David Brooks and the Politics of Meaning

I have immense respect for David Brooks. He’s a brilliant writer, and the way he’s approached his New York Times gig – by moving beyond the generic political issue column and into the broader realm of politically informed cultural criticism – has been, I think, a great success.

So it’s no surprise that his most recent column, The Conservative Revolution, has stuck with me. Yet what’s been on my mind is how troubling I find the ideas it expresses.

Brooks starts by describing the ascendancy of British Conservatives and notes the simultaneous decline of the American right, and then explains that, between the two, “the flow of ideas has changed direction. It used to be that American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way.”

As for why, he offers the following explanation:

The British conservative renovation begins with this insight: The central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individual freedom. Political leaders have to also talk about, as one Tory politician put it, “the whole way we live our lives.”

That means, first, moving beyond the Thatcherite tendency to put economics first. As Oliver Letwin, one of the leading Tory strategists put it: “Politics, once econo-centric, must now become socio-centric.” David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, makes it clear that his primary focus is sociological.

This is the lesson, Brooks argues, that the American right must learn. It makes sense that a sociologically inclined writer like Brooks would find this style appealing. And I have no doubt that there are some electoral successes to be found should the GOP broadly adopt this tack.

The problem, though, is that this grants legitimacy to the idea that people ought to seek meaning from their government. And at the same time, it encourages political parties to ply their constituents by offering meaning as their product.

Frankly, I find this idea appalling and depressing, and, when taken to its logical endpoint, diminishing of – possibly even antithetical to – the sort of small, self-chosen community bonds, those of family and neighbor, church and community, intellect and interest, which seem far more integral to society than anything shaped by even the most efficient and benevolent hand of government. To seek meaning from government and politics is to cease to seek meaning from other outlets; in Europe, secularization has generally increased with its dependence on government. Why seek community in the church when you can find it at the ballot box? Yet Brooks writes approvingly that British conservatives are “trying to use government to foster dense social bonds.” Is community now to be a public utility? It’s a vision of government as a clunky state-run Facebook.

Brooks would no doubt argue that he only wants to see government strengthen those traditional community bonds, not supplant them. That’s an admirable goal, but I’m not sure it’s an attainable one. The very nature of retail politics (and competitive salesmanship in general) is to move toward bolder, grander claims — always to do and be more. Any effort to put government in the business of aiding those bonds will, I suspect, lead to a government that seeks to simply be the bond.

Perhaps this was inevitable. In the retail world, this is an increasingly popular marketing tactic. Products are sold based on the lifestyles they represent, the ideas they seem to symbolize, the self-image they grant the purchaser. Community and culture are the primary value-adds of some of today’s most successful brands. Yet I shudder to think that our government should reinvent itself this way – cleaner, perhaps, and with a hipper, more modern sensibility too, but oppressive, in a way, and certainly more expensive – a trillion-dollar, bureaucratic Whole Foods.