David Brooks Has Gotten Lazy

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The topic of New York Times op-ed columnists came up recently while I was chatting with a friend. He is, among other things, a fan of David Brooks, and I told him I wasn’t. Why? In the past I’ve been pretty tolerant of Brooks, but over the past few years I feel like he just isn’t earning his rep. He’s gotten lazy. He sees a single poll or a single study and he suddenly divines the meaning of life from it—but without doing the work to find out what the study really means, whether it’s supported by other work, and just how broadly its results apply.

Ivo Daalder points out a perfect example of this today. A few days ago Brooks took a look at a single poll from the Center for American Progress and immediately concluded that Americans are exhausted by the rest of the world and want to pull back from it. But even a cursory look at other data suggests exactly the opposite. So for your reading pleasure, here’s the antidote to Brooks, courtesy of Daalder:


My “in short” summary would be a little different: Americans are just as bloodthirsty as they’ve ever been. All we need is a push from a demagogish president and we’re ready to bomb the crap out of anybody. Brooks has nothing to fear on that score.

On the “liberal internationalist” axis, too, nothing much has changed: Americans still favor treaties and trade and alliances as much as ever—which is to say, we vaguely think they’re good things, but our support for them is pretty thin.

As for the things Brooks says he’s most worried about—promoting democracy, taking on Chinese aggression, promoting trade, fighting global poverty, and defending human rights—“the core activities of building a civilized global community”—Americans have never really cared much about that stuff. We’ll tolerate a fair amount of it here and there, and of course we were always happy to use it as an excuse for various Cold War depredations—or for bombing the crap out of our enemy du jour these days—but that’s about it. I love my country, but it’s silly to pretend that we’ve ever been anything we aren’t.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to be completely clear, I’m not saying that Brooks is unquestionably wrong here. Maybe he’s right! I’m just saying that it’s really lazy to base a whole column on a single poll without doing even the minimal research it would take to see how well it fits with other research on public opinion.

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