The David Brooks Syndrome

Two astute political friends recently sent me a David Brooks opinion piece from the New York Times titled “The End of the Two Party System”, whose purpose is to explain the poison that has infected the American political system with Donald Trump and call for the replacement of our two party system with something approximating a parlimentary system. Back in the day I would have imbibed Brooks’ expositions as informed wisdom; now either I have drifted away from him, or he from me.

In short form, Brooks contends that the world has changed from an attitude of optimistic abundance where everybody could prosper to one of scarcity where we divide into tribes to fight over limited resources. While he traces the change to the ethnic conflicts which accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the pressures following the 2008 financial crisis, he blames Trump for destroying “the pillars of conservatism: rule of law, fiscal discipline, global engagement, moral decency, the (Martin Luther King) idea that people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”

This is perhaps a useful construct for Establishment Republicans who have made little effort to understand the Trump phenomenon, and have nowhere to go – as if George W Bush and Barack Obama were paragons of fiscal discipline, Bill Clinton were a moral exemplar, and Barack Obama’s use of the IRS and the FBI to subdue his political opponents enhanced the rule of law. Let’s examine a few of Brooks’ premises more closely.

1. The 1990s were a glorious age. Yes, it was a good time for western and central Europe with the (Reagan-induced)  break-up of the Soviet Union, but it was a dark time for the people of Russia.  For those casting politics in global terms, the larger story of the past few decades is the rise from poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese – aided in significant part by American trade policies. And the shift from optimism about the spread of prosperity with democratic capitalism to the mood of constraints?  Perhaps the greatest constraint of all is the meme of global warming – the American working class needs to bear the brunt for the byproduct of spreading industrial society.

2. The shift to “tribalism” on a global scale began with the break-up of Yugoslavia. That Euro-centric perspective ignores the mass genocides between the Tutsis and the Hutus in central Africa during the 90s, and the waves of virulent religious and ethnic violence which have roiled the Muslim world following the optimism of the Arab Spring. Those looking for blame among American presidents need to examine Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.

3. The essence of Make America Great Again is racist. Many Establishment Republicans buy into the liberal Democratic construct that the descendents of the people who built America do not have a right to protect their religious, economic, cultural, and philosophical legacy. The attitude reached a peak under “globalist” President Obama, and is manifested in trade and immigration policies which have played a significant role in hollowing out the American middle class. For the first time in decades, a prominent politician has been willing to speak the politically incorrect and stand up for the working class.

4. The two party system isn’t working. Actually, it is working just fine. The Democrats adopted a strategy of pandering to minorities on the theory that they had 10% sewed up with African Americans and they could garner a solid 30% with Hispanics. In the process, they lost working class America which has found a home in the Republican Party. Intellectuals like David Brooks speak to a declining segment of the party, have lost influence with what have become the mainstream Republicans, cannot separate Trump the person from the policies which he advocates,  and yet cannot rationalize moving to direct support of an increasingly “progressive” Democratic Party.  Brooks lost his party, but that does not mean that we should give him a new one.

The reality of the new American political alignment is that the Republicans have become the party of the middle class while the Democrats have become the party of the coastal elites, ethnic minorities, and the “lumpen proletariat”. The transition long preceedes Trump, and is reflected in state legislatures and governorships across the country.  It is easy to understand where traditional conservative values such as liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility fit in this construct. Unfortunately, fiscal responsibility is an orphan at the national level.