My most recent visitor to the studio for my Above and Beyond project is
David Brooks, a Canadian-born American conservative commentator who writes a political and cultural column for The New York Times. He is a regular contributor to the PBS NewsHour and to NPR’s All Things Considered, and has been a reporter and op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal. He is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and also a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic.
Brooks has written and edited several books, including the anthology Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing (1996) and Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004), The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (2011), and The Road to Character (2015).
HS: You’ve said “politics is being overtaken by tribalism.” Would you expand on that?
DB: We used to have community, and community is based on common affection and trust.
Jane Jacobs, who wrote Death and Life of Great American Cities, described looking out her window one day and seeing a little girl trying to get away from a guy kidnapping her. And she (Jacobs) couldn’t help, and she thought: Maybe I should go down and intervene. And then she noticed that the butcher’s wife had come out of the shop, the fruit stand guy had come out, somebody had come out, the locksmith, and the guy was surrounded. And it turns out it wasn’t a kidnapping, it was a just a dad calling his daughter.
But, that’s what community is like. And she describes it very famously as a ballet on the street. And we used to have those ballets in a lot of neighborhoods, where people could trust each other, they looked out for each other, they kept each other safe.
Over the last 50 years, we sort of lost that, we lost social capital, as they say, and we’re more isolated and alone. And when people are isolated and alone, they do what the revolutionaries tell them to do, which is they revert to tribe. And tribalism looks like community, because it is a kind of bonding and belonging, but it’s based on mutual hatred and not mutual affection. So, it’s always us/them, friend/enemy distinctions. And if you look at polarization today, it’s not that people love their own political party so much, they just hate the other one. That’s the motivator, that’s tribalism.
HS: Hasn’t humanity always been tribal? Isn’t it in our bones?
DB: Well, it’s in our bones to make friend-enemy distinctions. It’s not in our bones to have a set of communities that rule out other communities, that have to be hostile to other communities. But it is possible to have a set of people where I’m in my community, you’re in yours, I’ve got nothing against you and we’re probably joined by a higher community, which is our national community.
HS: How do you find civility?
DB: I think you have to get away from that sense that people who have that are naked and alone in a world that’s hostile. Where people can’t be trusted. And so, my basic view is, you have to start with local dinners with neighbors, where people actually get to know each other.
HS: I’m sure that happens, probably all over the United States, in various little towns, but it doesn’t seem to be infectious, it doesn’t seem to last.
DB: Yes. And there are a lot of reasons for that. I would emphasize the culture of individualism that says, “I need as much space as I can to be myself.” It’s also probably true that as we get more diverse, it gets a little harder to form communities.Then there are some values; we value privacy above all. And so, in most nations around the world and at most times in America, it was very normal to go up to somebody’s house who you sort of knew, and knock on the doorbell, or ring the door. And now that never happens. You would think, no, I’m invading their privacy. I’m not going to do that.
We put incredibly high priority on privacy, also on work. We work really hard and then when we get home, we just want to relax, we don’t want to socialize. There’s a lot of value put on that.
HS: The gulf between peoples seems pervasive all over the world. Within any country, there are us and them. Muslims and Hindus. Christians and Jews. It’s seems like your dream of a loving, compassionate vision is something that’s not within the human genome.
DB: I covered the Soviet Union coming down, the coming together of community there. I covered Nelson Mandela coming out of prison, the end of apartheid there. I covered the unification of Germany. And you saw these surges of people trying to come together across differences. And we had a country here, a political system, where it wasn’t complete partisan warfare, the way it is now. That’s been a deteriorating issue we’ve had for 30 years.
HS: I think it goes way back, such as famous politicians who hated George Washington.
DB: Of course, politics has always brutal, but then politicians also worked together across party lines. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, famously, hated each other, but they served in the same administration. And if you looked at the votes in most parties or most congresses, there was plenty of overlap. If you look at the Supreme Court, only two percent of cases 20 years ago, were decided on party lines. Now it’s well over 20 percent. There are concrete measures of growing tribal distrust. If you’d asked people a generation ago, do you trust the institutions of society, 70 or 80 percent said, yes; and now it’s only 20 percent.
HS: Is this deterioration a sign of the end of our civilization? I mean, all empires self-destruct eventually?
DB: Yes, it could be. When Gibbon described the end of the Roman Empire, he described it as a collection….Not a really functioning society anymore. Just a collection of isolated individuals.
So, it could be, but I sort of doubt it. We go through bumpy times. If you look at 1968, it was way worse. If you look at 1932, it was worse. There have been times in our country where we’ve been in similar circumstances to today.
HS: Can we survive him?
DB: I think so. It won’t be easy, I don’t think our politics is going to recover for a long, long time. It will take a social recovery before we get a political recovery. But say he lasts another two years, we’ve endured two years of it, so far nothing. We’ve had a deterioration in norms and how we treat each other and think of each other. If he’s gone in two years, maybe it’ll get worse, maybe we get another version of Trump. But it’s possible that you can snap back. I just think that nothing is determined in life. And there are parts of the society that are actually kind of healthy, our economy, things like that.
HS: Nothing’s determined, you can’t predict the future for anything ever, really. What bothers me is the silence of good Republicans. There are bright Republican Congressmen and Senators. There are conscientious nation-loving human beings who are mute. They shudder that they have this president, but they relish what he brings them.
DB: I’ve had many conversations with them on this subject. And, of course, I would like them all to speak up. And they say: Well, look at all the people who’ve spoken up, their careers are over. And so, what good would it do the country for my career to be over? Trump would still be Trump. You’d get some lunatic in place of me. And so, I’ll wait for my moment. I give them credit for some strength in that argument; if you speak up against Trump and you’re in the Republican Party, you lose your next primary. The loyalty among Republican voters is to Trump. And not even to the party, just to Trump the person.
