The Standard was where Brooks seized on “national greatness” as the future of conservatism. He thought Republicans adrift in late-nineties Clintonian prosperity, chiding them for narrow-mindedly pursuing small government, and called for “grand American projects” that exemplified the national spirit, be they construction projects, scientific research, anything, really. “Energetic government is good for its own sake,” he wrote. “It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride.” It also boosted David Brooks. Once Bobos in Paradise came out in 2000, he was a star. The book was especially popular in France, where a hip magazine asked him to pose naked in a vat of milk. Brooks declined.
In 2003, Brooks got a call from New York Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins inviting him to lunch. Collins was looking for a conservative to replace outgoing columnist William Safire, but one who understood how liberals think. “I was looking for the kind of conservative writer that wouldn’t make our readers shriek and throw the paper out the window,” says Collins. “He was perfect.” Brooks started writing in September 2003. “The first six months were miserable,” Brooks says. “I’d never been hated on a mass scale before.”
Whereas Bobos drew accolades, the response to his 2004 follow-up, On Paradise Drive, and the articles that inspired it, was mixed. Negative reviews gave way to critiques of “Brooksianism” itself. The worst drubbing appeared in Philadelphia magazine, where Sasha Issenberg fact-checked Brooks’s generalizations about red and blue America in an essay for The Atlantic on which the book was partly based. Brooks had written that people in red America use QVC home shopping. Issenberg found that QVC has more customers in blue states than red. Brooks wrote that blue Americans read more books. Issenberg quoted a study that found that 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in red states. Brooks claimed he tried and failed to spend $20 at Red Lobster. Issenberg visited one and easily spent $28.75. When Issenberg called Brooks to ask about the discrepancies, Brooks said he was taking his comedic riffs too literally.
Brooks took the backlash hard. The day Slate ran a takedown, Brooks was on a book tour. “I read it and then went out to perform before 3,000 people and thought, I suck,” Brooks remembers. He says he still hasn’t read Issenberg’s piece. “I can’t remember what I said [to Issenberg],” he says, “but my mother told me I was extremely stupid.”
Blood has cooled since. During the McCain campaign, Issenberg introduced himself to Brooks. “He was incredibly warm,” Issenberg says, “and ever since he’s been exceedingly gracious every time I’ve run into him.”
B rooks’s favorite social-science study is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. A child is left in a room with a marshmallow for fifteen minutes. If he restrains himself from eating the marshmallow, he gets a second one. If not, he doesn’t. The test turns out to be a predictor of all kinds of habits in adult life. Children who show self-control in front of a tasty marshmallow score higher on the SAT, struggle less in stressful situations, maintain friendships better, and have fewer problems with drugs.
Brooks is concerned we’ve become a nation of marshmallow eaters. We want tax cuts and more entitlements, without realizing the contradiction. We want speedy, in-and-out wars. We want a president who can fix any crisis—even an oil spill he’s not equipped to solve. “They want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control,” Brooks wrote recently.
What makes Brooks’s philosophy so out of sync right now is that it’s all about not eating the marshmallow. “National greatness” projects, from railroads to Internet grids to energy bills, take patience and investment. They don’t pay off overnight. His latest hobbyhorse, balancing the budget, is even less sexy. “I think we’re gonna be Greece,” he says. But it’s hard to make anyone care until we are Greece.
Obama is faced with the same dilemma. He rode into office with grand ambitions but quickly discovered his boundaries. A fickle electorate hungry for instant gratification makes it impossible to tackle any problem on a timeline longer than four years. Polarization leads to legislative stalemate. Gridlock then leaves pundits to focus not on what the president is trying to do but on how angry he is about his inability to do it.
But if the country has become ungovernable, it’s also unpersuadable. Just as Obama is being forced to rein in his agenda, Brooks has dialed back his expectations for what a columnist can accomplish. “I’ve come to believe that power for a columnist doesn’t exist,” he says. He can raise questions; he can even attempt answers. But rational argument doesn’t go very far.
Politics is cyclical, of course. Extremism will die down. Republicans will moderate. Democrats will bump up against the checks and balances of the democratic system. But the fundamental trends that haunt Brooks—the looming deficit, polarization, distrust of government—aren’t going away. “I’m naturally an extremely optimistic person,” he says. “But I’m more pessimistic now than ever in my life.” There are limits to what one person can do about these things, be he a columnist or a president. So maybe it’s best not to get too worked up.