Discover more from Democracy Americana
Moralizing Nostalgia Leads to Bad History – and Helps the Anti-Democratic Right
David Brooks’ “How America Got Mean” offers an ahistorical tale that obscures rather than illuminates – and provides fertile ground for a politics of reaction
David Brooks believes he has finally figured it out: He has identified the root of all evil that plagues the United States. In a long feature for The Atlantic’s September issue titled “How America Got Mean,” Brooks outlines his diagnosis of a country in a deep “emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis” that also “undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy.” But why? Why has the once great nation succumbed to despair and degenerated into, in David Brooks’ estimation, such a mean, sad place? The story Brooks tells is one of moral decay – where once there was personal virtue and a whole network of institutions built to foster it, there is now a black hole of amoral emptiness that people try to fill in the most disastrous of ways: by engaging in “tribalism.”
David Brooks is one of the country’s most famous pundits and a leading voice of the “moderate” center-Right. He is also, undoubtedly, a key target for the political Left – and frankly, for people like me who consider him a prime example of a vacuous pundit class with a regrettably large influence that presents itself as reasonable and above the fray while only ever preaching the gospel of status-quo preservation. Not that David Brooks would ever care to engage with whatever criticism I have to offer. But if he were to stumble upon this essay, I am certain he would consider it yet more evidence of how “mean” everyone has become.
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
How about this: Instead of going for the short, easy dunk, I will present his argument in quite some detail, as fair and precise as I can, then outline why I don’t think it holds up to serious scrutiny. And I will explain why I believe it is indicative of a much larger problem: A pervasive longing for a golden past that never really existed – something in which elites across the political spectrum love to indulge – that provides dangerously fertile ground for a reactionary politics of weaponized nostalgia.
What’s wrong with America, according to David Brooks
David Brooks paints a depressing picture of the miserable condition in which he sees the United States: Its people are being rude and selfish, social trust has completely deteriorated, a loneliness epidemic has spread across the land, suicide rates are soaring, and there is crime, so much crime.
Brooks dismisses the usual explanations that focus on social media, economic insecurity, or racial and cultural anxiety as inadequate. There is something deeper going on: A lack of what the author calls “moral formation,” leaving people stranded in a pitiful state of amoral desperation. As Brooks describes it, “moral formation” is a process by which a “web of institutions” trains people how to “restrain their selfishness,” teaches them “basic social and ethical skills,” and helps them “find a purpose in life.”
According to Brooks, the United States used to do a good job at this. For about the first 175 years of its existence, from the founding all the way through the Second World War, “America was awash in morally formative institutions.” Brooks talks about the Founding Fathers designing the Constitution to mitigate the flaws of human nature, he brings up schools, churches, and private clubs as pillars of a functioning system of moral education. Americans, according to Brooks, grew up and learned to live as part of a moral society because they existed in this system that trained “the heart and body” rather than just the intellect, made sure people understood there was an “objective moral order” that is beyond individual perspective, and emphasized personal virtue above all else.
All that changed around the middle of the twentieth century, however. After the Second World War, David Brooks explains, a new – and dangerously corrosive! – gospel spread like wildfire: The idea that society needed to prioritize individual liberation from coercive structures. In turn, “moral formation” was largely abandoned: “In sphere after sphere, people decided that moral reasoning was not really relevant.” The result was a culture devoid of moral education, and Americans had to grow up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world. With pity rather than scorn, Brooks describes what he sees as a largely amoral younger generation, devoid of a discernible moral compass.
The abandonment of “moral formation” has a direct political impact. All these amoral narcissists are fundamentally insecure people, and Brooks warns us that they will seek to fill the gaping hole that defines them: “Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism.” We are now past the state of “hyper-individualism” into something far worse, far more treacherous. The only way for amoral people to feel righteous, Brooks explains, is to engage in “tribal” group conflict and claim to be victimized at the hands of their enemies. The result is no longer what Brooks understands as “normal politics,” but a dangerous “politics of recognition.” As people are trying “to escape sadness, loneliness, and anomie through politics,” they have created “a world marked by fear and rage, by a sadistic striving for domination.” What is really threatening the Republic, according to David Brooks, is “the pulverizing destructiveness of moral war.”
