David Brooks on what moderates believe

He wrote,

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.

I like the entire column, but especially this paragraph. I care more about my family and folk dancing than I do about politics. And I think that if everyone cared mostly about their relationships and their hobbies, the world would be a better place.

Note that I schedule my posts several days in advance. I think that this makes me write more moderately than I would if I were racing to give my immediate reaction to things.

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14 Responses to David Brooks on what moderates believe

  1. djf says:

    Yes, some of Brooks’s rhetoric sounds nice. But keep in mind that his idea of a “moderate” is Barack Obama. (Let me guess: some of this website’s friendly leftwing trolls will instruct me that Obama was the second-coming of Dwight Eisenhower. Ok, thanks, guys.)

    The worst thing about Trump is his giving progressive hacks like Brooks an excuse not to engage in serious self-examination. Of course, absent Trump, they still wouldn’t do this.

    If you’re taking David Brooks seriously, you’re taking being charitable too far.

  2. Handle says:

    The big issue is the norms of conflict. In what manner will ethical, civilized gentlement conduct themselves in relation to each other when participating in any kind of dispute? Will it be a bloody street fight with bricks and hidden shivs with gang members piling in to help with the rumble, or are we talking about two evenly weighted and matched competitors boxing according to the Marquess of Queensberry rules?

    Moderation, Civility, treatding ones opponents with dignity and respect, “Fair Play” and Disinterested, Impersonal, and Neutral Arbitration are the hallmakrs of the highest levels of civilized behavior and interaction. They are the “cooperate-cooperate” equilibrium in the game. But they can only prevail if every participant agrees to be bound by those norms. This is analogous to bilateral disarmanent agreements between adversarial states. It’s better for both of us if we agree to get rid of our biological weapons, but one can’t get to that equilibrium if both sides have a “you go first” attitude. And it would be quite reckless and foolhardy to engage in unilateral disarmament and simply hope your competitors follow your lead in a way that can be relied upon for the long term.

    Of course I also fully share the ideals of gentlemanly conduct, if for nothing else than they are good for their own sake and discipline ones own thinking from being clouded by tribal passions and groupthink. But when it comes to our current political and ideological disputes, a lot of what I read in terms of the the rhetoric of extoling those virtues sounds an awful lot like appeals to unilateral disarmament, and continuing to box according to the Marquess’ rules even after the other guy pulls out a knife.

    The principles underlying the norms of conflict are subordinate to the higher principle of survival, self defense, and duty to not participate in ones own destruction. One cannot advocate for those lower principles in isolation and not in the light of the higher principles, and in the light of the contemporary context to which those higher principles must be applied.

  3. EMichael says:

    “Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends.”

    You cannot have the second without the first.

    • Octavian says:

      Um, ok. Do you think the current order is just? If not, do you think that ” loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends” are impossible? Would they be impossible with a smaller government?

      Sure one could argue they’d be quite difficult in anarchy, but last I checked, David Brooks is not an anarchist, nor, to my knowledge, is Arnold Kling.

    • Adrian Ratnapala says:

      Did you think Brooks was arguing differently?

    • Weir says:

      Government destroys communities. It doesn’t have to, but it likes to. It’s good at it, and any flourishing community is an affront to its all-encompassing ambition. Every charity or school or lighthouse must be assimilated to the blob.

    • EMichael says:


  4. Patrick Laske says:

    “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

    Politics is the best sport to follow, because it is the only sport that matters. Contra Brooks, I’d argue that the real issue is that millions of people pay very little attention to the problems of the world, and thus are leveraged in predictable ways to the benefit of a few. People think about the problems of the world very poorly, in very predictable ways, and their irrationality and idiocy is used to the benefits of others.

    It also misidentifies the arrow of causality of passion. Politics is not the end; power is. If we suddenly were to blank slate the whole thing, purge our political identities and passions, they would reemerge as a natural course of human action. Life has winners and losers, and politics is a mechanism by which that can be leveled or readjusted.

    Only by establishing radical firm rules that deny that power to everyone, for any reason, can this be avoided. This is not a natural state of the human condition, only the extreme pursuits of philosophy and ideology can produce humans able to resist the temptations of moderation and compromise.

