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David Brooks is Forgiven Some Sins

[Updated -- see below]

I commented the other night that the bread-and-butter of the liberal blogger was bashing David Brooks. And it's partly out of frustration, because he used to be so interesting, and at the Times he became such a predictable party hack hiding behind a pose of erudition and independence. It would be easier to bash Charles Krauthammer or Michelle Malkin, but what's the point? They are who they are. Brooks was something more.

Well, I stayed up late enough to read Brooks's column tomorrow, so perhaps I will be among the first to say, no Brooks-bashing today, and none for the next two weeks. Brooks says that liberal efforts to replicate the conservative infrastructure of ideas and organization fundamentally misunderstand the right, characterizing it as an "echo chamber" or "message machine" that disseminates a single viewpoint. I've been making this argument in these discussions on the left for years, but perhaps Brooks will have a little more insider credibility. He says,

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.

and concludes,

If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn't want message discipline. I'd take this opportunity to have a big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the American character.

In disunity there is strength.

In between, he describes the early disputes within National Review and among today's factions, arguing that they have made conservatism more introspective and adaptable.

I know this to be true. I'm familiar with the right and it's think tanks and magazines, and I know what goes on in them. What goes on is that people argue. They argue endlessly, not just about their philosophies (because, frankly, very few people think in those terms even if they've read all their Oakeshott and Burke and Hayek), but about practical politics and policies. Sometimes they stop speaking to each other, and sometimes, having aired their disagreements, they find a way to work together. They learn, they adapt, they develop their voice. They argue for their viewpoints knowing that no one viewpoint will dominate. Bill Bradley captured some of that the other day, even though it may be his op-ed that Brooks is reacting to, when he wrote that wrote that the various actors on the conservative side, such as Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist, understand their roles.

Update (the next morning):

Just to be clear: What I'm talking about here, and what Brooks is talking about, is not partisan unity or disunity, which is a separate question. Obviously, there was strength in unity on Social Security and there would have been extraordinary weakness in disunity at that point. I'm talking about the process by which ideas and ideology are developed. Many of those who want to build up the "progressive intellectual infrastructure" see the right-wing institutions, such as the American Enterprise Institute and magazines such as the Weekly Standard as simply part of a disciplined message infrastructure. That leads to a particular conclusion about what a counterpart would look like. And it's wrong: those institutions are loci of great internal debate. Does that debate then lead to ideological clarity, which can be the basis for greater partisan unity later? Absolutely.

If you're going to take the right-wing intellectual infrastructure as a model -- and I'm not convinced one should -- you have to at least understand this one thing about it.

The other question to think about is what to argue about. There's a lot of argument right now about attitude: how to enforce discipline, how to react to Republicans, how to punish Joe Lieberman, etc. Those are natural arguments to have, because people have different views, but they don't lead to greater clarity about the ideas that motivate us. A real argument about our governing philosophy, on the other hand, might.

I hope this isn't perceived as backing off too much from what I wrote at 2:00 in the morning, because it isn't meant to be. But I expect it will be less discomforting to some of the commentators here.

Finally, I would be remiss if I totally honored my promise, and did not bash Brooks on one point: He declares triumphantly that he called up the head of a liberal think tank and asked who his "favorite philosopher" was, and got a promise of a call back later which never came. Aha! Those liberals don't think about philosophy!

But is it really a measure of deep thinking to have a "favorite philosopher"? It reminds me of the argument going on in my household right now about whether everyone should have a favorite color. (My wife, it seems, has no fixed favorite, although my daughter would desperately like to persuade her to join her on the green team, having lost me to blue.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 5, 2005 | Permalink


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I disagree with your drivel, vehemently. All my fellow-travelers - let's meet in my sandbox at noon. No Schmitt you're not invited - stay in your own sandbox.

Ya know, if ya had half a mind you'd find Brooks arguing the inverse. The Dems, liberals, the left, you name it, hasn't been able to win because they're fragmented and factionalize. Shit think of the beating the Dems took in 1984 just because they embrace all sorts of really really special interests groups, like women and minorities!

Neither of you understand that if fear and loathing become widespread - and economic churning is just the thing to start it all - you'll find the middle class in America positively sharing recipes on how to eat people, the Christian way.

Posted by: DeWayne | Apr 5, 2005 10:12:07 AM

Sure, social conservatives and libertarians disagree. As do fiscal conservatives and supply siders.

But they don't act on their disagreement. Libertarians and fiscal conservatives should have fled the Republican party years ago, but they haven't. So what if these people base their actions on different premises? They all act the same.

These different factions manage to submit themselves to a Leninist-like democratic centralism just fine.

