As we all know, 2011 was a difficult year in Washington -- a year of gridlock, dysfunction and extremism. And, as we all also know, Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame. How do we know this? Because we have David Brooks, looking down upon the political scrum from his skybox high above midfield, to show us the symmetry lurking beneath the apparent chaos.
Call it Brooks's Law of Political Equivalency: For any Republican/conservative/right-wing culpability, there is an equal and opposite Democratic/liberal/left-wing culpability: If the Republicans are beset by extremism and fanaticism, then the Democrats are beset by extremism and fanaticism. If the Republicans display intransigence, the Democrats display intransigence. If the Republicans are in thrall to a discredited economic theory, then the Democrats are in thrall to a discredited economic theory. If the Republicans exist in a media echo chamber, then the Democrats exist in a media echo chamber. And so on.
2011 offered a banner year for Brooks to expound his Law, and he did so brilliantly, as seen in the following 20 examples from this year's columns:
Unless something big and unexpected happens, 2011 will be consumed by a debate over the size of government. Republicans will launch a critique of big government as part of their effort to cut spending. Democrats will surge to the barricades to defend federal programs. (The Achievement Test: 1/3)
Brooks starts the year off strong in the first paragraph of his first column of 2011, dreaming up a Brooks's Law equivalency that has yet to even occur! The Republicans, he points out, can be counted on to "launch" the same shrink-government-cut-spending broadside that they have been propounding continuously since the day their government-growing, budget-busting president left office in 2008. Therefore, by a simple application of Brooks's Law, we can infer that the Democrats will launch an equivalently dogmatic effort, which Brooks helpfully hypothesizes will be a "surge to the barricades to defend Federal programs." Whether the Democrats are or are not about to launch such a surge is immaterial. For the Law to be satisfied, they must, so they are.
The Democrat and Republican parties used to contain serious internal debates -- between moderate and conservative Republicans, between New Democrats and liberals. Neither party does now. (The Two Moons: 11/21)
According to Brooks's Law, because the Republicans act in lock-step, the Democrats act in lock-step. For this reason, Brooks is able to dispense with the entire past three years of Democratic political history, a period characterized by the passionate and often vitriolic debate between centrist, "Blue Dog" Democrats and progressives on every major issue: the public option, bank regulation, torture, economic stimulus, the Bush tax cuts, etc., etc. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, however, these "serious internal debates" never happened because, according to Brooks's Law, they couldn't have.
... It will be a moment of opportunity for us Hamiltonians, who believe, with Ryan, in market mechanisms to allocate resources and control costs and also, with Obama, in government's ability to selectively nurture prosperity. (Ultimate Spoiler Alert: 4/14)
A fairly straightforward elaboration of Brooks's Law. Ryan believes in market mechanisms, therefore Obama doesn't. Of course, Obama does, in fact, believe in market mechanisms, albeit within a stronger regulatory framework than Ryan would prefer. Even his health care plan, derided by conservatives as a government takeover, relies on market mechanisms to control costs and allocate resources, much to the displeasure of the progressive wing of his party (which protested furiously in one of those serious internal debates that never happened). However, Brooks's Law does not allow Obama to hold this belief if Ryan does -- so he doesn't.
The supposedly rabid Republican freshmen are actually big government conservatives. They will cut programs that do measurable good while doing little to solve our long-range fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, the Obama administration theoretically opposes runaway debt while it operationally expands it. (The Freedom Alliance 2/10)
Because it is self-evidently misguided for Republicans to suggest cutting good programs while failing to solve the long-range crisis, it is therefore equally misguided for Obama to operationally expand debt while theoretically opposing runaway debt. True, operationally expanding debt while theoretically opposing it was the policy preferred by most mainstream economists, given the deep recession and continued high unemployment (Don't take it from me -- take it from Brooks: "The mainstream economic view is that we should combine near-term stimulus with long-range austerity." (Stimulus for Skeptics, 8/8).) Some have even pointed out that a successful near-term stimulus could help combat long term debt by restoring economic productivity and with it, the tax base. However, Brooks's Law requires that this eminently reasonable policy be misguided, so it is.
