David Brooks, in his Tuesday column for The New York Times, planted himself once again squarely in the warm, glowing embrace of misguided throw-back nostalgia. The upshot of Brooks' latest effort, in which he laments the sorry state of contemporary American politics, is that political shovel fights weren't nearly as divisive during the glory days because Americans engaged healthily with what Brooks calls the "middle-ring" of American life.
Before we steamroll this nonsense, let's review:
Borrowing heavily from author Marc J. Dunkelman, Brooks describes American life on three levels: Inner-ring relationships, or our closest family and friends; outer-ring relationships, our acquaintances online and "their TED and Harley fans," whatever the hell that means; and our middle-ring relationships, which include "the PTA, the neighborhood watch." It's the third category, the middle-ring, that's disappearing, according to Brooks, via Dunkelman. Brooks writes that our lack of political diversity in the middle-ring has slowly instigated the present climate of political divisiveness.
With middle-ring memberships deteriorating, Americans have become worse at public deliberation. People find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world.
They report being optimistic or pessimistic depending on whether their team is in power. They become unrealistic. Trump voters don’t seem to realize how unelectable their man is because they hang out with people like themselves.
So, Brooks is blowing the lid off the evils of epistemic closure and confirmation bias within our individual middle-rings. His solution is to "scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far," in order to recapture those bygone days when everyone could compromise and no one tweeted mean things to David Brooks. In other words, Brooks wants to kill the political internet and return the discourse back to a time when we were only allowed to talk politics while looking our middle-ring neighbors -- at neighborhood watch or the PTA -- in the eye. This way, we're less inclined to screech or to write nasty comments under David Brooks' articles.
(Brooks never directly addresses internet commenters or Twitter trolls, but it's not unfair to assume that much of his consternation has to do with a diversity of opinions and therefore ones that are critical of him personally.)
Put another way: Get off David Brooks' lawn!
While it's true to a certain extent that social media has contributed to some individuals forming their own political echo chambers, where information is selected from trusted sources originating within personally-crafted "micro-bubbles," the truth is that the existence of the internet has only broadened the level of civic participation. According to a 2014 Pew study, participation is way up while apathy is way down:
To quote Pew:
--63% of political SNS (social networking site) users have recently gotten involved in a political activity or group, such as attending a political meeting or working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in their community. The national average is 48%.
--60% have expressed their opinion about a political or social issue via online channels — for example, by sending an email to a government official, or signing an online petition. The national average is 34%.
--53% have expressed their opinion about a political or social issue via offline channels, for example, by sending a letter to a government official, or signing a paper petition. The national average is 39%.
--20% have made a political contribution of some kind. This is statistically similar to the 16% rate within the population as a whole.
Again, this is a bad thing for a gatekeeper like Brooks, whose importance in the national debate has eroded against a tide of millions of new voices -- many of which are more insightful and entertaining than his. It's as if Brooks, seeing his star fading with the rise of a more democratized informational and political age, wants us to stop paying attention to the very thing he's built his career upon.
Worse, Brooks seems to have a serious issue with individuals having autonomous opinions instead of messages being controlled by guys such as, well, David Brooks. Likewise, groupthink in the olden days, pre-World War II, was often ignorant and poisonous. When Brooks' middle-ring was healthy, so was rampant bellicosity, racism, segregation, neo-slavery, disenfranchisement and general oppression. In the more autonomous post-WWII days, which Brooks says gave rise to our hellish online discourse today, everything began to fall apart. You know, like bellicosity, racism, segregation, neo-slavery, disenfranchisement and general oppression. What Brooks doesn't grasp is that more participation and autonomous information access has benefited American democracy in ways never imagined pre-War.
And by the way, politics has always been a blood sport. I'm not sure what Brooks is remembering, but whether it takes place on the internet or around a picnic table at a family cookout, political disagreements have almost invariably ended badly. Anyone who claims that pre-War political debates ended in compromise and agreement is probably lying. Politics and religion have always been deeply personal, yet Brooks thinks it's the disintegration of the middle-ring and the rise of autonomous thinking post-War that made it so. It's this sort of nearsightedness that defines the 1950s as a golden age -- a golden age, that is, unless you were a woman or a minority. Again, this was a time, Brooks seems to suggest, when Americans were somehow exposed to a diversity of opinions, unlike today. Uh huh. That's rich.
It might shock Brooks to learn that civilized discourse still exists, compromise still exists, personal interactions still exist and are greater/broader than ever. You just have to look for it. But like an old man who sees, for example, rock and roll rubbish as nothing but random noise, Brooks sees online political discourse only for its trolls and weirdos and not for the its myriad upsides, the top of the list being higher participation than ever before, which in turn generates higher voter turnout and so forth.
Insofar as there's more divisiveness and misinformation today, Brooks needs to take a hard look at traditional media as well.
It was traditional news that became inextricably linked to programming, which led to the delivery of news based on ratings, readership and ad revenue rather than newsworthiness. This shift began in the 1980s and has led to Fox News Channel and broader cable news, which is too often focused on drama for ratings rather than news for an educated electorate. It has nothing to do with individualism or autonomy, and everything to do with the profit-motive and the Reagan deregulatory "revolution" that included the decimation of the Fairness Doctrine.
It was Ronald Reagan, who Brooks claims to admire, who helped turn AM radio and cable news into shrieking hellscapes, shrink-wrapped in singular points-of-view and false equivalencies. The internet, for all its faults, is slowly rolling back the horrendous changes in the news media -- many of which were forecasted by Paddy Chayefsky and others. It was the Reagan era that led us to the era of Fox News and Donald Trump. It was gatekeepers like Brooks who tried to control the discourse, and now that it's being wrested back into the hands of the people, Brooks can't stand it.
Brooks' column this week illustrates an old-timey lack of understanding of how people are interacting about politics today, so it's simply easier for Brooks to desperately grapple onto the glory days as his own personal "warm place."