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I realize that the title I choose here may offend some of my fellow progressives. On LA Progressive, Brooks is dammed more than praised. A brief sample of previous years’ articles about him include “Memo to David Brooks: Francis Is Not Naïve for Criticizing Capitalism” (2015), “David Brooks Is Wrong Again—Trump’s Rise Is Not ‘Anti-Politics’ but the Cancer of Big Money” (2016), and “David Brooks Gets Lost in a Lily-White History” (2017). Comments on these pieces were often even more critical of Brooks, for example, “As for Brooks, he is the classic American talking head fool; erudite, well educated and consistently wrong and thus always in demand.”

One Progressive Likes David Brooks

With some of the conclusions of the above articles, I agree. Rev. Peter Laarman, the author of the first and third articles, is correct in indicating that Pope Francis is more right in his critique of capitalism than Brooks recognizes—too much trust in it sometimes mars Brooks’ vision. I have also been critical of Brooks’ limited view of wisdom, and more recently thought that he has been too hostile toward the Green New Deal, stemming in part from his excessive faith in capitalism.

Yet, I think Brooks’ critics often go too far. Rev. Laarman, for example, refers to a Brooks’ New York Times piece (“The Unifying American Story”) as an “unbelievably fatuous column.” Synonyms of fatuous include unintelligent, ignorant, dense, brainless, mindless, foolish, slow-witted, dunce-like, simpleminded, empty-headed, idiotic, moronic, and imbecilic. I did not find the column to be any of these things. Its author quoted favorably Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Langston Hughes, and, as I suggested in a recent essay, Brooks is correct when he writes: “One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.”

In her recent These Truths: A History of the United States(2018) and in a more recent Foreign Affairs essay, “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story,” Jill Lepore examines what a new American history and story look like. They both accept and celebrate our ethnic, religious, and gender-identity diversity. In his call for a new “unifying American story,” Brooks is much vaguer, and Rev. Laarman is correct in stating that Brooks does not sufficiently acknowledge the dark aspects of our history.

But Brooks is not a historian, and a column is just a column, not a full-length book like Lapore’s excellent history. Brooks is also sympathetic to the plight of African Americans and Native Americans. In March 2019, he wrote “The Case for Reparations,” in which he approved of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic article of the same name, and quotes his words, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Brooks adds,

Various liberal and progressive publications have found fault with some of the details of Brooks’ reparations article, but come on! He’s a conservative and yet willing to recognize that reparations to African Americans might be a good idea.

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

Brooks also recognizes the unjust treatment of Native Americans: “While there have been many types of discrimination in our history, the African-American (and the Native American) experiences are unique and different. Theirs are not immigrant experiences but involve a moral injury that simply isn’t there for other groups.”

Various liberal and progressive publications have found fault with some of the details of Brooks’ reparations article, but come on! He’s a conservative and yet willing to recognize that reparations to African Americans might be a good idea. Even some liberals and progressives have their doubts on the question.

Progressivism means different things to different people, and on this site I spelled out in 2013 what it meant to me. Among the qualities I thought—and still think—progressives should possess are humility, tolerance, and willingness to compromise. (One of the reasons so many of us progressives dislike Donald Trump is that he demonstrates none of these qualities.) I also wrote that we should “avoid dogmatism like a plague. Believing is not the same as knowing. Just because we are passionate about a belief or a cause does not mean we are right. We can readily spot dogmatism on the Right but sometimes fail to realize our own susceptibility to it.”

Furthermore, “humility should lead us to tolerance and willingness to compromise. Recognizing that none of us has all the answers, we should be open-minded toward approaches that might differ from our own. Empathy also requires us to try, really try, to understand viewpoints that differ from ours. We can be true to our principles and values and yet be open to various means to achieve them. [As Barack Obama often pointed out,] in a democracy nobody gets all of what they want all of the time. To achieve political goals, to improve the common good, compromise and a pragmatic approach to problem-solving is often most efficacious.”