    Finally, there are a great deal of problems in the world with a variety of solutions to them, and it’s not always clear what the solution should be based on what we’re trying to optimize. There should be a logic to your ideas and ethics, so that when new problems emerge, you aren’t recreating the entire moral structure of your universe from scratch. Just because there are some problems government could solve better by being more technocratic, doesn’t mean that all problems of government could be solved better that way.

    The fact is, David Brooks has been just as much a radical as anyone else. He just has this made up idea that ‘moderates’ are better than ‘not-moderates’ and defines what he does as ‘moderate’. And he’s not the first major elite columnist to do this either, it’s a pathos I’ve seen in writers like Robert Wright as well. Brooks was one of the biggest #nevertrumps – a minority position in his own party. And he got there, because he knew that politics mattered, that you can’t put celebrities into office who have no experience and you need real ideas to justify your politics. A populist Sailer strategy that plays on the lowest common denominator of reality television and foreigners are bad, is the dominant moderate position held by a majority of people that don’t pay attention to things. The default is – foreigners are bad, tariffs are good, walls are good. All lives matter is a moderate centrist position. Both sides are to blame is a moderate position. Forget moderates.

    • Octavian says:

      “Contra Brooks, I’d argue that the real issue is that millions of people pay very little attention to the problems of the world, and thus are leveraged in predictable ways to the benefit of a few. People think about the problems of the world very poorly, in very predictable ways, and their irrationality and idiocy is used to the benefits of others.”

      Whether people pay attention to “the problems of the world”, I would argue that people take far to keen an interest in the “problems” of other people, countries, etc. and in the voting booth seek to implement their own poorly reasoned solutions.

      If people minded their own business more, and preferred politicians who minded their own business more, things would, imo, be much better. That may be somewhat similar to Brooks’s ‘moderate’ position, but it’s really more the libertarian position, and Brooks isn’t a libertarian of course.

      It should be noted that, per Brooks, the moderate position is not the same as the dominant popular position. The moderate position is essentially the position in favor of the status quo, because the status quo is good enough that one is happy to leave politics alone and enjoy one’s life in the status quo. The extent to which one wants (or believes one needs) the status quo to change probably correlates to the extent to which one is interested in politics. Of course there are plenty of people very badly off in the status quo who are uninterested in politics, and plenty of people who are quite well off but obsessed with politics because they are concerned on behalf of others whose condition they believe to be so dire as to require urgent, radical political change. But it makes sense as a general rule for people who are more or less self-interested.

    • Weir says:

      These people that don’t pay attention to things, don’t they see themselves the way Brooks sees himself? In their own self-conception, they’re moderates too. They’re just normal people who want to get on with their lives, and they voted for Trump precisely because they’re not obsessed with the one correct answer, which is what The New York Times represents in their minds. If you write about sport for the Times, or if you write about fashion for the Times, then it’s a good bet that you look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. Obviously Brooks is aware of this much. He just uses Google as the example instead of his own employers and fellow employees. But does he understand that those people who backed Sanders and Trump, or Sanders then Trump, or Trump then Sanders then Trump once again, these aren’t people on “the path to fanaticism” but ordinary, meandering, un-committed muggles content with muddling through?

  5. andrewknorr says:

    “Politics as religion” is such a lazy argument because nobody has a definition of religion. It’s classic case of defining the obscure in terms of the more obscure. By any reasonable definition, a religion needs a transcendent being. Where is the transcendent being of this “secular religion”? You can’t just say the passion level is so high that it has passed into religious territory. That’s not how it works; the beliefs have to actually be structured like a religion, whatever that would mean. Second, he says the zealots “impose one correct answer on all of life”? You know who is imposing one correct answer? The “proposition nationalists” like Brooks who believe that the US “regime” is based on one and only one “philosophical proposition”! Next week he will write a column about how Trump is violating the “American creed.”

    • Weir says:

      Call it “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” That’s out of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

      Zealots are only one variety. And the Romans defeated them in AD 73. The movement around Jesus was very different, and less easily crushed. But go back to this really excellent definition, and you can imagine a movement around Darwin or Hayek. If you understand how biology works then it’s something like an accurate religion. Or if you understand how a market works.

      You can have a non-apocalyptic religion with no transcendent being either, but you can also have the apocalypse on its own. For example, global warming. Or the various revolutions that have been tried from time to time. The varieties are endless.

  6. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    The shorter Brooks:

    “Relax and enjoy it”.

  7. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    That’s just weird coming from David Brooks.

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