What rankles him is the vituperative ideologue. The nastiest piece he ever wrote was a review of recovering neocon Michael Lind’s Up From Conservatism called “Portrait of the Autist.” It wasn’t Lind’s politics that bothered Brooks—he has cited Lind favorably since. It was the cavalier way he emitted “a constant and dizzying flow of certitudes.” Anti-intellectualism is another Brooksian bugaboo. In 2008, he called Sarah Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican party.” “I sort of regretted that,” he says, although what he regrets is the extremity of the tone, not the underlying idea.
The tea-partyers are an unusual case. Brooks isn’t a fan, but he doesn’t condemn them either. He instead restricts himself to sociological analyses of their significance: They’re a natural outgrowth of Obama’s ambitious policies. They’re actually a lot like the New Left. They’re not racist, based on that time he saw some tea-partyers mingling with some black people. Above all, they’re more a distraction than a concern.
Which is exactly what Times readers want to hear a conservative say.
B rooks changed his mind recently. Not one of those small changes, like grande instead of venti. He abandoned an idea that until recently made David Brooks David Brooks.
“I’ve changed my view of suburbia,” he says. We’re sitting at the Best Buns Bread Company in the Village at Shirlington, a sort of prefab town square in Arlington, Virginia, designed to be quaint and homey. The streets are fresh red brick. The lampposts are faux antique. The trees are evenly spaced. A color-coded map explains the area’s layout, like a mall. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity—Aladdin’s Eatery abuts Bonsai Restaurant abuts Guapo’s—is matched only by its patrons’ ethnic lack thereof. We are sipping coffees and munching on identical Ginger Crinkle cookies, when it occurs to me: I am in a David Brooks book. We are Bobos. This is Paradise.
“In my last book, I was pretty pro-urban/suburban sprawl,” he explains. Pro is an understatement. On Paradise Drive, released in 2004, was a satirical, pop-sociological exploration of American suburbia, but also a celebration of it. Consumerism wasn’t just empty accumulation; it was how Americans express themselves. In the ever-expanding exurbs, he wrote, every man creates his own private bubble, “an aristocrat within his own Olympus.”
“Now I’m much more skeptical,” he says. For the last three years, Brooks has been researching and writing a book on neuroscience. At least that’s his shorthand for it. It’s basically about how unconscious processes—in short, emotions—shape our behavior, and what that means for public policy, all told through the stories of two composite, pseudo-novelistic characters. (A working title was How Success Happens, but he dismissed it as too Gladwellian.) Good policy, he argues, should understand that people make decisions emotionally, not rationally. It should also try to foster good habits with “communitarian” solutions like pre-K education, or zoning laws to prevent Wal-Marts from taking over neighborhoods. In other words, says Brooks, “the more contact with other people, the better.” Hence his newfound beef with suburbia.
Consistency is not one of Brooks’s hobgoblins; he has no qualms about changing his mind. His list of reversals is testament to his intellectual flexibility—or flabbiness, depending on your angle. His view of suburbia has dimmed, based on his new appreciation for communitarianism. Back in 2008, he strongly opposed the bailout of GM. “I might have been wrong about that,” he says. And of course there’s Iraq. As late as 2007, he called Iraq “one of the noblest endeavors the United States, or any great power, has ever undertaken.” He knew the war was profoundly anti-Burkean. But it suited his quest for “national greatness”—a gauzy vision of conservatism he and Kristol had been pushing since 1997. “It was an unfortunate deviation from my core philosophy,” he says.
E very column is a failure,” says Brooks. “I always wish I did something different.” Part of the problem is the format. There’s only so much you can do with 800 words. “I’m a 3,000-word person,” he says.
Deadline days end with fourteen piles of paper stacked around his office—printouts, notes, index cards, photocopies—one for each paragraph of the story. If the column doesn’t come together, he resorts to the laundry list, beginning each paragraph with “First,” “Second,” etc. “Usually when I do that, I’ve written another version of the column and it sucked,” he says, “so those are usually acts of sheer desperation.”
Plus Brooks just isn’t that opinionated. “I look at Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Chait, churning out opinions,” he says. “I don’t have that many.” Brooks’s goal isn’t to change minds, he says. “Do I expect someone with View X on a policy, and I argue View Anti-X, that somehow they’re gonna totally change their mind? I don’t think I’ve ever had that effect on anybody.” He can “strengthen and highlight certain feelings,” he says. But that’s about it.