No contemporary pundit is more emblematic of the deep pathologies besetting Conservative ideology than David Brooks. Arguably the most influential conservative writer alive today, Brooks is perceived by many as the ideal representative of an “intellectually respectable” conservatism: he is charming, eloquent, and level-headed. As a mainstay of The New York Times editorial page Brooks has held notable positions at The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and is a regular guest on PBS’ Newshour (the best of the worst of American Television news). Most notably, Brooks’ brand of moderate Conservatism is an amalgamation of good ol’ fashioned American Pragmatism and half-baked social science combined with an irrepressible faith in the power of Technocratic governance. Add to this toxic brew his endearing habit of flattering his readers and you now have the recipe for the wildly successful career of the Liberal Brahmin Caste’s favorite pet Conservative. As such, Brooks is a Conservative Uncle Tom, i.e., the type of Conservative that Liberal ideologues are permitted to tolerate.
Of course, on the surface many of Brooks’ political positions (e.g., his milquetoast advocacy for traditional “family values,” his emphasis on informal social norms, and his obnoxious predilection for quoting Edmund Burke) may appear complementary to a kind of Reactionary sensibility; however, such a cursory interpretation of his thought is misleading. Instead, I would argue that reading Brooks is akin to decoding a Magic Eye Stereogram, it is only after you expend time and effort that the seemingly disjointed shapes and colors fade and the actual image is revealed. Once one sees past Brooks’ conservative veneer, the beating heart of his thought comes into view. The fact that Brooks is a Liberal is, of course, news to no-one, but this is not what makes him so incredibly treacherous. David Brooks is treacherous not because he is a Liberal but because he is a cynical Liberal (his frequent and, quite frankly, unbecoming digressions into sentimentality in no way negate his underlying cynicism; if anything they are indicative of its true depth).
Brooks’ methods are dangerous because they are effective. Accordingly, his work stands in stark contrast to the precious naivety and childish passion displayed by the contemporary Left. Compared to the bimbo snark of Jezebel or the teenage wit of Slate and Salon, Brooks seems like the proverbial “adult in the room.” Even the shrill screeds spouted by the harpies at The New Yorker are but sound and fury compared to Brooks’ subtle and relentless propaganda.
In order to observe Brooks’ deleterious cynicism, one must simply contemplate his occasional moments of lucidity, when circumstances beyond his control occasionally force him into an awkward outburst of truth-telling. In a remarkable February 2015 column Brooks countenances the obvious: that the appeal of Sunni Islamic extremism is ultimately caused not by material deprivation (a view most hilariously articulated by the State Department’s spokeswoman Marie Harf) but has a much deeper and, for Brooks, troubling cause. Brooks writes:
But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.
They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.
Notice the admission within the text: he refers to the pleasures “we” value, and that “we” take as public life’s ultimate end. It is here that we meet the real David Brooks: the enlightened hedonist, the stoic liberal, the shameless prophet of consumerist banality. Brooks pays lip-service to traditional social structures and norms while actively denying the deeper truths which those structures merely symbolize. Brooks perceives these impulses and customs not as imperfect reflections of a sacred order, but the necessary and unfortunate means to reach Brooks’ telos: comfort. Comfort, obtained by means of moderate virtue and moderate vice. Everything is measured against the yardstick of Utility. Why get married? Well to increase your earnings obviously! Married men, after all, make significantly more than their single counterparts. Should one get religion? Of course! Regular religious attendance correlates strongly with stable marriages and overall life satisfaction. After all, how would our hyper-atomized commercial civilization function without a healthy Protestant work ethic?
Ultimately what Brooks offers is a kind of spiritual masturbation, a Judeo-Christian nirvana of ethical consumerism and an perverse imitation of virtue ethics. He continues:
Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending … Walt Whitman was inspired by the thought that his country was involved in a great project, “making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf … inaugurating largeness, culminating time.” … Millions have been inspired by an American creed that, the late great historian Sacvan Bercovitch wrote, “has succeeded in uniting nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, sacred and secular history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single transcendent ideal … Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.
Indeed, Brooks recognizes the actual root of the issue: that his beloved bourgeois utopia offers men absolutely nothing of substance -– certainly nothing worth living for and even less worth dying for. The comfort and amusement of Modern Western life, embodied in the holy trifecta of Pills, Porn and Promotions, simply cannot function as a worthy end for human life, nor can it be the pillar around which a civilization is built. To his credit, Brooks is at least aware (albeit vaguely) of the vast spiritual desert of late-modern Western Society. Yet, he takes away the wrong lesson from this revelation. Whereas an honest man would acknowledge this cultural wasteland as a damning indictment of the entire project, for him it is merely an inconvenient fact. Instead of directly addressing the underlying issue, Brooks seeks a circumvention. He sees the natural human drive for transcendence to be merely a technical issue, a bit of faulty neurological wiring, which might be corrected and “rerouted” with nothing more than a bit of conventional sophistry and elbow grease. Accordingly, Brooks perceives the innate impulse for transcendence as the unfortunate reality of our imperfect human condition, holdovers from a more savage time, which will one day be vanquished for good. In the meantime they must be fastidiously managed, channeled, and redirected towards more “productive ends.”
It’s tempting to defend Brooks by claiming he actually believes what he says, that is to say that he actually affirms the tenets of his Neo-Wilsonian Democratic Nationalism (a profoundly stupid ideology which he so effectively promoted before the American Invasion of Iraq). But this assessment makes the categorical error of mistaking Brooks’ sentimentality for sincerity. Brooks’ sympathy is certainly genuine, he feels for the poor deluded souls who long for something more than banality and mediocrity in their short plebeian lives. Sometimes one is almost tempted to imagine that Brooks, in a rare moment of illuminative clarity, once experienced a similar longing; almost.
Brooks wisely knows the limits of his own sophistry. Instead of futilely trying to argue them out of their spiritual passions, Brooks offers a placebo. His solution is both, in equal measure, elegantly simple and transparently patronizing. In place of a Transcendent Deity he offers a Transcendent Democratic State. In place of the soaring architecture of the Cathedral he offers the venal Halls of Parliament, the tedium of Tort Law in place of the sublime meditations of Theology, a therapeutic jihad of self actualization in place of Holy War, Big Mac as communion wafer. Brooks, the Joel Olsteen of Punditry, merely wants his readers to live their best life now.
As a high priest of Conservatism, Brooks does not shirk the noblesse oblige he feels as a senior member of the landed meritocracy. He knows the bread he offers is illusory, a conjurer’s trick, but he also knows that it still offers something to the bereaved: i.e., he offers the balm of comfort, chicken soup for the late modern soul. Brooks, after all, loves his sheep. He deceives not out of malice but out of a deep and perverse love for his charges. He is our benevolent overseer, our Mustapha Mond come to quiet our dangerous dreams with therapeutic lullabies. His fears for his sheep are the same as Mond’s, namely that:
“… once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose — well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes — make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.” Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible.
For David Brooks and his fellow technocrats, happiness and comfort are what really count in the end. The recurring pressures of transcendence and the nightmares of purpose are merely a passing mirage, a storm to be weathered. For the cynical liberal mantra remains: “a little comfort for the day and a little comfort for the night, and a lot of comfort for when the end comes.” David Brooks has invented happiness … and he blinks. And the wind shall say:
Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls