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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brooks and His Straw Men

Let me be upfront about this: I remain a fan of David Brooks for the simple reason that he is capable of a level of humor, and of sociological insight, that are rare in Washington, even if both those qualities have clearly suffered after his acceptance of the House Conservative spot on the New York Times op-ed page. His 1995 Weekly Standard piece, “How To Become Henry Kissinger” (available online, I am sad to say, only in an excerpted version unless you subscribe to The Standard) remains far and away the most screamingly funny send-up of the Washington Think Tank culture ever written. And nearly all his various ruminations on red-state and blue-state culture have been worth reading, even allowing for the methodological sloppiness and overstatement that so many of his rather humorless critics have exposed.
But Brooks has fallen into a habit that is once again on full display in his column today: drawing lines between the two parties, and between the Left and Right of American politics, that are distinctly remote from reality, in the apparent effort to make his partisan brethren seem more reasonable than they actually are.
I first noticed this habit back in 2000, when George W. Bush savagely despatched Brooks’ candidate, John McCain, and before you could say “revisionist history,” Brooks penned a puff piece (sorry, no link available here) on W. that essentially said he had adopted McCain’s “national greatness” message.
More recently, on the eve of a Republican National Convention that lionized Bush’s right-wing record, message and agenda, Brooks was at it again, in a lengthy and much-discussed New York Times Magazine feature that triumphantly outlined a future “progressive conservative” Republican ideology. The only problem was that about 98% of the delegates at the Convention would have violently rejected as godless liberalism most of the suggestions Brooks made.
And now, in his column today, Brooks draws a picture of “liberal” and “conservative” economic strategies from so great a height of generality that he doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t want readers to notice, that he’s not actually describing the options the two parties are offering to the American people.
“Conservatives have tended to favor the American model, with smaller government and lower taxes, but less social support” says Brooks, while liberals “have supported programs that lead to the European model, with bigger government, more generous support and less inequality.” In a nice ju-jitsu trick, Brooks winds up arguing that the only reason America can afford to continue programs “liberals” favor like Social Security is that “we have not been taking their advice for the past 50 years.”
Aside from the cheap shot of identifying conservatives with America and liberals with Europe, which indicates that Brooks may have the private vice of spending too much time watching Fox News, there’s the little problem that both of his characterizations of “conservative” and “liberal” economic theories are straw men.
The mainstream of American liberal economic policy has never been thoroughly “Social Democratic” in the European tradition; one of its hallmarks has been support of an “American Model” that combines strategic public investments that promote growth, along with relatively small “social supports” that prevent mass impoverishment and promote upward mobility, and the maximum degree of entrepreneurial freedom consistent with genuine competition and key social goods like a clean environment. That’s certainly where most Democrats this side of Dennis Kucinich want to take our economic policies today.
Moreover, the rise of the contemporary Conservative Movement in the U.S. has led the Right towards economic theories that abandon this “American Model” in favor of a monomanical commitment to lower taxes for high earners and lowering business costs regardless of the social costs–an “American Model” only if you think of Mississippi circa 1975 as a model for anything other than economic self-abasement. And to the extent that today’s conservatives can be said to embrace the true “American Model,” it’s via the deeply dishonest method of engaging in massive public borrowing to sustain a social safety net the public demands, and to finance strategically targeted tax cuts aimed at favored constituencies. Brooks spends a lot of time in his column deploring the huge level of public debt in European countries today. Exactly which party, and which end of the ideological spectrum, is associated with the happy accumulation of public debt in this country? It ain’t us donkeys, David.

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