Grading David Brooks' random thoughts: The world is great! But we need aristocracy?

The exhausted NYT columnist argues that things aren't so bad after all, though bad enough to eliminate democracy

Published September 23, 2014 6:23PM (EDT)

David Brooks                                 (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

It's fairly well established by this point that New York Times columnist David Brooks is a strange bird. He ran out of his enthusiasm for generating coherent policy ideas some years ago. Which is fine -- politics is exhausting, it's much more fun to just read books or watch TV or sit on a park bench eating potato chips -- but he's still got these 800-word columns to fill twice a week. Weirdly enough, that makes Late-Era Brooks a font of spontaneous amusement: You never know what arbitrary thoughts he's going to jot down from column to column. One day it's Here are some cool books, I guess?; another day it's Friends are good, and stuff. We are blessed to witness a New York Times columnist's rapid descent into permanent ennui.

But when a person completely gives up on making crisp political arguments and instead just types up random thoughts until he hits his word limit, we get the sort of jumbled mess that exists today: a bunch of strong and perhaps even necessary stray points in the service of, juxtaposed against, or just adjacent to, a bizarre central argument. Let's call today's fire sale of Brooks' remaining mental inventory the Stuff isn't so bad but also we need to restore aristocracy? column.

Brooks begins by noting that New York City is really nice these days. "There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools," he writes. "I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better." New York City: doin' all right. Noted.

He broadens this observation to the rest of the country, and the world, giving way to the strongest part of his column: despite the constant muttering and bitching about Global Decline and how things have never been worse, that's not really true, and some sobriety is in order. It's not the go-go '90s anymore, but it's also not the first half of the 20th century or the '70s (or even, we'd add, what it was five years ago). And tales of the capacities of America's Enemies in the Middle East and Russia have been greatly exaggerated.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

September's always a perfect time to make this argument, as false, fatalistic hysterias build up over the summer and require a good sweeping up. Sure, Brooks' talk about how we're living in a relative "golden age" elides the massive challenges we do still face, like ever-widening income inequality and climate change. But it doesn't have to be mutually exclusive to fret over such things while enjoying the happiness of a moment. A tour of the front page of any major media outlet's website, or my Twitter feed, at least -- larded up at any given time with hysteria over some new imminent apocalypse -- suggests that that's lost on some people.

And so it's strange that Brooks, in the midst of a serviceable column about undue panic, presents an undue panic of his own, replete with his own tin-eared solution. We are in the midst of a "leadership crisis," Brooks writes, and the answer to it is a "return" to leadership by a self-styled elite class.

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

The "masses" will be fascinated to hear that they currently "directly wield" power. Who knew? It still sort of seems like elites run everything and "the masses" just stand by, watch and live by the decisions. Sure, we have charlatans who come around and pretend like they're giving power to the masses by ginning up deluded strategies -- that Cruz and other members of the Republican Party can shut down the government in order to extract the "peoples' demands" via ransom. But "the masses" and that elite-consensus leadership still overrule all. The financial crisis came and went and the banking sector continues as it ever was, tailored by a few modest reforms unnoticeable to the naked eye. The president has just begun a years-long bombing campaign in Syria without receiving either direct authorization or a war declaration from Congress. If this is what the elites' nightmare scenario of democracy giving way to mob rule looks like, then mob rule is pretty lame.

Brooks argues that the switch from pretend-covert to overt rule-by-elite can only be accepted if the elite are willing to make a sacrifice -- to become the "responsible" elite who, uh, buy less stuff, for P.R. purposes:

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

We'd argue that this, too, "has almost never happened historically." Whatever "responsible elite" of lore that Brooks is channeling -- the Kennedys, Roosevelts, whoever -- may have felt that "privilege imposes duties," but they hardly skimped on the luxuries. They all owned gilded "compounds." They spent in line with their social class, at least partly to make sure that their social class was known. The upper class shouldn't feel a need to dupe the middle, working and lower classes by pretending to be less wealthy than they are. Instead, if the upper classes want to feel "responsible" and altruistic, they should look to eliminate policies that favor them at the expense of the middle, working and lower classes. Civic-minded members of the responsible upper class, for example, should support the end of tax exemptions that allow them to reap windfall profits on the sales of their $4+ million homes.

Brooks also argues that "congressional reform" should be a top priority -- rearranging our decaying political institutions to better match the realities of modern polarization and gridlock. That's a good idea! See? The guy is all over the place.

So, to score Brooks' latest hodgepodge of arbitrary thoughts:

• New York City is nice: B

• Everyone should chill out a bit: A

• We need to accept aristocracy: D-

• Rich people need to pretend to be less rich: D+

• We need political process reform: B+

The man is a treasure.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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