April 12, 2019

David Brooks: “The Animating Idea That Can Drive Moderation Is Love”



Opening remarks by David Brooks from our February 25 conference held in Washington, D.C. entitled, Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism.

Brooks argues that every cause needs a guiding principle. And in this fragmented, angry, divided country, it seems that the act of reaching out and seeking solidarity, and friendship, and relationship is the ultimate moderate cause.

Video

Introductory Remarks from Jerry Taylor

Good morning. My name is Jerry Taylor, and I’m the president and cofounder of the Niskanen Center. I’d like to welcome you to our conference, “Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism.” I’d like to say a special thanks for the support that we’ve received to promote this conference and to put it forward for you this morning with the gracious help of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation –– and Daniel Stid, who is our grant officer there and who is in the front of the room. So thank you to Hewlett, without which this conference would not have been able to exist. 

I’m sure it strikes many of you as a bit discordant that during a time of rampaging hyper-partisanship and increasing ideological extremism we would have a conference about reviving moderation. It doesn’t seem a precipitous time for it. There is a widespread perception that conversations like these may have been appropriate for certain times in American history but they’re not appropriate for this particular time. I find that not particularly persuasive. If we look at history, we find that on a number of occasions when America’s center was breaking apart, and when hyper-partisanship and division was greatest, that’s when moderation historically stepped into the breach and righted the ship. 

In 1860, we saw that with Abraham Lincoln. Not many people today think of him as a moderate, but for those who follow history and the career of Abraham Lincoln, you know that he was a moderate in his day. The abolitionists looked at him with great skepticism, as did the slave power. He tried his level best to navigate those treacherous waters and to keep the union together and the country from falling apart. He ran as, and attempted to govern as, a moderate. Of course, the country did fall apart. But all good moderates, at times when compromise seems to have played out and opportunities for unity have run dry, rally to the defense of the important causes — as Abraham Lincoln did. That was an example of moderation arising in a time when we might least expect it. 

About a hundred years later, we saw it again with the arrival of Dwight Eisenhower on the political scene. People forget today how rancid American politics was at that time, how extremism and hyper–partisanship had been rolling through the political landscape. At the time of the election of Dwight Eisenhower, Senator Joseph McCarthy was at his peak of political power. If one wants an antecedent to Donald Trump, one would work hard to try to find somebody more appropriate than Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy took advantage of a failed and unpopular war in Korea to turn Americans against each other and accuse his political opponents of treason. Dwight Eisenhower then walked into the breach and took control of a Republican Party that was every bit as toxic and dangerous as many of us fear the Republican Party is today, and re-righted the ship. There is a long history of moderation arising in the least expected times and places and coming to the rescue in American politics, and it’s that prospect that compelled us to have this conversation today. 

But of course, moderation has a very poor reputation in American politics. Jim Hightower once famously said that the only thing found in the middle of the road is yellow stripes and dead armadillos. When you’re in Washington and you talk about moderation, generally people interpret you as talking about milquetoast deal-cutters who stand for very little except getting re-elected and offending the least number of people possible. That’s how the political cognoscenti think of moderation. 

If you look at the two parties today, you find that moderates have not fared very well. While moderates were once a vibrant part of the Republican Party, they’ve all but been drummed out of the GOP. In the Democratic Party, moderates are on their heels, with all of the energy being held by the progressive left. Yet for all of that, the two most popular governors in America today, by far, are two moderates: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. By far and away they are more popular than left or right governors, as we might conventionally think of them, in America today.

A plurality of voters in the United States self-identify as moderates. Some of the most successful politicians in our adult lives arrived at their political success through an embrace of moderation — and here I’m thinking of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (who will be speaking later on today), and even Barack Obama, who governed quite moderately — at least relative to where the Democratic Party is today. Moderation has a poor reputation in American politics –– I think unfortunately. But that perception is mistaken. Moderation is stronger than we might think. 