Posted by: jasper emmering | Apr 5, 2005 11:45:10 AM

liberals can't define their underlying philosophy not because of post-modernism or because their ideology was created in government, but because they forgot to after it was the dominant paradigm for a generation. He is arguing for the importance of an ideology and themes and disutillity of purely pragmatic/programatic campaigning.

Conservatives do talk about philosophic underpinnings, and liberals have focused on specifiic policy ideas. this doesn't have anything to do with diversity.

Posted by: yoyo | Apr 5, 2005 11:52:11 AM

I was going to post Jasper Emmering's comment, but he beat me to it.
The VRWC has its internal disagreements all right. Kind of hard for them not to, when the Shylock wing of the VRWC has just about passed a bill designed to pick the pockets of the Taliban wing. But these disagreements do not occur in public. Or at least, not on TV.

Posted by: Joe S. | Apr 5, 2005 12:14:21 PM

Sorry to see the rarely less than stellar Mark Schmitt stumble here.

No, liberal efforts to imitate the Right Infrast. are *not doomed*.

While they may or may not pay off in the way liberals hope --- they will certainly pay off in some significant minimal ways. Of this I'm certain.

Nice try by Brooks to pee on the hopes of his opponents. No matter what liberals say they are trying, the "thought leaders" of the opposition will say, "good intention, but it won't work, because they misunderstand what America is really about......"

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Apr 5, 2005 12:22:39 PM

The frustration with Brooks is his endless style of gimmicks, of simply inventing wholecloth these demographic archetypes or trends -- and then having them picked up by mainstream commentators or otherwise intelligent people who should know better. I don't think it makes him interesting -- just more annoying.

The media/PR structure of the right -- the message machine -- is certainly not monolithic. But there is an echo chamber, and there is a basic process through which ideas are advanced. These ideas are not 'who's your favorite philosopher' -- they are 'truths' that gain currency through this promotion and repetition. Largely these 'truths' are not philosophical arguments, but metaphors and characterizations and generalities -- exactly the kind of yarn that Brooks loves to spin.

Isn't that the point of think tanks like Heritage, though? To promote conservative "ideas," not just think about them?

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 5, 2005 12:29:24 PM

Er no Mark. I hope you wake up, have a cup of coffee and realize your mistake.

I think it is patently obvious - when it comes to politics (NOT policy), the "Conservatives" are as disciplined as can be.

MY Gawd, the prescription drug benefit? Heck, the Bush II Adminstration?

I'd write more,but my gawd, this is so wrong as to make me wonder what is wrong with you today.

I suppose it deserves more exposition, and maybe I'll try myself later, but I hope you rethink or at least clarify.

Posted by: Armando | Apr 5, 2005 12:36:07 PM

"I think it is patently obvious - when it comes to politics (NOT policy), the "Conservatives" are as disciplined as can be.

MY Gawd, the prescription drug benefit? Heck, the Bush II Adminstration?"

Ah--no. Club for Growth (the biggest conservative donor IIRC) was actively campaigning against Republicans who voted for the prescription drug benefit.

And lots of people voted for Bush either on foriegn policy or because Kerry was worse--not because they liked him. That's not message discipline--that's desperation.

Posted by: SamChevre | Apr 5, 2005 1:02:51 PM


First, Mark clarifies his point and I agree with him now. Unfortunately, I think he has misread Brooks. I truly do NOT believe Brooks is thinking of policy debates, but rather political ones.

Second, sure Club for Growth, heck throw in a Cato if you like. And? Who's listening?

The GOP is a Party about Power, not ideas. The notion that Brooks is trying to insinuate is that the GOP wins on ideas - I cry bull.

Let me be clear, I think Brooks is about as dishonest a columnist as there is in any major publication. It bothers me that the really smart folks like Mark and Matt Yglesias and others give this intentional dishonesty a free ride.

Because, to me, that is the most importat thing about David Brooks - his dishonesty.

Posted by: Armando | Apr 5, 2005 1:16:23 PM

Favourite Philosopher? Hmmm. I'd be hard pressed to pick one. I like things from various philosophers, but I rarely like everything about them.

Maybe Bertrand Russell, if I had to choose in a rush. But if I thought about it for a while I might change my mind.

Is Buddha a philosopher?

Posted by: Ian Welsh | Apr 5, 2005 1:18:42 PM

I'd have to say that the emphasis is all wrong here. The "progressive intellectual infrastructure" needs little building. Perhaps some organizing, but little building. The problem is a political one, really. Most Americans indicate that on key issues, they support the Democratic positions: abortion, social security, the economy. What we don't have is the ability to turn that advantage into votes. The Republicans have their noise machine that does it every day. We need a noise machine first. We have too many thinkers and consultants and not enough doers. For example, doers who vote.

