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.

17 thoughts on “Who’s Left?

  1. Thanks for pointing out that Katrina was so destructive and so pervasive in destroying that there is no quick and easy fix to this problem. Add to that the federal culpability in the disaster, that is, that the levee system as neither adequate nor properly designed, and you wonder how it’s the Mayor’s fault that the city is suffering.

    President Bush came to New Orleans in person to pledge the support of the federal govenment in a nationally televised speech. We’re still waiting for him to keep the promises he made on September 15, 2005. We’re starting to think perhaps that it was just another throw-away speech, and that the whole thing was just a photo-op to boost his falling approval ratings.


    blogging from a FEMA trailer in New Orleans

  2. Compelling and thought-provoking post. Just a few quick comments:

    * I’m not at all ambivalent about Sen. Clinton. She’s a poll-driven, focus-group phony who, like Bill, puts ambition above the welfare of the country. Her “centrism” (read, self-interest) set real health care reform back a generation.

    * To me, a centrist is someone who is afraid of change. That’s the last thing we need in this country right now.

    * Conventional wisdom has it that the left are the “idealists” and the right the “realists.” It’s the other way around. It’s not often I find someone who sees that.

  3. Left & Right: Just watched a 98 Molly Ivins interview on BookTV in which she called herself a populist, and said (paraphrase) “Politics is not about a spectrum from Left to Right, it’s about Top to Bottom. The only important stories are who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing”.

    It’s curious that the pundits are calling the populism of Webb / Tester (probably even some Duke students) “centrism”. Have they gotten so used to the Reaganite faux-populist rhetoric that they’ve forgotten what real populism is?

    It’s incredible and outrageous how the powers that be have not caught on to what’s happening. On the other hand, it bodes well for 2008.

  4. On the other hand, it bodes well for 2008.

    Only if we can prevent one of the old “elite” crowd from getting the nomination. I think people hunger for authenticity, and I think whichever party’s nominee is the least packaged and focus-grouped will have the advantage with the independent voters, regardless of party affiliation or political values.

  5. Tim: My heart goes out to you. I was in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and spent most of my time in the city in the weeks following, and I don’t like to belittle what happened because it was horrible, and like most New Yorkers I still feel pretty raw about it. But I have to be honest. Most of New York City was undamaged. New York had an abundance of resources at hand and didn’t have to wait for the feds to begin addressing problems.

    In fact, in some cases we had an overabundance of resources. On that day the city’s several hospitals had world-class medical specialists standing by to deal with the injured, and lower Manhattan was surrounded by ambulances, doctors and paramedics, even grief counselors, and citizens stood in long lines to donate blood, and very little of it was needed. People either got out pretty much intact, or they didn’t.

    And the WTC was just a few yards from Wall Street and the NY Stock Exchange, meaning a lot of people with a lot of money were real interested in getting utilities, electricity, phone service, etc. up and running asap. Rudy Giuliani didn’t even have to ask.

    So, yeah, it was different.

  6. Oh, dear, maha, reading David Brooks is not something to undertake when one has recently been unwell. It is severely taxing to the mind.

    I don’t know which concept is more disturbing, that David Brooks is teaching political theory in a major US university or that he imagines that Duke has “liberal attitudes” and his Duke students could be representative of their entire generation. It’s like the way the goldfish doesn’t perceive the water it swims in – Brooksie doesn’t have the ability to perceive elite privilege.

    Then there is the classic ‘security checksum’ that proves it’s really a Brooks column: it features self-contradiction driven by Brooks’ own desires. He makes a big deal about the kid from Idaho who likes Tester and Schweitzer, and then later he sees good news for … Clinton and Giuliani??? Who both aspire to the mealy-mouthed Washington “reasonable middle-ground” that Brooks himself trades in? Brooks’ ability to see what he wants in almost any set of facts is continually impressive.

    I imagine Clinton is high on the list that Idaho-boy finds ‘personally distasteful. And to identify either as having an ability to “get things done”? Well, you’ve already demolished that.

    Of course, one might question the wisdom of seeking broad political trend insight in the attitudes of one ranch kid from Idaho at an elite southern university, but since the point is really just to build a platform for Brooks to tell us what he wants us to believe, the props don’t really matter.

    Anyway, thanks, maha, for an excellent Brooks-ripping post.