Moderation also has a poor reputation intellectually, among the public intellectual class. Of course, moral clarity powerfully argued is the coin of the realm — something that moderates are a bit leery of engaging in. And yet for all of that, some of the most impressive and important public intellectuals of the 20th century embraced the cause of moderation as we might understand it today: people like Raymond Aron, Isiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Michael Oakeshott, and Karl Popper. None of these were intellectual lightweights, and all of them more or less found themselves in the same world that the Niskanen Center finds itself in now. 

Be that as it may, moderation tends to be out of fashion today. Yet we all sense a growing dread in America today that what we lack is exactly this. Even ideologues who are married to the left or the right, or those more “principled” politicians, have a sense of dread that the center is falling apart. We are increasingly at each other’s throats and the lubricant of toleration, pluralism, and moderation which allows the engine of government and public policy to go forward is increasingly in danger. And without that sort of sense of moderation, we have much more dangerous times in front of us. 

It’s altogether fitting, then, that our welcoming address should come from David Brooks. David is an author and columnist who has become one of the most influential public intellectuals of our time. While in college he was offered a job by William F. Buckley — no moderate! — which led him to begin working for National Review. He subsequently became a prominent commentator at many other publications and media outlets including theWall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, NPR, and PBS NewsHour. Since 2003, he has been a columnist for the New York Times, where he has drawn the wrath of liberals and conservatives alike. His columns have increasingly moved away from politics, social science, and neuroscience towards broad themes of faith and morality. In 2017, he said that “One of my callings is to represent a certain moderate Republican Whig political philosophy, and the other is to try to shift the conversation more in a moral and theological direction.” Both of these conversations, I think, are critically important, and so it is my delight to have David Brooks kick off our conference today. [applause]

David Brooks’ Welcoming Address

Thank you, Jerry. It’s a pleasure to be here, and it’s a pleasure to be with Niskanen. In a very short period of time, Niskanen has become one of our most creative intellectual centers. It’s like when you throw off the shackles of ideology, suddenly there’s a birth of creativity and ideas and vitality, and Niskanen has been that. 

Now, I confess I consider myself a moderate today. I haven’t always been a moderate. I grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. I was a child of the left. When I was in second grade, I wrote on the chalkboard that Julie Nixon was a Nazi. I’m not sure why I thought she was a Nazi, but I was fighting the Man, the establishment. And I got paddled for it, so I’ve paid my price for being a radical. [laughter] Earlier, when I was four years old, my parents took me to a “be-in” in Central Park where hippies would go just to be. One of the things the hippies did was that they set a garbage can on fire and threw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. I was four, and I saw a five-dollar bill on fire in the garbage can. So I broke from the crowd, reached into the fire, grabbed the money, and ran away. That was my first step over to the right. [laughter] I like to think that even then I was ideologically flexible. 

Then when I was seventeen, the admissions officers at Columbia, Wesleyan, and Brown decided I should go to the University of Chicago. [laughter] The best thing said about Chicago is that it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas. Even though it has a reputation for being a conservative school, I was super left in those days. I wrote a parody of William F. Buckley for being a name-dropping blowhard. The parody was that in college Buckley formed two magazines, one called the National Buckley and one called the Buckley Review, which he merged to call the Buckley-Buckley — it was in that spirit. He came to campus and gave a speech, and at the end of the speech he said, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience I want to give you a job.” That was the big break of my career, actually. 

Sadly, I wasn’t in the audience. That week, I was out in California debating Milton Friedman. Milton Friedman did a show called “Tyranny of the Status Quo” on PBS, where it was “Milton talks to the young.” I was a democratic socialist, and I would regurgitate some point I’d read somewhere, and he would destroy it in about six words. Then the show was mostly the camera lingering on my face while I tried to think of something to say. You can actually go on YouTube today and find a 22-year old David Brooks being utterly flummoxed and embarrassed by Milton Friedman. 

I never became a Milton Friedman conservative, but I gradually moved over to the right. Chicago forced me to read Edmund Burke. I became an admirer of Alexander Hamilton, who’s a Latino hip-hop star from the Heights. [laughter] And I became a Whig. It took me a little while. We often try on different pieces of clothing before we find out where we are. But I’m basically a Whig — or a RINO, as we say. 

