Conservative columnist David Brooks has been on a roll lately, describing very well the rot that has overtaken his Republican Party, and trying to stir people to turn away from ugly tribalism and turn back to the healthy spiritual values he argues were present at the founding of the nation and enshrined in Christianity. I might argue at times with the details of his analysis in the columns that I have shared, but on the whole I have been impressed with the overall substance. When he’s right, he’s right.
But when he’s wrong—oh my. His newest column, titled “What’s Wrong with Radicalism,” is a classic example of Brooks making an important point, but with very poor analysis. His point is that our political environment today is full of radicals on both the right and the left, and by that he means people full of anger who want to blow up the system because they see its institutions as fundamentally corrupt. He, on the other hand, believes the system merely needs reforming, not destroying. But his argument rests on a defect commonly found in his worst columns: as a moderate conservative, he employs two flawed analyses that moderates of all stripes are tempted to use. First, he makes a back-and-forth, each-side-is-equally-guilty argument. Second, he implicitly argues that truth is always found in the middle. And in order to make these claims, he grossly stereotypes the “two sides” he wishes to critique.
He describes as radical the loss of faith in institutions, the sense on both right and left that the system is “rigged.” But average citizens rightly recognize that economic and political elites do not give a single damn about their concerns. A lot of scholarly research backs them up. One recent journal article summarized its findings like this: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
He says “we have radical anger without radical policies.” Well, David, as an elite, read the above once again and tell me why you would expect government to address radical anger with radical policies. Elites in government protect their own at all costs, until they are forced to do otherwise. That’s why radical anger builds in the first place. Eventually, if the government doesn’t respond with policies that at least move significantly in the direction of the 99 percent, that government will fall. If it waits too long, the fall will be violent, and much that is good will be destroyed along with the rotten heart of the system.
Brooks writes, “Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality.” Note: If they don’t want to upend the meritocracy, they aren’t radical.
Then he says that “today’s radicalism assumes that war is the inherent state of things.” Note: Read your history. If it is not inherent, it is continual, and for the same reason, as the Bible that I know you read makes abundantly clear: Turning away from the foundational covenant with the Creator—a covenant that insists on the common good and sides with the poor and marginalized, saying that only those who side with them even KNOW God, let alone follow God—turning away from the covenant always leads to oppression, the destruction of the common good, the poisoning and death of God’s own creation, and eventually the utter downfall of the power elite as the anger of the poor (who have God on their side) rises up to “drain the swamp.”
Brooks goes on to say the radicals of the left and right see decent morality “as a hypocritical fraud” and that this justifies doing evil things to fight for what is right. Some do, for sure, but I think this “low view of human nature,” as Brooks puts it, is not as widespread as he says and is not-so-incorrectly targeted at the elite, where evidence of hypocrisy is abundant. But the tribalism of our times has turned many non-elites into unwitting hypocrites, or hypocrites out of fear, which is a far different situation than the elite hypocrites who already have an abundance of power and control. Again, if Brooks would look at his Bible, he would realize that the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures or Jesus and his followers in the Christian scriptures never condemn the hypocrisy of average people. They call out the hypocrisy of the elite, the ones who have turned the system away from a healthy covenantal relationship with the Creator and into a poisonous sewer that enriches the few at the expense of the masses and of creation itself.
And that brings me to my point of agreement. At the very end of his column, Brooks says, “Today’s radicalism is fundamentally spiritual, even if it’s played out in the political sphere.” But he follows that up by saying that the pesky radicals are doing it in the wrong way and place, “and they’re destroying our political world in the process.”