  7. My god, no wonder Brooks’s totem creature is a vegetable. He’s ranting about welfare, for crying out loud. The man needs to get his head out of 1988. Those poor kids at Duke should have their tuition refunded.

  8. Can anyone verify that Hillary C. said this? Hillary claims that she was named after Sir Edmond Hillary, the Everest guy, which seems highly unlikely because she was born in ’47 and he climbed Everest in ’53. I’m looking for the little off-hand discrepencies because I suspect there are a lot of them.

    As far as Brooks is concerned, he’s tilting at windmills.

  9. Maybe I’m styerotyping, but I find it hard to believe that students at Duke are representative of young people anywhere, except perhaps at other southern ivies, like Vanderbilt or Emory, etc.

    On the other hand, did Brooks teach any students whose opinions wouldn’t allow him to score preconceived rhetorical points in an op-ed that he was already planning at the beginning of the semester? Were they perhaps the students he stopped calling on after the 1st 2 or 3 weeks of class? While we’re at it, don’t you wonder if the poli sci department was forced to buy subscriptions to the Times for every student enrolled in his class?

    Department Chair: But they can go read it at the library.

    Brooks: My students shouldn’t have to go to the library! You want me to teach here, don’t you?

  10. Thanks for this. And thanks to your commenters for smart, thoughtful posting.

    I, on the other hand, am feeling pretty lame and pedestrian. But I’ll comment anyway: I assume Brooks made up those students’ names? Because “Kendall” and “Sage” – their parents must have totally been hippies. If Brooks chose them, I wonder why, since he isn’t dissing “Kendall”. Also, I’d like to talk to “Kendall” and the other students, too. How’d he get to an elite college? I’m not saying anything bad about him either, but to score a scholarship – to even picture yourself leaving the ranch and heading to university – takes an unusual amount of resourcefulness and help. Either he got it from his parents, or his sub-standard schools had at least a few clued-in teachers or counselors.

    And yes, I am projecting, just a little.

    And by the way, I wish Brooks would redeem his parched little soul and sign over his paychecks to you. You deliver; he don’t.

    :PS: Let’s all remember: Molly told us to raise more hell.

  11. This particular comment just pissed me off royally. I read, rarely comment. But this is simply disgusting. “Because “Kendall” and “Sage” – their parents must have totally been hippies. If Brooks chose them, I wonder why, since he isn’t dissing “Kendall”. Also, I’d like to talk to “Kendall” and the other students, too. How’d he get to an elite college? I’m not saying anything bad about him either, but to score a scholarship – to even picture yourself leaving the ranch and heading to university – takes an unusual amount of resourcefulness and help. Either he got it from his parents, or his sub-standard schools had at least a few clued-in teachers or counselors.”

    I’m a product of the Idaho public schools and I went to college at a private women’s college, followed by graduate school in D.C. My nephew is also a product of Idaho public schools and has been accepted at William & Mary, Georgetown, & Notre Dame for law school and is trying to decide WHERE to go.

    The bald-faced stupidity of your comment is appalling and I just don’t think it worth to expend any energy addressing much else.

    I met Brian Schweitzer this past fall when helping on a campaign for the Democratic candidate for governor in Idaho. I think Jon Tester runs along the same lines when it comes to economics as Mr. Schweitzer. I’ve heard Mr. Tester speak on interview about his populism in relation to economics. I, too, saw the ’98 Molly Invins’ interview on BookTV yesterday wherein she assigned the designation of ‘populist’ to herself. The focus is on those who are (were) not of the moneyed elite; in other words, you & me.

    http://www.populist.com/about.html – This will give one an idea of what populism is about, as well as put you in touch with current readings. ‘Our regular columnists include plutocrat pluckers such as Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Donald Kaul, Alvena Bieri, Gene Lyons, Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez….’ I’ve been reading it since high school, before leaving our farm for college & graduate school.

  12. …why balanced budgets, checking Bush’s foreign policy and fighting global warming do not qualify as “liberal.”

    I’ve never considered them so. From where I sit it looks like they have become “liberal” mostly through the reaction to the glaring spending hypocricy of GWB and the former “Republican Congress”.

