Interviews August 2004

Onward and Upward

David Brooks, the author of On Paradise Drive, talks about the American creed, the dark side of hope, and life on the New York Times op-ed page
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Four years after his book Bobos in Paradise marked the ascendancy of the "bourgeois bohemians" (children of the sixties who blend crunchy social values with the perquisites of power) David Brooks has turned his attention to a hotly contested chunk of real estate: the American suburbs. Over the years, social critics have spilled gallons of ink on the subject in the course of concluding that the suburbs are here to stay, and are—depending on who you ask—the site of everything that's right or wrong with America. In his new book, On Paradise Drive, Brooks tours this uniquely American territory, pen in hand—and tongue lightly in cheek—to chronicle how today's suburbanites shop, work, and raise their children.

Along the way, Brooks introduces such representative folks as "Patio Man" and "Realtor Mom," and meditates on "par" as a moral ideal. But alongside its comic-sociological insights, the book also aims to dig deeper, searching for the historical origin of the values embedded in the suburban landscape. Drawing on sources ranging from Tocqueville to Maxim, Brooks places today's exurban SUV-jockeys squarely in the westward-ho tradition of the pioneers.

But while Brooks concludes that a certain type of timeless optimism lies at the heart of America's prestige and well-being, he cautions that the frontier spirit also harbors a dark side that is inextricably linked to its potential.

This Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, to consume so feverishly, to move so much. It inspires our illimitable faith in education, our frequent born-again experiences. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of security; and why, more than comparable nations, we wreck our families and move on. It is the call making us heedless of the past, disrespectful toward traditions, short on contemplation, wasteful in our use of things around us, impious toward restraints, but consumed by hope, driven ineluctably to improve, fervently optimistic, relentlessly aspiring, spiritually alert, and, in this period of human history, and maybe for all time, the locomotive of the world.

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and an Atlantic Monthly correspondent. Portions of On Paradise Drive previously appeared in slightly different form in The Atlantic.

We spoke by phone on June 2.

Benjamin Healy

You place your work in the tradition of fifties-era social-commentary like The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man, but I've never been completely clear on what the intended audience is for those types of books. Do they constitute an ongoing conversation among academically-minded elites? Or are they meant to be the sort of books that ordinary people will pick up so that they might reconsider the way they're living their lives? What function do you hope your own work will have?

I hearken back to those earlier books because I think they were written for a general audience, unlike most works of sociology today. So I guess my main imagined reader is your basic New York Times or Atlantic Monthly reader—someone who's interested in the world around them; not someone who wants to read a dry tract. And you know, I work hard to make the books enjoyable. The downside of that, of course, is that some people say my work lacks rigor. But I think there is rigor, I just try not to display it, because it gets boring.

There's not really room for charts and graphs, and that sort of thing.

That's right. I collected a lot of data for this book. But reading pages of numbers gets tedious. So I didn't put a lot of the data in there. There's more data in this book than in the last book, though—much more.

You've created your own mini-discipline—what you call "comic sociology." What's the underlying methodology? How much reporting do you actually do?

There are two chapters on raising kids in the book, one of which was based on the piece called "The Organization Kid" that I did for The Atlantic. That was mostly about Princeton, and since then I visited another fifteen or so schools. So for those two chapters, if you include all the dinners and going out drinking with students I did, as well as my experience teaching, I probably spoke to about three-hundred kids. Not all of that was in formal interview settings; a lot of it was just hanging out. So it may or may not count as science, but I do think it gave me a reasonable feel for what the mood among young people is like.

For my research on the suburbs, a lot of it was driving around and talking to people. I've visited something like thirty-six states in the past four years. I also went to a lot of conferences, like the Homebuilders' Association, and the International Council of Shopping Centers. It's those people's job to understand suburban markets. And I looked at magazines like American Demographic and at information put out by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. So there was a whole range of things I drew on. Maybe it wasn't the most methodological approach, but I drew on everything I could.

Throughout the book you emphasize that you're mainly focusing on the middle and upper-middle classes. But the book also claims to be representative of broad American themes and ideals—optimism, the frontier spirit, and so on. How much do you think the attitude you're talking about holds true for people outside the groups that were the primary focus of your research? For, say, racial minorities, or people low on the economic ladder? Do you feel that this sprit of optimism extends to those people as well?

I think so. Where I live, near DC, there's a large African-American suburban area called Prince George's County, which is home to middle-class African-Americans. They live in similar homes and have similar lifestyles to the white areas nearby. The culture's somewhat different, but it has a lot in common.

