Does David Brooks Think Barack Obama Is the Answer?

by Oren Cass

David Brooks returned yesterday to his prediction of a coming political divide between the forces of “open” versus “closed.” I previously used this space to criticize that view, which I think less an objective heuristic than a framing device designed to shame anyone who disagrees with him. In the new column he adds another dimension, “individual” versus “social,” which does him no favors. Instead he winds up calling for… well, Barack Obama, I think.

Brooks describes his “open” team as one that believes in “open trade, relatively open immigration, an active foreign policy and racial integration,” while the “closed” team believes in “protective trade, closed borders, a withdrawn foreign policy and ethnic separatism.” To quote my earlier post:

But if we shift from rhetorical one-upmanship to a more fair-minded analysis of the divide, it seems to emerge primarily over how to help those segments of society currently facing social collapse and economic struggle. High levels of trade and immigration are presumably not the ends unto themselves. Rather they are, in the view of the Openers, critical pre-requisites of a flourishing society that will work for everyone. Many opponents see value in trade and immigration as well, but they emphasize that the current approach is not working for those who need help most and we have not proven any ability to make it work.

Rather than “open” and “closed,” I suggested, perhaps the real divide is between those who want to push ahead with what Brooks calls opening and those who want to slow down and correct course. We might even call the Openers “progressive.”

Brooks’s new divide only confuses matters further. The “individual” team, he writes, believes in “individual initiative, designing programs to incentivize enterprise and removing regulatory barriers,” while the “social” team believes that “social mobility happens within rich communities — that people can undertake daring adventures when they have a secure social and emotional base.”

But I’m pretty sure everyone believes “social mobility happens within rich communities” and wants to ensure all Americans have “a secure social and emotional base.” The relevant question is how to do that. Are such communities best created through individual initiative and enterprise or large government interventions? Here, Brooks has apparently decided that large government interventions are the way to go.

He sees a Trump-led GOP as “closed/individual” and an emerging Sanders-Warren Democratic party as “closed/social.” He wants a “compassionate globalist party” that would be “open/social” and “flood the zone for those challenged in the high-skill global economy — offering programs to rebuild community, foster economic security and boost mobility.”

Flooding the zone with government programs is a strange prescription for rebuilding community. But let’s stipulate it as a potential approach. To distinguish it, we should replace his “individual” and “social” labels on this community-building axis with “bottom-up” and “top-down.”

If one reads between the lines, Brooks seems to have started from an imperative to endorse an “open” or “progressive” approach, then recognized that strategy is damaging for many communities, and then concluded that only more government on the backend could compensate. But government has no track record of accomplishing any of the tasks he would demand of it here. All the risk in this approach gets placed on those falling furthest behind and least equipped to manage it.

What Brooks wants to sell as “open/social” he should properly label “progressive/top-down.” Unsurprisingly, then, it happens to align almost precisely with the agenda of Barack Obama over the past eight years. Read the Brooks column and find any component of either his “open” or “social” dimension that would be out of place in a speech by Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton. That’s an odd place for him to land and hardly a compelling new direction. If his goal is “a third party” and “a program that addresses the problems that fueled [Trump’s] ascent,” it seems the wrong place to start.

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