“I have become radicalized … I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The whole cultural paradigm has to shift from the mindset of hyper-individualism to the relational mindset.”
These words, coming from one of America’s great conservative commentators, are revolutionary in their own way – not so much a mea culpa as a coming of age.
David Brooks, regular writer for the New York Times, author of numerous books, and contributor to an array of political talk shows, has, in the process, become a paragon of conservatism. Not without controversy or critics, Brooks has nevertheless arrived at the top tier of political observation.
But some things have happened to him along the way, events that confronted Brooks with his own humanity and the isolated place his political ideology had left him. Following all the years of crafted observation, he realized he wasn’t living the public and private life he desired to live. His political persuasions had left him “aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative.” Then came the insight that caused many to understand his seriousness:
“I had spent my entire adult life in the conservative movement, but my conservatism was no longer the prevailing conservatism, so I found myself intellectually and politically unattached. The rot we see in our politics is caused by a rot in our moral and cultural foundations—in the way we relate to one another, in the way we see ourselves as separable from one another.”
In other words, the respectful conservatism he had believed in had abandoned him, leaving him little with which to lift himself out of his own disillusionment. There are millions experiencing this shared despondency north and south of the 49th parallel, as they come to question their less tolerant direction.
It’s convenient to take this as some kind of shibboleth about modern conservatives, but it all too accurately describes the vacuousness of our modern politics – left, right and centre. The disillusionment of the politically inclined roughly reflects what the average citizen with little party loyalty has felt for years. The pervasive affiliation between capitalism and democracy, between privilege and power, partisanship and pandering, has, Brooks believes, removed political power from responsibility and, ultimately, effectiveness: “We have become too cognitive when we should be more emotional; too utilitarian when we should be using a moral lens; too individualistic when we should be more communal.”
In so easily abandoning our institutions, we forgot that through them we learned and practiced our responsibilities towards one another. They were how we discovered one another and drew strength in a world that could easily be alienating. For all their flaws, they reminded us of our accountability to things beyond merely our own persuasions. South of the border, in the world where Brooks is attempting to navigate his doubts, we are witnessing what happens when raw power defies law, the public good, the institutions of democracy, global responsibility, and ultimately the welfare of the people themselves. It’s an abandonment that manifested itself in both parties through recent decades of power but has now reached its ultimate betrayal of collective responsibility to each other. It’s what comes about with the privatization of public accountability.
When Brooks observes, “The foundational layer of society — the network of relationships and commitments and trust that the state and the market and everything else relies upon — is failing, and the results are as bloody as any war,” few can deny it. In Canada as well, we are all too easily losing our way, losing our shared wealth and wisdom, losing each other, and we have to find some way of getting our shared hegemony back.
Those who frequently disagree with David Brooks nevertheless understand that what he has done in not succumb but attempted to transcend the limited world our politics has created for us – and which we, as citizens, have enabled through our myopia. The courage of Brooks to state his doubts in a dangerous world nevertheless reminds us that by recommitting ourselves to each other, we can not only save our politics but rescue the common good as well.