Leave it to the chief defender of the political establishment, David Brooks, to make one feel sympathetic towards Donald Trump. On Tuesday, his latest column defending America’s two-party tyranny, “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn,” explored what Brooks sees as a startling new phenomenon in American politics. In his view, our two major political parties, or as he calls them, our “civic institutions,” are tragically decaying, and Americans on both the left and right are falling into “solipsistic bubbles,” where compromise is a dirty word and uniting with people of different opinions is considered heresy.
To explain why anti-establishment politicians are gaining so much support in the United States and across the pond in the United Kingdom, Brooks brings up a fancy sociology term: “expressive individualism” (a nice way of saying everyone is having a mental relapse).
“There has always been a tension between self and society. Americans have always wanted to remain true to individual consciousness, but they also knew they were citizens, members of a joint national project, tied to one another by bonds as deep as the bonds of marriage and community. As much as they might differ, there was some responsibility to maintain coalitions with people unlike themselves.”
There is no doubt that this kind of antisocial behavior exists, especially with social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Kim Davis, who refuse to accept a changing society and embrace people with different lifestyles or opinions. They remain in their intolerant bubbles, and play victim when the real victims gain support.
However, the “anti-party men” that Brooks discusses, and the majority of their supporters, are not suffering from his diagnosis. Although Trump and Carson certainly do attract a good deal of fans who exist in solipsistic bubbles (just think of Trumps’ big white supremacist fan base), their success is actually somewhat similar to that of Sanders and left-wing British politician Jeremy Corbyn, currently mounting an unexpectedly competitive campaign to become the leader of the Labour Party, and the reason is much simpler than Brooks pseudo-intellectual gibberish lets on.
Brooks simply cannot imagine that the rising anti-establishment movements have taken off because the political establishments sold out the people long ago. Instead of looking at the realities, Brooks attempts to diagnosis these movements as psychologically deficient, and ascribes the popularity of these candidates to “cults of personality.” For Trump, this is certainly accurate, as I have previously written (the media is largely to blame for the rise of personality politics), but describing the popularity of Sanders and Corbyn as “cult of personality” is miraculously stupid. Of Corbyn, he writes:
“Until about three months ago he was considered the most outside of the outsiders — until a cult of personality developed around him, rocketing him to the top of the polls.”
Anyone who has seen Jeremy Corbyn speak would know that he is one of the most humble politicians in existence, as is Bernie Sanders. Neither Corbyn nor Sanders have attempted to build movements around themselves, as Trump has, and each of them decry personality politics, and choose to instead focus on the actual issues. (Brooks also goes on to claim that Sanders and Corbyn have “little experience in the profession of governing,” but hey, since when does Brooks care about facts?)
The New York Times columnist does not seem to grasp this reality. Instead of looking at why anti-establishment politics have become popular, he blames it on cults of personality and psychological problems. If he took a break from reading Freud, however, he would understand that the two major political parties long ago sold their souls to corporate America. Then he could look at how economic inequality has risen rapidly over the past thirty years, how money has overflowed and corrupted the electoral system, and how Wall Street banks have gotten even bigger than they were eight years ago. After all that, he could explore why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, why young men go to prison for possessing marijuana, and why a hedge fund managers pay lower effective tax rates than middle class workers, or as Trump puts it, “they get away with murder.”
Of course, what Brooks is ultimately about is promoting a brand of centrism (i.e. establishment politics), where pragmatism is the ultimate virtue. But as Brooks colleague, Paul Krugman once wrote:
“Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.”
Imagine Brooks writing in the early '60s, calling for a fair compromise in the racist South -- maybe desegregate the schools, but let private businesses deny service to African Americans. The point is not that compromise is bad -- compromise is important for getting things done, but when compromising is equivalent to selling out the people or backing down to bigotry, maybe it’s not a virtue.
The neoliberal centrism that Brooks has long advocated in the New York Times has done no good for the middle class, and now is not a time to sit down and let the status quo march along unchallenged. Brooks concludes that “these cults never last because there is no institutional infrastructure,” but the rise of Sanders and the left has nothing to do with a cult, and as long as he and the people continue to talk about the issues, Brooks may be in store for a big surprise.