Obama believes Ryan wants to take America back to what he sees as the savage capitalism of the 1920s (or even the 1760s). Ryan believes Obama wants to turn America into a declining European welfare state. (Ultimate Spoiler Alert: 4/14)
Here we see an interesting corollary of Brooks's Law: One may make unsubstantiated and wildly implausible allegations about the private beliefs of any politician, so long as one goes on to make similarly unsubstantiated and wildly implausible allegations about the beliefs of a politician on the other side. It is highly unlikely that Obama believes Ryan is so maleficent as to wish a state of 1920s-style savage capitalism on the United States, although he may well believe -- as many do -- that Ryan's plan would have had that effect in practice. Equally unlikely is the notion that Ryan truly believes Obama wishes a state of European-style decline on his (alleged) birth nation, and it is difficult to understand why Brooks would assign this particular belief to Ryan, given Obama's failure to enact any European-style welfare policies and his demonstrated willingness to tackle the existing entitlement shortfall he inherited (a shortfall exacerbated by Bush's European-welfare-style unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit). Nevertheless, what's important is that the two allegations offset and Brooks's Law is upheld -- which it is.
Republicans still mostly talk about incentives for growth, and Democrats still mostly talk about economic security. (The Politics Of Solipsism 5/5)
Brooks's Law also applies in the case of sweeping generalizations, which need have no basis in fact so long as they balance out. In truth, Democrats are constantly talking about incentives for growth. President Obama flies all over the country and around the world talking about them. In town halls, statehouses, and the halls of Congress, you can't shut most Democrats up when it comes to talking about the policies they believe will create incentives for economic growth: rebuilding infrastructure, improving education, restoring sensible financial-sector regulations, addressing income inequality, etc. But that's what Republicans mostly talk about, so Democrats mostly don't.
The Republican growth agenda -- tax cuts and nothing else -- is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible. Gigantic tax cuts -- if they were affordable -- might boost overall growth, but they would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis.
Republican politicians don't design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signaling devices -- as ways to reassure the base that they are 100 percent orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012.
As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing. They acknowledge huge problems like wage stagnation and then offer... light rail! Solar panels!... Democrats dream New Deal dreams, propose nothing and try to win elections by making sure nobody ever touches Medicare. (Pundit Under Protest: 6/13)
The most extraordinary feature of Brooks's Law is surely its capacity to make assertions true that are demonstrably false, merely by opposing them to assertions that are demonstrably true. Here, easily falsifiable accusations that Democrats "offer... nothing" but "light rail," "dream New Deal dreams," and refuse to consider Medicare reform are imbued with validity through their proximity to equivalent, easily verifiable accusations about Republicans. It is highly doubtful that, absent this extraordinary quality of the Law, David Brooks in his current form could exist at all.
The U.S. is polarized between "drill, baby, drill" conservatives, who seem suspicious of most regulation, and some environmentalists, who seem to regard fossil fuels as morally corrupt and imagine we can switch to wind and solar overnight. (Shale Gas Revolution 11/3)
There is no requirement in a Brooks's Law equivalency that the two sides be represented in equal numbers. In this example, the "drill, baby, drill" conservatives, which is to say the majority of conservatives, including many federal and state government office holders who favor relaxing regulations on oil and gas exploration, expediting permitting, etc., are compared, not to the many who oppose such policies on rational grounds (pollution, spills, global warming, abandoning the emerging alternative energy markets to Asian companies, etc), but instead to "some environmentalists" who condemn fossil fuels on moral grounds and "imagine we can switch to wind and solar overnight." The fact that one side represents a powerful political force (Republicans almost KO-ed the payroll tax extension over the Keystone XL pipeline) and the other a straw man is immaterial. The important point is that both the real conservatives and the imaginary environmentalists are equally misguided.
White House officials talked about raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting Social Security by changing the inflation index, freezing domestic discretionary spending and offering to pre-empt the end of the Bush tax cuts in exchange for a broad tax-reform process.
