Who Is David Brooks?

04/12/2011 03:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

This question can be answered in one of two ways. The trivial, biographical answer is that David Brooks has been a political columnist for the New York Times since 2003. Before working for the Times, he was Senior Editor at The Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine based in Washington. He appears regularly on PBS's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and the NPR news program, All Things Considered. He is a journalist, a pundit, and a public intellectual.

The more substantive answer would entail taking a tour of Brooks's mental map. What is his general worldview? If you were pressed to affix a label to him, you could do worse than call him a "conservative," but then the label wouldn't be all that helpful since Brooks embodies that venerable American tradition of independent thinking and nonconformity. In his columns, he comes across as being neither a dogmatist nor a skeptic but as someone who likes to mull things over, who is willing to change course and modify his views, and who writes in the spirit of knowing a few things but certainly not everything.

To understand David Brooks, we'll need to grasp the general principles underlying his columns and books.

Brooks's Views of Human Nature

1. We are social animals through and through. We are not pre-social, individual atoms who later adopt on certain social identities. Rather, we are born into social groups, and we come to understand ourselves through our mishmash of cultural and group affiliations.

2. The modern world is irreducibly complex. Inasmuch as this is the case, we need to train ourselves to fix our attention on particular items and keep in mind that we won't have the last word. Still, the claim that our world is complex doesn't mean that we have to be skeptical about the possibility of knowing anything whatsoever.

To split the difference between a sea of information and a summit of unchanging knowledge, Brooks sketches character types of persons, time periods, and moods. These general characterizations, usually laced with more than a touch of satire, aren't mathematical or scientific truths; they are provisional categories that help us to make sense of new and old information. They are literary sketches.

3. Moral intelligence is contextual and empathic. For Brooks, we feel our way through situations (we're always going on blind first dates), and the best develop a knack for intuiting how others think and feel, what they need, and who they are. This kind of intelligence is not as clear and distinct as to be easily set down in arguments or presented as Power Point slideshows. Rather, it's vague and fuzzy but, for all that, necessary insofar as it connects us to others and helps to maintain meaningful attachments.

4. The best kind of education is grounded in virtue. Apart from cultivating our talents (something that Brooks also writes a good deal about), at a young age we should be introduced to the virtues of humility, judgment, industry, courage, and self-mockery. Good citizens, not greedy freeriders, are the foundation of a good economy. So, the goal of education should be to make us more civil.

5. In order to lead meaningful lives, we seek forms of transcendence. A potluck is never just a potluck. Even in the suburbs which have traditionally been described as spiritual wastelands, Brooks believes that we strive toward higher values or greater aims. We are not content unless we can hook our life plans up to larger networks of meaning. For this reason, he insists that religion and religious surrogates will continue to play a vital role in modern society.

Brooks's Views on Government

1. The spirit of good government is tradition. The best sort of government builds off the best traditions embedded in American culture at the same time that it resists utopian thinking. Social and political change is incremental. The work of policymakers is piecemeal, with bits from here cobbled together with strands from there, the final product being better than the worst case but worse than the best. And so, when it works as it should, the legislative process is messy and complicated, filled with conflicts and culminating in compromises.

2. Smart governments are good administrators. Better yet, they're good shepherds. In their administrative capacity, legislators avoid being stern nannies and absentminded watchmen. As a good shepherd, smart government involves cultivating individual talent, growing the economy, and maintaining certain standards of equity. Hence, the size of government is a moot point and the stuff of endless, pointless debate in Washington. The only question, for Brooks a pragmatic one, is whether government is effective -- whether or not certain policies are likely to enhance the well-being of US citizens, here and in the future.

3. Policymakers should be modest, not overly confident. In the past, Brooks has been skeptical of technocratic elites and policy wonks working under the Obama administration. And why? Because he doesn't believe in the top-down approach reminiscent of the nanny state and because he has no faith in the infallible judgment of human beings no matter how intelligent they are or how many Ivy League degrees they have. In his cultural and political opinions, Brooks thereby tends to align himself neither with cultural elitism and the cult of genius (Obama's panel of experts) nor with populism and the rule of the mob (Palin's know nothingness).

Andrew Taggart is a writer, consultant, and philosophical counselor living in New York.


David Brooks