I’m one of those people (one of many, probably, in this room) who could never vote for Trump — on racial grounds alone, frankly, and on moral grounds. I assumed that in 2020, I would vote for the Democrats. I realized it would take a lot of work for the Democrats to turn away my vote. They’re doing that work very exceptionally well. I probably could never vote for any candidate who supported the Green New Deal. I lived through the 20th century. I know what central planning does, and I don’t think we really need to learn those lessons again. Richard Weaver had a saying: “The problem with the next generation is they haven’t read the minutes to the last meeting.” If we’re going to have to learn the lessons of central planning again, I really don’t want to relearn them. 

I’m politically homeless. When Niskanen came out with a lot of the reports they’ve come out with, by people like Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, suddenly when I read them I thought, “Yeah. That’s a home. They’re a lot of people who come from different directions but have come to the same place.” A lot of the people in this room are in that same place. 

The crucial thing is moderates can’t just be against, can’t just be against left and right. I have sort have been impressed by the movement No Labels, but I’ve always thought that you can’t start a movement whose first word is “no.” You have to be for something, and so you want a vision. The question is, what is the passionate ideal that moderates are for? Frankly, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, and others –– not good enough. We’re not going to start a movement whose primary motivating engine for the masses is Oakeshott. There has to be an animating idea. Successful political and cultural moments have a radioactive thought. 

In 1999, Andrew Delbanco wrote a book called The Real American Dream, and he divided American history according to the big radioactive thoughts that governed the different stages. In the first era, the radioactive thought was God. The Puritans came here, saw the plentiful nature of this continent, and decided God’s plan for humanity could be completed on Earth — and that we could get really rich in the process. And so they were striving to realize God’s plan for humanity. 

Virginia and Massachusetts were conceived in a bed of religion. Jonathan Edwards said that this was a place for the new and most glorious state of the church. Cotton Mather gave a famous sermon called “God’s City: America.” Jonathan Winthrop talked about the shining city on the hill. He didn’t mean that in a good way, by the way. Reagan twisted it around as something good. When Winthrop first uttered the statement, he said that we are the shining city on the hill, God’s plans for humanity rest on us, and we’re screwing it up. It was a jeremiad — and America was built, as the historian Sacvan Bercovitch said, on the nature of our jeremiads on how we’re failing God. That was the animating principle early on and it lasted through the revolution. John Adams said, “I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder — as the Opening of a grand scene and Design in Providence, for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth.” We were the universal nation that was going to liberate the earth, and that created a lot of anxiety.

The second animating idea which followed, probably around 1830, was Nation. The period of western settlement was a period of adolescent pride, America becoming aware of itself, and the height of American exceptionalism. Webster wrote his dictionary knowing that even though there were only 33 million Americans when he wrote it, there would be 40 million soon. They completely anticipated that America would be the superpower of the earth. Tocqueville found an irritable patriotism because Americans were so given to the idea of nation. The pioneer experience was an experience of radical hopefulness, of future orientation. They passed by perfectly good farmland in Kentucky because they were convinced something better was on the other side, and they just kept going west. 

There’s a great book called Giants in the Earthwhich I think is set in the Dakotas, and there’s a farmer leading around a visitor to his farm and he says, “Well, this is where my crops are. This is where my barn is. This is where my house is.” The visitor says, “I don’t see any of that.” The farmer says, “Well, I haven’t built it yet. It’s in the future.” That, in the essence, was the spirit of that sense of national destiny. Melville described it in White-Jacket, his novel: “We Americans are the particular chosen people, the Israel of our time. We bear the mark of liberties of the world. God has predestined mankind, expects great things from our race, and great things we feel in our souls.”

