When David Brooks is Right, He’s Right

David Brooks can drive me nuts. He often comes across–at least to me–as a pompous moralizer, convinced of his own superior wisdom. But then he’ll share a perceptive analysis of…people who believe in their own superior wisdom.

A recent column begins with a description that admittedly fits yours truly, beginning with our answer to the question “why do people still support Trump?”

We anti-Trumpers often tell a story to explain that. It was encapsulated in a quote the University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington gave to my colleague Thomas B. Edsall recently: “Republicans see a world changing around them uncomfortably fast, and they want it to slow down, maybe even take a step backward. But if you are a person of color, a woman who values gender equality or an L.G.B.T. person, would you want to go back to 1963? I doubt it.”

In this story, we anti-Trumpers are the good guys, the forces of progress and enlightenment. The Trumpers are reactionary bigots and authoritarians. Many Republicans support Trump no matter what, according to this story, because at the end of the day, he’s still the bigot in chief, the embodiment of their resentments and that’s what matters to them most.

Brooks admits that he “partly” agrees with this explanation (I certainly do)–but he also recognizes that it’s a monument to “elite self-satisfaction,” and asks readers to “try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys.”

Brooks says this story began in the 60s, when boys who had graduated from high school found themselves in Viet Nam, while others got college deferments. It continued in the 1970s, when students were bused from working-class areas, but not from upscale communities where privileged folks lived.

Over time, Brooks says, we’ve replaced the idea that we’re all in this together with a system in which the educated class inhabits a world “up here,” and everybody else is “down there.” Members of the educated class may advocate for the marginalized, but as he observes, “somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.”

The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.

Daniel Markovits summarized years of research in his book “The Meritocracy Trap”: “Today, middle-class children lose out to the rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity. Then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”

Brooks cites the journalism profession as an example, pointing to changes from when there were “crusty old working-class guys” in the newsroom, to today’s news staffs, dominated by graduates of elite colleges. (He ignores the dramatic shrinkage of journalism jobs thanks to America’s loss of newspapers, but his point is still valid.)

Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like “problematic,” “cisgender,” “Latinx” and “intersectional” is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.

Brooks offers a number of other examples, and says it should be easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would feel “that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault — and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class.”

Those who see themselves under assault see the Trump indictments as part of that class war.

Are Trump supporters right that the indictments are just a political witch hunt? Of course not. As a card-carrying member of my class, I still basically trust the legal system and the neutral arbiters of justice. Trump is a monster in the way we’ve all been saying for years and deserves to go to prison….

 We can condemn the Trumpian populists until the cows come home, but the real question is: When will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable?

It’s not that simple. There’s a great deal more to the story than Brooks’ analysis suggests.

But he isn’t wrong.


  1. The modern meritocracy reminds me of Pete Seeger’s song, “Little Boxes.” But, lacking a college degree, even though I know better, I sometimes feel resentful of all those rich, well educated folks.

  2. No, he isn’t wrong. Guilty as charged. In my own defense, earning a Ph.D. aged 59 was a eye-opener (actually a mind-opener) for me. I never realized all those concepts, feelings, and resentments I held for years had some basis in social and cultural fact, so I can sympathize with resentment. But, the big but…acting, voting, supporting, sometimes funding those concepts that directly work against your values and interests just doesn’t make any sense. There, I did it again!

  3. I don’t agree with Brooks. (I find that I often feel he’s oversimplified a complicated subject.) Regarding the middle class, money is not the issue. Many people in trades, or resources, or other areas can make much more than people with degrees, even Masters and PhDs. These people all make up the middle class, but the level of education can vary wildly.

    If there is a difference among these non-rich people. If there is a sense that the people without the degrees and diplomas feel differently, feel disenfranchised, feel sensitive about their position, it’s one that has been largely created by rightwing propaganda organizations over the last few decades. They’ve been relentless in driving a wedge between their viewership and higher education. (My suspicion is that this rests on two main factors: (1) the rightwing needs to create leftwing villains and there is a positive relationship between education level and political view, and (2) many religious groups are already suspicious of education because there is a positive relationship between level of education and lack of religiosity.)

    The wealthy, of course, do follow an entirely different path, and have an entirely different experience of the world. For those born into wealth, is there any reason to expect they’d typically have any way to understand the lives of the other classes? Even those who do empathize likely don’t really understand. This is not a criticism. It’s to be expected. As an example, some people don’t experience depression, and it’s natural they would have a tough time understanding what depressed people are experiencing. (If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you’ll know what I mean. Can you hear some well-meaning person telling you to smile and be happy because it is such a nice day out?)

