David Brooks’ Faulty Reasoning About Why the GOP Lost

I give David Brooks credit. In looking for reasons why the GOP had a bad night, he’s not being as shameless as Karl Rove. I know that’s faint praise. The long-con-artist Rove is blaming a storm for his failure to deliver what billionaires paid him for. Here is Brooks’ take:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.

More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an expert on part of what he says. I grew up “on the frontier”–in a High Sierra town of 200, once a Gold Rush town. And, culturally, part of me came from Sweden but that part was atheist, not Protestant. Also, I saw what the GI bill did for one of my uncles, who flew mission in a Flying Fortress. It allowed him to go to a state college and get a teaching degree. He taught and coached for the next 30+ years but never gave up on the “frontier” stuff like hunting, fishing, building your own cabin, and panning for gold.

My uncle’s values were not, in fact, different from those described in the Pew poll concerning these alleged “people from elsewhere.”

Everybody in the U.S. is from elsewhere, and why begin history with Protestant colonialists? Why not start it with the slaves who were brought here in 1619? Or the Spaniards out on that frontier? Or the French in the bayous? And so on? And why not mention that many of the early members of the federal and state governments owned slaved? That’s the ultimate “government intrusion” and extreme “attitude toward authority.”

So I assert that Brooks’ argument is based on a false, White-centered, nostalgic view of history. I also assert that the GOP had a bad night (but only narrowly, let us remember) because it has been begging for one. Look who speaks for them mostly loudly, hear how much hate is in the speech, and see how weird the stances are: abortion banned even in cases of rape; denying global warming; claiming “trickle down” economics is anything more than a long-con (70%+ of economic growth is driven by consumer–middle class spending, not by how much dough rich people get to keep); wanting government to intrude on two adults’ decision to spend their lives together (what’s more “American” than that?); and treating the first Black president like a you-know-what.

I also assert Brooks’ argument hinges on a false dichotomy: either government helps the economy or private enterprise does. They both do, and they both must. If these “new people from elsewhere” don’t work with the same fallacy as Brooks does, it may simply mean they are reasonable. Government can raise the taxes or sell the bonds necessary to build schools, bridges, sea-wall, an electric grid, and so on. Who does the work? Private contractors. So enough of that dodge, please.

If government has grown beyond proper limits, then why not question the proper limits of the defense budget, which is the most out of whack part of our budget when compared to all other countries?

Is a national health insurance program–operated by private insurance companies–and improper intrusion of government, or just something my practical uncle would see as necessary?

Barack Obama as Big Government Lefty is one of the larger straw men the GOP has built. On what issues is President Obama to the Left of Eisenhower or Truman?

I think the GOP decided to see how far right it could go on a range of issues, and so it went too far. I think it decided long ago to be a White party. Lindsay Graham has admitted as much, and we all know about the Southern Strategy, which is race-based. That’s the short version. There’s more to it than that, but it isn’t the more that Brooks cites.

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