Tuesday, June 14, 2011

David Brooks, the Tea Party, and Our Political Future

I am a David Brooks fan. I have pimped his new book, The Social Animal, like it was a 19 year-old crack addict from a broken home. At one point, I owned work and home copies of Bobos in Paradise. And I completely agree with his latest column on the sad state of our political parties and leadership heading into the next election:
Voters are certainly aware of the scope of the challenges before them. Their pessimism and anxiety does not just reflect the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but is deeper and more pervasive. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Large majorities think the country is on the wrong track, and have for years. Large pluralities believe their children will have fewer opportunities than they do.

Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid.
As a diagnosis of our current predicament, this is about as good as it gets. And I would endorse most of his proposed solutions, too:
This reinvigoration package would have four baskets. There would be an entitlement reform package designed to redistribute money from health care and the elderly toward innovation and the young. Unless we get health care inflation under control by replacing the perverse fee-for-service incentive structure, there will be no money for anything else.

There would be a targeted working-class basket: early childhood education, technical education, community colleges, an infrastructure bank, asset distribution to help people start businesses, a new wave industrial policy if need be — anything that might give the working class a leg up.

There would be a political corruption basket. The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

There would also be a pro-business basket: lower corporate rates, a sane visa policy for skilled immigrants, a sane patent and permitting system, more money for research.
But this post isn't meant to be a standing ovation for Brooks. In fact, I have a large criticism: he indicts the two parties for not doing anything that will get America out of its mess. He seems ready to acknowledge (if only indirectly) that his past support of Obama has not panned out, and the Democrats don't have a plan to get us out of this mess. And yet, when a grass-roots movement arose that wanted to push to make big changes (many of which are compatible with Brooks' wish list, he thumbed his nose at it. Here's his reaction to the Tea Party in an older column:
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.
You can get more details here, and it is pretty obvious that Brooks found something distasteful and lowbrow when he looked at the Tea Party.

And there have certainly been times when the Tea Party has lived up to the caricature painted of it in much of the media: the Truther movement, which is well-represented within the Tea Party, is just a silly waste of time, and men carrying visible firearms at political rallies sends a horrible message no matter what the law says, or their intent was.

But all political movements, especially those that bubble up from the bottom, are going to have loons. They will all be excessive in their thinking or their rhetoric from time to time. But you know what would help? If thinkers like David Brooks engaged with these movements to give them focused, more powerful thinking, instead of trying to strangle them while they're still in the cradle.

The Tea Party emerged out of a concern that government spending and the intrusions of the nanny state would sap the nation's vitality and destroy the American Dream. That doesn't sound all that different from the concerns Brooks outlines. Maybe if he can look past the rough edges, and get over his distaste at their lack of intellectualism, he'll find they have a lot in common.

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