An Interview with David Brooks
David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, is one of the most recognized and highly regarded political pundits in the country. Often known as liberals’ favorite conservative, Brooks is teaching two courses at Yale this semester: “Humility” and “Studies in Grand Strategy.” He sat down with The Politic to talk about President Obama, the Republican Party, Yale, and journalism.
The Politic: Can you walk us through your process of writing a column?
I am always collecting strings on about seven or eight columns. I’ve got piles of paper for gun control, immigration – whatever the issue of the day is – and then some intellectual things or cultural things. I’m collecting that string and I have a column due every three and a half days. I always have a churning need for columns so I’m collecting strings and following the news; I know people are only going to read what’s at the top of the news primarily. Based on what happens on the day before it’s due or the day it’s due, I’ll decide “Okay, I’m gonna do this one.” I have all this paper, documentation, notes I’ve taken from interviews, and I think geographically.
I lay it out on the floor of my office in piles of paper. Every pile is a paragraph. I pick up a pile. Write that paragraph. Throw that pile of paper in the garbage. And then repeat for all the piles. By the time I start writing, the column is already 80 percent done. It’s the organizing of the piles that’s the key process. The only thing is, judges have a saying: “that opinion won’t write itself.” They think they know what they’re going to say, but when they sit down to start, it won’t flow. That happens frequently. I don’t try to fix the column if it’s not flowing. Usually, I’ll just start from scratch.
The Politic: What figures or writers have shaped your style?
There are great writers I try to keep in my head – usually writers that have really good first sentences. George Orwell is a great person to read because he’s got a beautiful, simple style and he’s got great first sentences. In the 1930s, there were these college humorists – a guy named Robert Benchley, a guy named S.J. Perelman – who wrote for The New Yorker later. I read them. They had a nice, light style. Also Calvin Trillin, who wrote for The Nation. I think he’s a Yalie actually. I get his voice in my head, because he has a light style. If you’re writing for a newspaper, you don’t want to be too heavy. Those are the sort of people whose prose style I pay attention too.
The Politic: Would you write differently—either in style or in content—for a conservative audience, such as the one that reads the National Review, than for a more liberal readership, like that of the New York Times?
Yes. When I wrote for the more conservative audiences, I focused more on humor because people are more willing to laugh with you, but they don’t want to laugh against you if you don’t already say what they believe. Humor is a lot harder. I did one humor piece this year called “The Real Mitt Romney,” which made fun of Mitt Romney. All my Democratic friends said, “Oh, that was hilarious!” and all my Republican friends were saying, “You’re really not that funny. You shouldn’t do that.” Humor has become totally partisan. That’s one thing, but the other thing is you want to show respect to those who disagree with you in any case. Then the final thing is I’m a big fan of the nonfiction that took place between 1955 and 1965 with people like Jane Jacobs, David Riesman, and Daniel Bell – they were sort of high-brow journalists and low-brow academics, and that’s about where I try to be.
The Politic: Who are some thinkers or intellectuals who have helped shape your convictions and political philosophy?
When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned Edmund Burke and I hated it. I was a big leftie and I reacted so viscerally, I think, because he was touching something I actually believe. Later, I came to take a very similar view of the world that he had, which is that our power of reason is very weak so we should be suspicious of central-planning. The core of my philosophy is epistemological modesty in that we can’t know much about the world. It’s quite complicated, but that’s the core of my belief system.
The Politic: Can you identify one moment when you changed from being a “big leftie” to a conservative?
There wasn’t one moment but I was a police reporter in Chicago and I saw the effects of the social policies of what I think of as the Great Society 1960s. In some of the poverty-ridden neighborhoods, I thought they were making things worse and so that disabused some of the more liberal ideas I had. They were destroying families, creating a lot more crime, helping drug cultures, so – unintentionally- they were making things worse.
The Politic: On the subject of your police-reporting career, what do you make of the current crime in Chicago? Can you think of a solution?
Their current crime is different to the crime I was covering. When I was a police reporter in Chicago, crime was pervasive. Crime was random. It was just people shooting each other. Now it’s just very localized; it’s warfare between gangs. I’m teaching “Grand Strategy.” Machiavelli would tell you, “Just tell the gangs to cut a deal. Don’t try and solve the problem. Just get them to cut a deal so they stop killing each other.” But that’s tough to do.
The Politic: When you first met President Obama, you said (a) he’s going to be President and (b) he’s going to be a very good President.