Now, if you're talking about the working poor, I think the aspiring nature is there too. But I'm not as comfortable talking about them because I haven't specifically focused on them.

In his book Who Are We? that came out earlier this year, Samuel Huntington posits that there's an American creed descended from Anglo-Protestant values which he sees as threatened today by a number of things. Primarily he seems to perceive immigration from Mexico as a threat to that. What's your take on his argument?

I think there is an American creed that goes back hundreds of years, but I don't think it's useful to call it Anglo-Protestant, because it's been refurbished by immigrants from around the world. I would say the creed has more to do with the possibility of abundance than with a set of specific Anglo-Protestant beliefs. Those play into it, but it wouldn't have survived if we hadn't had this sense of perpetual opportunity and plenty.

I noticed one theme that didn't appear in your book was the Red vs. Blue America idea, about which you wrote an Atlantic cover story back in December 2001. Was it a conscious decision not to get into that debate in this book? Or does it strike you as no longer being a meaningful distinction?

There are a couple of reasons why it wasn't in there. First, the book has no politics in it, so it didn't seem appropriate. Second, I've become a little less enamored of that distinction, simply because it suggests there are only two cultures, when in fact there are many more. In the book I talk about segmentation, and in the first section I drive through a bunch of different kinds of suburbs. I think there is a division of the country into different zones, which have political implications. One of the perversities of the Information Age is that geography matters a lot more. Voting patterns by class and education are becoming blurry, but voting patterns by geography are becoming much more distinct. So I do think there are political implications in the geographic segmentation of the country, but I didn't tease that theme out because the book isn't about politics.

You spend a lot of time in the book talking about life in the exurbs—how they portend a new kind of life with new values. Thomas Frank has a new book out about Kansas in which he points out that the state was a hotbed of populist radicalism just a hundred years ago, and now it's at the heart of "Red America" (if you buy into that model). How volatile do you think these types of classifications are? Could we see a complete realignment twenty years from now?

My instinct is that it remains volatile. I mean, you only have to go back to 1976 to the Ford-Carter race; Gerald Ford won basically the entire Northeast and the entire Pacific Northwest. He won California, Oregon, and Washington. He won Marin County outside of San Francisco. No Republican could do any of that today. And that was not that long ago. So I think these voting patterns can shift. I don't know if it'll shift in five years, but over a decade it can shift pretty dramatically. Right now everything looks incredibly stable. It has over the past six or seven years. But we could see some dramatic changes depending on how Iraq goes in the next few months.

What kind of changes do you think those could be?

Well, I think you could see the Republican Party really begin to crack up and change dramatically.

Would the split be between having an interventionist foreign policy or not?

That, and between old conservatives versus Reagan conservatives—libertarians versus social conservatives. I mean, all big parties are filled with all kinds of coalitions, and if something disastrous happens to a party, then who knows what happens to all those coalitions.

One of the book's most striking lines comes toward the end: "Hope is not a martyr, hope is a lawyer." What did you mean by that?

Well, something people have observed about Americans is that we're not particularly doctrinal. One of my favorite lines from Henry Steele Commager is—as he's talking about the nineteenth century—"Religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt." His meaning was that Americans are always trying to move on and achieve and do better. So they grasp any idea that seems to serve a mission of perpetual advancement, and leave behind principles that don't seem useful at the moment. That's why hope is not a martyr, because people don't want to die for an idea that doesn't serve them at the moment.

Near the end you also talk about the dark side of hope, and how even though it can drive people to succeed, it can just as easily drive them into the ground if things don't go as planned. Was it surprising to discover that flipside?

Well, it doesn't surprise me. I mean, there are parts of American life that are deeply troubling—mostly in the way we raise our kids. We're driven by our relentless desire to make them perfect and get them into Harvard and make them succeed. It's sort of about our hopefulness for them. I think anybody who looks at American life sees that a lot of the qualities that distinguish Americans have to do with being workaholic and mobile. And that's driven by hopefulness. Though of course no one has an unambivalent attitude toward workaholism. Americans work harder, or at least longer, than any other people on earth. And I think none of us, including myself, are quite happy with that.

What do you think the world will be like for the kids who are in school today—who are being brought up in this very loving, but potentially smothering way—when they're all grown up and running it?

Well, I'm always afraid they're going to have a big nervous breakdown. Because who wants to be this hard-working all your life?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimistic person?

Yeah, relentlessly. At least until I took this job at the Times I was an incredibly cheerful person.

