The Yankee Scold

In another age, David Brooks would have been a guy standing against the wall at the town hall meeting, where the fate of Esther was being debated. Some would argue that a good dunking was enough. Others would argue that burning at the stake was the only way to make sure the devil was not living in the village. Later, David would make clever and witty observations about the night’s events to his coevals.

Poor Esther, however, would have spent that night looking for David to come to her aid believing he would explain to the townspeople that she was not a witch or possessed by the devil. After all, the well regarded Mr. Brooks had counseled her to trust in the good judgement of the townsfolk and trust in God to carry her through this ordeal. A whole lot of Esthers have gone to the gallows waiting for their David to rise and speak on their behalf.

David Brooks is pitched as a conservative voice at the New York Times, but I can’t think of single right winger who would consider him a fellow traveler. Brooks is what the Left imagines a good and sensible conservative should be, as opposed to those malignant Morlocks on the other side of the wall. For Progressives, Brooks is a good person with some contrary ideas about how best to run society.

As is always the case with the Left, reality is something different. Brooks is a Public Protestant. That is, he is not overly concerned with private morality. He was, for instance, one of the first to dismiss the indecency charges against Bill Clinton. Instead, men like Brooks imagine themselves as anointed by God to carry out God’s work and try to make the world a more perfect and less sinful place.

When men like Brooks think and write about morality, it is not in the context of his relationship to the Almighty. It is about your relationship with the Almighty, which happens to be the managerial class, of which Brooks is a member in good standing. This profile of Brooks provides an example of what I mean.

In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.”

Therein lies the difference between the Public and Private Protestant. The Born Again Christian would prefer it if the public square was family friendly, but that has nothing to do with their relationship with God. It’s why we see these folks retreating from politics again. Their salvation is a personal matter, not a political one. Once there is no room in politics to debate issues like abortion and marriage, there’s no point in participating.

For Public Protestants like Brooks, the public square is all consuming. The anointed are not judged by their private relationship with the Almighty. They are judged, along with the society they maintain, on the general morality of society. It’s why they are endlessly meddling in the lives of the people. If they let you fall into a degraded state, it reflects on them so they believe they are obligated to prevent that from happening, whether you like it or not.

The trouble that is brewing in the Republican Party is directly tied to this divide over morality. David Brooks is considered a conservative at the New York Times because he resists the current fads roiling the ruling class and instead adheres to old Yankee sense of public obligation and public authority. The Progressives really don’t disagree with him on these points. They just think he is old fashioned, which is closely associated in their mind with reactionary.

Outside of this ecosystem, where the bulk of GOP voters reside, this dynamic just looks like two sides of the same coin. Paul Ryan hugging Barak Obama as they agree on how much of your money to spend on their public improvement projects strikes many GOP voters as a betrayal. In the room where these two men are hugging, it feels like they are adversaries. Outside the room it looks like they are partners.

That’s because outside the room, most American are Private Protestants. I’m using the term as a non-sectarian, cultural label. Lots of atheists, Catholics and Hindus reject the serve-the-world/save-the-world ethos of the ruling class. These voters are looking from Republican to Democrat, and from Democrat to Republican, and from Republican to Democrat again; but it is impossible to say which is which.

Since the 19th century, America has been dominated by the old Roundhead culture that dates to the founding. The south has been too weak economically and culturally to push back. The middle has thrown in with the winners out of necessity. The choices before the voters since the middle of the 20th century has been between the hair-on-fire fanatic and the prudent scold, with guys like Brooks filling the role of the latter.

Politics is about numbers and the numbers no longer favor the Roundhead coalition and that’s what leaves guys like David Brooks sleepless at night. His role as the sensible antidote to the fanaticism of his coreligionists is of no value when there is a more cavalier coalition to counter the Roundheads. That’s what we are seeing signs of in the Trump coalition.

The space for the Yankee scold to operate is getting small. Perhaps that’s why David Brooks is suddenly struggling with his relationship with the Almighty. He keeps working on that sermon, making weekly improvements, but the number of people in the pews gets smaller and smaller. Pretty soon, all the Yankee scolds will be left searching for a congregation.

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8 years ago

LOL at “NYT Conservative”, it might as well be a NR or Weekly Standard conservative, these opinion newspapers are all based in NYC anyway.

I think Brooks son is serving in a foreign military, how this make him a American Conservative?

Christopher S. Johns
Christopher S. Johns
Reply to  Aeneas
8 years ago

It’s somewhat ironic that the former paper of record’s “Public Protestant” is a Jew of somewhat ambiguous affiliations – Brooks’ wife is supposedly a conservative Jew and his eldest son serves in the Israeli Defense Force. I suppose the inference here is that the family keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and goes to synagogue. Brooks’ new “morality” schtick involves his new book, and some have commented on the favorable account of Christianity contained therein, and even opining whether this means that Brooks is contemplating conversion. Brooks himself has been coy on the subject. Brooks’ bona fides as a “conservative”, in… Read more »

Christopher S. Johns
Christopher S. Johns
Reply to  thezman
8 years ago

In the last century, Jews enthusiastically abandoned the rigors of their ancient faith for another dogmatic, grandly Utopian and ultimately murderous project. Progessivism, as of today, can only claim two of three. But there’s always hope for tomorrow. Why this should be so is indeed mysterious. Doubly so, given all we hear about Jewish mental superiority, which one would think would protect one from falling under the spell of demonstrably false gods. My ignorance has never prevented me from making a conjecture, and so let me offer this: for millennia within the practice of Judaism the emphasis upon the observance… Read more »

Reply to  Christopher S. Johns
8 years ago

Why this should be so is indeed mysterious. Doubly so, given all we hear about Jewish mental superiority, which one would think would protect one from falling under the spell of demonstrably false gods. I think I can answer that one. Given their history, Jews had every reason to believe that ethno-nationalism is an existential threat to them. Utopian socialism — Rousseau’s, Marx’s, whomever’s — starts with the elimination of ethno-nationalism. The Wobblies’ anti-WW1 slogan expressed it best: No war but class war. With nationalism eliminated, Jews are just smarter-than-average folks with odd dietary habits. [The Utopian goal of ending… Read more »