Cultural Combat

David Brooks is one of those pundits who just drives me bonkers. Half the time, he comes across as  self-satisfied pedagogue. Other times, he can be uncommonly perceptive. You never know what you’ll get.

In a recent essay, both elements were present..

Brooks begins by quoting (approvingly) a conservative writer who faults “progressive elites” for their presumed inability to understand the battle over social issues in American life as “anything other than a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other.” He takes several subsequent paragraphs to lecture readers on the legitimacy of Republican cultural views–a lecture that  would have been defensible “back in the day,” when most Republicans were conservatives rather than  White Supremicist QAnon believers.

Brooks’ introductory paragraphs are barf-inducing:

Many progressives have developed an inability to see how good and wise people could be on the other side, a lazy tendency to assume that anybody who’s not a social progressive must be a racist or a misogynist.

This framing carefully avoids defining either the “other side,” or the enormous amount of credible research confirming the transformation of what used to be a normal political party into something very different–and very dark. Pretending that transformation didn’t occur–ignoring the fact that “good and wise” people are leaving the GOP in droves, appalled by what it has become, is simply dishonest.

It’s one thing to criticize strategy–to point out, as Brooks does, that much of progressive elite discourse comes across as preachy as Brooks himself, and can be distinctly unhelpful politically–is fair enough. Insisting that fair-minded, moral people must respect what the GOP has become, however, is to bury one’s head very far down in the alternative-reality sand.

In the second half of his essay, however, Brooks does a very good job of summarizing the rival moral traditions that undergird our culture wars, and summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Here is how he describes the “moral freedom” ethos:

It is wrong to try to impose your morality or your religious faith on others. Society goes wrong when it prevents gay people from marrying who they want, when it restricts the choices women can make, when it demeans transgender people by restricting where they can go to the bathroom and what sports they can play after school.

This moral freedom ethos has made modern life better in a variety of ways. There are now fewer restrictions that repress and discriminate against people from marginalized groups. Women have more social freedom to craft their own lives and to be respected for the choices they make. People in the L.G.B.T.Q. communities have greater opportunities to lead open and flourishing lives. There’s less conformity. There’s more tolerance for different lifestyles. There’s less repression and more openness about sex. People have more freedom to discover and express their true selves.

However, there are weaknesses. The moral freedom ethos puts tremendous emphasis on individual conscience and freedom of choice. Can a society thrive if there is no shared moral order?

He then describes the countervailing position.

People who subscribe to this worldview believe that individuals are embedded in a larger and pre-existing moral order in which there is objective moral truth, independent of the knower….

In this ethos, ultimate authority is outside the self. For many people who share this worldview, the ultimate source of authority is God’s truth, as revealed in Scripture. For others, the ultimate moral authority is the community and its traditions.

We’re in a different moral world here, with emphasis on obedience, dependence, deference and supplication. This moral tradition has a loftier vision of perfect good, but it takes a dimmer view of human nature: Left to their own devices, people will tend to be selfish and shortsighted. They will rebel against the established order and seek autonomy.

Brooks recognizes the weaknesses of this tradition: it often leads to “rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify systems of oppression” and facilitates “othering — people not in our moral order are inferior and can be conquered and oppressed.”

He also recognizes that the United States has opted for autonomy–legally and culturally.

This is the ultimate crisis on the right. Many conservatives say there is an objective moral order that demands obedience, but they’ve been formed by America’s prevailing autonomy culture, just like everybody else. In practice, they don’t actually want to surrender obediently to a force outside themselves; they want to make up their own minds. The autonomous self has triumphed across the political spectrum, on the left where it makes sense, and also on the right, where it doesn’t.

Nor is he entirely blind to the threat posed by Rightwing Christianist politics:

Consumed by the passion of the culture wars, many traditionalists and conservative Christians have adopted a hypermasculine warrior ethos diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount moral order they claim as their guide. Unable to get people to embrace their moral order through suasion, they now seek to impose their moral order through politics. A movement that claims to make God their god now makes politics god. What was once a faith is now mostly a tribe…

So is there room in the Democratic Party for people who don’t subscribe to the progressive moral tradition but are appalled by what conservatism has become?

I’d rephrase that last question: will American politics ever return to the era of the “big tents,” when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans overlapped? The answer to that hinges on another, more critical inquiry: will today’s GOP either (1) return to sanity or (2) implode and be replaced by a sane political party?

Because we can’t consider and/or debate Brooks’ philosophical arguments while the barbarians are at the gate..


