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David Brooks Means Well, But...
What if he's not a bad guy but just a wrong guy?
I write not to bury David Brooks, but to assess him.
Full disclosure: I have had a weakness for his prose style ever since Bobos in Paradise.1 Despite my myriad disagreements with his political analysis in recent years, I think he means well. He yearns for a time when social mobility seemed high, political polarization seemed low, and Americans elided any talk about how marginalized groups were marginalized. I certainly yearn for the days of higher social mobility and greater social cohesion. He seems himself as a broker between the Americas that do not talk to each other.
The ideal that we’re all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves….
It’s easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would conclude that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault — and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class. He understood that it’s not the entrepreneurs who seem most threatening to workers; it’s the professional class. Trump understood that there was great demand for a leader who would stick his thumb in our eyes on a daily basis and reject the whole epistemic regime that we rode in on.
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At a superficial level this is a quasi-plausible analysis of what happened in 2016, even if some of his evidence does not quite show what he thinks it shows.23 If this had been published seven years ago, it would have been trenchant.
In 2023, there’s so much to pick apart. The most important point is that the general correlations Brooks takes for granted are not necessarily true, as the 2020 election demonstrated. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explained, “In 2020, 53% of Biden voters didn’t have a college degree, vs. 46% who did, per Pew. Yes, that's more lopsided for Trump (31-70). But the Dem anti-Trump coalition has a lot of the ‘less educated class’ in it. The two coalitions don’t look that different in this regard. Notably, Biden won a huge majority of nonwhite voters without a college degree.” Nicholas Grossman noted another contradictory data point from the 2020 election: Biden beat Trump in the under-$50,000-a-year demographic 57% to 41%; he lost the over-$100,000-a-year demographic to Trump 54% to 43%.
Another problem is Brooks’ assumption of a world in which every elite institution is dominated by progressive elites. Grossman punctured the myth that Brooks sells of an establishment that is the exclusive preserve of homogenous elites:
To claim progressive elites control all of America’s important institutions, you first have to define the following as powerless:
The Supreme Court, many lower courts, U.S. Senators, the Electoral College, states (including two of the biggest, Texas and Florida), the most-watched news network, some of the most-read websites, some of the biggest podcasts, the most shared pundits on Facebook, a bunch of religious institutions (that don’t have to pay taxes), a lot of the business world (energy, finance, agriculture, etc.), police unions, and more.
You also need to ignore any distinction between the progressive left and the centrist establishment that leftists deride, and to employ a narrowly social conservative definition of left and right.
Grossman’s point was even more true when the Republicans dominated all the branches of government during the first two years of the Trump administration. As I noted at the time, whatever one thinks about technocrats, Trump revealed that the alternatives were worse:
Introspection is a thing of the past. Because I look at this president and his foreign policy team, and I just can’t stop laughing….
How bad is this situation? I look at Trump, at McMaster, at Tillerson, and conclude, ‘Yeah, I could do better.’….
Many smart critics of American foreign policy disdained Trump but disdained the smugness of the foreign affairs elite at least as much. Trump’s performance to date has probably been the worst of all worlds for them. They know that Trump is incompetent. And now they’re seeing the foreign policy community shed any doubts that might have emerged about their core beliefs. Because the Trump administration’s performance to date suggests that yes, the alternatives were far worse.
Brooks is trying to explain the MAGA crowd to his socioeconomic strata, but in the process I think he has frozen them in amber from seven years ago. He writes, “If distrustful populism is your basic worldview, the Trump indictments seem like just another skirmish in the class war between the professionals and the workers, another assault by a bunch of coastal lawyers who want to take down the man who most aggressively stands up to them.”
Fair enough, but I’m not sure that slice of the American public is as large as he thinks it is. Even those New York Times/Siena polls demonstrated that anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of Republicans have turned their back on Donald Trump. And a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed even bigger problems for Trump if he’s convicted:
The two-day Reuters/Ipsos poll, which closed before Trump's late-afternoon court appearance, asked respondents if they would vote for Trump for president next year if he were “convicted of a felony crime by a jury.” Among Republicans, 45% said they would not vote for him, more than the 35% who said they would.
Asked if they would vote for Trump if he were “currently serving time in prison,” 52% of Republicans said they would not, compared to 28% who said they would.
I see a country with too many cross-cutting cleavages to fit Brooks’ simple and simplistic dichotomy.
David Brooks means well, he really, really does. I have zero problem with elite introspection as faith in American institutions crumbles. Maybe I would have bought what he was selling if it was 2016.
But it’s 2023. Those dogs don’t hunt anymore.
EXAMPLE #1: “During his presidency, Barack Obama used the word ‘smart’ in the context of his policies over 900 times. The implication was that anybody who disagreed with his policies (and perhaps didn’t go to Harvard Law) must be stupid.” I mean, give me a fucking break.
EXAMPLE #2: To show how elites now dominate certain professional enclaves, Brooks writes, “A 2018 study found that more than 50 percent of the staff writers at the beloved New York Times and The Wall Street Journal attended one of the 29 most elite universities in the nation.” Replace the word “beloved” with “elite” in that quote and one begins to recognize the tautology in that sentence. It would be like complaining that the NFL has too many SEC alums.