One out of two, not bad, right?! [Laughter]
The Politic: How has he changed from when you first met him and why is he not a “very good president?”
He could be a lot worse. There are two things I underestimated. One, he’s a lot more liberal than I thought he was, and I would say he’s a lot more liberal than he thinks he is. He’s always lived in his life in a very center-left atmosphere and he looks at the people around him and says, “Well I’m not as liberal as those guys. so therefore I’m moderate.” He has much more faith in technocratic planning than I thought, and he’s much more aloof from business than I thought. That has been disillusioning. The second thing, though this is not his fault, is that his style of governing is based on discussion and deliberation, which is just not possible in this day and age. From the first time he ran, or from when I knew him in the Senate, to now when I speak to him, he’s a much tougher bastard. The times are tougher so he reacts. He thinks, “How am I going to be effective in a very polarized country?”
The Politic: In your January 28th column, you called for a new wing of the Republican Party, one that “would be filled with people who recoiled at President Obama’s second Inaugural Address because of its excessive faith in centralized power, but who don’t share the absolute antigovernment story of the current GOP” How would you propose building this second GOP?
You have to start by asking, “What are the problems?” I don’t believe you can build a party by looking at voters. Then it’s just like marketing. You’re not going to get the substance. The way I put it in that column was the Charles Murray problem of widening inequality and the Mancur Olson problem of stagnation. I’d combine a very aggressive human capital education reform, training, early childhood education, and social mobility agenda with a pretty aggressive entitlement reform agenda. That’s the little stuff that appeals to Democrats – the human capital – and the entitlements also appeal to Republicans. You just jam ’em in together. I think that would appeal to people in California, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. I mentioned Edmund Burke before and that’s part of my conservatism, but I’m an American, and so was Alexander Hamilton who was all about social mobility. I think that’s the right agenda which the current Republican party can’t do because they don’t believe in government at all, and the Democrats can’t reform the welfare state because all their interest groups believe in it. That’s the vacuum.
The Politic: Practically speaking though, how would you build a new faction of the Republican Party?
How would I build it? That’s not my job, I just egg on the ideas. It takes activists. It takes activists to recruit the state legislators. That’s how you build a movement and get the donors.
The Politic: You mentioned Northeastern Republicans in that article. Is that an implicit endorsement of how Chris Christie governs, as the most prominent Northeastern Republican?
I wouldn’t agree with absolutely everything Christie’s done, but I think he’s governed pretty well, and he’s an authentic Republican. He’s very popular in New Jersey because he speaks a bit about social mobility. He’s not as aggressive as I would like on that front, but he’s pretty aggressive on fiscal discipline. We’ll take what we can get.
The Politic: In an article titled “Why Our Elites Stink,” you described how the elite of the past recognized the social and moral obligations of privilege, whereas now the elite are unaware of their role as guardians of important institutions and of society at large. Do you try to inculcate this sense of responsibility through your writings or in your class at Yale?
Yeah, [laughter] that’s why I’m here. By the way, I don’t think people in college now are much different than in my generation. We have the same problems. One of them is we are less articulate about moral responsibility and moral character than the previous generations. Somehow we’ve done a worse job of managing institutions. I think we’re smarter, we’re more diverse, we’re fairer, and we’re nicer. But I would not say that banking today is better than banking 50 years ago; I wouldn’t say that government is working better. We haven’t generated as much respect from the rest of society, so I do think there’s been some failure there. It’s about trying to investigate that.
The Politic: When you came to teach at Yale this semester, you joined a faculty that is often best known for its conservative professors — John Gaddis, Charles Hill, Donald Kagan — yet the student body is overwhelmingly liberal; according to a poll conducted by The Politic, roughly four out of five Yale students identify as liberal. What do you make of this dichotomy?
Well first, the class isn’t particularly conservative unless you count our views on Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. When I went to school I wasn’t aware of politics because I spent my entire life in the third century BC. We were pretty divorced, and so far the course is divorced from politics in the modern sense. But secondly, I’ve taught here before, and the last time I taught I was very reticent about talking about my own politics, and I didn’t talk about politics in class. I decided that was a mistake because it’s possible to go through an Ivy League school and never meet a conservative professor. My view is that if people are curious, I want to show them what one looks like and why I believe what I do. If anybody asks, I am happy to talk about it, whereas last time I stayed away from all that.
The Politic: We live in an age where a lot of people look to the media not for information, but for affirmation. As someone who is moderate, do you see your role as one of persuasion?