A terrifying diagnosis – just not a convincing one
The diagnosis that is outlined in “How America Got Mean” is very David Brooks, and very conservative. It has all the hallmarks of the Brooksian style of punditry: Big arguments are often based on impossible-to-verify anecdotes – if that is even the right term for some of the assertions in this piece. If you have ever read a David Brooks column or book, you know he likes to present conversations with anonymous people, just regular folk, as evidence. In here, he recounts what a restaurant owner told him, or a head nurse at a hospital. Did these conversations actually happen in exactly this way? Maybe. Even if they did, should we base a story of secular decline of an entire nation on them? There is more, of course. Brooks weaves together an eclectic mix of de-contextualized references. That’s the kind of evidence you find here – it is a diagnosis defined by a chasm between the enormity of the claim and the rather uninspiring empirical basis.
The resulting narrative is a variation of the standard conservative lament about the present, with many of the central building blocks of the conservative worldview: A society defined by a lack of morality; too much focus on individualism, self-actualization, and selfishness; hollowed-out materialism and consumerism. Oh, the young generation, what is to be done with them? And now, on top of all that, the common good under siege from “tribalism” and “identity politics.” In contrast, the past is presented as virtuous and invoked with reverence. Brooks tells a tale of decline and loss.
There are at least three major problems with the diagnosis Brooks presents here. First, he operates entirely on the level of individual behavior – be kind, be nice, be considerate. That’s all well and good. But Brooks seems completely unwilling to grapple with the systemic injustices and inequalities against which all the individual niceties in the world must fail as an antidote.
Secondly, Brooks completely obscures the specifics and the stakes of the political conflict that is shaping the country and has shaped much of U.S. history. It’s worth going into some detail on this point. How misleading this approach of dissolving everything into an ultimately apolitical morality tale is becomes clear if we look a little more closely at some of the evidence Brooks presents. “At the far extreme of meanness,” we are being told early on, “hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. ... Same with gun sales.” Gun sales did indeed spike during the pandemic – a basically unprecedented historical event that Brooks simply ignores. He is not interested in grappling with how the pandemic might have distorted some of the numbers and trends he is citing, everything has to fit into his grand tale that spans centuries. Are all Americans hoarding firearms? Not quite. Republicans are a lot more likely than Democrats to buy or own a gun, let alone many guns. And only one of the two major parties has made the gun cult a key element of its political identity. Doesn’t matter to Brooks – to him, everything must fit under the “America got meaner” label.
What about the rise in hate crimes in 2020? According to the Department of Justice and the FBI, it was almost entirely due to an increase in racist and antisemitic incidents, in attacks on Muslims and other people of non-Christian faiths, in crimes against people who present as gender non-conforming and against trans people. Once again, there seems to be a specific political valence here, one that Brooks is adamant to ignore. It’s all just a lack of “moral formation,” across the board.
Look closely at the phenomena Brooks presents as evidence for his morality tale and they point to a concrete political conflict. For that, however, Brooks has nothing but contempt. Brooks is as disgusted as he is frustrated by what he perceives as silly “tribalism,” all this virtue signaling to fill the moral void: “The person practicing the politics of recognition is not trying to get resources for himself or his constituency; he is trying to admire himself. He’s trying to use politics to fill the hole in his soul.” Brooks is either entirely oblivious or utterly dismissive of the actual stakes in the current political struggle; that people might engage in politics because their basic rights and civil liberties are under assault seems beyond him. Are trans people just reveling in tribalism because they feel morally and spiritually empty? Are women mobilizing because they are looking to fill the moral void – or could it have something to do with the fact that millions have been degraded to the status of second-class citizens who no longer have a right to bodily autonomy? Are Black Lives Matter activists merely flocking to “identity politics” because they are so “internally fragile” – or are they organizing because they are trying to somehow get the country to address racist police violence?