I see. Do you think things at the Times are going to become more enjoyable, or is a dash of pessimism just sort of in the nature of being in a job like that?

It's just sort of in the nature—I mean, being a columnist at the Times is almost like being a politician, in the way people react to you. You're there to be criticized. Your job is to get people to think and criticize and talk. And being a conservative with a mostly liberal readership—a lot of criticism comes in, so you feel the force of it. A good chunk is from smart people who, you know, agree or disagree and just want to engage. But there's a steady stream of people who just want to attack anybody who's not in The Nation camp, and so I get accused of everything under the sun. A certain number of those people have found my phone extension, so they leave me messages in the middle of the night. One gets the sense of operating in this wind tunnel of hatred. It's partly the polarization of the times, and partly the fact that things in Iraq have not gone as well as I thought they would.

Do you find that it's changed the way you report and look at the world? Is it changing your method as a cultural observer?

Not consciously. But I'm much less quick to do humor. Because when people disagree with you, they're not in a mood to laugh with you. Humor also leaves you vulnerable, because you're sort of playing around and exaggerating, and you need the reader to be on your side in order to get away with that. So to be honest, that's the one thing that I'm much less quick to do, just because you feel, God, they'll be all over me if I make a joke about this.

Do you have other projects that are in the works now, book-type things?

Right now I'm just trying to come up with two political opinions a week, which is hard enough. I enjoy writing books, and I had an idea for a book, but I don't know if I have time now.

I imagine two columns a week is a tall order.

It sounded easy when I agreed to take the job because I'd just have to come up with 1,400 words a week. I was writing way more than that before. But to come up with two new ideas that you know a lot of people are going to respond to, and that are timely—I spend a lot of time on columns that don't get written.

Going back to Iraq, it seems like the extensive planning for war without sufficient planning for the post-war period is of a piece with the straining-forward kind of optimism that you describe in your book. And you find the same sort of thing in, say, the degradation of the environment, in that we're stuck with what we've already done, and can't unring those bells. Is that something else that needs to be worked into the creed you're describing—a tragic awareness of the way that things can go wrong if we don't look before we leap?

Well, yes and no. As I wrote in The Atlantic and more recently in the Times, a Reinhold Niebuhr-type sense of the tragedy of our existence is something we need to keep reminding ourselves of. We tend to forget it in our enthusiasms. But I still remain basically optimistic about the long term simply because I think we do learn from our mistakes. The Bush administration has done a reverse-course in Iraq, for example, and given more power to the Iraqis. I think even with respect to the environment, a lot of indicators have been heading in the right direction. I think we've learned, and continue to learn, from some of our graspingness and try to fix it up later. Some things you can't fix up, like landscape. Once it's developed it's hard to return it to the way it was. I do think, though—going back to your original point—that in retrospect this Iraq war is almost a parody of what America is about. You know, the leaping before we look, the over-optimism, the hopefulness, the belief that democracy is a universal value that we can all embrace. In Bush's speeches about Iraq, there were echoes of Walt Whitman and of some of the high idealism of the mid-nineteenth century. And you know, Whitman and Bush don't automatically seem like similar types of people.

Your book's focus on optimism and the eternal future made me think of The True and Only Heaven, a book in which the historian Christopher Lasch resurrects a somewhat forgotten historical tradition of deep skepticism about progress. Did you find anything resembling this in your travels?

In the suburbs that I'm writing about, faith in progress, and especially personal progress, is widespread. There are exceptions, but I think a lot of Lasch's warnings would have very little salience with most of the people I spoke to. I admire Lasch, and I've read a lot of his books, but I think that for the people that I'm writing about, his ideas are alien. Ironically, if you want to find people who have doubts about progress and about the inevitability of progress, you'd have to go to elite circles.

Just to focus on elites for a moment: a refrain that sounded several times in your book is that the notion of there being a pyramid-shaped social structure with a certain elite up at the very top is not a model that describes our society today. How do you see power stacking up instead?

Return to:

"Superiority Complex" (November 2002)
We have democratized elitism in this country. Now everybody can be a snob. By David Brooks

I think there are multiple elites. Each elite thinks the real elite is somewhere else. You know, the academic elite thinks the business elite runs the country, and the business elite thinks the academic elite does, and some people think the media elite runs the country. Everybody feels they're on the outside looking in. I'm sure you could go to the Bush Administration—in fact, I know you can—and people like Dick Cheney will say, "Well, you know, we're just these poor people from out West trying to handle life with the elites." And they'd pass a lie detector test saying that that's how they feel.