This sort of fervent nationalism fueled America through the nineteenth century up to T.R., and maybe through World War II, and that sense of American exceptionalism –– the unique destiny of America. That phase, animated by Nation, ended, Delbanco says, around the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. And a new ideal animated America, and that was the ideal of self. It was the problem with the Nation period was that it was a guesthouse nation. If you were a white Protestant it was your house; if you were not, you were just a guest. You could be accepted in American society if you played by the Protestant rules, but if you didn’t you were excised. That was going to be unacceptable to people. In the 1950s people felt conformity crushing them. Service to community, service to nation, felt like crushing conformity. And so there were all these books like The Organization Man,The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. People wanted to break out.

In 1962, you really see the shift. A bunch of radicals got together in Port Huron, Michigan, and put together the Port Huron Statement, which was a statement of individualism: “We want to be free to be ourselves.” Betty Friedan wrote her book. The hippies came out, the self-esteem movement… It was about the liberation of self, the emancipation of self. And that too is a radioactive, powerful ideal. 

It was symbolized by one of the great events in my childhood, which was Super Bowl III. In Super Bowl III, two quarterbacks faced off against each other. One was an organization man for the Baltimore Colts, a guy named Johnny Unitas: crew cut, very boring, high-top sneakers, classic 1950s guy. The guy on the other side of the field grew up just miles away from Johnny Unitas in western Pennsylvania but ten years apart. That was Joe Namath. Namath had long hair, $5,000 fur coats. He was a swinger. He was anti-institutional. He wrote a memoir called I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow…’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day. Johnny Unitas would not have written that memoir. 

That symbolized the shift in culture away from organization and to self. Suddenly it was cool to be young, not old; expressive, not reticent; casual, not formal; a rebel, not a conformist; individual, not institutional. It was all about liberation: liberated by education from the bonds of religion, liberated by democracy from the bonds of class, liberated by culture from restrictions on sex and free expression, liberated by technology from poverty, liberated by the ballot box from government.

The era of Self had a left-wing version which was about social and lifestyle liberation, and it had a right-wing version which was about economic liberation — the Reagan agenda. It produced a lot of good things. We have a much more creative economy, creative culture, because we’ve been individually liberated. But everything turns bad when you take it to the extreme, and we’ve pretty much run out the string on sixty years of hyper-individualism. We’ve divided the nation one from another, and we’ve divided the links from another. 

35 percent of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. More than 50 percent of Americans say that no one knows them well. Only 8 percent of Americans report having important conversations with their neighbors. The fastest growing political party is “unaffiliated.” The fastest growing religious movement is “unaffiliated. Since 1990, the suicide rate is up 30 percent. Among teenagers between 7 and 17 the suicide rate is up 70 percent, and suicide is a proxy for loneliness. Life expectancy in America is declining, not rising. We have the “deaths of despair.” 

We have an era of tremendous distrust. If you asked people a generation ago, “Do you trust the institutions of your society,” 75 percent to 80 percent said yes. Now it’s down to 22 percent. If you asked people a generation ago, “Do you trust your neighbors? Are the people around you basically trustworthy?” about 60 percent said, “Yeah, they’re basically trustworthy.” Now it’s 32 percent who say they can trust their neighbors — and 18 percent of millennials. The younger you get, the more distrust there is. 

We’ve had a period of weakening institutions, weakening bonds, drifting apart. Institutions are not something that shape us. They’re something, as Yuvan Levin says, that we perform upon. We have taken Self to the extreme.

In my view, we’ve run out of Self. We’ve run out the string on the radioactivity of that idea, and people are looking for something new. What you get… There’s a social theorist whose name I’m forgetting [Ruth DeFries], but she says that culture moves forward in what she calls the ratchet-hatchet-pivot-ratchet phase. There’s a problem, society creates a collective response to it, and a new radioactive idea takes hold, and it ratchets up. It lasts for a while, and then it stops working, and people have to hatchet it up; they have to chop up the culture. Then they pivot over, because people are ingenious; they find another response, and then you get another ratchet. It’s basically a version of paradigm shift from Kuhn: paradigms work for a while, they stop working, and then you get a period of paradigm competition as people try to replace the old paradigm. 

