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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Deconstructing David Brooks

Well, somebody had to do it. And they did it. Sasha Issenberg has a story in Philadelphia Magazine about David Brooks’ proclivity for sweeping cultural generalizations that aren’t supported by facts. For example, in his influential Atlantic Monthly magazine article about Red and Blue America, where Brooks visited Franklin County, Pennsylvania, a presumed exemplar of Red America, he claimed:
On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu –steak au jus, “slippery beef pot pie”, or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s. I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and “seafood delight” trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.
Turns out it’s pretty easy to spend $20 on dinner in Franklin County, including at the Red Lobster.
In the same article, Brooks remarks that:
In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing.
Turns out that QVC’s audience, according to their vice president of merchandising, skews Blue, not Red.
In another influential article, this one in The Weekly Standard, on “Patio Man” who lives in fast-growing “Sprinkler Cities” mostly in the South and West, Brooks said that the women of Sprinkler Cities were “trim Jennifer Aniston women [who] wear capris and sleeveless tops and look great owing to their many hours of sweat and exercise at Spa Lady”.
Turns out that Spa Lady’s franchises are all in New Jersey.
There are many other examples in the article that show Brooks frequently overstates how well the real world fits his cultural models. This is important because Brooks’ status as a sociological and political analyst is heavily based on his presumed ability to capture the real America through his acute cultural observations. If those observations are merely charming anecdotes that are bit fanciful to begin with and cannot be generalized into larger socio-political categories, his analysis loses a great deal of its power. And that, in turn, undermines what Issenberg terms “the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy”. Take that away–people are not best understood by where they shop and what they buy–and Brooks would have to make his political case the old-fashioned way: with reference to hard facts, documented trends, survey data and all the rest of the boring stuff other analysts (like myself) have to rely on.
And, as I’ve suggested in other writings, when Brooks does have to makes his case in these more straightforwardly political ways, his analysis frequently has serious problems. See, for example, this post on his analysis of “Bush Democrats” or this article, where I discuss his analysis of exurban political trends.
In other words, if you take away his cultural generalizations, his political analysis has to stand on its own merits and can be distinctly underwhelming.
Of course, Brooks’ defense of his approach–which we get in the Issenberg article–is that he really doesn’t mean his cultural-political assertions as factual assertions. They are not meant to be taken literally and are more in the nature of jokes or satire.
That’s fine, but then he needs to ease up on the sweeping cultural-political generalizations he tends to make and the very high explanatory power he tends to assign them in explaining contemporary politics. Or else he shouldn’t be suprised when people take what appear to be claims about the real world and put them to the test.
You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

11 comments on “Deconstructing David Brooks

  1. Jim Lehrer is the best! on

    Brooks is a GOP apologist and a lazy one at that. Mark Sheilds usually cleans Brooks’ clock, argument-wise. I think Brooks, the GOP, and the Resident at 1600 are in for one hell of a surprise come November said surprise being followed by a crimminal investigation of Junior’s administation.

  2. Nate on

    I read the article in the atlantic monthly, which even made the cover, and coming from red america I couldn’t have been more humored. Brooks is not the astute cultural observer that he and Republicans would like to think.

  3. BNC on

    Recently, Brooks advised todays college bound youngsters to select a college to attend like they were picking a spouse – choose “the one with the personality and character that complements your own” he opined.
    Boy am I glad I was not aware of his advice when I chose my spouse.

  4. MWS on

    “Brooks is an annoying prick.”
    People that call other people “annoying pricks” because they disagree with them are pricks.

  5. dean on

    The Brooks deals in cultural stereotypes, not in cultural observation ro analysis. Hence it is easy for him to make statements about Spa Lady that do not track with the facts. One does not read the Brooks with an eye towards accuracy or even meaning. One reads the Brooks with a bemused smile at just how far out of touch with the facts he is.

  6. Paul C on

    Anyone see Brooks piece on Richard Clarke in Saturday’s Times? First, he criticises Clarke for being a partisan, no longer capable of reasoned analysis. Then he said that the White House should not have gotten down in the dirt with him. He says they should have rebutted him on a substantive basis. So then you would expect him to provide his own substantive argument against what Clarke said? Nope, all he did was proceed to call him every name in the book, from shrill to hysterical. Classical move — call the other guy a mudslinger while hurling as much of it as you can yourself.
    But you have to remember that this strikes right at the center of Broke’s Republican heart. He claims that he used to be a Democrat, until he became convinced that the Republican world view was more realistic and more likely to keep him safe. Imagine his horror when he finds out that the Grand Old Poobah’s were asleep at the switch. Maybe he’ll have to switch back again!!!

  7. derek on

    you’re all being so unfair to L. C. [stands for Learning Curve] Brooks !!! — don’t you understand that Brooks was just making a joke, just as he was when he wrote that the “neo” of neocons really meant Jewish, and therefore those who criticized the neocons were guilty of anti-semitism — also, don’t forget that in his response to the widespread criticism for his remarks in the New York Times, he claimed that he was on a “learning curve” and we should cut him a little slack — so please be charitable: the guy claims he was educated at the University of Chicage, has been writing for years and years and years, has a book out, another one on the way, writes for the New York Times, has written for the Weekly Standard, appears on the most presitigous news show on TV, and still needs a little more time because the learning curve is so steep!!! – oh, and by the way: have you noticed how he always responds when he is caught out with untruths asn factual errors: he was making a joke — Daniel Okrent, the public editior of the New York Times needs to tell him to stop trying to be funny otherwise people will stop taking him seriously and that is not what the Times is paying him for, or at least needs to come up with a new excuse — no, seriously, David, i’m just kidding: keep up the good work

  8. GregP on

    The Brooks stuff is hilarious! Not quite at the level of Jayson Blair, but it does make you wonder how much real “wingtips on the ground” effort he put in in Franklin County.

  9. Ron Thompson on

    “Brooks’ status as a sociological and political analyst”? Brooks is a sociological analyst in the sense that Stephen Colbert is a “Senior Iberian Analyst”–he plays one on TV, as a joke.


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