Why liberals are turning on their favorite conservative.
If a liberal who's been mugged is a conservative, what's a conservative who's been mugged? Let's ask David Brooks!
For the past few months, the lovable house conservative of the New York Times and satirical sociologist has been taking a beating. In April, Philadelphia's Sasha Issenberg fact-checked Brooks' articles about divided America and discovered that Brooks exaggerated and distorted differences between Red and Blue states to make his pop sociology even fizzier.
And since Brooks' new book, On Paradise Drive, hit bookstores this month, Brooks' erstwhile liberal friends have been thumping it—and him. In the New York Times Book Review, Brooks' pal (and Slatefounding editor) Michael Kinsley jabbed Brooks' supposed sociology as mere comic shtick. In Salon, Laura Miller wrote that Brooks has made a "brief, ignominious, muddy slide" from "amusing to annoying," and reviewers in the Nation and the Washington Post Book Review likewise swung baseball bats at his kneecaps. Some switch has flipped: Journalist pals who used to chuckle at "liberals' favorite conservative" now rage against him.
I haven't talked to Brooks—who is a friendly acquaintance—since the pummeling started. But I expect he's agonized and baffled by it. Why so much sneering? Why now?
Some of the reasons are obvious. As a conservative columnist at the Times—a job he has held since September 2003—Brooks is the steer at the steakhouse. Liberals who admired him when he was the jolly voice of reason at the Weekly Standard resent him now that he occupies the throne of American journalism.
And Brooks' Times column is a drag. Occasionally he reminds us of his talent (and his enormous decency)—as when he gently mocks college admissions or pleads for gay marriage. But after 10 months, it's become clear that he doesn't have enough ideas—or anger—to sustain a twice-a-week column. (To be fair, few columnists do.) Consider what he's done this month:
June 1: "Grading the President." Almost a parody of an op-ed column, it examined a National Journal survey rating the Bush administration's economic performance. Brooks eventually concured with National Journal's grades, then offered an exhortation so tired it was almost Pfaffian: "Let's address the long-term problems. Let's talk about the consequences of the aging baby boomers. Let's talk about reforming the tax code to encourage domestic savings."
June 5: "Circling the Wagons" inaugurated a series of columns he plans to write on political polarization. He concludes—with solemn regret—that people pick political sides for emotional reasons, not rational ones.
June 8: Brooks credited Ronald Reagan with "a bold and challenging optimism."
Week after week, Brooks has been dribbling out well-meaning and dreary sentiments: Let's hear it for the "sensible majority" and "bipartisanship." Let's, but somewhere else.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of David Brooks courtesy of The New York Times.