    Ultimately, Brooks is describing rich vs. non-rich, not educated vs. non-educated.

  4. Of course well educated people get better jobs, make more money and have more choices about how to live their lives. This is true, not of everyone but on average, regardless of which economic class one is in. The better educated auto mechanic is probably going to have a better job than one who knows less about cars. But you don’t have to attend an elite university to be well educated. And attending one is no guarantee of being well educated, as Trump and others like him prove.
    So it isn’t really meritocracy that is at fault. The fault lies more in equating a diploma from certain universities with merit and a cultural failure to appreciate the very great worth of good citizenship at every economic level.
    In our culture we equate money with worth, to the extent that we call the number of dollars a person controls as their net worth instead of their net wealth. At the same time we fail to adequately reward many people who provide great worth to our society such as responsible parents, effective teachers, compassionate competent nurses, firefighters, and all those people who show up every day and do the hard physical labor and “dirty” jobs that we all depend on.
    Don’t blame meritocracy. Just rethink what merit should mean and support rewarding it.

  5. Interesting to note that many of the people who are behind the attempts to subvert the 2020 election results are among that elite class as described in this blog.

    I agree with John H.’s final statement. The privilege of wealth allow the appearance of education, not matter the actual results. tfg is a case in point.

    When a college degree becomes merely a path to a good job, as so often described now in public discourse, instead of producing an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry, the entire system of education gets debased.

    Institutional education is not the end of the process. The tools provided by that education should be available for use in confronting the future needs of the individual as life and circumstances change, as they surely will.

    If there is one cause for resentment and grievance, it is the lie that life without wealth and its privileges is due to lack of formal education. Knowledge attained through life experience, curiosity and open-minded engagement can be educational and rewarding in some many ways other than achieving financial gain. Tfg is a classic example of a very unhappy, but very wealth person with a formal education whose never really used it for something other than a mark of privilege.

  6. I agree that there is a problem but I cannot fathom how TRUMP is the solution…. to anything.

  7. “We can condemn the Trumpian populists until the cows come home, but the real question is: When will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable?”

    Let’s look at that last statement closely; “we” have been through the Civil Rights movement, “we” have fought for voting rights, “we” have fought with LGBTQs for their rights, “we” have elected Blacks to high offices in government all the way to the Presidency. “We” have watched as Trump has loosed violence, hatred, racism, bigotry, antisemitism, anti-LGBTQs, ended voting and civil rights for “others”, suppressed public education, armed anyone with the money to buy an assault weapon, encouraged police abuse of power…and the list goes on, and on, and on. Those whom Brooks has included in HIS “we” are those who “we” fought against for rights for all Americans and must fight those same battles again against them and Trump and Trumpism.

    Brooks IS wrong; he doesn’t recognize Trump’s followers and supporters as those “we” have fought against for rights for all Americans regardless of economic and education levels and have replaced justice and civil rights with religious laws. The Trump indictments are due to his continuing unnamed seditious and treasonous words and actions; any other criminal would have been jailed but he remains free to continue his “Big Lie” and victimizing his rape victims by ignoring their criminal charges. The one guilty verdict changed the wording to “sexual abuse” to prevent a criminal conviction and maintain it as civil to allow him to continue to run for President. The very reason they are claiming the “witch hunt” over his freedom of speech as the same cover up of the 2nd Amendment to maintain and increase the numbers of assault weapons in the hands of mentally unstable and criminal element on our streets. I resent being included in David Brooks’ and anyone else’s classifying me as one of their “we”.

    The uneducated and lower income “we” are not stupid and we outnumber the wealthy and the educated and need to use our only weapon, our vote, to remove Trump and Trumpism once and for all to save ourselves and return to democracy, Rule of Law and honor and uphold the Constitution of the UNITED States of America.

  8. And now the Supreme Court is allowing these concepts to dominate. I am thinking of the recent decision about affirmative action, which will prevent many people who are not wealthy from attending prestigious colleges, and thereby missing out on some good employment opportunities.

  9. John H. states that Brooks discusses the rich vs. non-rich, not the educated vs. non-educated. Education provides technical expertise that can lead to high-paying jobs, while meritocracy often leads to management positions.

    Those born into privilege have an advantage, and the middle class lives paycheck to paycheck while the lower class struggles to afford basic expenses. The primary problem is that those in the meritocracy create rules in their own favor while limiting opportunities for marginalized groups.

    Right now, the Democratic Party is stuck in “helping” marginalized groups while ignoring the economics of our meritocracy.

