Peak Both-Siderism

David Brooks is the leader in the clubhouse.

In a column (The Case for Biden Optimism) mostly aimed at praising Joe Biden’s inaugural address, NYT columnist David Brooks engages in one of the most remarkable attempts at both-sidesing that I have seen:

What idea of America does Joe Biden call us to unite around? It’s the old one. As Walt Whitman understood, America was founded mostly by people fleeing the remnants of feudalism, the stratified caste societies of Europe.

Today we have homegrown feudalism. On the right, we have white supremacy, an effort to perpetuate America’s racial caste system, and Christian nationalism, an effort to define America in a way that erases the pluralism that actually exists.

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

Setting aside that I do not see how either example feeds into the notion of “homegrown feudalism” in any relevant way (this feels like Brooks wanting to use Whitman and then straining to make it work), this is one of the most remarkable “both sides” comparison I can think of.

On the one hand, we have white supremacists, but on the other, we have elite universities?

This is stunningly stupid.

There is no moral equivalence to be made here at all.

And, of course, the scale of the two are different by orders of magnitude.

(Indeed, it is an utterly bizarre couplet on some many levels).

Brooks correctly alludes to white supremacy’s desire to “perpetuate America’s racial caste system”–which is a centuries’ old problem that affects millions of persons across the country.

He then notes that elite university’s education more people from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. So, simply as a matter of scale this is a ridiculous comparison.

But fundamentally, this idea that elite institutions are some kind of left-dominated machine that is producing a left-oriented elite in “New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities” can I remind him who mostly populates the top 1% of income earners? Does he think that because there are some leftist professors at those institutions that they produce a mutli-racial, left-leaning elite?

Who does he think gets into elite institutions, in the main? Does he think it is poor persons of color who were Young Pioneers?

Has he heard of, oh, I don’t know, Josh Hawley, for example? Or Ted Cruz? Both are alumni of elite schools, and both are helping the white supremacist wing of their party.

Brooks himself when to the University of Chicago, which is pretty elite and he is no leftist.

It is all so absurd.

This plague of both-siderism has got to stop.

Plus, I will admit to being so tired of hearing how “the left” has control of the universities and popular culture. Check out your typical economics department even at the “elite” schools that Brooks is focused upon. They are hardly rife with Marxists (you know, actually leftists). My general understanding, although I am happy to be corrected, is that they are dominated by neoclassical economists who focus on markets.

Beyond that, are we really operating under the assumption that elite business schools are all full of leftists? That the engineers and chemists are all sitting around musing on the plight of the working class?

People who make these endless claims about universities know a lot less about them than they think.

Of course, if one thinks having the geologists reject young Earth theories or the fact that the biologists teach evolutionary theory means they are “leftists” then the term has little useful meaning.

Yes, studies show that university faculty members vote Democratic far more than Republican. But that makes them “left” only in the most general of senses.

Quite honestly, Brooks is doing the same kind of linguistic simplism as we are seeing from Republicans of late (really, of always) wherein anything they don’t like is from “the left” (or is “communism” or “socialism”). See, e.g., Senator Rubio from Twitter this morning:

Honestly, “radical leftist” is a nonsensical formulation to use to describe pretty much any legislative proposal of significance that is likely forthcoming from the new administration. More likely, we are to see
a “moderately left-of-center” agenda.

But, of course, truth doesn’t inspire fundraising nor does it helps turn out the base…

Back to Brooks and the rest of the commentariat: it is not necessary to present every column or pronouncement with faux balance, so could we please just stop?

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    These people really need editors. It’s just a dumb column.

    8
  2. DrDaveT says:

    Who does he think gets into elite institutions, in the main?

    More importantly, who does he think run elite institutions? I can pretty much guarantee you that left-of-center politics is as rare on the boards of Ivy League universities as it is on the boards of oil companies.

    So, basically, on the one hand we have right-wing white supremacists perpetuating discrimination, while on the other hand we have right-wing elitists perpetuating wealth inequality. See, both sides do it. [Insert eye-roll emoji here.]

    16
  3. Kathy says:

    There are professors like Jill Lepore, the late Howard Zinn, or James Loewen who dare to write histories of America that don’t conform to the mythology built around the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln.

    That’s outright blasphemy, don’t you know.