You will have to spend around three-quarters of an hour reading the whole piece – it is over 11,000 words long. And yet, you will learn absolutely nothing about the conflict over democracy, the fundamentally incompatible ideas of what this country should be – the anti-pluralistic vision of a white Christian patriarchal society or the egalitarian ideal of a multiracial, pluralistic democracy – and how that translates into opposing political projects. America is in a moral crisis, and that’s why we have Trump: “When private virtue fails, the constitutional order crumbles. After decades without much in the way of moral formation, America became a place where more than 74 million people looked at Donald Trump’s morality and saw presidential timber.” That, according to David Brooks, is it. The central fault line in U.S. history, the animating struggle that has defined the American project since the beginning? Of secondary importance at best. Ignore it all.
And that brings us to the third major problem with David Brooks’ interpretation: It is based on an utterly ahistorical understanding of the past and a rather bizarrely distorted perspective on U.S. history. Brooks is simply not a trustworthy narrator of how we got to where we are today. Look at the relatively straightforward claim he makes early on, presenting it as one of the major pieces of evidence for his overall thesis: “Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently.” But the actual timeline is a lot more complicated than that, and not just because, again, Brooks simply ignores the unique circumstances of the pandemic during which this surging occurred. Murder rates probably peaked sometime around the Civil War era, but the picture is somewhat hazy before the early twentieth century. In any case, they declined in the 1930s and 40s, reaching a low point in the 50s before rising again from the late 1960s onwards. In the early 90s, the murder rate in the United States was back to where it had been sixty years earlier. But then it fell sharply, stabilizing at a low level in the twenty-first century until the spike during the pandemic years. And now, it is falling again. These trends simply don’t align with Brooks’ grand tale of a country with intact “moral formation” until the 1950s and a deepening moral crisis ever since.
But it gets worse. As a warning of what life in an amoral society comprised of lonely individuals is like, Brooks brings up America’s frontier experience. “Lonely eras are not just sad eras; they are violent ones. In 19th-century America, when a lot of lonely young men were crossing the western frontier, one of the things they tended to do was shoot one another.” It’s quite remarkable, really, to boil down the imperial conquest of the continent that was accompanied by – and, to a significant degree, only achieved through – mass displacement of and genocidal violence against native Americans to “those poor lonely young men shot each other dead.”
We have, finally, arrived at the most obvious and most important critique of David Brooks’ grand tale of America’s moral history: How does he reconcile his argument with the fact that the era of supposedly intact moral education until the 1950s, when “America was awash in morally formative institutions,” coincided with the worst forms of slavery and genocidal violence, with white supremacist apartheid in significant parts of the country, with a racist, patriarchal regime that accepted something approaching “democracy” only for white Christian men? What does Brooks make of the fact that significant progress towards multiracial, pluralistic democracy was made after “moral formation” was, according to the author, largely abandoned? The answer is: He doesn’t. Let me quote the entirety of what Brooks has to say about this rather big inconsistency at the heart of his story:
“A couple of obvious things need to be said about this ethos of moral formation that dominated American life for so long. It prevailed alongside all sorts of hierarchies that we now rightly find abhorrent: whites superior to Blacks, men to women, Christians to Jews, straight people to gay people. And the emphasis on morality didn’t produce perfect people. Moral formation doesn’t succeed in making people angels—it tries to make them better than they otherwise might be. Furthermore, we would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long, rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism.”