    The GOP wants us to believe the whole left wants to bring down Trump when Donald epitomizes the worst of meritocracy (spoiled rich kid).

  10. Pascal, the SCT decision on affirmative action still allows schools to consider an applicant’s impoverished background in deciding whether to admit that applicant. A school can’t just base admission on race. In other words, don’t assume someone has been disadvantaged because of their skin color. My father dropped out of school in 9th grade. Nobody in my family had gone to college before my generation of Ogdens Our parents couldn’t afford to send us to college. We had to pay for that (and for me, law school) 100% ourselves by working summers and after school. Now why should someone who comes from a wealthy family, goes to elite prep schools, and has their college paid for 100%, be favored in admissions over me because he or she has black skin? I’m 100% in favor of schools taking poverty into consideration in admitting students. And under the SCT ruling, they can still do that.

    Don’t get me started with legacy admissions. (After all, Donald Trump and his even dumber kids have four Ivy League degrees between them.) I hate them because they discriminate against people like me. But probably not unconstitutional.

  11. I’ve known many people who have Ivy League degrees, many from other elite institutions, like University of Chicago, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. I’ve also known many that had no higher education. Some of the smartest people I know come from the latter group. Most of those without a clue come from the former. Knowledge is more important than degrees.

    It’s easy to see Brooks’ point. I got an MBA because I was told that I had no hope of getting a high level position without one. It didn’t make me smarter. It did take me to where I wanted to be. Education is the great divider in too many ways. It doesn’t make sense to disrespect the uneducated. Let’s find ways to respect each person we meet. Maybe we need to redefine education, to include skills and talents.

  12. I read David Brooks’ column in advance of Sheila’s take on it. It is an opinion I have been waiting for that aptly describes in simple language what divides our nation’s current culture war. The divide is exacerbated by how one sees the other: the despicable vs. the snooty. Both are guilty.

  13. As an explanation for resentment by the right, I think Brooks is dead on. Disagreeing with his explanation may make us liberals feel superior but that will make political problems here and now even worse.

    Until we accept that’s how many Trump supporters feel there will continue to be a breakdown in communications resulting in no solution to the vitriol here.

    Humans react to confrontation by defending. That’s a dead end street for problem solving.

    Do we want to claim right or do we want to move forward?

  14. Why are we so intense in our efforts to understand the Trump supporters? For we are I believe. Perhaps it is because we fear them. They are angry. They have weapons, and they do not easily fit into one hole or the other.
    There does not seem to be one particular resentment that they harbor; instead there is a long list of hurts that left them open to a leader who would take their side and publicly express their anger real or imagined.
    And those hurts? The list is long and varied, but it includes the promotion that went to the “wet behind the ears” college kid. or to the boss’s wife’s nephew, or the Black guy just because he was Black so the company could fill some quota. It was being bullied in grade school by a kid who never got punished. It was not being invited to the high school party, not having the clothes to wear for prom night, not knowing the dinner manners required at the company’s Christmas Party. And here is what we need to understand. It doesn’t matter how well you are doing now. It doesn’t matter that you now have the big job, no one pushes you around, you are invited to all the parties, you have the manners…. you still have the pain, the resentment and the anger. And voting for Donald Trump allows you to get back at them, make ’em pay, own the libs/Jews/ Blacks/ those nameless others who made you feel so bad about yourself so long ago.

  15. Great offering today Sheila. Money leads to attaining higher educational levels, seems to me these two can not be separated.

    Trump did not attain an extended higher education. However inherited money bought him power, and more money and entry into the elite social circles.

    He is a rebel to his followers, many of whom feel they have no voice, and others who see him protecting their monied interests.

    We will not defeat T by accusing him, fighting him directly. Perhaps we can unseat him by attending and “listening” to those who hold him supreme.

    All from my perspective.

  16. “It” is true and works on both sides – all of SCOTUS went to two elite schools except one. Many of the billionaires funding MAGA went to elite schools.

    I refuse to become (he/him) on principle – NOYB

  17. As I have written elsewhere: “How many budding Einsteins do we have who are working second shift at a truck stop whose talents we will never know due to lack of opportunity?” We, the larger society, are the losers, what with our artificial norms of “success” tilted to the rich and corporate class.

    Brooks is on to something, but his recitation of the reasons why is shallow. We have failed to socialize opportunity, and may have (if unknowlingly) delayed a second shift Salk from discovery of a cure for cancer, cheap energy et al. Such brilliant policy!

  18. If we don’t raise taxes on the upper economic classes, and address the opportunity inequality in our society we will fail and collapse into fascism.

