A few years ago, establishment conservative commentator David Brooks famously claimed that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama lacked a connection with average Americans because “he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee’s salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there.” Brooks’ attempt to portray Obama as out-of-touch with the American people is laughably absurd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Applebee’s does not have a salad bar.
Brooks’ New York Times column from earlier this week suggests that he has returned to getting his political information from the non-existent Applebee’s salad bar. In the column, titled The Two Moons, Brooks correctly notes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have managed to achieve a sustained political majority since the mid-1990s. But Brooks goes way off track by contending that the response of both parties to this political stalemate has been to become uncomprising and ideologically pure entities that view themselves as constantly under attack by the outside world. In particular, Brooks claims with regards to both parties that:
Their main fear is that they will lose their identity and cohesion if their members compromise with the larger world. They erect clear and rigid boundaries separating themselves from their enemies. In a hostile world, they erect rules and pledges and become hypervigilant about deviationism. They are more interested in protecting their special interests than converting outsiders. They slowly encase themselves in an epistemic cocoon.
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 Democratic and Republican parties used to promote skilled coalition builders. Now the American parties have come to resemble the ideologically coherent European ones.
These claims suggest that Brooks either does not know what he is talking about or is purposely ignoring reality in order to benefit the GOP, as only the GOP fits the negative picture of the two parties that Brooks paints.
There can be little reasonable dispute that the Republican Party has turned into an ideologically pure rump that refuses to compromise and does not even attempt to govern. That is why the GOP, after being shellacked in the 2008 elections, did everything they could to obstruct the Democrats from governing, including filibustering or threatening to filibuster every effort to create jobs or promote economic recovery, and preventing highly qualified nominees needed to ensure that even basic government services operated smoothly from taking positions in the Administration and the federal judiciary. In fact, the GOP’s intransigence has gotten so extreme that one GOP Congressional staffer who left after 27 years referred to the GOP as becoming an “apocalyptic cult.”
Brooks’ claim that the Democrats are similarly ideologically pure and uncompromising, however, is sheer fantasy. Even after sweeping into power in 2008, President Obama worked overtime to reach across the aisle – including conservative ideas in the stimulus, health care reform, and other key legislation, putting deficit reduction (which conservatives pretend to care about) on the agenda, etc. And rather than governing as an across the board liberal (which we would have preferred), President Obama refused to offer a Medicare-for-all single payer health insurance proposal, declined to nationalize the banks, and brought in establishment insiders like Summers and Geithner rather than liberals like Krugman or Reich.
We certainly would have loved to see far more progressive outcomes over the past few years, but we also understand the limits of what can be done in DC today, the importance of compromise and incremental change, and the role that progressives voters and activists have to play if we want more progressive outcomes. And the relevant point here is that, contrary to what Brooks appears to have determined during his latest visit to the Applebee’s salad bar, the Democrats have and continue to compromise, while the GOP continues to engage in pathological levels of obstructionism and intransigence.
Now, one could ask why this matters. And the reasons are two-fold. First, Brooks continues to be portrayed as a somehow “respectable” voice throughout the media, with important perches on the New York Times editorial page, as an NPR political analyst, and a regular commentator on PBS’s NewsHour. So long as Brooks is portrayed as a reasonable and knowledgeable voice in the media, it is important to point out just how off base he is. Second, Brooks’ views simply encourage the GOP to engage in even further obstructionism and intransigence. The GOP’s approach will change only if the voters begin punishing the GOP at the ballot box for hamstringing every government attempt to alleviate the serious economic, social, and international problems we face. But so long as media personalities such as David Brooks are falsely telling the public that both sides are equally to blame, the public will not know how they should vote if they want the obstructionism to end.