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David Brooks and the Politics of Moderation

In his October 25 column for the New York Times, David Brooks declares it a “good time” to define moderate politics for us. He’s called to this public service because of Mitt Romney’s recent “aggressive appeal[s] to moderate voters,” and the President’s “pretty moderate agenda for his second term.” Regular readers of Brooks’ column are painfully aware of the pundit’s extreme preference for all things “moderate.”

Who are these “moderate voters” courted by the ex-Governor of the Bain State? Brooks gives us no clue (as per normal). He’s presumably referring to the handful of remaining “swing voters” or “undecideds.” Only David Brooks (and perhaps Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post) could consider voters who still have not sealed the electoral deal “moderates.” Virtually every other rational observer of the quadrennial circus sees them for the uninformed, disempowered, confused, disinterested, alienated white folks that they are. The term “moderation” explains nothing about these people. Instead, review the “false consciousness” entry in your Dictionary of Marxist Thought.

Moderates, Brooks tells us, do not simply lurk in some imagined Center between Left and Right. They’re thoughtful political visionaries whose ideology comes from “history books, not philosophy books.” They abhor the (unstated) “abstract idea” (like democracy or social justice?). The moderate has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind the way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American Dream—committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

What do Brooks’ “moderates” revere following the death of the American Dream? Somebody needs to tell Brooks that there are currently twenty-some countries in the world more socially mobile than the US. How deep is the reverence of the moderate for the working poor, who despite backbreaking labor fail to rise? Do “immigrants” include the tens of millions of us whose ancestors arrived here on slave ships, or who made it via the services of a coyote? Does the moderate “revere” the “way of life” that leaves one in six American children (one in three African-American children) in poverty, the American Nightmare?

The moderate played no role in “a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.” She was too busy revering animating principles. Rather, the moderate “tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced.” The moderate understands that

in most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory. Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve kept a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power. At any moment, new historical circumstances, like industrialization or globalization, might upset the balance. But the political system gradually finds a new equilibrium.

How would Brooks and his moderate have us balance the “two partially true points of view” of ‘white man’s burden’ versus ‘all men are created equal’? It’s got to be tough when, as students of history like Brooks and his moderate, you can’t enlist Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain to support your fairy tale. Was it moderates that fought the US Civil War, that “great argument” with “two partially true points of view” between “local rights and federal power”? Brooks must surely see his moderate’s tolerance for the current balance of power between the giant corporation and the individual citizen as keeping the United States “along its historic trajectory.” And just as surely, when the “new equilibrium” one’s political system finds is ever further to the Right, this is a victory for moderation.

The moderate plays not only a pivotal historical role stabilizing the national trajectory, but also calculates her own

policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.

For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.

The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.

The myths per column inch in this excerpt may be a record even for David Brooks. If Brooks’ moderate doubles as a rich person who is not also a member of a group like Responsible Wealth, then her “specific situation” is unlikely to lead to support for the Earned Income Tax Credit (“tax cuts” for the poor), fewer police officers to protect her property (“smaller government”) or “tax increases for the rich.”

If “situations matter most,” then why won’t Brooks and his moderate tell us whose taxes get cut in the decade for which they are right? All Americans’? Not likely, given Brooks’ and his moderate’s concern about spending and debt (about which more below). What activity is more or less tightly regulated in the decades for which it is “right”? Asset stripping by leveraged-buy-out firms? Computer-driven arbitrage? Tax breaks for off-shoring jobs? Vulture funds? Mountaintop removal mining? Fracking? If our moderate became rich through any of these or a thousand other extractive activities, “regulation” (of a certain liberal sort) is unlikely to ever be “right,” let alone “permanently.”

Today, we face our own set of imbalances. Inequality is clearly out of whack. The information age, family breakdown and globalization have widened income gaps. Government spending and government debt are also out of whack. The aging population and runaway health care costs have pushed budgets to the breaking point. There’s also been a hardening of the economic arteries, slowing growth.

The moderate sees three big needs that are in tension with one another: inequality, debt and low growth. She’s probably going to have a pretty eclectic mix of policies: some policies from the Democratic column to reduce inequality, some policies from the Republican column to reduce debt.

Just as the founding fathers tried a mixed form of government, moderates like pluralistic agendas, mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don’t, at first glance, go together.

Not one of Brooks’ “imbalances” requiring righting by moderates is new in American history, unique to “today.” The “eclectic mix of policies” favored by the moderate is precisely the mess offered up by Washington at present. Republican policies haven’t “reduce[d] debt” since the 1950s; he simply can’t be referring to Romney-Ryan or House Republican preferences. Mainstream Democratic prescriptions (corporate tax breaks, ‘free trade agreements,’ ‘grand bargains’) deepen rather than reduce inequality. Straw men are vastly superior raw material for mythmaking than is political reality. Brooks’ bipartisan delusion is so pervasive as to blind him to the fact that Bill Clinton and Barak Obama are exactly the type of “moderates” he professes to prefer. It’s a favorite trick of Brooks’ to link the Founders to his pet causes. By ignoring their decidedly unharmonious struggles, and ugly compromises, he’s able to elevate his “moderate” to mythic status. Much of their handiwork didn’t “go together” well either.

In case you feared the moderate lacked fortitude, worry not: “Being moderate does not mean being tepid.” But if you hoped Brooks would name a non-tepid “moderate,” you’re out of luck, even though: “The best moderates can smash partisan categories and be hard-charging in two directions simultaneously.”

To complete his mythical “moderate,” Brooks even assigns her a “distinct ethical disposition.”

Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.

There are many moderates in this country, but they have done a terrible job of organizing themselves, building institutions or even organizing around common causes. There are some good history books that describe political moderation, like “A Virtue for Courageous Minds” by Aurelian Craiutu, a political scientist at Indiana University. But there are few good manifestoes.

Therefore, there’s a lot of ignorance about what it means to be moderate. If politicians are going to try to pander to the moderate mind-set, they should do it right. I hope this column has helped.

Too bad for the self-restrained moderate that her distrust of passionate intensity gets in the way of organizing, institution-building, and even advancing common causes, otherwise known as political life. No wonder there’s no Moderate Manifesto. When pundits mythologize moderation, they should do it right.

Political moderation of the Brooksian sort, to the extent it actually exists in this country, is sustained by some complex combination of fear, insecurity, naiveté, and ignorance: just like David Brooks. I’ve yet to discuss a David Brooks column with a physician or a District Attorney. These poor souls are sometimes disciplined for malpractice or prosecutorial misconduct. They must be envious of David Brooks and the New York Times.

Steve Breyman teaches science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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