HS: You’ve said: Trump takes every wound and repeatedly pokes holes in it. What do you mean exactly?
DB: In our nation’s history, the most famous wounds are racial wounds. And so, he pokes at any racial prejudice and racial division. Religious wounds, city versus rural, pretty much all the divisions you can think of in society. The native versus the immigrant…he inflames one side or another of these divides. It’s just his marketing strategy. But, partly, it’s hard not to believe that he doesn’t have some level of bigotry. And then, finally, I think he just was raised in a culture of distrust. That the outsiders are out to get us, that life is a do or die battle.
HS: What leaders do you most admire today?
DB: I like a lot of senators. But mostly the happiest people I know are mayors, because they’re actually doing stuff. The unhappiest are members of Congress. For example, a mayor I admire, though he’s controversial, is Rahm Emanuel of Chicago who came into a city that was vastly in debt, with school systems that were totally failing.
He got the city out of debt and he closed some schools, and I think graduation rates have increased phenomenally, more than any other city in America. Not only because of him, it’s been through a ten-year project. And he’s just announced he won’t run again, so he made a lot of enemies doing this stuff. But I think there are tens of thousands of children in Chicago now who have better education because of what he did.
In Washington, you find people who are doing the best they can under bad circumstances. General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, is doing the best he can in a bad circumstance. Some of the senators, Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, a Democrat. Ron Wyden, Ben Sasse, a Republican. They’re trying to do legislation in a bad circumstance. So I give them respect.
HS: How would you change these negative circumstances? Obama tried.
DB: He had the right feelings, he didn’t have the right relationships. He didn’t have a relationship of trust with the leaders of Congress, even in his own party. I don’t think he liked hanging around with politicians, they just weren’t his cup of tea.
HS: How do you personally maintain a conservative bent, yet work for the New York Times?
DB: I have a worldview. If I didn’t have a worldview, I couldn’t do my job. It’s informed by Edmond Burke and Alexander Hamilton, both of them conservative-ish guys, at least by the traditional definition of conservatism. So, I think my views are reasonably predictable. When you’re writing for The Times, you’re writing for a mostly progressive audience. And in that case, you just try to show respect.
HS: Can you change people’s minds?
DB: I think you can. I really think you can. By saying: Well, you believe X, here are the nine facts to prove that Y is possible. You can give people, a better way to live and their norms and values will subtly change.
HS: But what about the 40 percent of Americans who are pro-Trump, despite the fact he’s allergic to the truth?
DB: I wish they would change their minds. But I spend most of my life with these people, and they say: Listen, I needed a change. I know he’s a jerk. I don’t pay attention to all that circus stuff, all those tweets. But the economy is doing better, I feel like he’s shaken up Washington. I mean, they have their reasoning and it’s not completely idiotic.
HS: You worked on a police beat in Chicago. How did that influence your thinking?
DB: Profoundly, even though it was a very short time. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do journalism, I knew I wanted to write. But when I did the police beat, I came home every day with a story, and it was fun and exciting. I was super left wing, and the parts of Chicago I covered were some of the worst parts of Chicago at the time — Cabrini Green, and the Robert Taylor Homes — these big projects. And what I saw was earnest, well-intentioned social reform that had disastrous consequences. And it taught me that society is really complicated. And if you’re going to do change you should do it incrementally. And be aware that you’re probably going to have a lot of bad consequences you can’t anticipate. And that’s more or less Edmond Burke’s philosophy, so it turned me a little more conservative.
HS: What is your process? You must have a time when you write, and then when you read. You must have time when you go to movies or have fun.
DB:The fun part is the hard part. My rule is the more creative the profession, the more rigorous the schedule has to be. So I write from eight ‘til noon every day. And my wife knows to get out of my way. Before I’ve written, I’m just not a good person. After that, I relax. And so, if I’ve got my thousand words in then I relax. I listen to movie soundtracks. I need music, but I can’t have any lyrics, so I listen to music soundtracks.
HS: What are your thoughts about immigration?
DB: I’m wildly pro-immigration. I was sort of raised by my grandfather, who was an immigrant and had a strong immigrant mentality. So, I admire the hustle of people who are immigrants. And then, just objectively, I think that immigrants are great for this country. They’re less prone to commit crimes than natives. They’re much more economically creative than the rest of us. Their family values are better. They’re much more communal.
HS: And our racial division in this country?
DB: I’m somewhat optimistic about it. Since Ferguson, there’s been a period of truth-telling. A lot of African-Americans saying things they wouldn’t necessarily say in public or in mixed company. And that has not always been pleasant. But I think it’s a necessary stage to go through. I travel around the country with a team from the Aspen Institute, and we hold these dinners with people who are working in communities. And sometimes our dinners will be 40 percent African American, and sometimes the mood is really angry. But, I think that has to be expressed for us to move on and understand the situation in the country.
HS: Are there opinions you’ve written that you regret?
DB: Oh, for sure. I was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, that was pretty clearly a mistake. When I was young, before my kids were born, I would write hit pieces on people. Really criticizing, making fun of people, taking advantage of my verbal abilities to make others look small. And once my kids were born, then I said, “No, I don’t want my kids seeing me as this kind of person.” And so, I more or less stopped writing them.
HS: You often talk about the soul and heart and how people have the desire to do good.
DB: Maybe that’s midlife awakening. A lot of our problems come from giving that desire to be good short shrift.