    6
  4. JohnMcC says:

    Mr Brooks’ is clearing his workbench for a lovely future explaining how Republican deficit hawks are being responsible and reasonable.

    12
  5. CSK says:

    Just as a matter of record, the economics department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst describes itself as Marxist.

    It may be a bit unusual in this regard. 😀

    3
  6. SKI says:

    The Church of High Broderism strikes again…

    5
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A radical leftist agenda

    Every time I hear that phrase I want to slap the piss out of somebody, especially when it is used in reference to any number of things that are quite common in western Europe.

    11
  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    Brooks is Brooks and is hardly worth reading. Frankly, the Times news print regulars are getting stale, though that is a problem on opinion pages and blogs industry wide. Too much bloviating and not enough analysis and criticism.

    1
  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

    Ah yes, New York, that famous city where young people move to and fit in immediately and don’t at all feel scorned or invisible because they aren’t rich, attractive, thin, or cool enough. In fact, being scorned is a phenomenon only known to white men who sit in Midwestern diners tired of all of this elitism. Nobody else in this country has ever been made to feel like shit about their weight, their looks, their possessions, where they’re from, the color of their skin. It’s just normal white people angry at the cryptic Brown grads who look down on them for their shoes or something.

    13
  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Biden was pretty much elected by black women.
    It was black women, in particular, who organized around issues, spearheaded registration drives, and exhorted their communities to find power in voting.
    How in the fuq does anyone think Biden won Georgia?
    So this elitist universities argument is just plain fuqing dumb.
    Brooks should have fired ages ago.

    9
  11. Gustopher says:

    From the column of the esteemed moron, David Brooks:

    On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality.

    I suppose it might look that way, from the vantage point of the collapsing middle class. The Titanic’s lifeboats also created a division between the haves and the have-nots.

    Luckily, the FEMA Re-Education Camps will offer/require a very democratic and equalitarian education that all can/will enjoy (if they know what is good for them). When Mr. Brooks graduates from his local re-education camp, I am sure he will have seen the error of his ways.

    3
  12. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: It’s checkbox editorializing. The New York Times needs Republican and small “c” conservative columnists but, unlike the WaPo, won’t check that box by hiring third rate hacks like Hugh Hewitt or even first rate hacks like George Will. So David Brooks checks that box for them.

    David Brooks needs to keep his bona fides as a Republican and so is only allowed a very small number of columns where he explicitly and exclusively blames his own party. This is not one of the columns so he must include at least one hot-button item that puts the Dems or progressives in a bad light. The “elite universities hurt my feelings” nonsense checks that box.

    3
  13. Michael Cain says:

    There are a substantial number of NYTimes and WaPo editorial writers whom I really wish were required to go live in Austin or Denver or Atlanta for a year, thriving metros outside of the NE urban corridor and SF.

    2
  14. Raoul says:

    Here is a simple proposal- replace Brooks with Joyner. You still get the sought after balance but with a fresher perspective (albeit occasionally wrong) and someone who is well versed in modern communications. Brooks time has come and gone. Frankly it would make the op-ed measurably better.

    13
  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    This mythology feels a lot like the “California is a hellhole” mythology. It’s a great slogan, but mostly it recruits jealousy for political advantage. “California is a hellhole” has the added benefit of deploying schadenfreude.

    Though it has the advantage of being sort of half-right. I think the Ivies have way too strong a grip on certain professions. For instance, Supreme Court judging. Also being a magazine writer, or any job in publishing in the NE (e.g. NYC) required an Ivy League degree, and I’m not sure Penn or Cornell would be good enough. Many of these publications lean left, but fewer of them than lean Ivy, I think.

    One of the best things about Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is that she didn’t go to Harvard or Yale Law School.

    1
  16. flat earth luddite says:

    @Raoul:

    Here is a simple proposal- replace Brooks with Joyner.

    While on its face this is an excellent idea, two problems surface. (1) Dr. Taylor simply doesn’t have time to run this entire railroad/buggy whip factory, and most of us (I suspect) don’t have the time to step in; (2) I, at least, have no interest or ability to actually buy that particular rag, even in an electronic-only edition.

    The third problem, of course, is Dr. Joyner is far to intelligent and well spoken to appeal to the editorial board, and waaaaayy to smart to actually take that impossible mission.

    5
  17. Scott F. says:

    @Gustopher: If the conservative right can’t identify the specific ways in which broad equality actually means the oppression of white Christians, they will invent them.

