The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.
“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”
We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.
Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.
Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because "I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone."
He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.
When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.
You just know a David Brooks column featuring the refrain, "my dream Obama would..." is going to be exasperating. And it is: especially when he suggests that his "dream Obama" could and should:
... talk obsessively about family structure and social repair. Every week we get another statistic showing how social and income inequality is dividing the nation. .... while childhood obesity is falling among kids whose parents graduated from college, it is still rising among kids whose parents have a high school degree or less.
Because of his upbringing, President Obama is uniquely qualified to talk about family structures. Traditional values are an investment in the young, and he could do what he can to restitch the social fabric.
It'll be tough to "restitch the social fabric" when you need at least one hand free to bend the arc of history, but no doubt President Obama believes he's up to the task. Still, why does David Brooks think it would help to have the president "talk obsessively about family structure and social repair"?
Barack Obama has been talking obsessively about capital-'h' Hope for nearly a decade, and during his administration, as with his predecessor's, many more Americans think the country's on the "wrong track" than think it's moving in the "right direction." (.pdf).
The evidence that the presidential "bully pulpit" reliably sways the public's policy preferences is weak enough, as Ezra Klein documents here. What evidence is there that presidential jawboning about family structures changes anyone's behavior? Birth rates for unmarried women went down in the era of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, resuming their upward trend under family values president George W. Bush. Do people really make their choices about marriage and family under the influence of presidential rhetoric or with an eye toward the example he sets?
The campaign Brooks envisions would be about as effective as Gerald Ford's little Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons. Maybe it's time for a little less magical thinking about our presidents.
In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray's thesis that "America is coming apart," and concludes that:
The country... needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires... building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.
For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local "common" or "public" schools usually paid tuition. Even "common" schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.
From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents' hands and place it under the control of state-trained, state-appointed experts.
Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of "organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly" are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children's education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned "free" schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.
Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k-12 education tax credit programs.
If Brooks wants "an organization and structure" that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. "Using government" to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.
Brad Thompson’s excellent new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, adroitly dissects this pernicious political philosophy. He has received some criticism for attempting to demonstrate that Leo Strauss, the philosophical godfather of so many neocons, had a certain sympathy with fascism. Indeed, while stating that he is not saying neoconservatives have fascist designs, Thompson does suggest that their philosophy could pave the way to a kind of “soft fascism.” Far be it from me to pass judgment on such academic debate, but it is interesting to consider the following from the noted neocon columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, writing in that paper on March 10:
Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.
With America in trouble, I've been pleased to see some fresh, innovative thinking emanating from Washington. What can brighten the country's future?
- Anne Applebaum proposes that
Institutions should do what they are good at. And the expansion of NATO is one of the few true post-Cold-War foreign-policy success stories...
We could continue that process. The stakes are lower — 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains — yes, really — an encouragement to others on Europe's borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine's geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try.
- David "National Greatness Conservatism" Brooks thinks he's found the solution: a "national greatness agenda" and a new political movement—maybe a third party!—whose "goal will be unapologetic: preserving American pre-eminence." This movement could seek to "end the mortgage deduction and tax employer health care plans and raise capital gains taxes and cut benefits for affluent seniors."
- Meanwhile, the Republican Party seems to think what the country needs is a good jolt of religion-infused nationalism.
With this sort of fresh, innovative thinking, maybe we can't miss!
I hope you missed David Brooks’ New York Times column recently extolling the virtues of excruciating pain. The op-ed, entitled, “A Case for Mental Courage,” is Brooks at his depressing, neocon worst. He starts out by describing in way too much detail the agony Fanny Burney, a early 19th century novelist, experienced when she had a mastectomy without anesthesia. “I then felt the Knife rackling against the breastbone…” and so on. Thanks for sharing, David, but, really, why? Well, because it turns out that heroism is to be found “in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.” Hmmm. The underlying major problem that afflicts our nation, says Brooks, is that capitalism has undermined the idea that people are “inherently sinful.” Our culture "places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness."
It also turns out that America is too “geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character building regime.” In the good old days, Brooks intones, “this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self-approval by staring straight at what was painful.” Sign me up, David, you neocons look like a fun bunch. How is it that Mencken defined a Puritan? Someone who lives in constant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time?
And therein lies the disconnect between most neoconservatives and America. Thomas Jefferson (someone who always liked to have a good time, if you get my drift) put it right there in the Declaration: We are going to be a nation that recognizes the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Mastectomies sans anesthesia would not seem to fall into the category of the pursuit of happiness.
We should celebrate the fact that the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit -- something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism. Some years back, Brooks wrote, “ultimately American purpose can find its voice only in Washington…individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.” That philosophy, of course, was tried a couple of times in the 20th century and found a bit wanting. Especially if you count the tens of millions of human beings who died because of it. On the other hand, they did suffer.
- Confirmation hearings are a "vapid and hollow charade", or at least that's what Elena Kagan wrote fifteen years ago. National Review Online invited me to contribute to a symposium on how Republican senators can keep the coming hearings from becoming such a charade, with results that can be found here.
- The First Amendment has been among Kagan's leading scholarly interests, and yesterday in this space Ilya Shapiro raised interesting questions of whether she will make an strong guardian of free speech values. Eugene Volokh looks at her record and guesses that she might wind up adopting a middling position similar to that of Justice Ginsburg. As Radley Balko and Jacob Sullum have noted, the departing John Paul Stevens ran up at best a mixed record on First Amendment issues, so the overall impact on the Court is far from clear.
- Kagan's other main scholarly topic has been administrative and regulatory law, and Nate Oman at Concurring Opinions warns that everything in her career "suggests that she is intellectually geared to look at the regulatory process from the government’s point of view." Oman took an advanced seminar she taught, and brings back this cautionary report:
It was an interesting class, mainly focused on the competition between bureaucrats and political appointees. In our discussions businesses were always conceptualized as either passive objects of regulation or pernicious rent-seekers. Absent was a vision of private businesses as agents pursuing economic goals orthogonal to political considerations. We were certainly not invited to think about the regulatory process from the point of view of a private business for whom political and regulatory agendas represent a dead-weight cost.
- I'm not the only one who finds Kagan's exclusion of military recruiters at Harvard wrongheaded, even while agreeing with her in opposing the gay ban. Peter Beinart made that argument in a widely noted post at The Daily Beast last month and now has a followup. Former Harvard law dean Robert Clark is in the Wall Street Journal today (sub-only) with an argument that Kagan's policy was a continuation of his own and represented the sense of the law faculty as a whole. Emily Bazelon points out that the recruitment bar was overwhelmingly popular at top law schools at the time, an argument that as Ramesh Ponnuru points out may raise more questions than it answers. And Ilya Somin cautions against assuming that the wrongheadedness reflects any specifically anti-military bias.
- One of John Miller's readers recalls John Hasnas's wise words on "empathy" in judging. David Brooks at the Times runs with the "Revenge of the Grinds" theme. SCOTUSblog rounds up some other reactions (with thanks for the link). And Brad Smith, writing at Politico, advises us to be ready should Citizens United come up at the hearing.