What’s Wrong With David Brooks

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks that David Brooks is lost in la-la land. Thomas Frank, whose book, What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America is currently receiving a good deal of liberal acclaim, writes the following in an excerpt thereof published in Harper’s (“Lie Down for America,” April 2004, p. 37):

David Brooks, who has since made a career out of projecting the liberal stereotype onto the [red and blue map of the 2000 election], took to the pages of The Atlantic to admit on behalf of everyone who lives in a Blue zone that they are all snobs, toffs, wusses, ignoramuses, and utterly out of touch with the authentic life of the people:

We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We’re more sophisticated and cosmopolitan — just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don’t ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don’t know. We don’t know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are … We don’t know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don’t know about Reba and Travis … Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers … We don’t know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can’t tell a military officer’s rank by looking at his insignia. We don’t know what soy beans look like when they’re growing in a field.

One is tempted to dismiss Brooks’s grand generalizations by rattling off the many ways in which they’re wrong: by pointing out that the top three soybean producers — Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota — were in fact Blue states; or by listing the many military bases located on the coasts; or by noting that when it came time to build a NASCAR track in Kansas, the county that won the honor was one of only two in the state that went for Gore. Average per capita income in that same lonely Blue county, I might as well add, is $16,000, which places it well below Kansas and national averages, and far below what would be required for the putting on of elitist or cosmopolitan airs of any kind.

It’s pretty much a waste of time, however, to catalogue the contradictions* and tautologies** and huge, honking errors*** blowing round in a media flurry like this. The tools being used are the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology. The “two Americas” commentators showed no interest in examining the mysterious inversion of the nation’s politics in any systematic way. Their aim was simply to bolster the stereotypes using whatever tools were at hand: to cast the Democrats as the party of a wealthy, pampered, arrogant elite that lives as far as it can from real Americans; and to represent Republicanism as the faith of the hard working common people of the heartland, an expression of their unpretentious, all American ways, just like country music and NASCAR. At this pursuit they largely succeeded.

* Consider what we might call the snowmobile dilemma. David Brooks insists that one can trace the Red-state/Blue-state divide by determining whether a person does outdoor activities with motors (the good old American way) or without (the pretentious Blue state way): “We [Blue state people] cross country ski; they snowmobile.” And yet in Newsweek’s take on the Blue/Red divide (it appeared in the issue for January 1, 2001), a “town elder” from Red America can be found railing against people who drive snowmobiles precisely because they signal big city contempt for the “small town values” of Bush Country!

** In the selection printed above, David Brooks tosses off a few names from the conservative political world as though they were uncontroversial folk heroes out in the hinterland, akin to country music stars or favorite cartoonists. But the real reason liberals don’t know much about James Dobson or Tim LaHaye is not because they are out of touch with America but because both of these men are ideologues of the right. Those who listen to Dobson’s radio program or buy LaHaye’s novels, suffused as they are with Bircher style conspiracy theory, tend to be people who agree with them, people who voted for Bush in 2000.

*** The central, basic assertion of the Blue state-Red state literature is that the Democrats are the party of the elite while the Republicans are the party of average, unpretentious Americans. Accordingly, David Brooks asserts in his Atlantic essay that “Upscale areas everywhere” voted for Gore in 2000. As a blanket statement about the rich, this is not even close to correct. Bush was in fact the hands down choice of corporate America: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush raised more in donations than Gore in each of ten industrial sectors; the only sector in which Gore came out ahead was “labor.” In fact, Bush raised more money from wealthy contributors than any other candidate in history, a record he then broke in 2003.

Nor is Brooks’s statement valid even within its limited parameters. When he says “upscale areas everywhere” voted for Gore, he gives Chicago’s North Shore as an example of what he means. And yet, when you look up the actual 2000 voting returns for those areas of the North Shore known for being “upscale,” you find that reality looks very different from the stereotype. Lake Forest, the definitive and the richest North Shore burb, chose the Republican, as it almost always does, by a whopping 70 percent. Winnetka and Kenilworth, the other North Shore suburbs known for their upscaliness, went for Bush by 59 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

And there were obviously many other “upscale areas” where Bush prevailed handily: Fairfax County, Virginia (suburban D.C.), Cobb County, Georgia (suburban Atlanta), DuPage County, Illinois (more of suburban Chicago), St. Charles County, Missouri (suburban St. Louis), and Orange County, California (the veritable symbol of upscale suburbia), to name but a few.

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