    It can sometime be a lark to check in with Rod Dreher at The American Conservative for examples of this inventiveness. Dreher was able to take this anodyne line from a Biden executive order from Day 1…:

    Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love. Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.

    …to sound the death knell of women’s sport as hordes of transgender biological males take over American’s HS softball teams.

    These folks have to sustain the premise that the left (cultural and political) is an existential threat to Real Americans. They’ve got nothing else to offer.

    5
  18. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    David Brooks needs to keep his bona fides as a Republican and so is only allowed a very small number of columns where he explicitly and exclusively blames his own party.

    I only read Brooks now and again to see if reality has intruded at all, so I may well have missed something. I saw him get close a week or two ago, but he couldn’t quite finish it without a gratuitous swipe at Ds over cancel culture or something. Has he really written a column admitting the Rs are to blame?

  19. Scott F. says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    California IS a hellhole, doncha know. It’s too crowded and we can’t affordably house all the people who keep moving here for the job opportunities, quality of life, and multi-ethnic culturally vibrancy.

    7
  20. DrDaveT says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Though it has the advantage of being sort of half-right. I think the Ivies have way too strong a grip on certain professions. For instance, Supreme Court judging.

    Of course, this particular example pretty much eradicates the notion that these institutions are forcing leftist agendas onto society…

    2
  21. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    When I first started being published, every woman editor in NY seemed to have graduated from either Barnard or Bennington.

    1
  22. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Scott F.: You know, Dreher’s worries sound more like ignorance than anything else. Here’s why: Most people, maybe all people, suffer from severe distress when their internal sense of gender is misidentified by other people in their social setting. They find it very uncomfortable. Nobody wakes up one day and says, “Hey! I have an idea! I’ll be a girl! and that way I can play varsity sports!”

    There are very few medical people that will sign off on the necessary steps on an impulse like that. In fact, so few that the protocols often used are somewhat maligned among communities of trans people, who would like to get their (hormones/surgery) faster than they can. Try reading about the Harry Benjamin protocols, for instance.

    There’s so much ignorance there (in Dreher’s worrry) of the process of transitioning and the level of dedication and the time involved it takes to do it that I don’t even find it threatening, just kind of dumb. The thing is, his view is pretty common, even among people who aren’t religious conservatives. There are certain things we take for granted, and it took, for me, a trans child to bring them into focus.

    For instance, one friend was concerned, when we first told them about the transition, that this might give one of their own children the idea to transition. After some thought, I replied with the (well-documented) observation that trans people never, ever, EVER change their mind, though they might well stop being open about their sense of gender.

    So yeah, I’m not worried about girl/boys taking over the softball team.

    6
  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    @CSK: Would you count them as Ivies? Barnard, maybe. Bennington? I don’t really know.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Cain: Better yet, replace them with writers from struggling areas like Detroit, or STL, or Wheeling W Virginia.

    Whatever else David Brooks is, insulated doesn’t begin to describe it.

  25. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Cain: Note that I’m being kind to Brooks and company here. If they really want to understand what happened in California in the 90s, in Colorado from 2005 to 2015, is happening in Arizona and Georgia, and is likely to happen in Texas over the next 10-12 years, they have to go live in the big suburbs. Even if they try it, I expect them to struggle with the fact that while there are critical similarities, none of them are identical.

  26. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Well, Barnard is one of the Seven Sisters, so it’s definitely a female Ivy through its affiliation with Columbia. Bennington technically isn’t Ivy, but it has great social cachet from having traditionally attracted bluebloods with a trace of rebelliousness in their natures. But the days when such places were purely enclaves of WASP princesses have passed.

  27. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    You’d be surprised how many NY book editors come from West Virginia. One of mine did.

    Michael Korda will back me up on this. See Another Life.

  28. Slugger says:

    @Gustopher: Many of the elites, the richest of the rich, on the Titanic actually scorned using their position and went down with the ship. Benjamin Guggenheim encouraged his mistress and her maid to get into the lifeboat, told them not to worry about him, put on his best suit, went to the bar, ordered a bottle of the best cognac, and said that he was going to die like a gentleman. There is nothing wrong with an elite that understands noblesse oblige and wants to elevate themselves without oppressing others.

    5
  29. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    One of the best things about Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is that she didn’t go to Harvard or Yale Law School.

