Don’t quit your day job, Brooks

Don’t quit your day job, Brooks

: Said it before. Say it again: When David Brooks writes a good column, it’s good. But when he writes a dumb column it’s a doozie. File today’s under doozie.

He has been trying to write about polarization in America (see the post above this one) and today he argues:

To a large degree, polarization in America is a cultural consequence of the information age. This sort of economy demands and encourages education, and an educated electorate is a polarized electorate.

He says that people who are more educated stick to their parties and sides more loyally, therefore they are more polarized. Or, professor, it could be that they’ve thought through their views and analzye issues differently — perhaps more intelligently.

He also argues that it’s a matter of geography:

The information age was supposed to make distance dead, but because of clustering, geography becomes more important.

The political result is that Republican places become more Republican and Democratic places become more Democratic.

That’s absurd, too. I live in a rabidly Republican county and I’m a Democrat. But I don’t yell at my neighbors about politics over the fence. Nor do I long to move to a place where I can sit in the Starbucks and talk with people sure to agree with me (in fact, I’d find that pretty damned dull). I might have no hope of winning a local election, but I cast my vote in the presidential election and mine counts just as much as the vote of the liberal in Upper Montclair.

But then Brooks really goes off the deep end with his suggested fixes for this problem he’s imaginging:

Still, it’s worth thinking radically. An ambitious national service program would ameliorate the situation. If you had a big but voluntary service program of the sort that Evan Bayh, a Democrat, and John McCain, a Republican, proposed a couple of years ago, millions of young people would find themselves living with different sorts of Americans and spending time in parts of the country they might otherwise know nothing about.

It might even be worth monkeying with our primary system. The current primaries reward orthodox, polarization-reinforcing candidates. Open, nonpartisan primaries might reward the unorthodox and weaken the party bases. To do nothing is to surrender to a lifetime of ugliness.

Oh, that’s cute: The ideology draft: Forced service to meet people not like you. Well, you know, everybody isn’t like me already. And “nonpartisan primaries”? That’s oxymoronic; it’s just plain illogical.

: Micah Sifry responds to the same doozie column asking, What political ghettoes?

Here are some problems with these notions:

-50% of us don’t bother to vote in presidential elections; barely over 1/3 vote in non-presidential years and in some cases single digit turnouts have been sighted for some municiipal and even statewide races. If partisanship was on the rise, surely that would lead to much higher identification with each party’s candidates, and thus be reflected in higher turnouts.

-More Americans are identifying as political independents and registering as such (or “decline to state”), while Democratic identifiers are sharply down and Republicans are flat. This recent column by Rhodes Cook spells out some of the salient facts.

-The information economy isn’t as big as Brooks cliaims, so his theory that more of us are suddenly free to move wherever we like and thus congregate in places “where people share their cultural aesthetic and…political values” seems like quite a stretch. And even in such places, diversity reigns.

Go read the rest.

See, we’re not as divided as they — media and politicians — say we are. Only the extremists are.

  • jon

    brooks is just sloppy…making the same mistake over and over, namely that red state are ALL GOP; blue states all Dems. does he not get out at all?

  • Frank Martin

    This is the kind of thing you hear often from people from the left when they find out that there are people who are Republicans, and that they arent all gap toothed, inbred, mono-browed NASCAR fans. Of course, their first most natural reaction isnt that there are two sides to any opinion, it is that there ‘must be something wrong, and we must correct it’.
    What is it about the left and its need to seek utopia?
    For a great book on the subject, I reference Harry Steins: ” How I accidentally joined the right wing conspiracy….( and found inner peace)”

  • joe shropshire

    Mmmm, I’m not sure I’d just flat-out call this absurd. Bill Bishop’s piece on “landslide counties”, which Brooks cites, looks interesting. Here’s Tim Noah, in Slate, Mister Landslide’s Neighborhood:
    Bishop blames this heightened partisanship on the proliferation of “landslide counties.” He defines a landslide county as one in which the presidential nominee of one party receives at least 60 percent of the vote. In 1976, 26.8 percent of American voters lived in landslide counties. By 2000, that proportion had nearly doubled, to 45.3 percent.
    Noah has a link to the original piece & ya gotta register.

  • john

    I don’t read much in the NYT anymore unless a particular article or column is referenced by another source. I was a NYT online subscriber and discussion forum poster until about 6 months ago. Wading through the condescension became too much work for me.
    I don’t doubt that I’m missing some pearls here and there, but I’ve come to believe that my time is better spent elsewhere.
    Mr. Brooks can be surprisingly insightful, especially when compared to his op-ed cohorts, Safire excluded of course.
    I think Jeff is correct in his assertion that the modern media is complicit in the divisiveness we experience.
    Michael the Moor justifies his work by claiming factual accuracy. I’m told he is factually correct.
    In the same sense, our media outlets maintain their journalistic integrity by getting the facts right, mostly. It is not the facts that are inaccurate, it is the context in which they are presented.
    Media pros are quick to sound the alarm of righteousness whenever they perceive too great a concentration of power, anywhere. At the same time they believe themselves empowered to manipulate the very context in which we view the events of our world. At some point, most in the media have advocated regulation of some kind for every other institution in our lives except their own.
    I am absolutely not in favor of a regulated press, but one that balances it’s own immense power with an appropriate sense of responsibility.

  • Re: educated people being more polarized – I think it’s because they’re more likely to pick a a critical issue and vote with it every time. For example, if you really, really, really like free markets, you will vote Republican even though you may be a libertarian on social issues such as drugs and abortion.
    In my case, I’m mostly libertarian on economic issues, but I can’t abide the religious right wing of the Republican party, so I usually vote Democratic. Other people (many of my friends) go Republican on economic issues.
    Also, re: “I live in a rabidly Republican county and I’m a Democrat. But I don’t yell at my neighbors about politics over the fence.” That’s why we have politicians. They do the yelling for us. As with many things in a free market, we often outsource political action.
    Also, the national market has made political pissed-offness scalable – if not for radio syndication, Rush Limbaugh would just be a yammering local DJ. But by attracting 5-10% of the market in hundreds of markets, he scales to 10-20 million listeners and thus becomes more legitimate, which in turn makes him a symbol of how polarized we are. In fact, many of his listeners probably disagree with him on some issues, but they’re willing to outsource their political dissent to him because he’s “close enough.”