I actually do. This is controversial. I have friends who are at the Wall Street Journal and The [New York] Times who say “you’re crazy. No one is ever persuaded by columns. What you should do is fire up people who you believe in and give them arguments that they need to go forward.” I guess I can see that point of view, but because I’m Hamiltonian and Burkean, I happen to be in this weird, uncomfortable position where I’m not really on either team. So I believe in persuasion. I’m not sure I persuade anybody, but hopefully I prompt thinking. I recently read a good phrase: “a writer’s job is to provide a context in which other people can think.” People are not going to read a column and say, “Oh, he’s right. I’ll believe what he believes.” But it might provoke a thought of their own. I think that’s basically the job – to get people shaken up and sometimes just to provoke something.
The Politic: One thing that you have talked about a lot in your columns is this idea that we are a nation that lacks patience, a nation that lacks the foresight—or the willingness—to invest. One famous experiment that you often bring up is the Marshmallow Experiment, which shows that children who can defer gratification will be more successful in life. A piece you wrote for The Atlantic, “The Organization Kid,” seems to suggest that this generation is actually very much into self-cultivation, patience, and investment in themselves and their human capital. Does this give you optimism that the next generation will be different?
I’d say there are two subjects. One, because of the income divide, people who can get into Yale can push the marshmallow back. So some people are raised in more disciplined atmospheres and they develop the self-control, but some people are raised in more disorganized places and they don’t. Part of it is just divide. Second, as for the “Am I more hopeful?” I crap all over current times, and I do think part of our deficit problem is a moral problem. We don’t want to pay taxes, but we want to spend on ourselves. On the other hand, I would never want to go back to the ’50s culture. People were more racist, dumber, much more emotionally cold. We’ve definitely made progress, but we’ve lost something along the way, which is the language of character and morality; I think we’re more inarticulate about that than they were.
The Politic: This idea of character coupled with humility—in that more philosophical sense—stems from reading people like Kennan, Niebuhr, Burke. Who do you think today’s politician reads?
They do not read. They’re too busy. They’ll read some historical biographies – senators have some more time. By and large, most politicians will not. They are just getting dumber and dumber. Obama had time when he was a senator or state senator—God knows he had plenty of time—but now he reads reasonably few books. They get more and more exhausted as time goes on. And when they read a column like mine, it’s not so much for information; they just want to know if I am on their side, to know if I helping or hurting. It’s not for intellectual stimulation. They’re too busy.
The Politic: The White House used to call columnists such as yourself and ask “Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?” Do they still do that now that the president was reelected?
They used to care about me. And then during election time, they cared about TV. Now they’re back to caring about me because the only people who pay attention are political junkies who read columns. I get reasonably constant contact with somebody in the White House, and they’ll call in columnists. We’ll go in in groups of six or seven to meet with Obama for 90 minutes. In the last two months, it’s probably been one a month with him. They’re off the record, but you get a sense of what he’s thinking.
The Politic: Fifty years, one hundred years from now, how do you think we will judge Obama’s first term?
Well, tell me how healthcare works. If it works, he’ll be up there with Roosevelt and Johnson as a big domestic policy innovator. I still think that the debt will be looked back upon as a big problem that was punted, not only by him, but by Bush before. I think that will be seen as a missed opportunity. Without doubt, he’ll get credit for ameliorating the recession. You know I don’t agree with all the stimulus package, but they did a pretty good job with the banks. I think they’ll get credit for doing a good job.
The Politic: If you were elected president, and you had one act, you could solve one problem, or write one bill, what would it be?
Early education. I would fix Head Start and make universal preschool available to everybody—quality universal preschool. I think that’s the single policy that gives the biggest bang for the buck.
The Politic: Best guess, who’s going to be elected president in 2016?
I already screwed up my call in this year’s Super Bowl, but you have to think it will be Hillary. I think she’ll run, and I think the Republican Party is in deep doo-doo. I think [Marco] Rubio, if I had to guess, will be the Republican nominee, and he’d be pretty strong. But she’s quite impressive, and the Democratic coalition will just be bigger, so I don’t think the Republicans are going to fix their problems in the near term.
The Politic: If you could choose one leader, anyone, who would it be?
That’s a good question. I would choose a different Republican leader. I think that would make Obama different. I would choose Lindsay Graham. If I could make him head of the Republicans in the House and Senate, I think we’d be fine. I think we’d be having different conversations.
Rishabh Bhandari is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. David Steiner is a freshman in Silliman College.