David Brooks long ago appointed himself the moral scold and philosopher kinglet of American society. For years he has pontificated about the importance of “moderation” and “epistemic humility” and the dangers of “incivility.” Without any sense of irony or performative contradiction, this pseudo-philosophic prepster has lectured intellectuals, most of whom spend their days toiling in classrooms and offices of schools not named Yale or Harvard, about their distance from the common people. David Brooks is an annoying, self-important windbag. And his column today, entitled “A Complete National Disgrace,” surpasses all previous columns in its idiocy.
This is his lead: “Over the past few years, hundreds of organizations and thousands of people (myself included) have mobilized to reduce political polarization, encourage civil dialogue and heal national divisions. The first test case for our movement was the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s clear that at least so far our work is a complete failure.” Talk about the narcissism of minor differences. Apparently since the Times has a daily circulation of almost 600,000 readers, Brooks is now a social movement leader. And the current controversy over Kavanaugh is all about him. If only we would listen better.
The “disgrace”: it’s all about “tribalism.” “Base mobilization” at the expense of “reason” and “persuasion.” “Polarization” at the expense of comity. Worst of all, there is “an epidemic of bigotry.” This sharpest of thinkers ought to be allowed to speak for himself:
“Bigotry involves creating a stereotype about a disfavored group and then applying that stereotype to an individual you’ve never met. It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke lacrosse scandal. This past month we’ve seen thousands of people convinced that they know how Kavanaugh behaved because they know how “privileged” people behave. We’ve seen thousands of people lining up behind Kavanaugh because they know that there’s this vicious thing called “the Left,” which hates them.”
I don’t believe this statement requires much gloss. The equivalences it posits are most striking. I think it does not require much Platonic profundity to observe that the “bigotries” noted above fall into two basic categories: on the one hand, serious forms of politically mobilized resentment that target large groups of people who are already marginal, and who are thus rendered objects of persecution; and on the other hand, antipathy toward isolated individuals who are distinguished above all by their privilege.
That Brooks, who has long bloviated about “moral sense,” cannot discern the difference here is stunning. For the difference is fundamental, morally and also politically. Even-handed Pontificator that he is, Brooks simply cannot bring himself to think, much less to say, what is obvious: that we are currently being governed by an authoritarian President with neo-fascist leanings, who rose to power by mobilizing racism against the Central Park five, and Barack Obama, and Mexicans and Muslims; who has reduced the entire Republican party to his tool; and who is now joining with McConnell, Grassley, and the rest to blame the Kavanaugh fiasco on a “vast left-wing conspiracy.” This President gives Hitlerian stump speeches to thousands on an almost daily basis, whipping up his base. He lies, denounces, dissimulates, and colludes in the obstruction of justice. And on the other side, we have Corey Booker challenging poor Brett Kavanaugh, an obviously oppressed Yale Legacy Graduate who is a very rich and very powerful man regardless of whether or not he is confirmed.
But the most stunning claim in Brooks’s piece comes earlier, in his insistence that the Kavanaugh hearings were a simple enactment of small-mindedness: “These narratives were about what did or did not happen at a party 36 years ago. There was nothing particularly ideological about the narratives, nothing that touched on capitalism, immigration or any of the other great disputes of national life.”
Here is a philosophical question for David Brooks to ponder: is it possible for a holier-than-thou moralizer to actually put his own head up his own ass?
Here’s one ideological question Brooks might wish to consider: Do women’s rights matter? Does it matter that a man is being elevated to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court who is not simply an on-the-record foe of reproductive freedom but a man with a very questionable history of dealing with women and of participating in a culture of frat-boy sexism?
Here’s another ideological question worth considering: does it matter that our government is being reshaped in ways large and small by an authoritarian President with a far-right agenda who now has his hands on all three branches of the national government, and who governs, corruptly, without any accountability?
Two days ago Fox News declared that: “Anti-Kavanaugh protestors accosting senators have ties to Soros.” This has been a constant refrain in recent days. This morning Donald Trump Tweeted this: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers.” Less than an hour ago Chuck Grassley stood on the floor of the Senate and declared: “What left wing groups and their Democratic allies have done to Judge Kavanaugh is nothing short of monstrous. They have encouraged mob rule.”
We have long known that Trump and his enablers draw regularly from the authoritarian playbook of such stellar embodiments of Public Reason as Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Vladimir Putin. This is what we now face. The credible sexual assault charges again Brett Kavanaugh, which remain not taken seriously by the Senate or the FBI, have brought us to the point where the Republicans will do everything in their power to steam-roll Kavanaugh’s confirmation and simultaneously to wage a red-baiting campaign against “the left” for having the temerity to insist on a serious inquiry.
Liberal democracy is in jeopardy.
And David Brooks continues to bloviate about the “toxicity” of our political environment. If only we would be more “balanced” in our commitments. In a moment of rare insight, he writes that our politics “is polluted by the specific toxic emissions we all produce in our low moments. Those emissions have to be precisely identified, classified, called out as shameful . . . The Kavanaugh hearings were a look in the mirror.”
I wonder: when was the last time that Brooks has looked in the mirror?
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.