  1. In the short term, we cannot “convert” them so we must defeat them at the ballot box.
    Sanity may or may not return later but they must not be allowed power.

  2. Saved myself a lot of time and anguish by totally ignoring David Brooks and anything/one he’s associated with. He’s an enabler and as such, just as loathsome as the people he enables.

  3. “Christianist” … nice word. Sorta like Islamist: Both are groups of people who use religion to support their politics.

    “will today’s GOP either (1) return to sanity or (2) implode and be replaced by a sane political party?” Or (3) sneak into enough power to break America?

  4. One theme of Sheila’s blog is an ongoing pursuit of “how can we get along again.” I suggest the Brooks column is a thought-provoking challenge for reasonable people to better understand the other. Both sides continue to push the other away and deeper into their corner through lazy word-smithing (admit total guilt) and inaccurate generalizations. Does a belief that there could be some restrictions on abortion make one a misogynist? Does the enjoyment of hunting make someone a gun nut? Does a belief that Palestinians have been wronged by Israel make someone anti-Semitic? Toning down our rhetoric and trying to understand the other is a required first step. We have forgotten that the “glory” of bipartisanship begins with not questioning the underlying goodness of our neighbor and ascribing to them the sins of others. (Note to self — practice what you write.)

  5. Brooks’ essay is a good news/bad news, CYA attempt to appear open minded but his pedagoguery cancels out his limited perceptive appearing comments. He appears to have little knowledge of the majority of Americans or the fact that we are in a survival mode today. Fight or flight!

    “Consumed by the passion of the culture wars, many traditionalists and conservative Christians have adopted a hypermasculine warrior ethos diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount moral order they claim as their guide.”

    The above quote describes those do-or-die Republicans who cling to their perception that their old order of Republicanism continues to exist because they claim God as their infinite leader. This must be true if their religious leaders preach it from the pulpit, campaigning for the order of conservative politicians as their secular leaders; covering all bases.

  6. He might be a smarmy, self serving son of a gun, but even he can periodically say something that is true. Years ago (before Trump), Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann told those who were listening that the problem was the Republican party. Unlike Mr. Brooks, they are not smarmy and self serving (at least no more so than any of the rest of us), so I tend to pay attention when they speak.

  7. Let me just apologize now for my inability to find a way to use “peach tree dish” in today’s comment. I must be feeling the strain of hiding from the “Gazpacho police.”

  8. You’re right. Brooks is an insufferable pedant. Or as they say in Texas, Brooks is all hat and no cattle. His agonizing rhetoric is how he keeps getting paid; people do read his stuff and buy the stuff of his paper’s sponsors…or his syndicate. Whatever.

  9. Considering the future of the GOP, there are far more than just the two (somewhat hopeful, but unlikely) options you’ve listed. And many of those other options are pretty terrifying.

  10. It’s lazy to label anyone! I’m guilty as much as anyone else. We all have preconceived notions.

    Now, from experience, I’ve had friendships with every sort of individual. And, we can glean positives from even the most retentive individuals.

    Being part of humanity we are also a part of free moral agency. As free moral agents, every human has the right to make their own decisions. Not any one individual, should be judged by another concerning their personal parameters.

    Life’s experiences lead to different viewpoints, different wants, different desires! What one person defines as unacceptable in a personal sense, is just fine by another’s personal sense. That’s how free moral agency works.

    James 4:11 – 12 reads; “stop speaking against one another whoever speaks against a neighbor or judges him, speaks against law and judges law. Now if you judge law you are not a doer of law but a judge. There is only one who is lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy. But you, who are you to be judging your neighbor?”

    The book written by Rodger J. Williams, “You Are Extraordinary” states; “‘people are sometimes prone to accept and take for granted their own individuality, but are blind to the individuality of others a blindness that cannot persist if we are to live together. We must use common sense and consideration in expressing our own individuality. If any one of us becomes too much intoxicated with his own individuality, it will be a good anecdote for him to know that others possess a high degree of individuality, too.”‘

    Are we to judge someone else’s conscience by our own? People, humanity, has the ability to live their lives as they see fit, that is their right!

    We have no right to impose our conscience on anyone else concerning their free moral agency, or free will. In other words that’s way above our pay grade.

    But, it still happens, individuals are demonized for their personal choices. Even if those choices don’t affect the one who is doing the judging, and that is out and out wrong.