    About the only thing that I’ll give Trump credit for is that Barrett isn’t a product of Ivy League law school.

  30. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “These people really need editors. It’s just a dumb column.”

    Brooks is a walking parody of a vacuum.

  31. Andy says:

    People still read David Brooks? Who knew… I can’t remember the last time I read one of his columns. He was good on the PBS Newshour with Mark Shields 15 or 20 years ago (or whenever it was, seems like forever), but that was – or at least feels like – another era. From the quoted portions it appears he hasn’t changed much and is still living in a political world that ceased to exist at least a decade ago. In that regard, I completely agree that this is a particularly stupid case of bothsiderism.

    If Brooks were smarter he’d write a column about Trump being bad and then a column about the ideological insularity of modern American education, but Brooks is not smart, so he decided to mash them together and imply some kind of equivalence.

    I could, at this point, launch into a tangent about my theories of Brooks is still mainstream but people like Yglesias and Sullivan are not. Brooks probably understands that he wouldn’t be rolling in dollars like most heretics to flee to Substackland were he to do the same.

    Anyway, as to the debate about the political orientation of universities and colleges, it’s simply indisputable that the median faculty member is very far to the left of the median American. Pointing out that business schools within universities aren’t filled with Marxists doesn’t dispute that fact. And the choice bringing up business and engineering schools as an argument against the ideological slant of higher education is an interesting choice compared to, for instance, bringing up any of the liberal arts or any other department besides business and engineering.

    Also, the fact that d-bags like Cruz and Hawley (and others, who I detest and are truly an embarrassment to my generation) attended elite universities is not really relevant to the ideological skew of faculty members specifically or educational institutions generally. After all, we don’t argue that Liberty University is a moderate educational institution because a few people come out of there with left-wing views and support abortion. Claims of educational indoctrination are almost always overblown.

    TLDR version of this comment: Brooks is dumb, Trump is very bad (and dumb – and hopefully out of the picture), and monoculture in higher education is still a problem regardless of the first two.

    1
  32. Andy says:

    Ugh, apologies for the many grammatical errors, spelling errors, and typos. I hope the basic gist is clear.

    I have no right to complain as I’m a guest here, but I do want to point out that – for me at least – the edit function seems to be a strange poltergeist that is mostly absent but appears when it’s least needed or wanted.

    1
  33. Franklin says:

    @Jay L Gischer: The child of a close friend is transitioning, a very intelligent, empathetic friend. She confides that she wouldn’t wish the challenges on anyone. So I believe every word you say.

    3
  34. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    Claims of educational indoctrination are almost always overblown.

    Then why are you so concerned about the leftist tendencies of liberal arts faculties? I’m having a hard time figuring out what your point is here. Yes, the median liberal arts faculty member (since apparently other faculties don’t count for some reason) is more liberal than the median uneducated person. Is that a bad thing? If so, why? If not, why bring it up?

  35. Andy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Then why are you so concerned about the leftist tendencies of liberal arts faculties?

    I’m always concerned about monocultures in important institutions. Stating that some claims are “overblown” is not synonymous with stating that the claims are without merit.

    I’m generally not worried about ideological indoctrination regardless of its source or subject. There are some people who are vulnerable to fatuous nonsense and indocrination but in my experience at least, they are a minority.

    Yes, the median liberal arts faculty member (since apparently other faculties don’t count for some reason) is more liberal than the median uneducated person. Is that a bad thing? If so, why? If not, why bring it up?

    It’s not just liberal arts. As I stated, it’s the median academic faculty member compared to the median American. Liberal arts, the humanities, and some of the social sciences are just an extreme example.

    As for whether it’s a problem or not, I think that as a general principle it is undesirable to have such a large ideological skew in any important institution because it promotes groupthink. And the human tendency toward tribalism turns groupthink into conformist attitudes. Such conformity in a university setting is contrary, in my view, to the principles of higher education.

    2
  36. Scott F. says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    I’m actually pretty confident it isn’t merely ignorance in Dreher’s case. He’s smart enough to know nobody wakes up one day and says, “Hey! I have an idea! I’ll be a girl!” Dreher has an agenda, so he is scaremongering. He can’t proselytize his religion with facts.

