David Brooks

Composure class.

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In a New Yorker essay of verve and power and wit, called “Social Animal”, bestselling author and New York Times political columnist David Brooks savagely indicts the emerging self-entitled, self-absorbed generation he has observed so keenly over many years. To Brooks, this has created an environment in which partisan politics was allowed to rise and then dominate the American political scene. It began, to some extent, with the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, but even more acutely with, as he puts it, the “Robert Bork proceedings, which had little to do with his abilities, and everything to do with his political record, which scared his opponents enough to attempt to crucify him, which they did.” Brooks is a prolific writer, and as such has become an important voice in the American cultural landscape. He was in Vancouver recently, to give a speech at the Bon Mot Book Club, and it was an opportunity to take an early morning, one-on-one coffee with him.

Brooks is not reticent in giving his opinions, but neither is he incautious. In fact, speaking with him about the current United States presidential campaign, it is almost impossible to discern any bias. And, yes, he has a thought about how it will all go. “I don’t think Mr. Trump will have enough legs to get the electoral votes he needs,” says Brooks. “It looks more like a Marco Rubio versus Hillary Clinton race, and that would be extremely close.” He smiles at the thought of another thin margin deciding the next president, and adds that “a tight race this time around does not bode well, necessarily, for any resolution in the lack of trust that is the norm in Washington these days.” The rise of Trump in the polls, his appeal to media outlets, is partially due to a clearly well-developed disapproval of politics and the way politicians actually practise it—something Trump has resolutely eschewed. “His popularity is tied to the American people’s disgust with how Washington works, or does not work, these days,” says Brooks.

His position at the Times is, for him, “wonderful in every way. I have what might be called complete academic freedom.” His terrain tends to be the pitched battle between what he terms conservatism and radicalism, the results of that giving rise to partisan politics and demeaning, perhaps even undermining, what we think of generally as democracy. Conservatism for Brooks comes out of a long historical tradition that includes Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which values and political process are not coddling the populace, but ensuring the common good is served, as part of the national good, by observing and adhering to America’s founding principles—while not shading towards partisan-related interpretations on either side of the ledger. His territory also, at times, includes how the next generations are growing into roles as shapers of American society. “The Organization Kid”, which appeared in The Atlantic, is based on his first-hand discussions with several Princeton University students, and led in part to his determination that students today are more accepting of authority, and are overwhelmingly busy, simply because they are extremely goal-oriented. This, for Brooks, means that anything like inner contemplation, circumspection, or consideration of more amorphous, philosophical issues is on the wane.

For him, there is also a “religious versus non-religious” struggle currently underway in politics. “I am not sure how that will resolve itself,” he says. “What I would not like to see is for the ruling class to project onto the younger generation the opportunity for jobs feeding only one project. Plurality, within the context of measured thought, is important.” He has written positively about both John McCain and Barack Obama, but that is not a contradiction. He is a “conservative, willing to engage with the liberals”, someone who advocates for change, but not the revolutionary kind. It is all about gradual, considered change, which is the only way to guarantee the future health of a country he clearly loves, even if he has a hard time respecting it at every step.

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March 14, 2016