  19. Patmc, Theresa, Peggy and Barb — I agree with you ladies all the way. I have an MA and worked for 31 years for state of SC as a teacher and then as a mental health counselor. Both low-paying jobs compared to the private sector. (At least I now have a good pension and health insurance.)

    I think the fact that MAGA people continue to vote against their own economic interests makes clear one point — Trump and MAGA influencers are great spin doctors!!!

  20. I grew up in a working class family with a middle class, and progressive ethos. Education was the way
    to develop a meaningful future. Most of the family in my parental generation had college degrees, none in my
    grandparents’ generation did. Rather than having parents who could financially support my higher
    education, I was able to rely on my father’s life insurance policy, and went to a NOT elite college,
    in NYC, where I grew up. My NY State job paid my salary while I attended grad. school.
    I’m retired, going on 81 years old, still a progressive, and can understand the resentment of people whose
    jobs were sent overseas by wealthy corporate people, and feel left behind in one, or another version of the
    “Rust Belt,” Capitalist greed did that to them, Trump’s economic class…not the African-Ameriocans, the Jews,
    or the “raping” Mexicans!
    The Jews are not organizing an influx of “others” to replace anybody. In fact the Jews may just be the most
    disorganized, uncentralized, religion in the US, I believe.
    But, those feeling left out “need” a scapegoat, and OTHERS are easily declared guilty, especially at the hands of
    a bigoted, supremely manipulative malignant narcissist, who knew/knows well how to tap into the not so latent
    bigotries that have never quite left the country.
    Recent research has supported the simple idea that much of the MAGA nation is, at bottom reacting to bigotry,
    which, apparently, works hand-in-hand with, mis inflamed by, feeling left out.
    Going back to my opening focus, it appears to me that families that historically never focused on education as
    a particular value, would be apt to raise children who absorbed that view, and would, thus, not have a way, or
    perhaps, even a view to moving out of a working class environment. And, a good education does tend to “broaden”
    one’s mind.
    On the other hand, there are people, like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, my nearly human governor, and too many other elite
    educated fools, who are among the loudest, proudest openly bigoted, closed minded people around.

  21. Sheila;
    Thanks for discussing the Brooks article. I, also found it very insightful.

    The spectrum of responses that you have elicited to your blog is also enlightening, and somewhat disappointing, because it demonstrates precisely the thesis that Brooks presented; i.e. that the learning and biases of our class still lead us to promulgate solutions that ultimately work to our personal benefit. (Note all the fifty cent words that demonstrate my membership in the elite class.)

    One of the things that I have noticed about the former guy is the general lack of fifty cent words in his discourse. He almost always makes his statements in words of one or two syllables that are easily understandable to his followers. He appeals to the most simplistic explanations for everything (and always in his favor). Deep thinking is not required to be a follower of his philosophy, only a sense of persecution and / or resentment.

  22. CGH – thanks to the work of the right-wing ecosystem, the typical high-school graduate has about a sixth grade education without any on critical thinking, data literacy, visual literacy, tech literacy, etc. So…the simplistic words/concepts of extremists work well (and they know it). Both sides – every heard the phrase “millionaires and billionaires”, over and over?

  23. Sorry, but I was never a “self-flagellating liberal”. I don’t buy Brooks blaming meritocracy, while pointing too anti-meritocratic “legacy” admissions.

    We have always had elites, and their children had smooth paths ahead. We also have had resentments. Unfair drafts during the Vietnam War – yes, and I took advantage of that, although I also protested the war, hoping that no one would have to go in my place. We should also remember the New York Draft Riots during the Civil War. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

    Meritocracy seems to be why Paul made it to law school, and why my fellow student, first generation Italian-American from a middle class family, was the first in her family to earn a PhD.
    My family didn’t have money either, but we were all expected to go to college (education as a value runs in the family). My brother and I both have advanced degrees.

    The real problem, starting with that great equalizer, the GI bill, and some anti-discrimination decisions meant that “the other”, those Italians, Poles, and heaven preserve us The Jews, were entering the elite schools. It didn’t seem to generate such strong anti-elite feeling when it was the established WASP elite. If a Ford or a Wilson was on top, that’s one thing, but listen to a Fauci or Emanuel — or a Ginsburg, who is also a WOMAN! Terrible!

    Also, do I know snotty elites? Yes. Do I know bigoted uneducated people? Yes. But I don’t generalize. I never assume that a lack of an education makes a person less, or that a Harvard degree makes them more. Brooks is generalizing. At no time in my years in academia was I taught that I was “superior”. The secretaries, dish washers, and janitors were all treated as part of the team (although this last part was only partially followed).