Do you think that's a more stable model than the older pyramid model?

I think the new system has pluses and minuses. I think the elite that recognized itself as such had a commitment to public service and a sort of a sobriety and responsibility that the current system doesn't have. I think this current situation leads to the polarization we see today as we have civil wars between different elites. Something I came across in one of the books I read for research said, and I'm paraphrasing, that there are two aristocracies in every society: an aristocracy of mind and an aristocracy of money, meaning a financial elite and a academic or literary elite.

But wouldn't the money aristocracy have more influence in terms of campaign contributions and therefore more influence in the political and policy realms?

Well, when you get to the narrow politics I think a more useful distinction is between managers and professionals. Managers are corporate executive-types, and professionals are lawyers and doctors and teachers.

How do those two break down in opposition to each other?

Managers are much more likely to vote Republican; professionals are much more likely to vote Democratic. I think the professional class tends to value John Kerry's leadership style, in that he's nuanced, stresses complexity, is cultured, and talks in long sentences, whereas the executive class values Bush's leadership style, which is simple, straight-talking, man of faith. Aside from the policy differences between the two parties, I think the leadership styles represent different value systems.

Which one of those leadership styles do you see as best fit to address the challenges that we're facing today?

I'm sort of torn. I'm a professional who agrees quite often with the managers, but I like hanging around the professionals more. While I grew up in an academic household and mostly like to hang around the academy, I think academics get a lot of big things wrong.

What has your political evolution been like over the course of your thinking and writing career?

Well, just quickly, I grew up in Greenwich Village, and considered myself a leftist. Then I went to a high school in a conservative area and thought of myself as a socialist. In the course of my twenties I became more conservative, though I'm still a Northeasterner, and never became conservative in the Barry Goldwater, libertarian, or social conservative sense. I consider myself an Alexander Hamilton/Teddy Roosevelt/Rudy Giuliani/John McCain conservative. Which is a tradition that is not quite dead, but close. So I really look back to Hamilton and Roosevelt—the early Republican Party—and that puts me to the left of most Republicans but well to the right of most Democrats.

You ended your Bobos book predicting that the Bobos might lead the country into a new golden age, founded on socially-conscious values. Does this prediction still hold after 9/11 and the Internet bubble and other developments that have intruded on the peaceful, prosperous world of the Bobos? Have those developments changed the generational dynamic that you saw at work there?

I think most of the people I wrote about have actually swung to the left as a result of Bush and the war. I had imagined them continuing on in the Joe Lieberman, centrist Democratic vein, and that hasn't happened. I also think there's been a rise of this more golf-oriented, exurban class, which, under Bush has sort of taken power and highlighted polarities that I didn't really anticipate.

Since the Bobos came and went so quickly before and after the 2000 election, do you think there could be a parallel shift if Kerry wins in November? Is the existence of the golf-loving exurbanites you write about in this book less conditional than the Bobos were on certain unique conditions coming together?

I guess maybe we're in a realm, as I say, of polarization between rival elites—the Bobo elites and the golf elites. There are many political scientists who believe that the polarization is not deep, that it doesn't go through the whole body politic. But at the top end, among the people who are most political (not necessarily most educated, but who care most about politics) that's where the polarization is. That rings true to me.

Do you think the long-term post-Iraq effect could be a retreat into isolationism?

I don't think so. I think John Kerry's right in clinging to a pretty interventionist foreign policy. He has eight foreign policy advisors who were mentioned recently, and they all supported the war. So there's a chunk on both right and left—a pretty big majority—who understand that the U.S. has to be active in the world, and that it's inevitable, given how powerful we now are.

You point out that coexisting alongside America's successes are a number of negative tendencies: we lose sight of our spirituality, get too materialistic, and so on. But you ultimately conclude that it's far better for us to follow the optimistic path and accept the negative consequences. But couldn't there be a third way that leaves room for more self-examination? How much room do you see for self-criticism in the American creed?

Part of what I was trying to do in the book is to express a patriotism for how people actually live. I think a lot of people like American ideals but hate the way Americans actually are. So I was trying to express a kind of ambivalent affection for the way we are. From that point of view, the book isn't meant to be prescriptive about how to make things better. I do have views on that, though; at the end there's a section called "America Is the Solution." To me, one of the big threats, aside from polarization and segmentation, is the possibility that we might just become complacently materialistic. But I believe that our drive to realize perfect happiness is the solution to that—because it keeps us always on the move and trying new things.

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Benjamin Healy is an Atlantic Monthly deputy managing editor.

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