No. It is the elites who are destroying our political world. It is the elites who are handing over massive tax breaks to the richest of the rich while destroying the social safety net of the poor and marginalized. It is the elites who are throwing out one environmental regulation after another, so that corporations can poison our water, land and air with impunity for the sake of short-term profits of the elites. (Notice who lives near the hot spots of pollution: the poor, and most often people of color.) It is the elites who are destroying funding for science so that they can better prevent the public from learning of their onslaught against human health and the environment. It is the elites who are pulling money away from public education from pre-school through the university level, as a population with critical thinking skills is a threat to their power. It is the elites who wage a campaign of lies against climate scientists and their findings, manufacturing doubt so that they are free to suck up every last dollar from the fossil fuels that will destroy the foundations of civilization for the next hundred generations.
A few years back I finally realized the problem, and yes, it is “fundamentally spiritual.” The problem is that the elites and their core institutions have abandoned the covenantal relationship with the Creator that they often pretend to care about. They have abandoned it because of their unending desire for power and profit. They have abandoned it because to follow it would require upending their system: they would have to forgive the debts of poor nations and poor people; they would have to stop poisoning the water, land and sky; they would have to open their hearts and minds and borders to those of other colors and religions who are fleeing violence and destroyed ecosystems; they would have to stop killing off one species of life after another and end their unbridled militarism as well; they would have to face the truth about America’s history of genocide and racism, and make amends; they would have to support education and family-supporting wages; they would have to create a system of health care in which all people receive quality care. And more. Much more.
Yes, the problem is fundamentally spiritual. Brooks has that much right. But the system is rotting and unsustainable. Can it be restored through reform rather than dismantling? Perhaps. But as the Bible and the last couple of thousand years of human history show, it rarely if ever happens that way. The elites remain willfully blind until the very end. And then, suddenly, it all crashes down upon them, taking the good along with the bad. In the scriptures this is presented as happening by the anger and action of God, but the reality is more subtle. The destruction of the common good and the environment are not only indicators of trouble brewing, but gradually more and more people become angry. This anger is, in part, based on the truthful recognition of injustice, and to that extent it is an anger shared by God, in whose image Christians say they are made. But how that anger gets directed—that’s a series of individual choices, tangled up in group identities and choices, and the actions that come of it often are neither entirely just nor entirely evil. But they build up, and the environmental devastation also builds up, and eventually one or the other or both will bring down the system. Call it God, if you will. But it is a natural outcome of large-scale, long-term injustice.
Do you think, David, that your Christian God will stand for this? Do you honestly believe that mere reforms will prevent the gathering storm from destroying all you hold dear?
I sure don’t. I’ve known and said for some time that I’m neither conservative nor liberal. I’ve struggled with our politics my entire adult life, sometimes identifying with one party and sometimes the other in the hope of finding an adequate fit. My greatest desire in life has been to follow the spiritual search for meaning, to draw ever closer to what I call the Creator (and what I mean by that has also gone through its ups and downs and changes in understanding). I consider myself a follower of Jesus, who, whatever else you may know or believe about him, was steeped in the covenantal understandings of the Hebrew scriptures, and just like the prophets of the Old Testament he called out the ruling elites of his time for their breaking the covenant in favor of power, prestige, and profit. Like all prophets, he was a radical and therefore a threat to the system who had to be eliminated.
I’ll be surprised if I ever receive enough attention to be considered a threat to the system. Nor do I seek it. I seek only to live in the generous freedom and spirit of the covenant. Today, this requires me to write and speak as prophetic witness against the elites of our time, and also to write and speak of a much simpler way—the way of life. A way in which hope flourishes, a way of justice for all people and all creation, a way of mercy and love. A way that cannot be constrained by the political and ideological boxes of our time or any time, because it is steeped in an integral ecology that recognizes, with awe and wonder, the reality of the connectedness of all things, and that no person or species has an inherent right to take or damage what rightfully belongs to all.
The America of pious myth and elite control is dying, dying of the weight of accumulating lies and injustices. Neither political party can stop this. Nor should they, frankly, unless they actually seek true reform rather than modest accommodation. I don’t think they do. That is why I am neither Republican nor Democrat. That is why I am neither conservative nor liberal. I side with the prophets. That makes me a radical.