To me, Donald Trump just destroyed the old paradigm. He destroyed the Reagan Republican Party. He destroyed the paradigm that was, frankly, outdated. I liken him to Abbie Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman was not a great political genius, but he was good at political theory and exposing the weaknesses of the old system. And Donald Trump is our Abbie Hoffman. 

So now we have other people presenting radioactive ideas to us. The first is Donald Trump. He wants to replace the idea of Self with the idea of Tribe, that we need more ethnic cohesion, we need to return to an era of fervent patriotism and cohesion around our white ethnic identity. We need to go back to a white America that, frankly, is never coming back. 

Now, Tribe seems like patriotism, it seems like a return to Nation — but it’s not. That old nationalism was based on the idea that “We’re a universal nation, we’re the home of all mankind, we’re the last best hope of Earth.” Trump’s tribalism is not based on that idea. It’s a European-style nationalism. It’s a tribal mentality based not on an abundance mentality but on a scarcity mentality. It’s not based on mutual affection, it’s based on mutual hatred for the other. It’s always friend/enemy distinctions, us/them, zero-sum mindset. The outsiders threaten us. Life is conflict, politics is war. Ideas are combat. Mistrust is the worldview. Erect walls, build barriers. And Tribe is a very radioactive idea. It always has been, and it always will be, and it’s motivating a lot of people. That’s a very powerful ideal to go up against.

The left has another ideal, and their ideal is Social Justice. The left sees division in society. They tell a story of oppression. The structure of life is oppressor/oppressed. The story of American history, the economy, is about oppressor/oppressed — there’s class oppression. The story of relations between the races is oppressor/oppressed — there’s racial oppression. The relationship between the genders is a story of oppression — there’s sexist oppression. 

That’s a very meaningful ideal to people. Jonathan Haidt once wrote, “A funny thing happens when you take human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.” And the oppressor/oppressed, Social Justice narrative fills a lot of people with a sense of meaning and purpose. And of course, like Tribalism, it’s based on a lot of truth. The response, like with all stories of oppression, is: How do you get the weak to be strong? You take over the state. You centralize power of the state and ally it with the proletariat. That’s where the left is going.

Now, the two current ideals that are out there, Tribalism and Social Justice, are not particularly attractive to me. They’re not attractive because they’re both based on conflict and war, the idea that life is a series of conflicts, one side versus the other. They both have an authoritarian strain, which is about concentrating power in the state. They both are based on a scarcity mindset. Both of them are based on the idea that conflict is the central dynamic in human affairs. Both of them are based on the central fantasy of our time, which is that the other half of the nation can be conquered and it will disappear. It’s based on the fantasy that you can somehow, magically, get 70 percent of the United States Senate and govern forever and do everything you want. 

That will never happen. These are visions that, first, lead to conflict and, second, are politically unrealistic. We live in a closely divided country. We need other people. 

And so moderates have to come up with an animating idea, an idea that people can legitimately devote their lives to that is an alternative to Tribalism and Social Justice. What is that idea?

Well, look at the problems we face. To me the core problem America faces is the problem of division: fragmentation, crisis of connection, alienation, and distrust. We have a widening economic divide between the rich and poor. We have a widening cultural divide between the educated and less educated, a widening divide between rural and urban, black and white, native and immigrant, left and right. The big questions of our time are: How do you maintain cohesion as we become majority-minority? How can you increase social mobility in the face of technological change? How can you bind our political system so it can deal with the big challenges like global warming? How can you strengthen families and communities and social capital at a time when everything is falling apart? These are just the big challenges. 

To me the right response, and the big animating idea, is found in Leviticus and Matthew. It’s the Second Commandment: Love your neighbor. The left and the right are ideologies of anger and political war. But the right response to that is fraternity, solidarity, affection, and relationship. “Love your neighbor” is a cause that people throughout centuries have given their lives to. It’s a vision of what Josiah Royce called the beloved community, where we actually reach across and try to greet each other with understanding, and if you want to be mushy about it, love. We’re in the most emotionally avoidant city on the face of the earth [laughter], but you somehow have to talk that way. To me, human society is bound by our common love for each other as fellow Americans. 

