David Brooks. Picture: Ian McGowan
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A hesitant radical in the age of Trump: David Brooks and the search for moderation

The New York Times columnist rejects Trumpism – but understands what has enabled it.

David Brooks is often called the in-house conservative at the liberal New York Times but his columns are much more interesting than that reductive label would suggest. Unlike many Republicans, he is not an anti-government Randian. He rejects Trumpism but understands what has enabled it. In recent years, his probing twice-weekly columns have become more preoccupied with ethical, philosophical and theological questions.

“It’s a matter of conviction that public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised,” he told me when we met for coffee one recent morning in London. “That we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.”

In his 2015 book The Road to Character, which is about humility and moral courage, Brooks, 56, writes of how the “marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in every day decisions”. The competition to succeed becomes all-consuming.

So, what has gone wrong with capitalism?

“If I had to reduce it to one phrase, it would be a crisis of ‘social solidarity’,” he says. “Just a breakdown in social fabric, a rise in loneliness, a rise in isolation, a lot of people feeling their dignity’s been assaulted; they’re invisible, they’re not part of the project.”

Donald Trump’s supporters have a generally realistic view of his qualities as a human being but, Brooks says, “they figured he’s my shot at change”. When asked about Trump, his rule is to say that he is the wrong answer to the right question. “We have to address the fragmentation of society. The suicide rate in the US for white men, life expectancy is dropping not rising, opioids are everywhere, so those are symptoms of the larger isolation.”

The previous evening Brooks had been the principal guest at a Legatum Institute dinner, to which I was invited but could not attend. In 2016, I’d tried without luck to speak to him when I was making a programme for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis about the changing behaviour of young adults who, data suggested, were the most socially responsible generation since the 1960s. Brooks had written that we were entering a period of social repair and this idea was the starting point for my programme. So it was good finally to meet him.

Like many notable American conservatives, Brooks started out on the left. “My parents were scholars of Victorian history and house-swapped with Margaret Drabble back in the 1970s. We lived here [in London] and we had the New Statesman at home and all through my childhood.”

He was a socialist through high school and college; he was assigned Edmund Burke in his freshman year and loathed what he read. “But then when I became a police reporter in Chicago covering crime and social decay, I came to understand Burke’s belief in epistemological modesty: the world is just super complicated, we have to be careful how we plan. And so I became more Burkean… and took a wandering through American conservatism.”

Brooks has made serious mistakes as a commentator – one of which was robustly supporting the Iraq War, the kind of grand, far-reaching “neoconservative” project to which, one would have thought, as an anti-utopian sceptic he would have been opposed. “Well this is the great irony, of course,” he says now. “So I wrote a column arguing with Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and I said what would they make of this? And they said they would not like this, they would be very sceptical. And then at the end of the column I wrote two paragraphs about why I thought they were wrong. I wish I could take those two paragraphs back!”

American politics is even more divided and ideologically polarised than here in the UK. Brooks values moderation. “You know I like the phrase ‘hesitant radicalism’.”

And he is a meliorist. “I believe in incremental change but constant change. To be a Burkean, in America these days, is to be a moderate, which is what I think I’ve become. It’s not to be a populist right-winger, or a Reaganite-Thatcherite type.”

He believes politics, in essence, is a competition between partial truths. “Being a moderate does not mean picking something mushy in the middle, but picking out the strong policies at either end, because politics is essentially about balance, getting the balance right.”

One of Brooks’s intellectual heroes – as well as one of Barack Obama’s – is the theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. “Nothing which is true,” Niebuhr wrote, in a passage quoted in The Road to Character, “or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

Can we really be saved by faith? “You know, it’s a challenge to me,” says Brooks, who self-identifies as being “religiously bisexual” (he is Jewish and profoundly influenced by Christianity). “Faith teaches you that human beings have infinite dignity but also are greatly broken. And that’s a nice balance to keep in mind, a wise anthropology. It’s a source of moral wisdom that has been lost, whether you subscribe to faith or not.”

Moral wisdom: this is precisely what Donald Trump lacks in this age of upheaval. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.