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Mar 30, 2004 6:48 pm

Gaming Our Polarization ...

In December 2001, David Brooks published "One Nation, Slightly Divisible" in The Atlantic. It drew a series of contrasts between the consumption habits of Red America and Blue America. A resident of coastal Blue, Brooks sought to interpret mid-American Red for fellow sophisticates by comparing his own Montgomery County, Maryland, with Franklin County, Pennsylvania, just 65 miles away. Wealthy, urban Montgomery County had voted for Al Gore by 2 to 1. Much less wealthy, rural Franklin County had voted for George Bush by 2 to 1. The contrasts were stark and Brooks thought he found in them the fault line in contemporary American society. As the electoral returns suggest, however, says Brooks, the line doesn't fall along differences of social class. Rather, it ranges two different systems of value against each other. He quotes Michael Barone to the effect that:"One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic." The difference, Brooks argued, is one of sensibility. The two are divided by an"Ego Curtain." In Red America, the self is subsumed in common values. In Blue America, the self magnifies itself. But America is not hopelessly divided against itself, says Brooks, because both Americas believe the differences are matters of choice. Writing in the shadow of 9/11, he saw one nation galvanized by what we shared in common.

David Brooks' conclusion seemed a lot more believable in December 2001 than it does in April 2004. His book, Bo-bos in Paradise (2000) was initially compared with William H. White's The Organization Man and David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd for its powerful sociological insight. But in a piece widely noted on the net, Sasha Issenberg finds Brooks guilty of making"Boo-Boos in Paradise". His generalizations about the"one nation, slightly divisible" were not discrete observations from which he drew thoughtful conclusions, but caricatures of both Blue and Red America. One after another of Brooks' discrete observations turn out to be the creation of a fertile mind, says Issenberg. In Brooks' hands, more obscure academic research becomes cliche and distorts as it popularizes. Indeed, the line from William H. White and David Reisman to David Brooks, Issenberg suggests, traces the decline of our sense of what a public intellectual ought to be.

Issenberg's essay for Philadelphia Magazine caught Romenesko's eye and, even, Washington's Wonkette Winked. Surprisingly, it was the liberal Kevin Drum (CalPundit transblogrified as Political Animal) who came to David Brooks' defense. Tim Burke at Easily Distracted, agrees with Issenberg's skewering of Brooks. Issenberg is, by the way, one of Tim's former students. But, as I read the discussion, it raises anew an issue about caricature and stereotype. If they work, neither of those things are utterly false. Like good caricature, stereotype takes an element of truth about a thing and makes it stand in place of the whole. Had they no truth in them, they would have no sting. The issue, then, is not so much whether some of David Brooks' discrete facts about Red America are false – they are -- but whether, as Issenberg suggests, Brooks made himself the Kerry Kountry Klub's guide through Bush country and made a minor element of truth stand for the whole.

Kirk at American Amnesia calls Cliopatria's attention to Joel Kotkin's op-ed,"Red, Blue, and ... So 17th Century", in the Washington Post. Kotkin likens our polarization to that of the English in the latter half of the 17th century, when Puritan Roundheads confronted Royal Cavaliers from the Puritan Revolution through the Glorious Revolution. Most historians would cringe at the analogy, I think, because Democrats and Republicans have yet to take up arms against each other. No executive's head has rolled nor has a Congress been dismissed. Almost as odd is Kotkin's analogizing the Roundheads with Republicans and Democrats with the Cavaliers. It would make as much sense to reverse the analogies. Republican policies are more likely to benefit established elites; Democratic candidates this year will be crying out for political change. Some time ago at Cliopatria, Tim Burke suggested some useful guidelines for historical analogies, including commonality, causality, multiplicity, and contingency. I can't see that Kotkin meets any of them, except perhaps contingency, if he is willing to give up the analogy altogether.

Update: Derek Catsam calls attention to a critique by Chad at Uncertain Principles which takes on Brooks, Issenberg, and Drum.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 3/30/2004

Ralph --
My friend Chad at Uncertain Principles tackles parts of this debate as well with a scientist's eye and a former Montgomery Country resident turned Upstate New Yorker's acumen. Here is the link:


David Lion Salmanson - 3/30/2004

I also had the good fortune to teach Sasha (a he by the way for all those bloggers who are confused on the matter). I echo Tim's sentiments. I too saw Sasha's considerable strengths: incisive thinking, clear, cutting writing, phenomenal ability to process masses of apparently divergent information. I do think Sasha has a weakness in that he is a little too flip, you can see it in the Brooks piece and I think that is part of why that piece is getting the reaction it did. Of course, if it were more subtle, nobody would have noticed.

I am really concerned that people are missing the point of Sasha's piece: that Brooks didn't really do any research, may not have visited the places he said he did, and yet gained enormous influence. Compare that to Whyte, for example, who did extensive research, not just on suburbia, but on cities as well. Whyte's findings about how people actually used cityscapes as opposed to how they say they used them or what they thought they wanted, completely changed urban theory. (Take that Jane Jacobs!) And Whyte - Swarthmore grad - we are a little cabal don't you know.

Michael C Tinkler - 3/30/2004

I think I'll print that part out and reuse it.

The best I could figure out for Republicans:Roundheads::Democrats:Cavaliers is alphabetical -- R:R::D is pretty damn close to C.

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