred, National Greatness found its cause: rooting out terror, bringing democracy to the Middle East. Brooks and his Weekly Standard colleagues called for war in Iraq, and Brooks preached about the noble benefits of democratizing the Arab world.

As the occupation has soured, Brooks has wilted. His columns have lost their swagger: “We’re a shellshocked hegemon,” he wrote last month. “This has been a crushingly depressing period.” Optimistic and conflict-averse, Brooks didn’t see how our good intentions could go wrong, because our superior ideas were bound to win the day. He has shied away from the bloody strife that is the requirement of his National Greatness ideas. At the pit of the prisoner-abuse scandal Brooks wrote:

There’s something about our venture into Iraq that is inspiringly, painfully, embarrassingly and quintessentially American. No other nation would have been hopeful enough to try to evangelize for democracy across the Middle East. No other nation would have been naive enough to do it this badly. No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we are about to do.

While other conservatives—Charles Krauthammer, his old boss William Kristol, President Bush—have the courage of their convictions and believe that Americans are killing and dying and torturing for a great cause, Brooks, squeamish, still sees it as a kind of academic dispute, where ideas can clash without bloodying noses. Tellingly, Brooks hasn’t gone to Iraq, perhaps because he doesn’t want to see what these ideas look like on the ground, even though he likes nothing so much as venturing into the hinterlands, then telling Washingtonians of the wonders beyond the Beltway. (This structure is the foundation of his two Paradise books).

In Brooks’ ideal world, Americans should all reasonably discuss the war, reach a consensus that it’s righteous, persuade Iraqis of same, and win. In real life, it is a much nastier business, and there is no consensus among Americans of either party about the morality of this war. In peace, Brooks’ genial mockery and optimism are delightful. In wartime, they’re a cheat. Other conservatives confront the ugliness and bloodshed of the occupation and redouble their commitment. Brooks, whose national-greatness ethos lent more energy to the war than anything his colleagues have written, will neither embrace the war, nor disown it, nor even look it square in the face. He hides.