Monday, October 29, 2012

David Brooks and his Milquetoast Moderates

A few days ago David Brooks wrote an interesting column about an imaginary brand of "moderate voter". Oh, not completely imaginary, but certainly rare enough not to be a factor in any given election, certainly not the type to be duped by the partisanship Brooks dribbles into his column. I'm left wondering, did Brooks write this column because he wants to flatter low-information voters who, even at this stage of the game, are undecided and would prefer to embrace the conceit that their inability to decide which candidate to support results from their being deep thinkers wrestling with deep issues? Or is it that he truly believes that there's a significant class of undecided "moderates" who fit his definition, and nonetheless condescends to them in a manner their certain to see through? My guess is that, as with Douthat, it's the former. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to see a major pundit reject the Beltway conceit that "moderate" politicians advancing "bipartisan" ideas are the cure to our nation's woes. Brooks is correct that merely seeking out the "midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there" does not make you a moderate. Regrettably, Brooks' notion of what it means to actually be a moderate is not much better than the conception so often advanced by his peers.
Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.
Part of that is fair: a moderate of this stripe would be something of an intellectual, and thus would look to and attempt to learn from history. But how in the world does Brooks come to the idea that you can understand the history and underpinning philosophy of our country while rejecting philosophy. Does he think that the thinkers who influenced the path of post-Revolutionary America, for example Montesquieu and Thomas Paine, were historians? That the Federalist Papers are studies of history? What in the world does it mean to "revere" as "fact" the concept that "we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream" devoted to meritocracy and advancement? And how would Brooks have us reconcile that so-called "fact", which is in fact a philosophy, with... the actual facts on American economic mobility? Brooks continues,
This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.
So a moderate is like... a feng shui interior decorator, always trying to seek harmony and balance? Less concerned with whether a solution is right or wrong, but instead about whether the chairs and tables are correctly positioned? Why... yes, that does seem to be how Brooks views moderation:
The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced.
So a moderate, having embraced the concept that "we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream", would confront the anti-immigrant sentiments in states like Arizona and... what? Attempt to seek "balance" between his core belief in immigration and people who want to close our borders to pretty much any immigration? A moderate, having embraced the Horatio Alger myth as an American ideal, would confront the facts of inequality and a Mitt Romney-type attitude of "If you don't pay federal taxes, you don't matter to me," by... what? If in fact the moderate embraces the core beliefs described by Brooks, how does he advance "balance" when a political party or candidate openly rejects those core beliefs? Brooks never makes clear what a moderate would do in the present political environment. But he does contend that Romney's latest revision of his core beliefs, his attempt to distance himself from his anti-immigrant, anti-equality rhetoric of only a few months ago, is an aggressive appeal to moderate voters. Well, no, not unless they're stupid. Brooks continues,
[A moderate] understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.
By that measure, President Obama led the nation as a moderate, only to be rebuffed by the opposition party. President Clinton's triangulation, arguably, would also be recast as moderation; or would that be the staking out of the middle ground that Brooks rejects? One way or another, it appears that Brooks has little regard for how moderation of one form or another plays itself out in our political system.
Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve kept a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power. At any moment, new historical circumstances, like industrialization or globalization, might upset the balance. But the political system gradually finds a new equilibrium.
But that balance certainly is not because our nation has been governed by moderates. It's much more the result of our system of government having incorporated serious impediments to dramatic change, and a constitution that forces a significant degree of balance between state and federal power. There's a reason that Brooks does not give one concrete example of a moderate of his conception having led the nation through a difficult time. One who has led our nation at any time. Even one name. It's because Brooks' brand of moderation is a form of intellectualism that does not stand up well to politics. You don't take a policy white paper to a politics fight.

Brooks did qualify his statement about moderation, expressing that in "most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view". But let's take a step back and look at how that played out through American history. For much of our nation's history, it might have been accepted that opponents of slavery "had a point", but we nonetheless maintained and legally enforced chattel slavery. For almost a century afterward, opponents of legally enforced racial segregation "had a point", but we nonetheless maintained and legally enforced racial segregation. Proponents of women's suffrage "had a point", but the larger societal view was that women shouldn't vote.

If somebody were to now advance the position that slavery should be reintroduced or that women should be stripped of their right to vote, Brooks would likely say that those arguments fall outside of the sphere for which there are two partially true points of view. But that's not because of a victory of his brand of "moderate" - the type who would have sought to bring into balance the two competing philosophies. It's because people with what were then extreme political positions worked hard, often at significant peril to themselves, to advance those agendas until they won the public debate, brought about massive societal change, and created a context in which what was once acceptable is now viewed as unacceptable.

Brooks' "moderate" is more of a philosophical traffic cop:
The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.
But sometimes you need to climb off the fence and take a side. Sometimes the "new equilibrium" is what you achieve after upsetting the apple cart, not the sort of careful balancing that Brooks proposes. Sometimes if you embrace that form of "moderation" you end up holding society back or perpetuating a wrong. Sometimes the conceit that you are a "moderate" and "above the fray" is a rationalization or excuse used by somebody who has not though through the issues well enough to pick a side.

Brooks compounds his error,
The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right.
If that's true, Brooks' moderate is a moral coward. Given that Brooks clearly thinks of himself as one of these "above-the-fray, all-seeing, soloution-seeking moderates", that would certainly be quite a condemnation of self. But if Brooks admits the obvious truth - that there are policies that, once implemented, make it obvious that the policy that came before was wrong-headed, even destructive, his conceit collapses.

