OUR story so far: last summer my tiny pruning scissors broke--well, they broke long before that, more or less by design, when the plastic teeth on the plastic cam of the plastic lock went The Way of All Plastic--meaning I guess it's more accurate to say I finally got tired of wrapping a rubber band around the blades to keep them locked on random occasions, and decided that since I was headed to the garden-slash-hardware store up the street I'd buy a new pair, except they didn't have any, which I figured was no problem since I was going to Lowe's, except they didn't have any, so I went to Target and found the last pair that could conceivably be called "Small".
It's possible that the Blister-Pak tried to warn me--we have a chilly relationship, Blister-Pak and I--but it wasn't until I--need I say finally?--got the thing open that I learned that the fine Finns at Fiskars had decided I'd like a knife blade and Lilliputian tree saw to go along with it, and that the perfect place for those implements was the otherwise unused backs of the scissors blades. Which, if you're still following this, you might realize meant that my lifelong habit of stashing such an implement in a pocket of my work pants was now out of the question, unless I wanted additional, ad-hoc access to those pockets, and/or massive blood loss.
So I wound up having to use the sheath the Finns had thoughtfully provided, after first thoughtfully splashing "Fiskars" across the thing in 128-pt embroidery. This did not actually improve the odds of my wearing a sheath, which is really only a couple rungs up from Blister-Pak on my list to begin with.
We coexisted like the two Koreas for a couple months, but seasons change, and so did I. Came time to clean the gutters, and I figured that if I'd put up with looking like a Hollywood Mescalero this long I should just go Full Metal Village People and get a small, belt-accessorizing tool carrier to save trips up and down the ladder. And besides, I was going to Lowes.
And I got one, in black leather, which turns out to have an added benefit whenever my Poor Wife and I play Handyman's Butt-Crack and the Bored Teacher With a Snow Day, except I wasn't supposed to mention that. But while I was there I noticed--I think for the first time---the selection of camouflage tool belts, tool carriers, cell-phone holders, drill cozies, and the like. And by now it's like a flood: camouflage hats, camouflage gloves, camouflage visors with headlights; I haven't checked but neither camouflaged shovels nor lawn tractors would surprise me. Would you hire a camouflaged landscaper? By the hour? I mean, the odds are that if the majority of these guys are hiding from anything it's ex-wives.
And I got to thinkin', y'know, there oughta be a term for this, like the much-needed Metrosexual or Cougar. Maybe we should have a contest. I was gonna suggest "Cammohag", but I know how sensitive some of you are.
This, of course, is the sort of populism David Brooks gives an even wider personal berth than "Red Lobster Republicans" or "Exoburb Yachtsmen", or whatever else it is he's contributed to the language.
Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists. The people who try to divide it on the basis of religion we call sectarians. The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.
Two guesses which one will emerge from this column unscathed.
These two attitudes — populism and elitism — seem different, but they’re really mirror images of one another. They both assume a country fundamentally divided. They both describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers.
"It's not like the Golden Age of Reagan," you might hear a little voice saying, "when all the corrupt betrayers aligned like Jupiter and Mars."
Both attitudes will always be with us, but these days populism is in vogue. The Republicans have their populists. Sarah Palin has been known to divide the country between the real Americans and the cultural elites. And the Democrats have their populists. Since the defeat in Massachusetts, many Democrats have apparently decided that their party has to mimic the rhetoric of John Edwards’s presidential campaign. They’ve taken to dividing the country into two supposedly separate groups — real Americans who live on Main Street and the insidious interests of Wall Street.
Y'know, back when Wall Street was our unquestioned Savior, it seems to me that you attributed this attitude to everyone with a D after his name. So I find the implied trendiness there a mite suspicious, but not so suspicious as that careful "Palin has been known" deal. Yeah, and US magazine has been known to fluff celebrities.
It’s easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.
