May 15, 2005

Column 2005-5-15 Commentary

Today's Brooks column is deeply frustrating, in that it makes the reader want to reach through the page, grab Brooks, and shake him until he stops being so, well, moronic. Brooks's basic thesis is that poor people vote Republican if they have an optimistic, Horatio Alger outlook on life and Democratic if they don't believe that hard work will get you ahead. Which is a reasonable jumping-off point for analysis, but Brooks doesn't even try to get off the ground, instead pronouncing this to be "the big difference" between poor voters in the two parties. Apparently, Republicans are just optimists and Democrats are just pessimists, and that's all there is to it. First of all, it appears that Brooks, as often seems to be the case, has not even read the newspaper that he appears in, which has quite recently published a series of articles on economic class in America that show that there just isn't that much social mobility in the U.S., and that there is less all the time. In fact, social mobility is lower in the U.S. than it is in Scandinavian welfare states or in Canada, and about equal to what it is in Britain and France. So it appears that the poor voters who vote Democratic are more correct here than their Republican counterparts. This might even suggest that they are less likely to be carried away by grand concepts like "land of opportunity" or "war on terror" or "ownership society" or "compassionate conservatism" and more likely to look for substance in their political parties, which would definitely move them in the direction of the Democrats.

But even this issue is a diversion from the main question, which is: Why do these people think the way they do? For example, in what way is race a factor? For it is a factor: even Brooks recognizes it when he points out that "Bush won the white working class by 23 percentage points in this past election." And this is where the frustration starts to set in, because he neglects to note that Kerry won the black vote by 77 percentage points, and presumably the black working class vote by a similar or larger number. And surveys suggest that Kerry won the Latino vote by 30 or more percentage points (and the Asian, Arab, and Native American votes by similar margins, but they are not nearly as large as the black or Latino vote). Perhaps the optimism of their attitudes is not the only difference between poor Democrats and poor Republicans. In fact, this racial difference may contribute to the difference in attitude. Would anybody be really surprised to find that blacks and Latinos are less likely to believe that "most people can get ahead with hard work," as the survey asked? But race is hardly the only factor potentially affecting whether people are optimistic about the possibility of succeeding through hard work and determination. Religion is another: Bush won born-again Protestants by a 78-22 margin, so presumably there is a good chance that the average poor Republican is an evangelical Protestant of some denomination. And it would not be shocking if evangelicals felt that, what with being saved and all, they have a good chance to succeed if they simply work hard (is it necessarily the case? I don't know, of course, but Brooks doesn't even bother to consider the possibility). Most likely, both of these factors influenced the degree of optimism in the outlook of Democratic and Republican voters. And these are well-known differences between the electoral base of Democrats and Republicans, one of which Brooks even acknowledges in his column before cluelessly sailing on to set up one of his stupid dichotomies.

Yet Brooks manages to generate more frustration as he goes on to say, with a naivete that would be charming if it didn't make the reader want to strangle him, that, amazingly enough, poor Republicans don't trust the rich and big business. Well, gee, ya think? As if every Democratic campaign ever hasn't been run at least partly on the premise that if we can only get the Republican-voting poor to realize that the Democratic party is actually the party that defends the working man from the predations of big business, the Republicans will be swept from office (and these campaigns are often lost due to the Democratic party's failure to actually defend the working man from said predations)? "If the Ownership Society . . . means putting their retirement in the hands of Wall Street, they become queasy," Brooks opines. Funny, a lot of people figured this out several months ago when polls indicated that Bush's Social Security privatization plan was deeply unpopular, or even back in the 90's when the business-friendly Republican Medicare reform plan went down in flames. "Eighty percent believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt." This is exactly the kind of thing that has progressives tearing out their hair. Books, most prominently Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, have been written to try to explain this phenomenon. But apparently Brooks has only just been exposed to these ideas, and his expression of childish wonder as he examines them is the only thing that stops the reader from hauling off and punching him in the face. Well, that and the fact that he isn't actually there.

But it is Brooks's conclusion that is most exasperatingly ridiculous, as he actually calls for the Republicans to adopt poverty-fighting programs. Has he been paying no attention at all to Republican domestic policy programs over the past few years? Does he not realize that this is the party of tax cuts for the wealthy and tougher bankruptcy laws for the poor? Did he somehow miss the budget which included cuts for Medicaid, food stamps, home heating assistance, child care and development block grants, and Head Start? Or perhaps he thinks that these programs are mostly used by the middle and upper classes? For crying out loud, in his own column he points out several times that the views on government assistance programs that are held by poor Republicans are not shared by their richer brethren. "Only 19 percent of affluent Republicans believe" that government should do more to help the needy (there's something about debt attached to this, but given the rate at which the Republicans are piling up debt, it seems unlikely that the debt part is the killer). Only 26 percent of "affluent Republicans" think that big business has too much power. And who controls the Republican party? Surprise, surprise: it's rich people and big businesses! (No, not evangelicals, or at least not in the ways that count, unless abortion and gay marriage were banned and I just missed it). Might this have something to do with Republican reluctance to pass programs intended to alleviate poverty? Just maybe? Or maybe, just maybe, the poor who vote Republican are motivated more by issues of national security, religion, and nativism than they are by their belief that the Republicans are "the party of optimistic individualism." Just a thought. But then, that's the problem, isn't it: Brooks doesn't do much thinking. Manipulation of data to obtain the results he wants, yes. Determinedly ignoring facts that don't fit his theories, of course. But actuall thought, very rarely.

But then, we shouldn't be too surprised about this. After all, the Times obviously hasn't put much thought into the composition of their editorial page (could John Tierney be any more superfluous? And how sad is it that he makes me wish Safire were still there?), and this lack of thought has obviously affected the more weak-minded members of the editorial page crew, of which Brooks is the foremost and weakest-minded. At one point, perhaps, this could have been remedied, but it's too late now: Brooks's fragile mind has been damaged beyond repair, and the only way out is to fire him.