11/20/2014 02:39 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

What David Brooks Gets Wrong About 'Partyism'

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In a recent column, David Brooks announced to parents throughout the United States that if they are judging a potential son or daughter-in-law on political grounds, their "values are out of whack." So I take it that if liberal parents have liberal children who are about to marry conservative evangelical members of the Tea Party, it should be a matter of indifference. Brooks always seems to write with a touch of smug arrogance, but the blindness of this conclusion is stunning even for him.

Let's leave aside family members for the moment. Let's think of dinner companions. Would the tone of a conversation change if a table of liberals were joined by a passionate conservative? A table of liberals might make easy assumptions about capital punishment, the use of drones, the need for spending on infrastructure, the failure of the nation to care for the poor, and the immorality and impoverished economics of a system of economic inequality. If a conservative joins the table, politics might be avoided as a subject or debate about these subjects would substitute for an exchange based on shared assumptions. Perhaps a debate would be better for all concerned; perhaps not; but the nature of the conversation is not a matter of indifference.

In terms of in-laws, parents might be concerned about more than weekend or holiday dinners. They might wonder whether the marriage might flounder or flourish given the personalities of the pair, the importance of politics to either or both of them, and the extent to which they can tolerate and flourish with disagreement. Given the exotic character of Brooks' claim, you might wonder what motivated him to go this far.

Brooks is concerned about what Cass Sunstein calls "partyism." He suggest that hiring for jobs or competition for scholarships and the like should not turn on political views, but there is evidence that the politics of applicants might well be employed against them. On this point, with respect to the overwhelming majority of jobs and scholarships, he is surely right that such discrimination is unjustifiable. He also is concerned not only that the social value of a person is increasingly evaluated on the basis of his or her politics, but also that people have formed their identity by their politics, and that politics in his view has been hyper-moralized.

I don't know how to measure the first two points, but there is something to them. For example, the driving force behind shifts in religious affiliation (as opposed to preacher shopping) has been political. Moreover, in an age of balkanized communications (Fox News; MSNBC) and increasingly partisan politics, the demonization of those who are politically different is not new, but it appears to be deeper and more widespread. Perhaps related to that, politics is thought of in more acutely moral terms. Brooks appears to yearn for the days when politics was controlled by pragmatic technocrats because the means to achieve ends were the central stuff of debate about which honest and intelligent people could disagree. Brooks rightly thinks that when issues become matters of moral principle, compromise becomes more difficult -- though there is a long history of political deals between those with moral differences. Nonetheless, Brooks does not give sufficient attention to the fact that many of the most gripping political issues implicate moral issues of profound importance: war, abortion, poverty, crime, punishment, economic inequality, and the environment. Although Brooks decries the extent to which political appeals are phrased in existential terms, he simply tries to wish away the fact that politics addresses fundamental moral issues that go to the heart of what life is all about.

In the end, Brooks' article is internally inconsistent. If people have set their moral identity according to their politics, their politics in most cases cannot and should not be ignored in making judgments about marriage.