    I feel you, but the “stereotypes” that were built up over decades aren’t going to just disappear because they dont match the data from the last 10 years. The meaning of “liberal”, “progressive”, and “conservative” have changed and people who have spent their whole lives thinking under the previous definitions are going to be slow to adjust. Brooks isn’t old, but he’s a bookworm who probably absorbed the old labels early on and is having a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

  13. Purplefarmer, I’m honestly not sure why you’re so angry with what I wrote.

    My comment about “sub-standard schools” was a reference to Brooks’s reportage about Kendall’s dissatisfaction with his pre-college education. Do you think I am characterizing Idaho’s school system as defective? Because I’m surely not. I have no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with it. I do know that schools around the country are struggling with costs and services in a way that they didn’t when I was a child. But I don’t fault Idaho or any other state or school system for that. In fact, I have a lot of respect for people who excel under what I consider generally difficult circumstances, which I think schools face now.

    I am genuinely impressed with your accomplishments. Did you think I meant to imply that I think rural folks are stupid and need special help? Because nothing could be further from the truth. All I’m saying is that getting into really good schools, or elite schools, or far-away schools requires perseverence. Information about scholarships and other programs doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to look for it, and that implies that you’ve got someone who’s going to bat for you, either parents or a teacher or a counselor. Brooks’s article skated right over that. One moment Kendall is on a hard-scrabble ranch; the next minute he’s off to college talking to Brooks. To me, that’s evidence of determination, caring, and perseverence, none of which Brooks addressed.

    Please – let me know why you found my comment so appalling. If I have something to defend, I’ll do it; if I need to clarify something, I will. In any case, I apologize for offending you.

  14. It was this: “How’d he get to an elite college? I’m not saying anything bad about him either, but to score a scholarship – to even picture yourself leaving the ranch and heading to university – takes an unusual amount of resourcefulness and help. Either he got it from his parents, or his sub-standard schools had at least a few clued-in teachers or counselors.”

    There’s no difference in a kid from Tuttle, Idaho or Shaker Heights, Ohio getting information on attending college & the means with which to accomplish that goal. Information can be gathered with the help of others or not. I didn’t need initial help; I knew where to look. Along the way other people, including some excellent reference librarians, pointed in the direction of sources for scholarships, fellowships & the like, which I’ve passed along to anyone interested.

    Do you think I am characterizing Idaho’s school system as defective? Yep.

    Did you think I meant to imply that I think rural folks are stupid and need special help? No, but the implication seems that it’s hard to believe that someone from such a rural setting could find their way to such an institution of learning as – Duke.

    Now – it might even be interesting to find out if Mr. Brooks does indeed have such a student or if he is relying on the preconceived notions that people will have of farming folk from Idaho.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph,Maha. I’m not one of the young folks,but when I recall the period in time when the Terry Schiavo episode was going down, and Frist and Delay were running roughshod over Congress stuffing their agenda down the throats of the American public by way of a lockstep political machine I shuttered then with the realization that there was a complete breakdown of democracy and of the traditional ideals we all hold as Americans….I’m certain that any young folks who were paying attention at the time saw the same thing as I did and realized it wasn’t a healthy dialog between right and left…It was an unbridled insanity inhabiting the halls of Congress.

  16. Thank you, purplefarmer. That helps. Please know that I did not intend to demean Idaho’s school system. I grew up in a factory suburb of Detroit, a long time ago, when the school systems had more resources, in general. I did not get any assistance in negotiating the scholarship system, and I wasn’t savvy enough or mature enough to do it on my own, and my lack of higher education reflects both of those failings. In that regard, you are totally correct: Tuttle, Shaker Heights, or Lincoln Park, Michigan – location isn’t dispositive.

    Just so you know, I have no bias in regard to anyone’s origins. I never meant to imply that a rural person’s achievements aren’t credible.

    As to Brooks’s preconceived notions: that was actually the motivation behind my comment. I don’t trust Brooks’s anecdotes, from “Bobos in Paradise” or his other writings. It reminds me of something I once read, an article written by a former “Cosmopolitan” writer, who described a typical Cosmo article, with its depiction of a group conversation as being wholly fabricated by the author in order to fit the magazine’s requirements. I feel like David Brooks is an unreliable narrator. He needed a Kendall to prove his point about Kendall’s generation feeling estranged politically, so he invented one, or put together a composite character. That was my point: not that rural folks are impaired, but that any successful student – rural, urban, suburban, whatever – may have been encouraged (may, not “must”) by someone fitting the description of a “liberal”, a group that Brooks typically disdains.

    I hope this clears up any offense my original comment caused, and thanks again for responding.

  17. I just reread my response. I apologize. It’s incredibly brusque and heavy-handed, and you’re very accommodating of that.

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