Okay, first, a goddam inflatable sex doll for Trans-Global Laissez-Faire Capitalism is accusing someone else of pushing economic jejunicitousness? Second, it's interesting to me how the Republican party endorses executing prisoners with a mental age of twelve, but when it comes to massive corporate fraud their immediate instinct is to file an amicus brief for the Twinkie defense.
Second, it absolves voters of responsibility for their problems. Over the past few years, many investment bankers behaved like idiots, but so did average Americans, racking up unprecedented levels of personal debt. With the populist narrative, you can accuse the former and absolve the latter.
Okay, so which group got let off the hook, and which had usury "regulations" which already made Mafia loan sharks blush tightened further around their vitals? And I know I've said this before, but the addition of this "Sure A, but B!B!B!B!B!B!" to the Forensic Debaters Stylebook under "Things Reasonable People Say" bears some serious looking into, with an eye to criminal charges.
Third, populism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.
1) I thought the Dems just jumped on board after Brown; never let internal consistency get in the way of a boffo construction, huh? 2) I don't have a research staff, but damned if I can find where you evinced anything approaching caution about this Republican proclivity--including "while George W. MBA President Bush was riding high"--before it became patently obvious that the lunatic fringe you thought followed your lead now controls your party, and the laissez-faire rhetoric was a beard for unfettered rapine on a scale previously unimagined.
So it’s easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.
That’s because voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time:
Dear Lord. What's this based on--the helpful young thing at some Midwestern airport information kiosk you asked for directions once when you couldn't get a direct flight? Jesus, Brooks, buy a fucking vowel. Or, hell, read your own fucking column. Like the one last week that limned Obama's reasoned approach to the nation's business. Complex thought's doing him a lot of good with the voting public, ain't it?
For fuck's sake. Look at what we eat. Look at what we watch. Look at what sort of chronic infantilism persuades people to buy whatever juvenilia is being dangled in front of them this week. Look at the intellectual history of your own party, Mr. Brooks, over the last forty years. The single compliment that might be paid the other party over that span is that it took more nuanced positions and was more willing to compromise, before it took one look at the polls and ran screaming down the hall looking for the Exit.
Most "voters" don't; those may be the smart ones. Those that do get to choose between two parties, a distinction which can only really be made based on bumper-sticker sloganeering, after which you use the results to infer complexity of thought?
I'm not saying people are stick-your-finger-in-a-light-socket-to-see-if-the-power's-on Stupid. But I live among them; I see how they decide state and local issues, how readily they adapt advertising bullshit as their own thought, how uninformed, intellectually lazy, or just plain too busy surviving to bother much with complex analysis if they were inclined to do so. Which they aren't. And those are the honest ones. Lack of intellectual rigor is a very different thing from principled anti-ideology.
By the way: th' fuck put you in charge of deciding what is and isn't political stupidity? I seem to recall we just exited a decade when you were wrong about everything, then excused it by saying that at least you were less of a hidebound ideologue than the other people who were wrong about everything.
In fact, this country was built by anti-populists. It was built by people like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who rejected the idea that the national economy is fundamentally divided along class lines. They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.
If I might just mention here--we've already dealt with your serial lionizing of Hamilton as some modern investment banker by noting that on the day he met up with Burr there wasn't a single smokestack in the Americas--whatever else they believed, these men did not live in a world where a couple of crooks could plunge the globe into financial crisis.
The populists have an Us versus Them mentality. If they continue their random attacks on enterprise and capital, they will only increase the pervasive feeling of uncertainty, which is now the single biggest factor in holding back investment, job creation and growth. They will end up discrediting good policies (the Obama bank reforms are quite sensible) because they will persuade the country that the government is in the hands of reckless Huey Longs.
Which you were fine with when they were your Hueys. Until you got hit by that ricochet.
I've got more sympathy for the fleas you woke up with than I do for your predicament, Mr. Brooks. And repeated attempts to solve it by insisting on your own blamelessness? Well, it might have a chance of working. If you were blameless.