    If there is something that you find offensive, some sort of action or lifestyle, then don’t do it yourself! That way, you can feel confident that you’ve resisted whatever issue you find offensive. Good for you!

    Follow your conscience but respect others conscience and their right to choose. Now that is scriptural behavior!

    All that being said, everyone just needs to mind their own business!

  11. Stop it, Peggy! Lol

    What interests me is trying to analyze a slice of humankind that has chosen a political ideology based on manipulation. Meaning, that most of their beliefs come from external sources.

    There is no Republican credo that I can see today. They vote for someone who thinks the way they do but doesn’t really have a set of principles guiding them. They are like-minded fellows.

    For one, they are NOT a Democrat, which is the most important rule.

    What I’ve been saying lately is that Democrats today have become the same creatures. Both R’s and D’s ‘identify’ with their political party. It’s their Ego identification.

    However, if you are following any sort of spiritual path – say Brooks mentions Jesus the prophet, then how can you justify war or killing other humans? How can you rationalize harming the planet for which we are stewards?

    There are no worthwhile principles or morals contained within either of the two political parties because they’ve strayed so far from their original concept. Other countries are finding similar issues.

    To be clearer, let each party spell out what it believes or core values then we can have the press hold them accountable for it. Or, we can add parties that don’t fit our diverse society.

    What my exercise will unfold is why are an oppressed society — not a democratic republic. We are not even close to what the Founder’s envisioned as a secular society.

  12. Let’s just assume that we all live among the memories of what we were born with and into and have experienced since. We all use those memories to determine the culture that makes the most sense to us. Morality is a piece of that culture. Some people end up believing in the moral model that they get from the pulpit. They assume that to be a tried and true model not from earth but from beyond.

    Others get exposed to different models that make just as much sense to them. Judaism for instance or Islam. Some end up agnostic about religion due to the absence of solid evidence that any one of the religions offers tangible evidence of being exclusively right. Some are just as sure that mankind is on our own here.

    All of that is fascinating, perhaps useful in politics (the advertising of politicians) but disconnected from governance (according to our design for it anyway).

    People are free to believe, free to pontificate about their choice, or keep it as their internal compass. What liberal democracy posits though is that the country’s freedom to choose individually trumps our own conclusion about what works best for us.

    A problem here and now though is that evangelicals (and others) whose God commands them to spread His word as they understand it are inclined to honor Him over our Constitution.

    They are in a quandary though because others of His Words are: “Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

    Preach brothers and sisters, preach as passionately as your faith commands you, but remember that you can’t command others at least here.

  13. At the double risk of being hopelessly repetitive and gloriously simplistic, the deep tap root cause is our loss of true community, “WEness”, and the now supreme cultural umbrella for all behavior – MEness/my TRIBEness. Without some underlying standards and ethics, horrific chaos is inevitable and will be taken advantage of by the rich and powerful. Brooks has never seemed to get “it”.

  14. I have never been able to shake the image encountered as I drove into the massive parking lot of Cabela’s. A very rotund white guy wearing wrinkled tank shirt and knee length baggy shorts waddling on flip-flops carrying an ample arm load of boxes of ammo caressed by both arms just above the shelf of his beer belly. This specimen of human existence more likely identifies Republican only because it gives him some solace no one will take away his guns and ammo. I just wanted to rush up behind and jerk his shorts down around his ankles and witness what he does next. My imagination soars.

    The first principles and platform of THE REPUBLICAN party, some of us old enough to remember, compelled civil debate among reasoned difference of opinions.

    I do not want to see true Republicans abandon the party. If I could, I would vote for Liz Cheney in the primary and just might vote for her in the general election just as I did for Dick Lugar as an Indiana Democrat. Those were the days, it seems not long ago.

  15. Yep, Lester.

    I’ve watched a TedTalk with Brooks and he gets it. However, he also plays the role of Democratic apologist in the New York Times. He is an establishment conformist to cozy up to the intellectuals within the Democratic Party. He makes them feel good.

    His acting does a great disservice to the people he can reach. I’d prefer for him to be honest, but if he was honest and true to himself, he wouldn’t get to write in the New York Times. 😉

  16. Peteah,

    This is your fathah, Darth Vader, and I command you to stop! 🤣


    Absolutely, how many of these nationalists worship at the altar of the Me’ist to practice their own form of Me’ism so they can intoxicate themselves with even more Me’ness, the perfect narcissistic trifecta!

    And, don’t get me started on the pseudo perfectionists, LOL!

