David Brooks Is Wrong

On the Politics of Help & Succor
David Brooks speaks at the Miller Center Forum, April 2011. (The Miller Center / Flickr)

I’m not sure when the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks stopped writing political and social commentary and became a homilist, but that conversion seems irreversible at this point. Since I’m something of a homilist myself, I occasionally read Brooks’s twice-weekly sermons. One recent preachment, “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump” (August 1), made me squirm in my nicely upholstered pew. Brooks is not wrong when he writes that Trump is a “cultural revolutionary,” a crude bully who threatens to destroy the moral and social norms that are needed to hold the country together. Trump “is instigating a degradation of America’s soul,” Brooks writes. Amen, I shout.

Brooks praises Williamson, the goofy self-help guru, for insisting that the presidential election is about the nation’s moral culture, not about the economy. Here Brooks shows his familiar allergy to any serious critique of how the economy is structured, how wealth is distributed, or how economic relationships fundamentally shape culture. The term “economic redistribution” gives him hives. “We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life,” he writes, channeling Ronald Reagan and sixty years of Republican cant intended to deflect questions about economic justice. Democrats, according to Brooks, simply don’t have the “language” needed “to rebuild the moral infrastructure of our country.” Why? “The modern version of the party emerged during the Great Depression to solve one problem: material want. It is a secular party, trapped in a Lockean prison: Politics should be separate from faith. Politics should be separate from soulcraft.”

Really? I seem to remember the last Democratic president—and every other Democratic president or presidential candidate in my lifetime—repeatedly speaking about his or her faith. Barack Obama even sang about God’s amazing grace in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Perhaps that was only a temporary jailbreak from the Lockean prison. Despite his technocratic reputation on the right, Obama rarely separated politics from soulcraft when speaking to the American people. Even his belief that every American should have access to decent health care was expressed in moral terms. But perhaps that idea was just a way to “win votes by offering members of different groups economic benefits”—something Brooks seems to think has no moral or religious dimension, at least when Democrats do it.

Material want creates a host of other problems, moral and social, as well as medical and spiritual.

He’s wrong about that. In the great race of life, some lanes are more obstructed than others, and government has a good deal to say about which groups get a fair chance. Giving a chance to those who haven’t had one is a welcome exercise of soulcraft. This nation was established, after all, to protect our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all three of these things have an obstinately material dimension.

I don’t disagree with Brooks when it comes to the failings of the contemporary Democratic Party, which often seems determined to alienate the moderate voters it needs to defeat Trump. But Brooks’s description of the party as “trapped in a Lockean prison” because it emerged to “solve one problem: material want” during the Great Depression is false. First of all, material want is not just one problem. Material want creates a host of other problems, moral and social, as well as medical and spiritual. At its most extreme, it can create very serious political problems. Nor is it true, despite the party’s current obsession with “wokeness,” that the Democrats’ DNA is hopelessly secular. The most reliable members of the Democratic coalition are African Americans, who are among the nation’s most religious groups. Urban Catholics attended church as faithfully as they voted Democratic for most of the last century. Political parties are made up of many different, often contradictory forces. They do not spring forth unsullied from a single ideological premise. How else to explain the loyalty of Bible-believing Evangelicals—who long bemoaned the lack of “moral character” in Democratic candidates—to the most morally compromised and unchurched president in recent American history? Call it a Trumpean prison.

A politics that helps the poor achieve a measure of life, liberty, and happiness does so for moral and not merely electoral reasons. Jesus put the poor and needy at the center of his concerns, and the Democratic Party has often been blamed for the same failing. The Rascal King, Jack Beatty’s wonderful biography of James Michael Curley (1874–1958), the popular, flamboyant, and thoroughly corrupt Massachusetts politician, gives a better picture of the modern Democratic Party’s DNA. Beatty quotes historian Richard Hofstader to explain Curley’s enduring popularity with his Irish Catholic constituents. Boston’s WASPs and their destitute Irish rivals had “fundamentally different conceptions of the ends of politics.” The Republican Brahmins understood politics, Hofstader writes, as “an arena for the realization of moral principles of broad application—and even, as in the case of temperance and vice crusades—for the correction of private habits.” Massachusetts Republicans believed government “was to set neutral standards of justice and procedure in its pursuit of the general interest.” Beatty notes that the hard-pressed Irish, on the other hand, believed in “the personal politics of help and succor.” To them, government was about jobs, and neutral justice be damned.” Curley, who was elected alderman, mayor (four times), congressman, and governor—and twice served in office while he was in jail—provided the jobs; in return, the Irish provided the votes. His brand of politics consisted of “a bag of coal for the grate, a set of teeth for an old man down to his gums. In that pre–New Deal world, it meant a measure of protection against what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘the gales of creative destruction’ unleashed by the unmitigated capitalism of the day.” Or what Brooks calls the great race of life.

Curley, “The Mayor of the Poor,” famously took his Catholic piety as seriously as he took the theater of politics and the kickbacks and graft that landed him in prison. He did not see an open field and a fair chance for his neighbors in Boston’s teeming slums, but a gated field and little chance at all. He went about opening the gates—and pocketed a good part of the admission fees. But there remained a moral imperative in his determination to alleviate material want. Curley’s very personal brand of politics was about his faith in both America and God. It is a brand Democrats should consider dusting off and taking on the road now.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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