Somebody might respond that you need to separate social issues from legal issues - that you can be a political "moderate" of the type Brooks describes while adhering to social views driven by something other than fact or history. The problem with that is, the key problems of our time are driven by an attempt to balance social and economic interests. If you say that reproductive freedoms are a social issue, you're taking the position that the government can pass laws that principally restrict the rights and freedom of women. And how far can one push such a distinction before we're back to talking about segregation or slavery. If you take the position that society owes no duty to the poor, not even to poor children, there's no discussion to be had on how to balance those interests against a balanced budget or low taxes.

Before making that absurd claim, Brooks retreats a bit to his conception of the moderate as an intellectual:
The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.
That's reasonable enough. A moderate would attempt to find solutions based upon fact, not upon ideology. You don't start with the assumption that your solution will fix whatever's wrong - you look at the problem and then try to identify the best tools to fix it. While Brooks goes a bit soft with his notion of balance - this notion that a good "moderate" is always trying to restore and maintain equilibrium rather than rejecting an idea that should be properly placed in history's trash heap, there are issues for which the best we can do is seek some sort of balance suitable to the era. Brooks lists "equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism"; again, those sound arguments largely informed by philosophy, but history will often give you a sense of what is likely to work or to be accepted by the public.

Also, are "equality" and "achievement" actually in tension? Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush could certainly attest to the fact that starting from a position of privilege helps you achieve far beyond what you would be likely to accomplish from the starting point of a typical American. Of the three, George H.W. Bush might even admit that obvious fact. Brooks laments "inequality" in America, but makes no case that you cannot decrease inequality without also reducing "achievement" - one could argue that creating a more equal starting point, not dragging down the top but giving a boost to capable people at the bottom, will significantly increase achievement. But I overanalyze - it appears that Brooks is talking about affirmative action, but wants to tiptoe around the subject matter rather than attacking it directly. (I doubt that he's talking about legacy admissions - those, after all, reflect parental "achievement", right?)

For those of us who favor seeking good policy solutions to chronic problems, there's certainly appeal to the argument that you should start by looking at the facts and then try to find the best solution that's likely to get past the legislature and be signed into law - I'm not certain that Brooks can be arm-twisted into admitting it, but that's how we ended up first with Romneycare and later with Obamacare.

Alas, Brooks cannot resist his usual partisan nonsense,
For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.
That is to say there is a "certain sort of conservative" who rejects fact-based solutions in favor of ideology, namely the type who would sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. That would be about 236 out of 242 Republican Members of Congress, and 40 out of 47 Republican Senators. You may as well say "The Republican Party". On the other hand you have this "liberal [who believes that] tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer" who... appears to exist solely in David Brooks' imagination. If Brooks wants us to believe that he, personally, favors fact-driven analysis in pursuit of balance, he certainly picked odd examples.

Brooks tells us more about his brand of "moderate" - being a moderate does not mean being "tepid" and can mean simultaneously pressing for hard change in two directions. It's a "distinct ethical disposition" (ethical, but not philosophical?) suspicious of imbalance not only in others but in herself. (Introspection = good.) Brooks' moderate is suspicious of "passionate intensity and bold simplicity" and admires "self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise". Brooks' moderates either don't mind or prefer to be categorized as feminine (I don't specifically recall a column in which Brooks so conspicuously and consistently references his subject as "she")... which, frankly, makes the column seem a bit like a push for undecided women to vote for Romney - the politician he purports to now be "pander[ing] to the moderate mind-set". I guess that's his form of balance - vote for the candidate who has taken every position on every issue and assume that it all averages out?

Brooks tells us,
There are many moderates in this country, but they have done a terrible job of organizing themselves, building institutions or even organizing around common causes.
You could say the same thing of libertarians, except that we can point to actual people who organize as libertarians and say, "That's what a libertarian looks like". For Brooks' brand of moderates, you can assume that David Brooks would be able to at least find himself, but... if he possesses the level of introspection he insists defines his brand of "moderate", he appears to be excluding even himself. More to the point, to organize politically you need to have a common set of beliefs or values, and "everybody else is wrong" isn't going to work. A group of Brooks' moderates might have a wonderful coffee house debate over the issues of the day and where balance properly lies, but they're unlikely to leave their debate having reached a consensus. And by Brooks' definition, at the very next meeting whatever agreement was previously reached goes out the window, because the balance point is constantly shifting.

As with the forces that led to the financial industry deregulation that contributed to the financial industry collapse, sometimes things are already pretty much in balance when one side starts arguing for an extremist position, and it's all too easy for a Brooks-style centrist to believe he's staking out a new middle ground when he's in fact embracing a policy change that throws the system out of balance.

Brooks also embraces the conceit that his form of "moderation" can be played out in words, starting weeks or days before an election, and that if a politicians words feel good as they slither down your ear canal you should ignore all that came before. What actual moderate, informed by history, would trust such a politician? And why, given that Brooks so recently rejected the notion that moderation leads to success in Washington, is Brooks pushing the notion that Romney is a moderate, or at least is suddenly and conveniently putting on a moderate's clothing?

I have no objection to the notion that our system would be more effective if it were more intellectual, more focused on policy, more willing to reject ideology that gets in the way of good policy formation, and to some degree Brooks endorses such a vision. I don't have a problem with the argument that there is a point at which we must balance what we should do against what we can do - that a cost-benefit analysis must come into play. Alas, although one could argue that those philosophies are part of what Brooks argues, he ends up endorsing a sort of fence--sitting, balance-seeking, mythology-driven centrism, uninformed by either a coherent philosophy or an accurate view of history, and in essence endorsing polite acquiescence in a status quo that may in fact be immoral or otherwise unacceptable.

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