One Progressive Likes David Brooks

In various articles on this site, I have praised those who have emphasized the above approach. In 2010, I applauded President Obama’s sage words in a commencement address, “We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.” In 2011, I wrote favorably of Dorothy’s Day’s advice to “always be seeking concordances, rather than differences,” and her belief that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.” 

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Later that same year and again in 2017, I emphasized the importance of political compromise, citing the words of such political leaders as Ben Franklin and John Kennedy and the example of Sen. Ted Kennedy. In 2015, I wrote an article which praised Pope Francis’s address to the U.S. Congress. The piece cited a 2013 sermon in which he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.” I closed the essay with these words, “In the spirit of Pope Francis’s remarks . . . we should all ask ourselves how—with the dialogue, openness, and pragmatism he suggests—we can best proceed to seek the common good.”

Thus, recognizing our differences with conservatives like Brooks, we should try to see the good in them when we can, and follow the advice of Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, and President Obama and be open to them and seek concordances with them.

For several years I have watched Brooks’ once-a-week appearance on the PBS Newshour and usually read his New York Time’s op-eds. He has been consistently critical of Donald Trump—e.g., he has described him thusly: “He has no realistic policies . . . no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out.” And (in a December 2017 column),

Donald Trump never stops asking. First, he asked the party to swallow the idea of a narcissistic sexual harasser and a routine liar as its party leader. Then he asked the party to accept his comprehensive ignorance and his politics of racial division. Now he asks the party to give up its reputation for fiscal conservatism. At the same time he asks the party to become the party of Roy Moore, the party of bigotry, alleged sexual harassment and child assault.

There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him.

There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him.

On many other issues that are important to progressives, like racism, poverty, and climate change, he is not, as are many Trumpians and some conservatives, a denier or uncaring. On climate change, for example, he admitted in 2010 that he is not at his “best when dealing with environmental issues,” but that he totally accepts “the scientific authorities who say that global warming is real and that it is manmade.”

Moreover, he admires some of the same people that many progressives do. In a 2018 column on “Moral Heroes,” he wrote of “great moral leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” and he also mentioned one of my own, the Russian Andrei Sakharov. Some of his heroes he identified as those who “spend their lives fighting poverty, caring for the young or the sick, or single-mindedly dedicated to some cause.” In his 2015 book, The Road to Character, he devotes a whole admiring chapter (Ch. 4) to Dorothy Day and another (Ch. 6) to the two civil rights leaders A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

In that same book, he wrote of a “broad shift from a culture of humility [in the 1940s and 1950s] to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.” Today, four years after Brooks’ book first publication, Donald Trump personifies this cultural shift, reminding us that his election owes something to our celebrity, look-at-me culture.

In his books, including his latest (The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life), Brooks often writes of values, morality, and ethics. Some of my progressive friends think he is too preachy, even sanctimonious. But I like his emphasis on values. Wisdom scholar Copthorne Macdonald once wrote in his “The Centrality of Wisdom” that “values are at the heart of the matter.” In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama stated, “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values.” He went on to insist that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”

If that is so, then David Brooks is someone with whom progressives could cooperate. He may have his faults, his biases, and blind spots—who of us does not?—but if all congressional conservatives were like him, more progressive congresspeople (in a spirit of humility, openness, dialogue, and compromise) could work together to craft workable solutions to our most pressing problems.

Historian Lepore believes that during the twenty-first century political polarization has accelerated as the Internet has enabled people “to live in their own realities.” Just as with those on the Right, so too we on the Left must guard against just listening to ourselves and those who agree with us. In 2010 Obama told University of Michigan graduates, “If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.” Instead he encouraged us “to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs,” so that “we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.”

Good advice. We can start by reading, listening, and open-mindedly considering the ideas of conservatives like Brooks, who may favor different solutions than ours, but who is an honorable person and as appalled as we are at the moral bankruptcy of the Trump Administration.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss