February 06, 2005

Column 2005-2-5 Commentary

Brooks loves to do sociological analysis of political trends in his column. Sadly, political trends are too complicated to be analyzed in a single column, and the result is generally laughable oversimplification combined with a couple of obvious points and some conclusions which are just plain wrong. In this column, Brooks manages to combine this predilection of his with a typically short-sighted and biased analysis of trends in the Democratic party, specifically the fact that Howard Dean will shortly be the new Chair of the DNC. When I say combines, I mean juxtaposes, as no real effort is made to link the first half of the column with the second half. So we get, essentially, two half-columns. Most columnists seem to have no trouble writing just a single full-length column, but, as we know, Brooks is not most columnists. For one thing, he's not bright enough.

Brooks begins by discussing the decline of fellowship associations like the Elks Lodge and the Rotary Club and their replacement by groups such as NOW or the Heritage Foundation. First of all, the Heritage Foundation is a think tank. It bears no relation to the Elks Lodge or suchlike organizations at all, as it does not have a national membership and exists purely to expand conservatism in America and allow conservative elites to do research. By contrast, NOW and Naral are both large organizations with state chapters and hundreds of thousands of members. To compare them to the Heritage Foundation is ridiculous. Secondly, Brooks says that membership in these new organizations involves nothing more than "sending a check once a year and reading a newsletter". Well, a brief examination of the websites of NOW and Naral (since Brooks mentions them, I will assume that they are typical of the kind of organizations he's talking about) reveals that members of those organizations have an opportunity to get much more involved than that. For instance, here is a list of things you can do from the website of Naral's Massachusetts website. Write a check and sit back on your ass is not listed. Of course, things may be different in the conservative organizations Brooks is a member of. Furthermore, Brooks claims that these organizations do not bring people together across class lines, and in support of this assertion cites some facts about two modern organizations from 25 years ago. He may be right, but would it be too much to ask for some contemporary statistics? And some evidence on how the Rotary Club brought together people across class lines would be welcome. The Rotary Club was dependent on local chapters, so my guess is that most Rotarians were in a chapter which had, as members, mostly people of similar income levels. I could be wrong, but since Brooks gives no evidence to support his assertion, who knows?

It is also worthwhile to examine the actual views of Prof. Theda Skocpol, who Brooks cites as a source for much of the first half of his column. Consider, for instance, this article by Prof. Skocpol in Public Affairs Report. Note that she mentions not only the Elks Lodge or the Rotary Club, but also organizations like the WCTU and the Grange, which were active campaigners for particular progressive policies. One could argue that NOW and Naral are natural successors to organizations like the WCTU and the Grange. Also, Prof. Skopcol doesn't seem as upset by these developments as Brooks is. "Americans are just finding new ways to relate to each other" she says, which is a far cry from Brooks's "The decline of fraternal associations and the emergence of these professionally run groups for the educated class diminished communal life." And given that Skopcol is the expert Brooks is citing, I feel that her conclusions are likely to be more accurate.

Brooks then asserts that since the '60's, the interests of the educated class have come to dominant politics, with the interests of the lower classes being sidelined. This is probably at least partly true. Strangely enough, this has coincided with the rise of the Republican party. Must be just a coincidence, right? Anyway, Brooks next claims that Republicans connect better to the middle class, through organizations like evangelical churches and the NRA. Certainly, the replacement of the economic populism exemplified by the Grange and labor unions with religious populism (see Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?) has helped the Republicans. However, what Brooks is claiming is that Republican elites are members of organizations that connect to the masses, while Democratic elites are not, and that's why the Republicans do better than the Democrats these days. This is a laughably simplistic view of the political changes in this country over the last 30-40 years. Furthermore, Brooks seems to think that the only way to connect to the working poor is to belong to some national organization with them. The fact that the Democratic "urban elites" actually live next to the working poor apparently counts for nothing. But, of course, these members of the working poor are often not white, and so don't count.

Having finally finished with his sociology lesson, Brooks now moves off in a completely different direction. His discussion of changes in civil assocations in the United States over the past century is abandoned. Instead of continuing it, he makes the claim that the "university-town elite" now dominates the Democratic party both intellectually and financially. John Kerry, he says, raised four times as much money from individual donors as Al Gore did. One would think that this is a good thing, suggesting that Kerry is connecting to people, but apparently not, since many of these donors were highly educated (how many is, naturally, not specified). There are, of course, good reasons for this, as most people in the U.S. probably can't afford to give money to political parties. Those who can afford it are likely to be more educated. That's just the way money is distributed in society. But Brooks can see only the pernicious influence of those damn "university-town elites", such as employees of Microsoft and Time Warner. Who knew that those were universities? There are also good reason that the influence of these small donors is larger than it was. Large corporations, having bought out the Republican party, no longer feel the need to contribute as much to the Democrats. And the continuing decline of labor unions lessens another source of contributions.

But Brooks ignores this and goes on to claim that these donors are to the left of the country on many issues, especially, he says, on social and security issues. Well, guess what: there's an excellent reason for this too. To actually give money to a party, you have to be really certain that the party of your choice is the only reasonable possibility and any other would result in policies which you would object to and would be bad for the country. Of course the people who give money to the Democrats are more liberal than the average American. The people who give money to the Republicans are also more conservative than the average American. Somehow, the Republican party manages to overcome this problem, and I imagine that the Democratic party could figure out some way to deal with this issue as well. And frankly, they aren't as far out of the mainstream as Brooks would like to think: for instance, support for the Iraq war has been dropping steadily, and will likely continue to drop. Bush enters office with approval ratings around 50%. All of that can't be laid at the foot of the so-called "university town elites". This is why the Democrats have, as Brooks says, "allowed Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer to emerge as the loudest foreign-policy voices". People are realizing that something was seriously wrong with the way the Iraq war was sold to the American people and the way it was carried out. The lack of an exit strategy is fairly obvious now, and will become increasingly obvious as it becomes clearer that the election didn't actually accomplish that much. Kennedy and Boxer (interestingly enough, Boxer recieved more votes in the last election than anybody who was not a presidential candidate) have merely been pointing out these facts. After all, what was the knock on Kerry? He was a flip-flopper; he wanted to have it both ways; he didn't believe in anything. So now some Democrats are trying something different: they're actually speaking with the courage of their convictions. The old approach didn't work, obviously, so why not go for something new, especially as the public is increasingly questioning whether the Iraq war was worth it?

(Small point: Brooks describes Daily Kos and other liberal blogs as places where liberals go to "savage Democrats who violate party orthodoxy". In fact, such blogs spend far more time on Republicans than on conservative Democrats, excepting Zell Miller, who is actually a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, who just rubs everybody the wrong way. Also, ultraconservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the Club for Growth are equally, if not more, vitriolic in their attacks on Republican moderates like Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee.)

Brooks, however, is mystified by this development. The only possibility he can think of is that the Democratic party is following the money, and heading straight, he thinks, for oblivion. Strangely, Brooks presents the idea that the Democrats are following the money as a clever solution to an otherwise intractable puzzle. Obviously the Democrats are following the money. So are the Republicans. Parties cannot exist without money these days. In fact, that's why Dean will be the next Chairman of the DNC: he's an excellent fundraiser. As long as we've (finally) reached Dean, let's discuss what the Chairman of the DNC is expected to do. He's expected to raise money. He's expected to organize campaigns. He's not expected to set the entire ideological agenda for the party. Dean is excellent at both of the first two items, and additionally did a good job bringing people, especially young people, into politics. This is why he will probably make a very good Chairman of the DNC, and has garnered endorsements even from the more conservative wing of the party. As for the party's ideological agenda, that will be hammered out separately. But back to the money. The Republicans have been following the money for years. It would take naivete beyond even Brooks's to suggest that there is absolutely no connection between the Republican's business-friendly policies and the fact that the preponderance of corporate contributions go to the GOP. In fact, the trend towards the predominance of the educated classes in politics that Brooks mentions earlier probably has something to do with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in this country: with wealth more concentrated, it becomes difficult for the poor to contribute sums significant enough to draw the attention of either party.

So, to recapitulate: in the first half of the column, Brooks presents a conclusion about the decline of the Democratic party that is laughably oversimplied based on some sociological analysis that he misinterprets. In the second half, he attempts to present that fact that Dean is going to be the next Chairman of the DNC because he's a good fundraiser as a strange and unusual idea. For those of you scoring at home, that makes him 0-for-2 today. Whether this is worse than his usual 0-for-1 is up for debate. Either way, he's killing the Times every time he comes up to bat, and the sooner they waive him, the better.