    This is the ultimate form of idolatry, self worship.

  17. Brooks throws a bone to everybody to keep at least a smidgen of good will extant among his readers but selects different settings in time and place to (painfully) make his points. I well remember after WW II that everybody breathing knew that the war hero Eisenhower was, if he chose, going to be the next president of the United States. Trouble is, no one knew whether the apolitical Ike was a Democrat or a Republican, so both parties courted him.

    I suspect without knowing that Ike flipped a coin and it came up Republican because during his eight years in the Oval Office he was a reasoned liberal, never asked for a reduction in the some 90 percent corporate tax, built the interstate highway system, and capped it off with his farewell address in which he warned us of the military-industrial complex, and he’d ought to know given both his military and executive experience with Lockheed, Raytheon, and other such giant “defense” contractors who never met a war or threat of one they didn’t like.

    Trouble is, that Republican Party doesn’t exist anymore; it has been hijacked by culture warriors. The party as such has no platform or set of governing principles and thus Ike Republicans have no place to go and are left to watch their “party” descend into the oblivion of the Whigdom from which it arose in 1854 (unless these culture warriors with their statehouse voter suppression laws manage to delay the day of such demise via a friendly SCOTUS).

    I think Brooks will soon have another new setting in time and place with which to court his readers with his oblique and macro looks at the passing scene, one in which the Republican Party is likely to be MIA.

  18. Norris; the first open carry I saw was an obese man in the local pancake house; seated back to me. Shaggy head of hair, full bushy beard, big old gun on his big old hip, wearing a Stetson. His jeans and gun belt had slid down, tee shirt slid up, his butt crack in view. Haven’t been back to the pancake house since.

  19. Lots of good comments today.
    To quote a song by Dusty Springfield:
    “So it goes like it goes
    Like the river flows
    And time it rolls right on
    And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better
    And maybe what’s bad gets gone.”

    We can only hope.

  20. Kathy M; excellent choice of song, and the movie it came from, the words carry a double message. We need to fight for Unions.

  21. For me the issue has two faces, but there is one answer for both in the name of the country – The UNITED States of America.
    For religion a fragment of the Gospel of John decides it – ch. 8: 32 – “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

    For secular society living with a written Constitution from 1787, it’s the Preamble of that Constitution with the mechanics of how to get there making up the rest of it. And the points being:
    1. A more perfect Union.
    2. Establishing Justice
    3. Insuring domestic Tranquility
    4. Providing for the common Defense
    5. promoting the general Welfare
    6. Securing the the blessings of Liberty.

    As for me, David Brooks doesn’t seem to touch on these points when he enables ignorance.
    After that, I go to Thomas Hobbes’ reasons for a strong government, when he says that without one. we have: “. . . worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Basically all the things modern Conservatism has brought us.

  22. “All hat and no cattle,” works for me.
    Thank you, Vernon, that was much needed, and,it seems to me, tht as long as that little part of Georgia can support, and vote for MTG, who can love her some Trump and QAnon, and the GOP does not dissociate from her, we have a major national problem.

    Some of us thought the GOP was loosing its marbles when it embraced Palin…little did we suspect what was coming.

    The Xtian right thinks that their god-thing is supposed to run the show, and that they, somehow, “know” what that entity wants/requires.
    As I recall learning,years ago, the “One nation under God” motto was put in place by Eisenhower for the sole purpose of underling the difference between the U.S.A., and the “Godless” Commies of the USSR. It got hijacked, and puffed up, unsurprisingly, by the
    self-righteous right, and is now weaponized.

    Was it Hitchens who said that “Religion spoils everything?”

    Here, we have an attempt at the spoiling of the “Great Experiment,” brought to us in the name of a very undemocratic flag draped, bible thumping, “my way, or no way,” fools…who can believe that lifelong grifter, and Malignantly Narcissistic, DT was sent by their White Supremacist supporting Supreme Being!

  23. Rarely do comments make me laugh out loud so thank you Norris for your description. Hilarious!

  24. Can somebody show me credible data that shows Republicans are leaving their party in droves? I don’t buy it. I only know of 1 example in personal circles and I live in the same red state most of you do. Maybe they say that to some folks, but I bet they vote the same as always, R. I am willing to be convinced, so try me if you like.

  25. JM – the article Sheila references from the NYT’s is from Feb 2021 – almost a year and a half ago….. A LOT has happened since then.
    Nov 2022 mid-terms will tell the story and it won’t be pretty for the dems.

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