Love and fellowship is the ultimate moderate emotion. And it suggests an agenda. There are four affections that hold our society together, and it seems to me that the job for moderates is to build those affections. 

The first affection that binds us together is our love for our kids — not just our biological kids but the kids around us. This is a great binding force in any community, across difference. So the first call for a moderate movement is to make sure kids grow up in a web of loving relationships. Government can help: nurse/family partnerships, child tax credits, early childhood education, parental leave, schools that nurture relationships through social and emotional learning. 

The second great affection is our calling for the work of our hands. Our work is what binds us to society. It gives us a social role. It gives us something to do, a way to feel connected to others in service. Moderates can use government to help people develop their ties to their vocation and to the people they work with: apprenticeship tracks, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, wage subsidies, moving subsidies, Oren Cass’ idea of work councils — which are like health clubs to give you training and representation through your job. Reshape capitalism so it’s not just about maximizing shareholder value but about serving community. 

A third affection is to our place. We love our towns. I go around the country for this… I’m involved in this thing at the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. We go around meeting community builders all around the country. I always ask this question: What layer of society are you most attached to? Is it your block, your neighborhood, your town? Your county, your state, your country? Or all of humanity? About 5 percent say “All of humanity.” 90 percent say “My town.” I personally feel most attached to the nation, but I’m in the minority. People really feel attached to their towns. They trust their towns. They would lay down their lives for their towns. We need to nourish the affection for place. The way you do that is partly through a national service program where we pay people to serve their community in any way they see fit, but partly you have to devolve power down to the local community. The community is a group of people with a common story, a community is a group of people with a common project. So if we devolve power away from Washington to local government, you get people actively building community with each other. And so a process of radical decentralization is the third of the affections, and the third item of the agenda. 

The fourth affection is our nation and our relationships to our kind. I was in the Metropolitan Museum with a friend of mine whose family came over here in the sixteenth century who is related to George Washington, and we were looking at a portrait of Washington. And he innocently asked me, “What’s it like for you? I am actually related to him. He really is the father of my country. But you have no relation to George Washington. What’s it like for you to look at him?” I was like, “That thought never occurred to me. [laughter] Of course he’s the father of my nation.” We just feel a natural affinity to being part of this nation. 

The division of that is a division of race. We used to talk, when I was growing up, of racial integration. That was the core idea, frankly, for American progressives. We don’t talk about integration anymore. Republicans don’t talk about it because it’s part of their turn toward tribalism. Democrats don’t talk about it because in the multicultural ethos, racial integration can be hegemonic. As a result, American schools are more segregated than the 1970s. Neighborhoods are more segregated than the 1970s. Workplaces are more segregated than the 1970s. Wealth is more segregated. Racism is the core sin of the country. Any movement has to put racial integration foremost as a process of social integration.

Basically, we need to tell a story. Moderation is not an ideology, it’s a way of being. It’s a way of talking to other people, and from them you see how different we all are from each other. Moderation is humility of the mind but ardor of the heart. When you talk to people, actually converse with people unlike yourself, you realize that politics is a competition between partial truths, and you’re just trying to find the right balance. There’s no one ideology, as Jerry has written, that solves all our problems. You see that creativity is syncretistic. It calls for pulling items from here and from there. You see the danger of reducing yourself to a single identity, and the fanaticism that arises out of that. 

These are all parts of the epistemological humility that comes about when you talk to people, and respect and love people across difference. You see that politics is a limited activity. There’s a great Samuel Johnson couplet: “How small, of all that human hearts endure/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” The things that really matter to us are relationships to each other, and our character. Politics is important, but it’s not that important. And so, don’t get so hyped up about it. You don’t look to base your identity on politics. That’s asking of politics more than politics can deliver. It’s idolizing politics. 

