Who’s Left?

Sometimes I think lobotomies must be a prerequisite for becoming a “pundit.” So many of them exhibit a profound inability to, actually, think.

Take David Brooks. Please. In his column today (which you can’t read if you don’t have a subscription, but you ain’t missin’ anything), Brooks declares that today’s young people are the “children of polarization.”

Today’s college students, remember, were born around 1987. They were 2 or 3 when the Berlin Wall fell. They have come into political consciousness amid impeachment, jihad, polarization and Iraq. Many of them seem to have reacted to these hothouse clashes not by becoming embroiled in the zealotry but by quietly drifting away from that whole political mode.

In general, their writing is calm, optimistic and ironical. Most students in my class showed an aversion to broad philosophical arguments and valued the readings that were concrete and even wonky. Many wrote that they had moved lately toward the center.

I would love to have a talk with these young people to find out what they think “center” means, since the term has been rather ill-defined lately, but let’s go on for now … Brooks describes one young man he met while teaching a political theory course at Duke University — I feel faint at the thought — who

… grew up on a struggling ranch in Idaho. His father died when he was young and his family was poor enough at times to qualify for welfare, though his mother refused it. Duke, with its affluence and its liberal attitudes, was a different universe.

Kendall arrived deeply conservative and remains offended by people who won’t work hard to support themselves. But he now finds himself, as he says, cursed by centrism — trapped between the Pat Robertsons on the right and the Democratic elites on the left, many of whom he finds personally distasteful.

By “Democratic elites” I assume Brooks is referring to the inside-the-beltway hothouse flowers we’ve all come to know and despair about. However, why Democratic Washington insiders are “elite” and Republican Washington insiders are not rather escapes me.

He has come to admire the prairie pragmatists, like Montana’s Jon Tester and Brian Schweitzer. In a long conversation with his brother Sage, who works on the ranch, Kendall decided that what the country needs is a party led by “entrepreneurial cowboy politicians” with a global perspective.

But here’s the truth that Brooks lacks the courage to acknowledge: Tester and Schweitzer, Democratic Senator and Democratic Governor respectively, are progressives. Liberal, even. Much more so than the Washington Democratic insider “elites,” who for years have tripped all over themselves running to the “center.” As candidates, Tester and Schweitzer both were cheered enthusiastically by us loony lefty bloggers, which ought to be a Clue. Both of these fellas are strong economic populists, championing the needs of the ordinary workin’ person against those of the wealthy and well-connected. And they’re both (I think) anti Iraq War (Tester for sure) and on the liberal side of most social issues you can think of.

(BTW, while researching this post I found a diary post by Cogitator at MyDD from last May titled “Why the DC elite will shun Brian Schweitzer.” )

Yet in the World o’ Pundits, insider elites like Joe Biden are “liberal” and Tester and Schweitzer are “centrist.” Why? First, because most pundits are idiots. Second, because Tester and Schweitzer are outdoor-type guys who like to hunt and fish and drive pickup trucks. In other words, they don’t conform to a stereotype “lefty” that lives in David Brooks’s head.

You have to read between the lines a bit, but I infer from Brooks’s column that he defines “centrist” or “moderate” as “someone who doesn’t think government can work.” He speaks of another of his Duke students:

He came to Duke with many conventional liberal attitudes, but he’d seen the failures of the schools in his neighborhood, where many of his smartest friends never made it to college. He’s a big fan of school vouchers and now considers himself a moderate Democrat: “I’m a Democrat because I think the Democratic Party is a better vehicle for the issues I care about: balancing the budget, checking President Bush’s foreign policy and curtailing global warming. However, I’ll switch to the Republicans in a heartbeat if I believe my ideas are better received in the G.O.P.”

Brooks doesn’t define what a “conventional liberal attitude” is, or why balanced budgets, checking Bush’s foreign policy and fighting global warming do not qualify as “liberal.”

I liked this paragraph:

For many students, the main axis of their politics is not between left and right but between idealism and realism. They have developed a suspicion of sweepingly idealistic political ventures, and are now a fascinating mixture of youthful hopefulness and antiutopian modesty.

Ah, but realism has a well-known liberal bias.

They’ve been affected by the failures in Iraq (though interestingly, not a single one of them wrote about Iraq explicitly, or even wanted to grapple with the Middle East or Islamic extremism). But they’ve also seen government fail to deliver at home. A number wrote about the mediocrity of their local public schools. Several gave the back of their hand to the politics of multicultural grievance.

One wants to kick Brooks out of the way and talk to these young people directly, because one suspects that Brooks may be injecting some of his own biases into his narrative. These young people are also likely reflecting the conventional wisdom among their peers at Duke. I don’t know where the Duke student body falls on the political leanings scale, but I suspect it isn’t exactly Oberlin. And if Brooks is the one teaching them political theory, then you can bet those kids understand the real difference between Left and Right about as well as Brooks can tell shit from shinola.

Be sure you are sitting down before you read this:

If my Duke students are representative, then the U.S. is about to see a generation that is practical, anti-ideological, modest and centrist (maybe to a fault).

That’s probably good news for presidential candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, whose main selling point is their nuts-and-bolts ability to get things done.

‘Scuse me while I go bang my head against a wall and shriek for a while.

First, if there is one thing I would like America to know about Rudy Giuliani, it’s that 90 percent of what he did for New York after 9/11 was be on television. He actually had little direct hands-on interaction with the recovery efforts at Ground Zero, although he gets credit for the fact that the wealthy and resourceful city of New York did not completely fall to pieces because a relatively small part of it was destroyed that day. Pundits just love to tweak the hapless mayor of New Orleans for failing to clean up the Katrina mess, not noting that (1) Katrina impacted the entire city, as well as much of the region; and (2) New Orleans is a poor city in a poor state. Certainly there are things Ray Nagin could have done better, but had Giuliani been mayor of New Orleans when Katrina hit I doubt he would have come out of that catastrophe looking all that competent, either. In fact, the deaths of many New York firefighters can be blamed on Giuliani’s management incompetence.

And then there’s Senator Clinton, of whom I am hugely ambivalent. Exactly what has she “got done” so far? Anything major? And is she not one of Brooks’s “Democratic elites”? For that matter, isn’t Brooks a member in good standing of the nation’s political elite? If not, who the hell is?

The problem with national politics for the past several years is not a polarization between “Left” and “Right.” It’s that a cabal of extremist right-wing ideological whackjobs took charge of government, while the opposing party, which had long slipped its tether to any recognizable set of political values whatsoever, timidly chirped “me, too.” And the young folks recognize this, I suspect, better than Brooks does.