(The Road Not Taken, 7/18)
Republicans won't touch spending, and Democrats won't touch entitlement reform.
(Stimulus for Skeptics, 8/8)
What is true in July is false in August thanks to the astonishing power of Brooks's Law. In the first quote, Brooks elaborates several ways in which Democrats have demonstrated their willingness to consider entitlement reform. However, as we learn from the second quote, since Republicans won't touch spending, Democrats won't touch entitlement reform. The Law of Political Equivalency makes it so.
First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary Congressional votes. Republicans didn't want the tax increases. Democrats didn't want the entitlement cuts.
(Congress In The Lead, 7/25)
Another power of Brooks's Law is its power to render variations in relative intensity irrelevant. Here, the term of equivalency is "didn't want." Republicans "didn't want" in the sense of "were willing to hold the entire U.S. economy hostage unless their demands were met." Democrats "didn't want" in the sense of "attempted to negotiate while trying to figure out if the Republicans were crazy enough to pull the trigger." And, of course, as Brooks has pointed out, Obama was in fact willing to put the entitlement cuts Democrats "didn't want" on the table in a big way, as part of a package that also included things the Republicans "didn't want," and which therefore had no chance of being adopted. Yet place them opposite one another in a Brooksian equivalency, and miraculously the "didn't wants" fall into balance.
... Leaders in both parties have clung to the analogy that the economy is like a sick patient who can be healed by the right treatment.
The Democrats, besotted by the myth that the New Deal ended the Great Depression, have consistently overestimated their ability to turn the economy around. They regard the Greek crackup as a freakish, unlucky break, even though this sort of thing is a typical feature of a financial crisis.
Republicans, who should know better, also have an inflated sense of the power of government. In the presidential debates, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman argue about which one oversaw the most job creation during his term as governor, as if governors have an immediate and definable impact on employers' hiring decisions. (The Planning Fallacy 9/15)
Here, Brooks uses an unsubstantiated allegation about the Democrats' attitude towards the Greek financial crisis to establish his main accusation: that Democrats overestimate the power of government policy to affect the economy. But he throws in a twist! You would expect him to balance this with an equally poorly-substantiated allegation that Republicans are too reticent in their use of government power. Not so! Brooks instead conjures a poorly-substantiated accusation that Republicans share the Democrats' own overconfident attitude. He can do this because Brooks's Law equivalencies do not depend on the quality of supporting evidence for each premise, but only on the balance of culpability, which is maintained.
The ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.
Many Democrats are predisposed to want more government spending. So they pick up on the one current they think can be cured with more government spending: low consumer demand. Increase government spending and that will pump up consumer spending.
When President Obama's stimulus package produced insufficient results, they didn't concede that maybe there are other factors at play, which mitigated the effects. They just called for more government spending. To a man in love with his hammer, every problem requires a nail.
Many Republicans, meanwhile, are predisposed to want lower taxes and less regulation. So they pick up on the one current they think can be solved with tax and regulatory cuts: low business investment. Cut taxes. Reduce regulation. All will be well.
Both orthodoxies take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. (The Lost Decade? 9/26)
This example incorporates several applications of Brooks's Law: If the Republicans are focused exclusively on a single "lever" (tax and regulatory cuts), then Democrats are focused exclusively on a single "lever" (government spending.). If the Republicans are "predisposed" to want lower taxes and less regulation, then Democrats are "predisposed" to want more government spending. If Republicans cynically focus on one element of the problem ("low consumer demand") in order to advance their pre-existing agenda, then Democrats hubristically focus on one element of the problem in order to advance their agenda (The cynicism and hubris are equivalent faults and thus cancel each other out). Finally, the insufficiency of the stimulus must necessarily be the result of Democrats not acknowledging "other factors," rather than its being much smaller than most economists at the time felt would be sufficient, and further undermined in its effectiveness by its incorporation of the very Republican tax cut strategy Brooks now derides. Why? Because Republicans also ignore "other factors." In principle, there are no limits to the length to which such an equivalency could be strung out, although in practice it tends to stop at around 800 words.
