I have always viewed conservative columnist David Brook’s comments as a barometer for the right. I like that he approaches ideological differences between the Parties by appealing to our intellect rather than our emotions. But like any good political pundit, Brooks is a craftsman with words aimed at creating an illusion not altogether in line with the real message of his more liberal adversaries.
He is not in the camp of the ideological extremists but he does promote a conservatism that none-the-less represents views that stand in stark contrast to what he might view as an imposing liberalism. His most recent column posted on the MLK holiday doesn’t deter from this paradigm. In it he praises the merits of Obama’s inaugural speech while also trying to show where the division lies between him and other conservatives and the “liberal” proposals that the President laid out for his next four years.
Unlike the conventional approach that tries to divide people utilizing the “we” versus “them” tact, Brooks uses a slightly altered version that builds on a “we” versus ”I” theme. That’s like “we” in welfare and “I” in Independent, as Brooks is suggesting. It’s another approach that attacks the very real problem of class warfare in this country, something he and his conservative fraternity have attacked for being a distraction to more important matters, like supporting the silly notion established in Citizens United that money is the same as speech.
Brooks is back to using cold war semantics by painting the collective we as a form of “centralization”, a word that is always code for communism and socialism in the conservative vernacular while raising the merits of the “I” aspect of decentralization. The latter is a favorite meme of the laissez-faire model popular during the 19th century Gilded Age and more recently with those who worship at the alter of Ayn Rand’s self-interest model – objectivism. A model that rejects humanity’s altruistic nature.
“Obama is liberated”, Brooks tells us and “he has picked a team and put his liberalism on full display”.
He argued for it in a way that was unapologetic. Those who agree, those who disagree and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game. We have to engage his core narrative and his core arguments for a collective turn.
I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.
Notice how Brooks categorizes Obama as liberal as if anyone who sides with an idea favored by liberal constituencies is in fact a card-carrying liberal. I wish Obama was a liberal but the reality is that his membership in such a club would be conditional at best. And perhaps this is as it should be for the leader of the free world who has to straddle both sides of the political spectrum in this country. But the not-so-subtle labeling of the President as a full-fledged liberal is meant entirely to irk the extremist on the Right who already are convinced that the President is a Muslim socialist. And oxymoron in and of itself.
His argument to distinguish between the concepts of “centralized” and “decentralized’ is yet another dichotomy that conveys a simplistic black and white comparison that ultra conservatives will interpret more along the narrower frame of reference, good vs. evil.
It may well appeal to most people at first blush. It was after all through the efforts of people who were able to capitalize off of a pro-entrepreneur government and create an economy where at one time opportunity was boundless for the eager creative individual, at least more so in our earlier history than it is now. Most frontiers of entrepreneurial success have diminished in terms of resources where land was vastly available and minerals had yet been fully exploited. Today’s entrepreneur has to work within strict confines that have in part been devised by their powerful peers and their connections in politics.
Here’s where Brooks’ concept of “a decentralizing genius” breaks down. The open-ended approach that allowed the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Morgans to succeed in the 19th century was eventually met with the resistance of a public that suffered the numerous abuses of laissez-faire economics. Along with a person’s labor value there were also the legitimate concerns of the common men and women about their living and working conditions as well as their health; something that suffered from a capitalist class who saw wages and government oversight as inhibitors to their personal wealth.
If it dawned on the Robber Barons of 19th century America at all that working long hours in unhealthy working conditions for wages that barely eked out a living, with no hope for the future was demoralizing, those captains of industry concealed it with a premise that belied the greed of the nouveau riche and the old aristocracy who wrote the laws in the 18th century that protected the interests of the propertied class. This premise became institutionalized in Herbert Spencer’s concept of the survival of the fittest. Something he purloined from Darwin’s natural selection of species theory and extrapolated into the corporate world, with a supporting role from Adam’s Smith’s “invisible hand” of the free market.
I thought it odd that Brooks would mention Wall Street as one of the heroes in his decentralizing genius offering. Though it was at one time the bastion of free markets that raised this country to its economic heights it is today reviled by most as nothing more than an elite entity that drives prosperity, not for the many as much as it does for the wealthiest 1% in this country. A fact that has been borne out by the current figures showing an income increase of some 265% by billionaires while most everyone else has seen their income shrink over the last 30 years.
Brooks’ notion that the decentralized individual has made America prosperous omits those parts where wealth has gravitated towards a select few through lying, cheating and stealing. The Savings and Loan scandal, Enron and the financial malfeasance of the finance industry which led to the Great Recession are some of the more glaring examples of this. It has been these demoralizing behaviors that have elevated the plutocracy in this country who have been shamelessly held up by wealthy wannabes. Were these indeed honest and altruistic-spirited men, there would be no need for those “centralized” efforts of government to keep such destructive and self-servings acts in check.
I salute the character of an individual who through their energy and insights have created those products that engineered one of the greatest economies in the world. But for Brooks or anyone else to believe that they did this with only their own capabilities and resources is to ignore that collective feature which enabled individual ambitions to succeed.
Manufacturing in this country, that originated through the theft of industrial technology created in England, relies on the labor of people. Without that labor anything that the mind can imagine would most likely not come into existence. It requires the training of educators to provide skilled and intelligent workers and managers as well as financial support from banks who rely on deposits from the common man and woman for those entrepreneurs to succeed. It requires the shared costs through taxes to build the infrastructure that allows commerce to move freely and expand.
When it becomes part of the mindset that the individual is the master of his destiny disregarding the community he or she relies on to achieve and acknowledge their goals, that construct for greed begins to form and the anti-social characteristics it breeds poses a threat to the social stability we all rely on to prosper and feel secure.
When the “I” dominates the “We” then the moral bearings of society are lost, allowing us to disregard those who will sometimes fall through the economic cracks. It then becomes easier for successful people who have been more fortunate to demonize those struggling to survive as “hangers-on” or “takers” and “moochers” for fear that they may have to share what all of us are in part responsible for creating.
Though the concept of “we” is more inclusive than the “I”, both should shift to the more encompassing “us”. It is through the combined efforts of individual aptitudes and group strengths that will enable all of us as one people to persevere.