David Brooks fears for his republic. The New York Times’ senior “reasonable conservative” columnist is alarmed by the tenor of America’s political debate. To his right, he sees ideologues with an allergy to all nuance and ambiguity; to his left, he sees the same. Such fanatics view politics as a Manichaean fairy tale, in which their side lays exclusive claim to wisdom, sanity, and righteousness. Only their ideological faction can save this fallen nation from itself. It is not their desire to triumph over their enemies and consolidate power over our government — it is their destiny.
Fortunately, there is one ideological faction that still upholds America’s founding ideals, tolerates moral complexity, and rejects Manichaean thinking — “moderate liberals” like David Brooks. And, in a new column, Brooks declares that his comrades are destined to triumph over their extremist enemies, and consolidate power over our government.
“A Brief History of the Elizabeth Warren Presidency” begins as an exercise in playful punditry. Looking back from the year 2050, Brooks explains how the Massachusetts senator elbowed past her primary rivals on the strength of her “self-awareness” and high levels of support in Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren proved too progressive to become a popular Democratic nominee, Brooks continues, but this scarcely mattered — 2020 was a referendum on Donald Trump’s white identity politics, and a historically diverse U.S. electorate rejected Trumpism resoundingly.
Once Warren enters the White House, however, her fortunes turn south — and Brooks’s punditry turns to preaching. Warren’s entire agenda fails in the Senate, as red-state Democrats inform the president that supporting her “wealth tax” would be politically “suicidal” (the idea that this policy is toxic in red states is contradicted by all available polling data, and Brooks does not bother to substantiate his prediction). A recession hits. Blue America descends into civil war. And then, the meek center-right columnists inherit the Earth — or at least, the Democratic Party. Pluralistic toleration reigns throughout the land.
Now, as someone who wishes to see the United States become a racially egalitarian, social democratic (and/or market socialist) society that serves as a safe harbor for the oppressed of all nations, I don’t begrudge anyone their political daydreams. The trouble here isn’t that Brooks predicts the final victory of the concern-trolling class, but the way he characterizes his ideological adversaries while doing so:
Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.
Moderate liberals had a basic faith in American institutions and thought they just needed reform. They had basic faith in capitalism and the Constitution and revered the classical liberal philosophy embedded in America’s founding. They inherited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s millennial nationalism, a sense that America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth.
Progressives had much less faith in American institutions — in capitalism, the Constitution, the founding. They called for more structural change to things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the basic structures of the market. Trump’s victory in 2016 had served for them as proof that racism is the dominant note in American history, that the founding was 1619, not 1776. They were willing to step on procedural liberalism in order to get radical change … The moderate liberals triumphed easily. It turns out that the immigrant groups, by then a large and organized force in American politics, had not lost faith in the American dream, they had not lost faith in capitalism. They simply wanted more help so they could compete within it.
Here, Brooks evinces disapproval of Elizabeth Warren’s call to abolish the Electoral College, her openness to reforming the Supreme Court, and her plans for restructuring the American economy. But he does not bother to engage her arguments on any of these points, or explain why he finds them misguided. Instead, he is content to merely code them as anti-capitalist, illiberal, and un-American; which is to say, as betrayals of our republic’s finest founding ideals, and the political legacies of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Earlier this month, Brooks wrote a column from the perspective of his fanatical detractors on the “alt right” and “alt left.” Here is an abridged version of how he characterized their worldview:
I yearn for order. Blunt simplicities. Politics provides the Manichaean binaries I can’t find anywhere else … I need leaders and spokesmen who will never show uncertainty. I want leaders who tell simple blame stories … So, my politics is not really about issues … I don’t deal with the complexities of economics or foreign affairs … I am indignant. I am superior.
This seems like a fair description of Brooks’s own politics, at least, as expressed in his critique of Warren. The Massachusetts senator has not condemned America’s political and economic institutions as valueless and worthy of destruction. She describes herself as “capitalist to my bones,” and sings paens to the glories of market competition. As for her attitude toward U.S. nationalism, the official title of her trade agenda is “A Plan for Economic Patriotism.” She has (problematically) named Teddy Roosevelt as her personal hero. Her stump speeches are routinely framed around retellings of inspirational episodes from American history. “Our nation’s basic institutions are sound and full of promise, they just need to be reformed” is, more or less, the candidate’s message.
But Brooks demands blunt simplicities. He isn’t interested in the “complexities of economics,” so he does not bother to elucidate the distinction between Warren’s desire for (in his words) “structural change to … the basic structures of the market,” and his own interest in reforming American capitalism to help immigrants better compete. The intensity of Warren’s dissatisfaction with our increasingly inequitable economy — and anti-democratic political system — challenges his belief that “America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth” (which is in no way a fanatical or immoderate thing to believe). And moderate liberals (apparently) cannot tolerate such uncertainty. They yearn for order, and Manichaean binaries. If you believe in the Constitution, then you cannot support amending it. After all, the Electoral College operates exactly how its founders intended; therefore, any changes to our system of electing presidents wouldn’t represent another chapter in a long history of reform, but rather, a radical break with the American way. Similarly, the Supreme Court has always had nine justices. And the basic structures of America’s market economy have never undergone changes as sweeping as those that Elizabeth Warren has prescribed: From the time of the Declaration’s signing until today, American capitalism has always been known for its transnational tech and finance oligopolies, rapidly shrinking middle class, and low levels of social mobility. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that anyone calling for drastic changes to America’s status quo political economy must reject its foundational ideals (which are too self-evident and uncontentious to require definition). And surely, no politician who calls herself a liberal — in the American sense — would ever entertain increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
One could write another 1,000 words on the fallacies and hypocrisies Brooks has constructed his column (and political identity) atop. But there wouldn’t be much point. His politics is not really about issues. He is indignant. He is superior.