Defense of David Brooks Fails

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David Brooks has found a defender! God knows he can use one, having nearly drowned in derision last week after unveiling a column called "The Follower Problem."

Brooks's defender--right here at The Atlantic--is Philip K. Howard, who agrees with Brooks that America needs more respect for authority. Howard notes the societal benefits of teachers having authority, judges having authority, and so on.

He's right, of course, but I'm not sure how relevant that is. I don't think most of Brooks's critics are people who want to throw erasers in class or defy court rulings. Indeed, so far as I can tell, Brooks wasn't talking about deferring to authority in a formal sense. And he wasn't just talking about respecting authority, but out-and-out revering it. Brooks said we should "celebrate greatness" and "hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves."

This gets at a problem that many people, including myself, have had with the Brooks column: Where are these leaders who are immeasurably superior to ourselves? In Congress? So far as I can tell, Congress consists largely--and increasingly--of not super-smart, not super-principled people whose mission in life is to get re-elected.

I'm not saying that behaving in such a careerist, self-serving fashion makes our legislators markedly worse than the rest of us. I'm just saying that when I think of these people, the phrase "immeasurably superior" doesn't spring to mind.

What's more, the way our careerist legislators keep their careers alive is by doing the bidding of interest groups whose influence is correlated with how much money they have. This means that moneyed interests get disproportionately served. So there's an offputting irony in Brooks's blaming our insufficient awe for authority on a mindless egalitarianism--on "our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect."

And suggesting that we reallocate some of our respect from the downtrodden to "immeasurably superior" leaders is particularly grating at a time when a number of our leaders, in both the political and financial worlds, just helped usher in the most severe economic downturn in many decades, creating lots more downtrodden, and then made sure that the affluent wouldn't be unduly afflicted by these troubles.

To the question I'm asking--Where are the leaders who deserve following?--Brooks answered, basically: Well where are the followers who deserve leading? "To have good leaders you have to have good followers -- able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it."

Last time I wrote about Brooks's column, I vowed to ponder the chicken-and-egg problem Brooks is suggesting here--i.e. that we're cynical and unruly because we've had so many bad leaders, but our cynicism and unruliness keep better leaders from emerging.

OK, I've pondered it now! And I think this vicious circle isn't really very vicious. Indeed, I think our cynicism increases the appeal of leaders who truly deserve following--leaders who would earnestly grapple with our problems, say unpopular things that need to be said, etc. I think watching so many politicians tailor their convictions to the latest polls has left us hungry for politicians with actual convictions. That's one reason Ron Paul has such a fervent following.

Obviously, such a candidate runs into problems. For example: saying unpopular things can cut into your popularity! But having unpopular ideas isn't Ron Paul's only problem; having ideas that are unpopular because they seem nutty and cultish--e.g., his ideas about the gold standard--is another one. So the narrowness of Paul's following doesn't disprove my conjecture that a cynical age creates opportunities for a bold and creative leader with integrity, candor, and true vision. In any event, I'm holding my reverence in reserve until one shows up.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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