    The other thing that he does, is to blame “meritocracy” for the problems caused by not putting it in place. Legacy elitism is as old a the Chinese civil service. Real meritocracy allows all to achieve position. When my brother ran for Michigan Board of Reagents in the early ’70s (chosen at a party convention), he supported “affirmative action” with extra money for minority scholarships, but proposed a companion scholarship be set aside for income-based scholarships, which would have gone mostly to poor white Michiganders. I won’t mention why he didn’t get the nod. That is another two stories – both off topic.

    So is Brooks right? Only partly. There is real resentment, some of it earned, but the real powers that be point to Justice Jackson and George Soros and scream “Those snobby elites look down on you”. [don’t blame us]
    And Brooks gets to say “See, you liberals are bad too!”

    (sorry this is more rambling than my usual long-winded rambles – I am on a coffee break and rushing back to work – another elite thing – working from home).

  24. Theresa:
    fortunatly i fit into those other catagories. but seeing people hungry,and their civil rights crashed by white bullies in uniform, iwould never stand behind them. I didnt go to a prom,or was invited toparties. mainly because i was will ing to share my lunch with the others..
    Im glad i lived across the river from trump, it gave me reason to spit on people like him..not
    follow him..

  25. I also enjoyed the article GCH and others comments. But what I find more interesting is the destructive landscape our country has become, not only financially through those who use the government for their own personal gain but through influence pedaling Most of those people are highly educated but reason that quantitative easing will erase the predicted downturn many including Morgan Stanley predicted just over ther last few days.
    Journalists are not journalists any more. Any real journalist would be looking for any real story or break out with stories concluding the media as a whole is misleading the public.
    To me its more about the lack of moral code by those who are setting the standards in government office. Courts recently have found DHS and FBI are not following the constitution but ignoring it and hiding from the public or slow rolling evidence to help government officials and their family avoid prosecution.
    Red Handed is a good read about the Chinese government and CCP influencing our top politicians

  26. Brooks hits many nails on their heads. Professional polling was indicating voter alienation in the 1960s. It’s probable that any time a segment of society feels threatened, a demagogue will sense and exploit it.

    George Wallace was very good at it. Richard Nixon picked up on the racist dog whistles with his southern strategy and on antagonism to the anti-war demonstrators with his appeals to the silent majority. GOP consultants like Richard Vigurie and Roger Ailes were further exploitive with recruitment of the Moral Majority Evangelicals and Catholics over abortion, women’s rights, prayer in schools, bussing, and anti-intellectualism.

    When companies began moving to Mexico, middle class manufacturing workers started seeing their jobs and hopes disappear. Their anger only grew with exploitation by special interest groups and politicians in all those ways Brooks described and more.

    Roger Ailes never got over Richard Nixon’s impeachment and created Fox News to prevent impeachment of any future Republican president, no matter how many smoking guns were smoking. His creation of Fox News rode the Trump monster and has been partially consumed by it – paying millions in lawsuit damages for echoing Trump’s lies. Add special interest groups and conspiracy theorists who make money by the number of internet clicks their outrages generate, and alienation is fertilized to the point of causing real political climate change in America.

    Noticeably, Joe Biden is the candidate actually re-building pathways to the middle class for all those workers displaced by out-sourcing and robotic mechanization. His infrastructure legislation is creating jobs for those who work with their hands. His American rescue plan has ignited creation of good paying manufacturing jobs. Unemployment is the lowest in 60 years. Wages are rising.

    I hope folks can see through the fog of demagogues to what’s in their own and America’s self-interest.

  27. I have relatives who used to be middle class living in small town and rural Indiana but now live in poverty and feel like they have been left behind. Even their church (they were Methodists) has pulled out. They are bitter. The coal companies have raped their county but the economy is so coal dependent that they are pro-coal and pro-Trump. They used to be Democrats. The Democrats have left them behind just like the Methodists.

    I have played the game, gotten a Ph.D. and stayed in the middle class but obviously I am a liberal college professor. They live in an area where internet is spotty and clearly out of their price range. My middle class friends in the Indianapolis area have no idea what it is like to not have internet access and not be able to do things online.

    We have to come to terms with our racist and sexist history but we also have to come to terms with leaving rural and small town America behind. Our mainline protestant churches need to quit pulling out of impoverished areas because they can’t pay their apportionment and start ministering to the poor and doing something to get them back into the middle class – whatever that means even if it goes against our capitalist and meritocratic ideas.

    David Brooks is right and we who read him need to get off our pompous, meritorious high horses.

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