The Average Republican ethos doesn't want to debate policy--that's why they like conservatisim, the decisions are pre-made for them, and reduce cognitive dissonance to a minimum. But they are industrious little things and love to get out there and work on campaigns. That's why having a "favorite philosopher" is important to them. They select a world view for its emotional usefulness above all else. (Not that some on our side don't either).

The Democrats are just the opposite. Every Tom, Dick and Harriet is a self-contained universe of policy wonk, poltical guru and all around Leonardo. They are their own favorite philosopher. That's why there are 5 big conservative blogs and tons of little liberal ones.

We need the Wurlitzer because we need the votes. Trying to drag in various intellectual streams seems like a useless exercise when you are out of power.

Posted by: Rob W | Apr 5, 2005 1:35:38 PM

I think Mark is right. The Republicans understand public relations and power. Never sacrifice power for intra-party squabbles--de-emphasize what is necessary for the sake of good PR.

We've all asked these questions about why the non-religious right, libetarians, socially liberal wall street Republicans, etc, put up with the zealots, and it's because they understand what must be done to attain and keep power.

This ties in the current mistake we're making with Republicans on the Schaivo front. We've gotten ourselves giddy because there are Republicans publically chastizing the party for the recent shenanigans. Fair enough, but we can't bait ourselves into thinking they'll self destruct, because they won't. In the end, they understand that it is better to be in power than not. Ergo, manage your disagreements and unite when the time comes.

Posted by: Ono | Apr 5, 2005 1:46:26 PM

Armando, I think Brooks' dishonesty is not deliberate; it's actually naivete and shallowness.

But who am I with this psychoprofile, anyway? Charles Krauthammer?

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Apr 5, 2005 1:48:09 PM

Crab Nebula:

Brooks is no fool. He knows what he is doing.

Posted by: Armando | Apr 5, 2005 1:53:35 PM

BTW Mark:

Kevin Drum's take on this as a political rather than policy issue I think is right on the money.

It also debunks Brooks IMO.

Posted by: Armando | Apr 5, 2005 1:56:32 PM

I think Brooks has such a soft, reader-friendly style that when his fuzzy bromides seem vaguely agreeable, one can mistake him for being right. Generally, he's not. Here, he's regurgitating, in softer, more pabulum form, a standard canard of the irght lately, one that is especially smug and, on close examination pretty vacuous - the "we talk philosophy and you don't" meme. This is crap, start to finish, plain and simple. For one thing, in these anti-intellectual times, no one who is actually usefully philosophical gets much quarter anywhere. Republicans toss around two or three hoary chestnuts of bad ideas - "what's so bad about segregation?" "why don't we force people to stay married and eliminate divorce" and the one who sounds kinda moderate is daring and dissenting and this passes for deep discourse. It's not, and it shouldn't. Much of the right's discourse is vapid, and when liberals inject truly radical thoughts - why not do away with civil marriage all together, say - we're being radical, unconstructive and unhelpful. The right is reaching the limit of talking to themselves and calling it progress (or discourse). Which is one reason why overconfidence and hubris are beginning to hold sway over reason and measured progress. For liberals, there's not a lot of reason to imitate their mistakes.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 5, 2005 1:59:32 PM

The echo chamber phrase, as I understood it, was as much about the "mighty wurlitzer" effect as it was about the actual conservative "thinking" that goes on in their think tanks. And to that extent, Brooks is dead wrong (or dishonest) about the lack of a disciplined message machine. What else could get a bunch of death-penalty-favoring, texas-futile-care-bill-passing pols and their media friends to all use the same damn "culture of life" phrase all at once?

Posted by: ArC | Apr 5, 2005 2:07:45 PM

They disagree, sure, but they argue with each other only occasionally and with The Party almost never, and especially not when such argument would have a chance of affecting policy.

Posted by: Katherine | Apr 5, 2005 2:12:52 PM

Mark, I have to disagree with both your initial post and your update. I also have to say I think you're giving Brooks far too much credit. The current state of the Republican Party was arrived at not through copious internal debate, but through calculated political decisions overriding that debate. It wasn't whether this policy would work or whether that policy was good. It was candy for everybody. Brooks's "Big Government Conservatism" isn't an ideology; it's a thin facade of ideology erected over a heap of naked political expedience.

Current Republican ideology is developed with an eye toward winning elections via feeding its base - specifically a base of wealthy social conservatives - while beggaring that of the Democratic Party. The conservative intellectual debate could be taking place on a cave in the far armpit of the moon for all the impact that it'll have on, say, the administration's budget policy, which I expect will continue in the president's tradition of grand belching excess rather than in anything resembling fiscal sanity, or even Grover Norquist's fevered delusions of "starve the beast."

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Apr 5, 2005 3:09:30 PM

You cannot have an argument with someone unless you agree on some things. All these conservative groups agree with the idea of Social Darwinism and that the elite and powerful should have the most say in the political arena.

