Why Not Pile On? Clueless (or Malign) NY Times Pundits: David Brooks Edition
DougJ is correct: Brooks’ equivalence between the GOP loss of public support and the (still mostly notional) erosion of support for the Democratic platform only works if you ignore the Iraq War — and then, to go one step further, if you also discount the electorate’s experience of the explicit, overt, plain-to-see failure of both specific GOP trumpeted policies and of much of the worldview that informed those policy choices.
I’m sure the rest of the political blogosphere will eviscerate the rest of Brook’s “argument” in detail, and that’s not my purpose here. (I use the scare quotes because, again, following DougJ, I have to say it’s not an argument so much as a kind of wishful projection if the terms of your claims only make sense if you leave out most of what actually happened in the period you are discussing.)
Rather it is to use some actual data to try and beat down one of the most persistent and pernicious tropes of the right: that the coasts, full of liberals, are somehow an isolated rump region, talkative, influential, rich, but easily overwhelmed when “real” America rouses itself from its torpor and asserts its customary “moderating” (or, depending on your real agenda, its radical rightward) correction to the excesses of the chattering elites.* Brooks writes:
It’s not that interesting to watch the Democrats lose touch with America. That’s because the plotline is exactly the same. The party is led by insular liberals from big cities and the coasts, who neither understand nor sympathize with moderates.
I was actually going to write this post in connection with the ludicrous opining around the Sarah Palin flameout, but the gods favor procrastinating bloggers by guaranteeing that the intellectual laziness of the right promises an eternal return of the same follies. Bluntly: the coasts are “real” America, if by real you mean the home of the majority of US citizens.
There is actual data here, always ignored by the likes of Brooks. NOAA, a US government agency, collects demographic and resource information on a wide range of subjects. One of its programs, titled Coastal and Ocean Resource Economics looks at a number of factors bearing on US coastal regions, including population trends. A fifteen second Google work out led me to this report. It’s bottom line number: as of 2003, 53% of Americans lived in the 17% of US territory (excluding Alaska) that form the coastal regions. And that proportion will only continue to grow:
The narrow fringe comprising 17% of the contiguous land area is home to more than half of the nation’s population. Between the years 1980 and 2003, population in coastal counties has increased by 33 million people or by 28%, where the largest gain was seen in the Pacific region. Additionally in 2003, 23 of the 25 most densely populated counties were coastal. By the year 2008, coastal county population is expected to increase by approximately 7 million.
A couple of notes on this report: obviously, when you include non-coastal big cities, the numbers skew even more towards those Brooks and his ilk see as an irritatingly vocal minority. (See this post for an endless dissection of the insigificance, in demographic terms, of small towns in America today, and see this for some underlying data to show just how skewed the GOP trope of small town American typicality has become).
Also, the term “coasts” includes a bit more territory than Brooks’ bete-noir (and chosen residence) of the northeast and Pacific coastlines: the southeastern Atlantic seaboard to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the northern coast that stretches from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the westernmost ocean-access port in the US, Duluth, MN.
When you remember that Duluth is an Atlantic Ocean harbor the conceptual idiocy as well as the factual falseness of Brooks’ claims becomes more obvious. It’s easier by far to wave words airily across the page than confront the reality that “liberals from big cities and the coasts” exist within, politic through, and form alliances across a much broader web of class, landscape, economies and identities than Brooks would ever dare credit. The reason that there are 60 US Senators, a substantial House majority and a charismatic President all from a Democratic party so recently gleefully condemned to permanent minority status is because of a lot of non-elite people in most areas of the country voted them in. But to analyze why would require great effort, and Brooks and those less genial appartchiks who trail in his wake are lazy.
And when I say lazy, I do not mean that they don’t work hard; they do. Brooks’ job is in fact a very difficult one. Writing clean, readable, plausible prose to a set length and pre-ordained themes is very hard. Bill Kristol couldn’t do it with any skill; Ross Douthat is finding it harder to achieve without leaving the gaping fissures in his reasoning obvious to all. Brooks is far more polished, smoother, and his work from this writer’s perspective shows both talent and the surest sign of real effort — that is the seeming effortlessness of the way in which his columns unfold.
But the real work of commentary and thought lies in actually probing one’s own argument, and this Brooks never does — and this is why such silly little mistakes as claiming that the people who live in the most populous areas of the country are insulated, and those that, who despite his hand-waving, live lives in rapidly narrowing circumstances, are not. (See this by actual journalist Tim Egan on today’s NYTimes.com for an example of the kind of piece Brooks both won’t, and I think can’t write, for an informed account of what’s been happening in insulated America.)
If there is a science in the public square point to be made here, it is that one of the habits of mind that exposure to science’s methods and culture inculcates is the need for reality checks: is the statement you have just made in fact an accurate one as determined by its correspondence to some measurement of real-world experience (read laboratory procedure/observation w/in the science context)? Have you done the minimum due diligence, the literature search, conversations, and so on, to make sure that what you are about to say isn’t obviously foolish? If you are making a quantitative claim, have you actually done your sums?
This Brooks did not do in this column; he has never done so, as far as I can tell over an off-and on several years of reading his columns. He has no rigor at all that I can see — and what makes that so pernicious is that this is a virtue for his column; it makes it easier to read, more flowing, and best/worst of all, it makes it trivially easy to ensure that its worldview remains consistent, untroubled by any messy contact with those parts of the real world with which it clashes.
That is: it’s damned hard labor to refuse to know that which it would be inconvenient to acknowledge. But here is where Brooks true mastery lies. It is also what, given the amplification his willed ignorance gains from his unmerited pulpit, makes him so smilingly, congenially, utterly dangerous.
*I know that nothing I write will end the relentless blather about a “real” America that has not existed since the depression and WW II. I’m in the same position as Fallows finds himself in his Sisyphean quest to block the boiled frog metaphor. But the impossibility of victory does not eliminate the necessity of action.
Image: Samuel S. Carr, “At the Seashore,” 1881.