David Brooks: Politics, Culture, and Condoms at Costco

Who buys 120 packs of condoms at Costco? Optimistic Americans, according to David Brooks. Brooks spoke at Scripps on Tuesday night as part of an annual series of conservative speakers put on by the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program. For those who happened to miss the single email that advertised his appearance, I am sorry to say that you missed the smartest and most enlightening conservative speaker at the Claremont Colleges this year. Brooks is one of the New York Times’ most widely read columnists and the author of several books. He is also an excellent speaker who was astute, insightful, and hilarious at the same time. Brooks is known informally as the conservative liberals love, or at least respect. After Claremont McKenna's Athenaeum hosted controversial conservatives Bill Kristol and Ken Mehlman this fall, Brooks restored faith in the possibility of intellectual discussion between political opponents.

Brooks spoke broadly about politicians as ordinary people, not as celebrities. He painted a picture of elected officials as hard-working civil servants with normal emotions and good intentions, a side rarely seen in the mainstream media.  Politicians are generally in politics for the right reasons, and are simply people trying to respond to the pressures they feel, Brooks explained.

“Politicians are creatures of the context they are in, ” he told the audience.

But the context shift has been quite dramatic. He cited many studies documenting the trend towards bigger egos, and described the past 60 years in America as a “shift from culture of self-effacement to a culture of self-expression.” For instance, when high school seniors were asked if they were a very important person, in 1950, 12% said they were, and in 2005, 80% said they were. Brooks saw these trends as indicative of the change in the country's general ethos. As a result of this greater sense of self-importance, America as a whole has greater debt, irresponsibility, polarization, partisanship, and distrust of authority.

“Moral materialism” has always pervaded American culture, according to Brooks. But he cited five reasons to have hope:

1.     We are a serious country; we aren’t going to wait until we fall off a cliff before we respond.

2.     Conversation about the big issues has started.

3.     The rise of social movements such as the Obama movement and the Tea Party movement show citizen unrest with the current situation.

4.     Fundamentally, if you strip away all government, we still have a very healthy culture.

5.     America is still America, and it is just as dynamic as it always has been.

Brooks called for humility, selflessness, and “epistemological modesty” (respect for the systems that have been in place) in politics, but his prescription was even more specific. He urged politicians to undertake projects that both parties wanted to accomplish (such as reforming the tax code) because it would not only solve major issues, but foster compromise and camaraderie between officials. He breaks from convention by encouraging less transparency in lawmaking, making an analogy that “government should be veiled in the same way that middle aged people should wear clothes.”

It was refreshing to hear a rational political analyst who can look at an issue through more than one lens. The fact that reasonable pundits exist inspires optimism, and it was enlightening to hear a political argument presented rationally, carefully, and with humility.