President Obama promises not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The Occupy-types celebrate the bottom 99 percent. Republicans promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 100 percent. Through these and other pledges, leaders of all three movements are hedging themselves in. They are severely limiting the scope of their proposed solutions. (The Milquetoast Radicals 10/10)
Sometimes you just have to take your hat off. Not only is Brooks able to equate Obama's pledge to avoid raising taxes on the poor and middle class with Republicans' pledge to never raise taxes, ever (never mind the merits - both pledges are equally rigid, thus both are equally ill-advised). But he is even able to tar the Occupy Wall Street movement with the same brush: Because they rigidly "celebrate" the bottom 99 percent, they thus lack the flexibility to...well, it's not important what they lack the flexibility to do -- just as it's not important that Obama has himself demonstrated great flexibility and willingness to make concessions (as Brooks himself has acknowledged), and Republicans have not (to put it mildly). Brooks's Law dictates that because the Republicans have hedged themselves in, the Democrats have, too -- and so have the hippies in the tents!
If you live in these big cities, you see people similar to yourself, who may have gone to the same college, who are earning much more while benefiting from low tax rates, wielding disproportionate political power, gaining in prestige and contributing seemingly little to the social good. That is the experience of Blue Inequality.
Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It's between those with a college degree and those without...
The zooming wealth of the top 1 percent is a problem, but it's not nearly as big a problem as the tens of millions of Americans who have dropped out of high school or college...
If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.'s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda. (The Wrong Inequality 10/31)
This was a trick example. It appears to be an equivalency between believers in Blue Inequality and Red Inequality -- whatever those may be -- but it's not. It's actually not an equivalency at all. Democrats are entirely culpable here -- guilty of focusing on the problem of wealth inequality, when the more pressing problem is high school and college dropouts. The idea that these two problems might be in some way related does not appear to occur to Brooks. But note the small Brooks Law equivalency in the parenthetical -- if you're furious at bankers and CEOs, then you must also be furious at doctors!
I think the kind of stuff that Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter do is a form of entertainment, which, you know, is bad for the country. It leads to a style of misinformation where you, I spoke earlier of the confirmation bias, where you just want to hear things that tell you how right you are all the time. And I think a lot of what those shows, whether it's Ed Schultz or Ann Coulter, that's what it is. (C-SPAN In Depth 12/4/11)
Brooks is right! The transformation of TV news into entertainment is bad for the country. It does lead to misinformation and confirmation bias. And this is true whether you're talking about right-wing extremist provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, or the equivalent left wing extremist provocateurs like... like... Al Franken's not in radio anymore, right? Olberman? No... Wait -- who was that guy who called Laura Ingraham a slut? Schultz. Go with Schultz.
A few years ago a group of bankers thought they had the magic tool to help them master financial trends and predict the future. Sophisticated risk assessment models would enable them to rewrite the rules and make more money.
Their arrogance was soon exposed. Along came the financial crisis.
In the middle of the crisis another group emerged, believing it had the magic lever to alter the economy's trajectory. Democrats argued that through gigantic deficit spending, they could bring unemployment rates down sharply and produce a "summer of recovery." (The Magic Lever, 7/11)
Remember, Brooks's Law does not require that the actual policies being compared have any obvious connection - only the culpability must be in balance. In this case, we have, on the one side, a belief in risk-assesment models, and on the other, a Keynsian approach to battling recession. The common denominator is misplaced confidence. Because bankers' confidence in their models was misplaced, Democrats' confidence in the stimulatory effect of increased government spending is equally misplaced. Never mind the fact that most mainstream economists agree in theory on the necessity and efficacy of deficit spending to combat recession. Never mind that the final stimulus bill contained not only Democratic ideas but also significant tax cuts that Republicans maintained were the "magic lever" to renewed growth. Never mind the fact that many responsible analysts (some Nobel Laureates, even!) believe the stimulus has, in fact, worked to the extent that it was capable of working, given its limited nature, flawed structure (those tax cuts) and the unanticipated severity of the economic downturn. Never mind the fact that the bankers' misplaced confidence would have wreaked no havoc had the government not dismantled its regulation of the financial sector. In fact, never mind any facts at all. The point is that bankers were arrogant, so Democrats are, too.
