David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center

By
David Brooks.Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Of all the failures that have led to the historical disaster of the Trump presidency, perhaps the least-remarked-upon is the abdication of responsibility of the American center. Those of us with moderate inclinations need an effective center as a brake against extremism. When one party veers too far from the center, the center joins the opposing party, until the extreme one can be coaxed back into the mainstream. David Brooks calls for a rejuvenation of the center under the Trump presidency. But Brooks himself is the perfect encapsulation of why the center has proven so hapless, allowing itself to enable extremism rather than prevent it.

The premise of Brooks’s column is that there needs to be space “between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.” This is a terrible way to conceptualize the political map. First, it distorts the ideas of the two sides, equating a small-d democrat like Sanders (who merely proposes more regulation, taxes, and spending) with Trump, who — as Brooks concedes — is authoritarian. And second, it distorts their power. Sanders remains a left-wing outlier among his party, while Trump is the dominant force within his.

But even if you accept this very strange notion of the political alignment in Trump’s Washington, it raises a question Brooks is not prepared to answer. If his objection on the left lies with the “Sanders socialism,” then isn’t there an appealing centrist lying to the right of that? A moderate who favors market-oriented solutions that bring together business and labor, who welcomes empiricism, and is willing to compromise? A politician who has led the Democratic Party for the last eight years and, in fact, is still the sitting president of the United States right now?

One might think so. But Brooks spent the last eight years defining the center as something Obama was not. It didn’t matter that Obama supported a health-care plan first devised by Mitt Romney, or a cap-and-trade plan endorsed by John McCain. Brooks nestled himself into the territory between Obama and the angry, no-compromise Republicans who were shutting down government and boycotting all negotiations with the president. If Obama endorsed the policies Brooks preferred, he would simply pretend that Obama had not proposed them. Indeed, one of the most common genres of David Brooks column was a sad lament that neither party would endorse policies that in fact Obama had explicitly and publicly called for.

If Obama offered a deal to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody was willing to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements. If Obama favored education reform, an infrastructure bank, and more high-skill immigration, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody favored those things. When Obama supported market-oriented health-care reform, Brooks opposed it as an extravagant government takeover. Then later he wrote a sad column about how “we’d have had a very different debate if we knew the law was going to be a discrete government effort to subsidize health care for more poor people” rather than “an extravagant government grab to take over the nation’s health-care system.”

The effect of all this commentary was not to empower the moderate ideas Brooks favored, but to disempower them. Brooks was emblematic of the way the entire bipartisan centrist industry conducted itself throughout the Obama years. It was neither possible for Obama to co-opt the center, nor for Republicans to abandon it, because official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand. The well-documented reality that the parties were undergoing asymmetric polarization was one they refused to accept, because their jobs was to be bipartisan, and it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon not understanding it.

The centrists could have played a role in braking the growing extremism of the Republican Party. It would have meant telling the country that there was now one moderate, governing party and one extremist faction, and parking themselves with the moderate party until such time as the dynamic changed. They could not do it. If there’s not much of a center left to stop Trump from trampling democratic norms, it is because the centrists abdicated their responsibility and destroyed themselves.