Once upon a time, David Brooks, the New York Times editorial writer, was a relatively mainstream Republican. A cultural conservative, who believed in “family values” and “fiscal conservatism,” he proudly carried the mantle of a calm American traditionalism, ever skeptical of the dangers posed by self-righteous liberal reformers. Then Trump came along, trumpeting his gaudy disinterest in old-fashioned honesty and moderation, and Brooks became a pillar of the short-lived #NeverTrump movement. Now, a veritable man without a country, Brooks, after what one can only assume must have been a depressing process of elimination, seems to have settled on becoming a lone voice in the wilderness, a defender of Joe Biden.
His recent editorial, “Joe Biden Is Stronger Than You Think: Here’s why he is still winning” lays out his current thinking.
Brooks begins by pointing out how, despite all of the criticism that Biden has received to date, he continues to lead in many polls. Brooks predicts Biden will win in Iowa (he won’t; Bernie will), concedes Biden will lose in New Hampshire (he won’t just lose; he’ll be walloped) and predicts that Biden will easily take Nevada (if Bernie proves as popular among Latinx folks as he has the potentially to be, it seems likely to be pretty close). But, yes, despite the fact that Biden appears to be slipping across the board, there’s still lots of polls that place him squarely in the lead.
Brooks says this isn’t where people six months ago would have expected us to be. But, I mean, of course, it is. When every pol in DC hates him and every big ticket campaign fundraiser can’t stand him, how surprised can we be when it takes a minute or two for an underdog like Sanders to pull ahead of Biden, the obvious torch bearer of the Democratic Party.
Brooks then goes on to flaunt his “man of the people” swagger and lecture the rest of the Twitterati about how important it is to “cure this insularity disease” through “constant travel and interviews,” and I can only assume, actually talking to poor people. Fair enough. I agree, but keep in mind, the coffee at Denny’s, or whatever, isn’t usually as good as the Fair Trade cappuccinos of the coastal bourgeoisie, and in general, from my experience, the nice woman serving it to you doesn’t like being treated like a pygmy encountered in one of Malinowski’s anthropological expeditions.
But, now, move over Karl Rove and Sun Tzu, it’s time for the genius of Joe Biden. After all, “Biden didn’t just luck into this.” lectures Brooks, “He and his team grasped six truths.”
To be honest, I kind of like the six things Brooks comes up with. He’s just totally wrong about how they actually work.
Understand the year you are running in.
As Brooks sees it, the progressive values championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are stale, irrelevant and, more importantly, totally boring. What matters to voters today, in Brooks’ words, is that “Donald Trump is a steaming hot mess in the middle of national life.” Biden isn’t caught up in actual issues like healthcare, education, climate change, basic economic fairness etc. Who has time for that? No, Biden has better things to do. According to Brooks, he’s “fighting for the soul of America”!
Wrong. This is just totally wrong. Running on a platform of being anti-Trump won’t work. I’m positive about this. Democrats tried it in 2016. They lost. If they do it again, they’ll lose again.
Understand your party’s core challenge.
Today, if you want to understand the politics of rural America, the number one thing you’ve got to grasp is that a lot of folks in rural America are terrified about losing control of the communities they’ve always called home. They go to the hardware store and people are speaking Spanish. There are Muslims in the supermarket. They try to celebrate Columbus Day, and their own grand kids call them racist. Shooting guns is one of the few things that genuinely makes them feel powerful, and now the Democrats are trying to take that too.
Most folks don’t know exactly what’s happening in DC, but they know in their guts that the people there don’t care about them particularly. Rural Americans desperately want somebody who sees them, who likes them, who believes their communities can be great again. They want somebody who’s got the spunk and the backbone to get in the ring and actually fight for them. In 2016, Trump promised that he’d do that, and whatever you may think of the specific battles he’s picked, Trump’s certainly delivered on being a fighter. And, more importantly, when Trump fights, he brings his followers along for the ride, propelling them in a story that casts them as the heroes of an epic battle for their very freedom and independence. They love him for it.
Put bluntly, in 2016, Clinton didn’t have a story. Her ads were as vapid as JC Penny commercials. Her campaign largely just consisted of her reminding everybody of her gender and attempting to persuade us all that Trump was even slimier than her husband. Nobody found that particularly compelling. Because it wasn’t. And she lost.