Republicans decry the technocratic rationing model as "death panels." Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas "privatization" or "the end of Medicare." (The Missing Fifth 5/2)
Already many consultants are telling Republicans to drop austerity and go back on offense: Spend 2012 accusing the Democrats of sponsoring death panels. The Democrats will spend 2012 accusing Republicans of ending Medicare. Whichever party demagogues best wins. (Medicare Survival Guide, 5/26)
Since the accusations made by Democrats and Republicans against each other must balance, Brooks is able to dispense with consideration of their relative merits. Republicans are engaged in demagoguery, falsely accusing Democrats of supporting "death panels." Consequently the corresponding Democratic accusations must also represent demagoguery -- whatever they may be. As it happens, Republicans are, in fact, calling for the replacement of Medicare with a program that would offer "premium support" for private insurance. To quote David Brooks: "True Medicare reform replaces the fee-for-service system with premium support." (David Brooks, The Serious One 11/7). But because the Republicans are engaging in demagoguery, to describe this Medicare-ending privatization plan as a call for "privatization" or the "end of Medicare" must also represent demagoguery. Q.E.D.
The Democrats talk and look like a conventional liberal party (some liberals, who represent, at most, 30 percent of the country, are disappointed because President Obama hasn't ushered in a Huffington Post paradise). Meanwhile, many Republicans flock to Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich because they are more interested in having a leader who can take on the mainstream news media than in having one who can plausibly govern. (The Two Moons: 11/21)
Republicans vote based on their perception of the candidate's ability to propound Republican dogma. Therefore, the Democrats must be in thrall to an equal and opposite dogma, represented here by the image of a "Huffington Post paradise." Exactly what kind of paradise that might be is immaterial, although it is an interesting topic of speculation.
The Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.
The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.
The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities...
The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency...
The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name...
... Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.
Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too. (The Mother Of All No Brainers 6/4)
This is a tour-de-force. Brooks calls forth all his rhetorical powers to paint the Republicans as fanatics, lunatics, incompetents, moral delinquents, and zealots; then, just when the reader is convinced that, at last, Brooks's Law of Political Equivalency has met its exception, he turns and with balletic grace, completes the equivalency by positing that to oppose oneself to this group's fanatical agenda must represent an equivalent fanaticism! Words fail.
The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There's a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths.
(Obama Rejects Obamaism 9/19)
An instant classic. Brooks begins by admitting that the media does, in fact, impose a false equivalency, then uses that very admission as the basis of a false equivalency! It's a real test of his acumen. For if Republicans really are more blameworthy for "the dysfunctional politics," then how can the two sides possibly be equally to blame? Answer: they can't. Instead, the Republicans' blameworthiness is balanced by an equivalent praiseworthiness! And, for the finishing touch, this in turn is balanced against the Obama administration's equivalent blameworthiness. Balance is restored, and the Law is preserved intact. What a performance!
And there you have it. A look back at a truly amazing year in political equivalencies by its premiere practitioner. Thanks to Brooks and his amazing Law, he and thousands of other pundits and reporters across the country are now able to effortlessly position themselves as evenhanded, unbiased, moderate, reasonable, and above the fray, merely by establishing the necessary equivalency. Without it, these same pundits would be forced to tediously evaluate the evidence behind both propositions and determine their relative merits. They would be prevented from cherry picking examples, from reporting speculation as fact, from deliberately misrepresenting politicians' positions, from ignoring inconvenient facts, and from any of the myriad other helpful techniques of false equivalency that Brooks's Law makes possible.
Fortunately, thanks to Brooks's Law, this is no longer necessary. Balance is everywhere, because it must be. One must only know how and where to look for it, and it will reveal itself in all its symmetrical glory. Although we may not yet know what troubles the nation will face in the coming year, thanks to David Brooks, we do know that whatever they are, both sides will be equally to blame.