MARCH 12, 2007
David Brooks's column in yesterday's New York Times tries to wedge TNR into a larger theory of the change in American liberalism. He has some kind words for us, and his theory is at least somewhat correct, albeit shallowly rendered, but the evidence he musters actually subverts his own point.
The really weird part of the column is the first paragraph. He begins by citing a 1981 Michael Kinsley article called "The Shame of the Democrats." This article, he writes, "began the era of neoliberalism," which is now dead, because it is the sort of article TNR has stopped publishing.
I know the article very well, having read it several times. Its point was to attack the Democratic Party for surrendering to Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut, and for failing to use its leverage in Congress to fight for traditional liberal goals of preserving the progressivity of the tax code and maintaining social benefits for the very poor. "The Democrats have done practically nothing to mitigate the general unfairness of Reagan's scheme," Kinsley wrote, "Instead, they have concentrated on saving or inventing various special goodies."
In other words, Kinsley was attacking the Democrats from the left. If this is Brooks's definition of neoliberalism, then he need not fear: Neoliberalism is alive and well at Daily Kos.
In any case, in recent years TNR has run countless stories along precisely those same lines--attacking Democrats for capitulating to regressive tax cuts. A very quick search turned up this editorial a column of mine, another editorial, and many, many others. It's probably our most distinct genre.
So the opening of Brooks's column, which is the frame upon which he hangs his entire thesis, is wrong to the point of absurdity. It would be as if I were trying to identify a change in Brooks's style by citing some old column he wrote about Hipster Yuppies or Patriotic College Students or Firefighters Who Shop at the Gap and wondered why he doesn't write that sort of piece anymore.
Brooks's second odd point is his scolding us for lacking programmatic detail. "The magazine now habitually calls on Democrats to take bold action on things like the war and global warming," he writes, "but it's still a little fuzzy on what that bold action should be." Well, OK, these are hard issues, and not everything we say about them has Brookings-like detail. There was, however, our recent special issue on Iraq that was filled with specific recommendations. That issue had an editorial in which we took our best shot. Our most recent editorial on global warming argued that no legislation should be proposed until a new president is in the White House. I think we can be forgiven for withholding specific solutions in an editorial urging the Democrats to withhold specific solutions.
Like I said, I could see the case for even more detail. But what an odd complaint coming from David Brooks! This is the creator of National Greatness Conservatism, a governing ideology whose one specific programmatic detail was a call for more national monuments.
As I noted above, I do think that Brooks is right in one sense. The fissure between neoliberals and traditional liberals has narrowed in recent years, and some of this narrowing can be seen in TNR. Brooks does not suggest any reason for this change, except for vaguely hinting that liberals have gotten meaner and more partisan.
In fact there are very good reasons why neoliberalism has faded away. Neoliberalism grew out of the 1970s, and the conditions that gave rise to it have changed.
First, many of the Democrats' weaknesses were addressed by Bill Clinton, who remade the party somewhat along the lines neoliberals had suggested. Second, George W. Bush has jerked the political spectrum rightward, making the excesses of liberalism less salient.
What's beyond dispute, I think, is that the style Brooks identifies with neoliberalism (and which he claims is disappearing) remains the hallmark of TNR: We're "sprightly and lampooning" and "love to argue among [our]selves." Again I refer Brooks to this new thing called the blogosphere, which has been relentlessly attacking TNR for its lack of partisan discipline for several years now. Or he could check out our current issue, which contains, for instance, a (generally) laudatory cover story on Barack Obama as well as a (generally) critical Diarist on the same.
I don't think Brooks's column was some kind of vicious attack, but it was kind of confused.