Moderates are still powerful.
As Brooks tells it, Biden “emerged” from the great moderate American working class like a phoenix from the ashes. Today, he’s “focusing his attention on it and is winning support from it.”
That’s absurd. Biden hails from Delaware, America’s credit card epicenter, and he’s spent much of his political career fighting for those same credit card companies and their corporate shareholders. It’s been decades since he’s seen a defense contract he didn’t like. His idea of universal healthcare is requiring people to fork their hard-earned money over to bloated health insurance companies. He loves crooked trade deals. He even gets his kids in on the action. As Zephyr Teachout described in the Guardian earlier this week, Biden’s approach to politics isn’t “moderation” – it’s just corruption.
Brooks isn’t wrong when he identifies how alienated many Americans are from our national political conversation, but he is wrong when he dubs this cohort of alienated voters “moderates” as if the American working class were some kind of collective Goldilocks, deciding between a bowl of porridge that’s too hot and another that’s too cold. Americans aren’t starving for lukewarm oatmeal. Nobody has ever starved for lukewarm oatmeal. It’s gross.
No, the thing that unites America right now is that we’re all really pissed off. If you see the political spectrum as running between a Left (defined by higher taxes, more social spending and stricter economic regulations) and a Right (defined by lower taxes, less social spending and a “freer” economy), you completely miss what’s actually going on.
Most Americans would love to see the rich pay more taxes. They’d be ecstatic if the government were to provide them with free healthcare. Most people absolutely want things to change a lot. If politics represented public opinion more accurately, we’d all just unite on that kind of platform. The problem is that, for the most part, the Democrats don’t actually represent that platform – they represent higher taxes for everybody, not just the elite, and government programs that many fear only serve narrow demographics, like people of color and immigrants, while leaving the majority of Americans out in the cold.
The idea that alienated people are actually “moderate” doesn’t make any sense. When you feel like you’ve been kicked out of something, the last thing you want is for it to stay the same.
Many Democrats resent their own elites.
As Brooks sees it, Biden “communicates affection” toward the working class, “not judgment, acceptance, not expulsion.” But that’s fundamentally not what Americans want, at least not most of us. If you say that you like me, but you won’t actually go to bat for me, what am I supposed to see that as, other than pandering condescension?
Brooks says most Americans feel ignored by the ruling class, which is probably true, but the answer to that, as I see it, can’t be some sort of limp moral “acceptance.” That’s meaningless. When people say they hate political correctness and the elite who uphold it, it’s precisely this sort of passive ethic of “acceptance” that they hate. Nobody wants the people in charge to flaccidly tolerate them for who they are while censoring their criticism of their opponents. No, what they want is a powerful leader who’ll throw a punch on their behalf. Biden likes to puff his chest out and talk tough, but right now, his current politics are so aimless that it’s hard to imagine him standing up for much of anybody.
Have a better theory of social change.
Brooks sees the American political system as being like a Chinese finger trap – the harder you pull on it from either end, the more it jams up and stops moving. Biden, on the other hand, he says, believes that “a center-left congressional coalition is the best we can do under present circumstances.” Never mind the fact that Biden isn’t a hyphen-left of anything, Brooks is just so wrong here, it’s hard to take him seriously.
For over a decade, Congress has been like a playground where the friendly Democrats show up with a kickball, and the Republicans push them down, give them wedgies and dropkick the ball onto the roof of the gym. At a certain point, you just have to accept that, until you show up with some big kids on your side who are are actually willing and able to stand up to the bullies, you simply aren’t about to play kickball. The Sanders coalition are those big kids. And we’re going to win.
Connection. Connection. Connection.
Brooks ends the essay with the quip that “the candidate who can be vulnerable has a surprising power.” But Biden isn’t “vulnerable.” Vulnerability isn’t something that you have innately. It’s something you take on. Something you rise to. To be rendered vulnerable, you have to take risks. Engage in tough conversations. Be fully present when people are suffering, even if it means you might get hurt in the process.
Brooks says Biden is “normal and emotionally relatable.” He’s the opposite. When people are scared and angry, like they are today, the thing that they relate to best is righteous anger. These days, sedated levelheadedness is anything but normal. When your boat is sinking, nobody wants a neutral bystander who’ll just tread water with a sheepish grin. They want a hero. But, until they get one, a lot of them will continue settling for a villain.