David Brooks, champion of the people?

The right-wing columnist used my work to bash Dean and MoveOn as elitists -- conveniently ignoring the big-money interests that pull the GOP's strings.

Published February 8, 2005 3:43PM (EST)

Are MoveOn.org and Howard Dean, who is about to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee, major threats to democracy in America -- and bastions of elitism within the Democratic Party? That is what David Brooks would have us believe. His Feb. 5 Op-Ed column in the New York Times invoked my 2003 book, "Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life," in support of the notion that a secularist, "newly dominant educated class" is using advocacy groups and Internet fundraising to take over the Democratic Party. In Brooks' vision of politics, Republicans have meanwhile morphed into a true party of ordinary people.

I was not a "Deaniac" in the 2004 election, but I must protest the way Brooks has used my research to support his claims. Democrats today certainly face challenges in building broad coalitions of educated professionals and populist supporters. But MoveOn and the Dean campaign have gotten more people involved, not fewer, in the party. Republicans, meanwhile, can hardly brag that they represent the values of ordinary Americans. Their effort to destroy the popular and inclusive Social Security program, a plan hatched by ultra-right advocacy groups and think tanks, is a textbook case of manipulative elitism and faux-populist conservatism.

Brooks got part of my argument right. For much of U.S. history, large voluntary associations and social movements mobilized millions of Americans from all walks of life to become active in community life and national politics. Reform crusades, fraternal associations, women's federations, veterans associations, farm organizations and trade unions all encouraged members to meet regularly and pool their energies to affect social trends and political decisions at the local, state and national level. Women's groups championed programs for families and children; trade unions and fraternal groups supported Social Security; and the American Legion -- a rather conservative veterans association -- wrote and lobbied for the G.I. Bill of 1944, one of the most generous social programs in American history.

But voluntary associations changed rapidly after the 1960s. Many that linked men or women across class lines went into sharp decline, with aging memberships and faltering local chapters. Battered by opposition from business as well as industrial shifts, blue-collar trade unions also went into a free fall. Meanwhile, professionally run advocacy groups proliferated.

Big social and political changes converged to remake the face of American civic democracy after 1960. The civil rights and feminist movements challenged the racism and gender segregation of traditional membership associations. Foundation grants, television and computers made it easy for educated professionals to launch single-issue national associations without regular members or local chapters. In the late 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of freshly fashioned advocacy groups, think tanks and PACs pursued liberal causes such as equal rights for women and environmentalism. By the 1980s, conservatives had counterattacked, founding their own professionally run groups, mostly funded by the very wealthy, to advocate for causes such as lower taxes, deregulation of business, "family values" and opposition to abortion.

Through the 1990s, conservatives became more adept than liberals at building bridges between professionally run groups and surviving voluntary associations, learning to coordinate with evangelical churches and groups like the National Right to Life Association and the National Rifle Association. The Republican Party mobilized millions and reaped the benefits in the voting booth. By contrast, most of the Democratic Party's advocacy groups lacked local roots or the capacity to mobilize large numbers of citizens into politics. Issues also divided Democrats, as old-style New Deal liberalism was often at odds with "new" liberalism and public interest liberalism.

Brooks reports these findings from my research accurately enough, but he presents an oddly one-sided and partisan picture of elitist threats in American politics and civic life today. True, just as educated middle-class people often send checks to public interest advocacy groups, liberals with college degrees may appear in disproportionate numbers on the e-mail lists of MoveOn.org and the Dean campaign. But both of these efforts at mobilization have surely expanded the ranks of people involved in politics, reducing the sway of big donors and "insider" professional consultants in the Democratic Party.

The Dean campaign encouraged voters to gather in one another's houses, not just send checks to a central office. And not all "educated class" Americans (Brooks' phrase) live in Berkeley, Calif., or Cambridge, Mass. My sister is a librarian in West Virginia who regularly gives small amounts to support MoveOn's ad campaigns -- which, Brooks to the contrary, are mounted on populist issues as well as in opposition to the Iraq war. These days, for example, MoveOn is running a campaign to expose the huge cuts in guaranteed Social Security benefits that privatization would entail. Republicans are suing to stop the campaign -- obviously concerned that it might resonate with ordinary voters well beyond Berkeley.

Brooks is not entirely wrong about tensions among more and less privileged Democrats. But notice that he never mentions class tensions and advocacy ideologues in the Republican Party.

Right after the 2004 election, President Bush and many of his party and elite allies suddenly claimed a mandate to "reform" Social Security, going to great lengths to disguise the fact that the reform they favor would actually unravel Social Security in short order. Conservatives' campaign to sell the privatization of Social Security is a prime example of the manipulative elitism that now dominates so much of the Republican Party's agenda. Republicans may have populist allies when patriotism and certain lifestyle issues appear to be at stake, but when it comes to tax cuts for the rich and social policy cuts for the majority they disguise what they are doing -- because on these matters ordinary Americans, even those who vote Republican, do not always share the values and priorities of Republican business supporters and ideological elites.

Even conservative Christian associations allied with the Republican Party are wary about trying to persuade their members to buy into Social Security privatization. Crucial for the poor, the disabled, survivors of deceased workers and the elderly, Social Security is a supremely pro-family program. Its decent retirement benefits are guaranteed for life, allowing beneficiaries to live in dignity and freeing working parents to invest in their children's future (rather than devoting most of their time and resources to caring for Grandma and Grandpa). Ideologues who want to shatter Social Security into millions of isolated market accounts know that they can succeed only by bamboozling large numbers of people -- labeling modest, long-term problems an immediate "crisis" and failing to own up to the cuts they plan in guaranteed benefits.

Although Brooks implies that the Republican Party is the true populist party these days, the party did not adopt the privatization proposal at the urging of voluntary, grass-roots membership associations or a broad-based social movement. Bush got the idea from right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. What's more, the privatization campaign has been fueled by big-money donors who favor unfettered markets and, in many cases, hope to profit from fees paid by the government to Wall Street for managing the new private accounts. Democrats should no doubt be touched that Brooks is so worried about the challenges our party faces in building broad coalitions and appealing to vast numbers of ordinary citizens -- in both red and blue states. But since 2000, when the need to hang together became starkly clear, Democrats, organized in all kinds of associations, have been trying hard to bridge the concerns of different social constituencies. Still, Democrats do need to take care lest single-issue causes appealing to the privileged take our focus away from broad appeals to average citizens, many of whom have not been to college.

But Brooks should worry more about the elitist ideologues and unhinged advocacy groups in his own party and movement. Perhaps he should pursue a sociology of "W. Bushism," examining how the pet causes of right-wing think tanks could undercut the populist appeal of Republicans. Right-wingers determined to fetter government as a tool for spreading opportunity and ensuring security for most citizens are much more of an elitist threat to American democracy than "Deanism." Before long, millions of voters may come to realize this.

By Theda Skocpol

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology, and director of the Center for American Political Studies, at Harvard University.

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David Brooks Democratic Party Howard Dean Liberalism Moveon.org Populism Republican Party Social Security