The Democrats have a common philosophy too. They believe that ALL people, elites and non-elites, rich and non-rich, Christians and non-Christians, whites and non-whites, males and non-males should have equal say in the political arena. We can argue about the details. But we all agree with this philosophy.

Posted by: Paul Siegel | Apr 5, 2005 3:11:01 PM

I second Siegel's post. I know this won't endear me to many readers of this blog, but Lakoff made this point in 'DTOAE:' something like 36% of people support Republican policies because they believe one day they'll be rich and those policies will benefit them. But what about the other 64%? They support Republican policies because they believe that the wealthy and powerful must have gained their status by merit, and thus have every right to dictate policy.

Democrats don't believe that. In our party, in our vision of America, everybody gets an equal say. It's not "winners win, and losers lose" here. It's that everybody, from the CEO to the custodian who cleans his office, gets an equal voice. (I particularly liked the 'Wilt Chaimberlain' argument you cited a few weeks back). I'd agree that progresives don't make enough convincing arguments for this, and that Democrats don't talk enough about philosophy. Whenever I see some Democratic congressperson of CSpan say, "People talk about values; well, [insert issue] is related to values..." I want to scream. Don't prefix your comments with some qualifying statement that implies you're lowering yourself to all 'dem red-staters, allright?!

But to claim we DON'T have a philosophy of government in the first place seems to me just a bunch of unnecessary post-electoral self-flagellation.

On a side note: what the hell is up with the sudden Lakoff bashing? I agree that terms like "nuturant parent" are pretty weak, but I don't see how identifying that Republicans have infrastructure or that the language MSNBC anchors use can influence a debate makes him Lakoff this batsh*t crazy academic.

Posted by: Ryan Goodland | Apr 5, 2005 4:12:26 PM

Very weak post, the comments thread is miles better. Has Schmitt had a brain freeze, or is the move back to DC going to turn him all wussy and "bipartisan"? Hope not. Here's a link to a great little piece by Jonathan Chait debunking Brooks' nonsense (may have to scroll down):


How can you look at the right and not understand that message discipline and unity around messages that make no policy or philosophical sense has gotten them where they are today?

And this liberal's favorite philosopher is Yogi Berra.

Posted by: MQ | Apr 5, 2005 5:15:38 PM

Let's see now, the party that still believes in WMD is having deep debates about philosophy. What's wrong with this picture?

I, frankly, am tired of listening to Republican "philosphers" who can say things like, "Well, philosophically speaking, what was so bad about slavery?". This is all an act, that goes with their expensive clothes, expensive educations, and expensive meeting places. Look behind the purple draperies and there's nothing there.

For example, the Discovery Institute recently announced they have 40 "Doctors" at the "Institute" working on the "problem" of Intelligent Design- you know, working out the bugs so ID can replace evolution as the one-stop solution to questions of where we came from. Reporters dutifully reported this as fact, apparently blissfully unaware that the "Doctors" aren't scientists, and that the ID to be perfected consists solely of the assertion that We Just Don't Know.

99% of this is just stage management, and when someone like Bill Buckley strays off the reservation, he is sent to rehearse as an understudy in the basement of the theater.

In other words, take it with a grain of salt.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 5, 2005 7:15:14 PM

I thought maybe I was being lazy with the "culture of life" meme, so instead check out Quiddity counting up the slightly newer "unaccountable judges" message-by-repetition.

Posted by: ArC | Apr 5, 2005 7:24:16 PM

Not to pile on, but....




Brooks just lies, his writting is simplistic, and designed to lead otherwise intelligent liberals to consider his points noteworthy, when they're really only point worthy, middle finger wise.

Generally speaking, bashing bobo is not bread and butter, it's just a shorthand for "this is the way the goppers view the world, and here's how that plays out in the real world."

The right of the wurlitzer doesn't have a viewpoint, nor an agenda. What they do have is a lust and hunger for power and money to compensate for their tiny little dicks (metaphorically speaking ann, I think, and don't want to know thank you).

To think that they aren't orchestrated by grovers wednesday lunches and scaife funding and murdoch propagandizing seems to defy observation.

Squabble incessently? Like Hitler and Roehm squabbled, and you know how that turned out.

But your biggest mistake is in thinking that the bushites and republicans are the same thing. They're not. The guys, okay, freaks, in charge are radical fascists and have no real relation to the republican party. They care no more for what republican/rightist factions desire as they do the left's desires.

They just want power and glory. They're immature, insecure, and small, very small, minded. And they've got big business creatures capitalizing on their compensation to reap big big money. At some point they will have a divergence, and it won't be pretty. And pathetic bobo's like bobo brooks will be so much cannon fodder.

Posted by: Duckman GR | Apr 5, 2005 7:34:12 PM