This paragraph doesn’t actually address the issue, however. Brooks briefly concedes there might be a problem, but then proceeds as if there isn’t one. He simply starts the next sentence with a hearty “Yet…” and continues from there, apparently unconcerned with the actual implications of what he just wrote. The message seems to be (my words, not his): “Well, ok, this society was horrible when all this morality formation was ubiquitous (which might indicate that, at the very least, it didn’t actually help?), and it has gotten so much better since that was abandoned (which could, at minimum, suggest that it wasn’t a necessary ingredient to achieve improvement?) – and yet, all of today’s problems can be traced to the tragic abandonment of morality formation and we need it back asap.” Again, Brooks wrote over 11,000 words in total, but these few lines are all he could muster. That he didn’t think this merited more than what can only be described as lazy handwaving is disqualifying.
The bipartisan appeal of nostalgia politics
The reason why any of this matters is not just that David Brooks has the ear of some very powerful people, or that this piece was prominently platformed in one of the nation’s leading political journals, thus guaranteeing a significant audience. It’s because even though “How America Got Mean” presents insufficient evidence to support an inconsistent and ahistorical diagnosis, it has garnered widespread praise from elites. I believe Brooks’ view of America appeals to people across a relatively wide ideological spectrum not in spite of these flaws. They are precisely what makes the argument so attractive.
To the center-Right, and “moderate” (former) Republicans, Brooks offers a tale that is in accordance with conservative principles and sensibilities. More importantly, probably, he provides an apologist narrative for anyone who doesn’t want to engage in critical introspection over the question of how the party they used to support – in David Brooks’ case: for decades – ended up uniting behind Donald Trump. No need to inquire about their own role in conservative politics, in fostering a cultural and ideological environment in which Trumpism could flourish. What could they have possibly done to avert a crisis that was brought about by secular amorality? Not their fault, certainly.
Brooks’ diagnosis also has appeal well beyond the conservative political spectrum. Democratic Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, for instance, recommended the “very important piece from David Brooks” to his audience on Twitter. Did he not actually read it? Did the fundamentally conservative outlook on the past and present not bother him? What, I believe, liberals like Murphy – and liberal elites, in particular – almost reflexively respond to with approval is the unity gospel aspect of “How America Got Mean” and the nostalgic view of the past in which America was supposedly characterized not by polarization, but by a common enterprise to be good. There is a significant part of the Democratic party that longs for a revival of bipartisanship and traditional political norms, that wishes not so much to win the fight, but for the fighting to end and “normalcy” to return. This is exactly what Brooks offers: Forget all the flaws and inconsistencies – who could resist the message of returning the country to a better state of understanding?
This is what makes this piece interesting: the way it articulates, justifies, and ennobles a sense of nostalgia that is prevalent among moderate conservatives, at the center, as well as deep into the liberal camp. Much of the mainstream political discourse is shaped by nostalgia – and the Right understands that they can latch onto that, weaponize it, in order to make their political project of rolling back the social and political progress of the past century more attractive to people who probably don’t consider themselves conservatives, certainly not reactionaries.
Weaponized nostalgia is an extremely potent tool in the hands of reactionaries, an important vehicle to transport rightwing ideas into the mainstream and make the reactionary project more palatable. It is so pervasively seductive because it builds on and amplifies widespread anxieties regarding the fundamental political, social, and cultural changes America has been undergoing over the past few decades.
Brooks is not a Trumpist, and reading “How America Got Mean” doesn’t make you one either. But fundamentally nostalgic arguments like this one help provide fertile ground for the politics of reaction. Once you have convinced yourself that the country is coming apart, you might decide it’s ultimately preferable to lend your support to those who promise to turn the clock back rather than to the “radical Left” – even if it means you’ll have to hold your nose while doing so.
To be continued…
I want to dive deeper into what I call “weaponized nostalgia”: into how a sense of nostalgia shapes the mainstream political discourse – manifesting in all the talk about “polarization,” for instance, and in the never-ending “free speech crisis” laments –, how the Right is trying to weaponize it, and what a non-nostalgic counter-perspective on U.S. history should focus on. But since we are already well beyond 3,000 words for this post, I’ll split this up into two parts, with the second one coming in the next few days.
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.