David Brooks is Mostly Right

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on something of a roll lately. While certainly still a conservative in his editorial positions, he’s been exploring the nearly unpredictable turn of events that has been the Republican primary. His sense of bafflement has been frequent and public between his columns and his weekly turns on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’s Newshour. He has shown himself to be a thoughtful conservative in an era where such descriptors are frustratingly rare.

Last week he wrote a very interesting column, “The Post-Trump Era“. Brooks offered an analysis of Republican strategy using Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which I love). He summarized Kuhn as follows:

According to Kuhn, intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by sudden paradigm shifts. There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed.

His interpretation of Kuhn is pretty accurate. As he says, Kuhn’s model depends on anomalies that can’t be explained by the old paradigm and a new paradigm is adopted that better aligns with the data. Brooks suggests that the old model is a Reagan-based economic model and that this doesn’t match current realities.

His diagnosis is correct but I think his application of Kuhn’s model is premature. There is little evidence that Republican policy positions have moved away from Reaganomics. In fact, states from Kansas to Wisconsin to North Carolina to Florida have been holding firmly to the tax-cutting social-web-cutting strategies that have characterized government over the last three decades plus. Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported that two dozen states (including “blue states”) have not renewed policies that allowed struggling families to access food stamps. Because our model of “economic man” assumes that people will be motivated to work if they are threatened with hunger (and assuming that people only avoid work due to laziness).

So it’s hard to find anyone willing to admit that the prior model needs revision. It’s not hard to understand why this is the case. I recently read E.J. Dionne’s new book, Where the Right Went Wrong. Dionne, Brooks’ commentary partner on ATC, writes a compassionate history of the conservative movement in America since Goldwater. His basic point is that contemporary Republican leaders are simply not allowed to admit anomalies. He suggests that Democrats and Republicans both share a common concern: an election challenger from the right. For Democrats, that’s in a general election and for the Republicans it’s the primary. So Republicans have to run right to forestall a primary challenge. In such an environment, admitting that the economic model is broken is political suicide (ask Richard Lugar).

Yet Brooks begins to suggest what the next paradigm might look like. As music to my ears, he suggests that the next model should be based not in economics but in sociology:

This is also a moment for sociology. Reaganism was very economic, built around tax policies, enterprise zones and the conception of the human being as a rational, utility-driven individual. The Adam Smith necktie was the emblem of that movement.

It might be time to invest in Émile Durkheim neckties, because today’s problems relate to binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections, relating across the diversity of a globalized world. Homo economicus is a myth and conservatism needs a worldview that is accurate about human nature.

This is an encouraging view, but requires much more theoretical work than he suggests. It’s not surprising, as Brooks is essentially a cultural conservative. He has written a great deal about the importance of character and the ways in which those folks on food stamps need a thicker culture of family, work, religion, and dignity.

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But we need a more robust understanding of Durkheim that simply “reweaving connections”. As I told my theory class, Durkeim’s Division of Labor (his doctoral dissertation) outlines the shift from mechanical solidarity (based on sameness) to organic solidarity (based on interdependence). In a modern society, based on diversity of values and population, it is the interrelatedness of the various segments of society that ties things together.

Durkheim argues that while these differences may become problematic, intermediate institutions will develop that play the role of mediating those differences for the good of the whole.

Since the 1980s, our political establishments have been systematically dismantling those intermediate institutions: unions, civic organizations, precinct officials, churches, the grange. All of these provided the places where differences are negotiated in service of the common good. Add to these organizations the various governmental entities designed to see that powerful institutions play by the rules and you get unfettered power in the hands of some at the expense of others.

A related problem is the intense segmentation of society. As Bill Bishop has noted, the Big Sort has resulted in remarkable isolation from those different than ourselves. We rely on entirely different media perspectives. In Durkheimian terms, we have created subsystems based on mechanical solidarity and viewing those not in our group as distinctly Other and not to be trusted.

But Durkheim’s inherent social conservatism (because individuals are always subordinate to the larger society) makes it hard for his thought to be the new paradigm that Brooks is hoping for.

We just wrapped up the section in the theory class about conflict theory. Two things stand out from that perspective. First, the key to understanding conflict over scarce resources or differing values is to see that conflict is manageable. If there are ground rules allowing weaker groups to make their interests known, conflict can actually lead to better social decisions. If the weaker group has no way of expressing interest within the system, they will engage in conflict that is likely to be more intense and protracted. This is what I’d argue that we’re seeing among both Trump and Sanders supporters.

Conflict theory tells us that competition over values and resources is central to our social lives. This isn’t just class warfare. It’s a reality anytime any group feels their ongoing identity is at real risk (I plan to come back to this analysis as a way of understanding religious liberty fights).

Economics isn’t everything. It is insufficient when trying to explain why “the makers” will allow their resources to “trickle down” to others. It is also insufficient when applied in a vulgar Marxist notion of making everything about class situation (which is why I wish Sanders would find a more general theory of our current situation than the “malevolent 1%”) .

Brooks is likely overly optimistic in thinking that the Republican party is on the verge of a new operational paradigm. Don’t forget all of the insightful 2012 post-mortems that completely vanished as the 2016 campaign ramped up.

But he is right in suggesting that a more theoretically robust understanding of our situation as a society and what motivates its members is essential. I hope and pray that sociologists can rise to the challenge of articulating for the public (and not just other sociologists) what that new model looks like.


2 thoughts on “David Brooks is Mostly Right

  1. John, you say: “Since the 1980s, our political establishments have been systematically dismantling those intermediate institutions: unions, civic organizations, precinct officials, churches, the grange.” This marginalization and elimination of middling institutions has concerned me for some time now. I’ve seen how the polarity of Individual and State have worked toward this, but I’d be interested in learning more on how our “political establishments” have been contributing to this. Any particular books/articles you’d suggest to me?


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