That’s all epistemological humility. But at the core of moderation is our love for one another, and our love to seek connection in each other, to go down to the deepest level of each other, to reach across our divides and actually connect on some intimate level. That’s the sort of relationship that actually produces joy.

Now, it’s hard in this country to talk about a politics of love. It seems like “the politics of meaning” — remember that? But it is, in a divided country, a fragmented country, an angry country — it seems like that’s the most proper emotional posture, to the locations we love, to the creeds we love, to the country we love, to each other. That act of reaching out and seeking solidarity, and friendship, and relationship is the ultimate moderate cause. Thank you.

Q&A

Jerry Taylor: What a brilliant talk! The idea of cultivating love and affection certainly suggests for moderates that we need to blow up our Twitter accounts [laughter], or at least I have to blow up mine. We have time for one and only one question before we move to our next panel, which will allow us to talk in more granularity about why the center seems to be fraying and failing to hold. But if we have a question for David, I will go to Emil.

Emil Frankel: Unlike you, David, I became a moderate Republican when I was twelve years old out of admiration for Dwight Eisenhower. And people in this room who know me will say I haven’t moved — the world has changed, but I haven’t. I believe fervently in what you say. And yet the moment doesn’t seem quite right, if I can put it that way, to have “love thy neighbor” as the animating idea. This seems to be a moment right now when you have to choose sides and fight, because I think there is a fundamental threat to everything that we believe in, in terms of basic American democratic values. I think this is a moment which may pass, but for now I think we have to choose sides and fight — which is not the idea of moderation that you articulate and in which I want to believe. I’d be curious about your reaction to that.

David Brooks: What we do shapes who we are. If we decide the idea is to fight them, we become fighters. To me, when you become a fighter … I was with the Wall Street Journalin the ‘90s, and I covered a lot of great events. I covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela coming out of prison in South Africa, the Oslo Peace Process… It was all about falling barriers and people coming together. I covered one event at the end which I barely paid attention to: the Yugoslav civil war. In retrospect, that was the most important event of that era because it led to the succession of ethnic identity, authoritarianism, and tribalism that we’ve seen since. That trend is not just a move. It’s a spiral as each side responds to the horror of the other, and each side degrades themselves in that process. 

David Brooks: And the only way you get out of that spiral is by somebody making a brave stand and saying, “No, that’s not who I am.” That’s frankly the lesson of Martin Luther King. It was very possible to argue, as people before and after King did, “No, we need to fight.” He said, “No, you answer hatred with love. Just keep on loving on people. They’ll hate you for a little while, but eventually they’ll break under the power of your love.” He did that partly as a strategy for social change, partly to appeal to the better angels of people’s nature, but partly out of awareness of his own sinfulness. And once you adopt an attitude of hatred and opposition, then you destroy a little piece of yourself. If you do that, you’ve undermined anything that can lead to a political solution. So me, the answer is actually the opposite of falling into the logic of hate versus hate, but breaking out of that spiral and breaking out of that logic with a different language. That is sort of what I think the country is ready for. Thank you very much. [applause]

Jerry Taylor: Under the guidance of my colleague Geoff Kabaservice, I’ve lately been reading a lot of Lincoln, who I think is really the founding father of this country, or at least this modern nation that we have. And one of the things that’s most striking is the rhetoric of love from Abraham Lincoln, even in the midst of the bloodiest civil war up to that point in global history. The carnage was tremendous, but all during it — prior to the war, and in the conduct of the war, and as it was winding down — it was a constant admonition from Lincoln that these are our brothers and that we must love, and that this horrible war needs to be resolved not with fury and vengeance but with love and reconciliation. Tremendously powerful. Of course, the contemporaneous version might be Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who wove together a nation out of the least fertile fields of affection and love, and yet was a tremendous vehicle for exactly that in a place which we would be very surprised to see. It seems interesting to me that during the worst periods of division, rancor, hatred, and suspicion, that constantly those situations have given birth to exactly the kind of moderation and politics of love that David Brooks so eloquently offered here today.