    1
  37. Ken_L says:

    Just as there are still a heck of a lot of good tunes to be written in 3/4 time, or whatever that old quote was, there are countless newspaper op-eds to be churned out by the likes of Brooks following the thesis/antithesis/synthesis formula they learned in their elite universities.

  38. Ken Lovell says:

    @Andy: University graduates are more likely than the general population to lean left. Graduates with research higher degrees, the population from which universities draw their faculty, lean even more left. Consequently unless universities adopt some bizarre affirmative action program to train more right-wing professors, it’s inevitable that university faculty will tend to be ideologically on the left, just as the military will tend towards the right.

    4
  39. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andy:

    Anyway, as to the debate about the political orientation of universities and colleges, it’s simply indisputable that the median faculty member is very far to the left of the median American.

    Bullshit, I dispute it. To the left? Yes. To the far left? WTF even is the far left?

    As for whether it’s a problem or not, I think that as a general principle it is undesirable to have such a large ideological skew in any important institution because it promotes groupthink.

    While groupthink can be problematic, what is the solution here? Republican ideology doesn’t even believe in facts, they have to have alternative facts around which they can construct their world view.

    Covid? Hoax!
    Climate change? Chinese hoax!
    Inequality? Tax cuts for the rich!
    Jobs? Right to work for less!
    Pollution? Property rights!
    Foreign policy? Build another aircraft carrier!
    Black lives matter? Law and order!
    Fascists storming the capitol?

    In a world becoming ever more complex, they insist on simplistic solutions, never mind facts.

    4
  40. wr says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “About the only thing that I’ll give Trump credit for is that Barrett isn’t a product of Ivy League law school.”

    Call me a crazy elitist, but I don’t really get how not going to an Ivy League school makes a religious fanatic bent on establishing a Dominionist culture on the US somehow better. To say that this person who should not be allowed on a local school board is in any way more acceptable because of the location of her education is a reverse-snobbery that is really pernicious.

    5
  41. wr says:

    @Andy: “Anyway, as to the debate about the political orientation of universities and colleges, it’s simply indisputable that the median faculty member is very far to the left of the median American.”

    Indisputable? Hmm, let’s see…

    “What a steaming crock of ignorant right wing cliches.”

    Huh. Seem to have disputed it.

    Of course, if, as you suggest, you ignore the professors in departments and schools that tend to lean rightward — economics, business, engineering, dentistry — and define “academia” as that set of professors teaching in liberal arts departments, then I guess you can claim your point.

    But then your only point becomes “I don’t actually understand anything about the way academia works today.” Not sure why you choose to make that point, but at least you’ve succeeded.

    2
  42. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Not exactly on point, but I wish Brooks would take a moment to note the anti-Semitism rife in the MAGAt ranks. And it isn’t just lower-class folks. I remember reading that, when the executive editor post at National Review was vacant, Rich Lowry got the job, despite a lack of experience. He is a Catholic, whereas Brooks is a Jew.

  43. @Andy:

    ’m always concerned about monocultures in important institutions.

    I have to point out that the idea that American academia is a “monoculture” to be incredibly inaccurate and simplistic.

    I think that it is true, IIRC, that there are empirical studies that show that university faculty as a group are more likely to vote Democratic by some significant level. But voting for Democrats is not the same are being “very far to the left” let creating a “monoculture.” (I really think that the monoculture notion is a caricature).

    I would note that in the broader population voting Democratic is heavily correlated to education and since university faculties are, by definition, highly educated, it stands to reason that we would find a higher percentage of Democratic voting in that group of people.

    4
  44. @Andy:

    Anyway, as to the debate about the political orientation of universities and colleges, it’s simply indisputable that the median faculty member is very far to the left of the median American. Pointing out that business schools within universities aren’t filled with Marxists doesn’t dispute that fact. And the choice bringing up business and engineering schools as an argument against the ideological slant of higher education is an interesting choice compared to, for instance, bringing up any of the liberal arts or any other department besides business and engineering.

    This is very odd argument given your position. You are asserting about monocultures. How can you claim both that academia is a monoculture but dismiss any examples that demonstrate that they are variations within a given university?

    Even within the arts, liberal arts, the humanities, and the social sciences, my experience is not one of monoculture, far from it (even if I agree the odds are they are more liberal than the general population).

    Again, that faculties are more likely to vote Democratic is not the same thing as being “far left.”

    2
  45. dmichael says:

    @Kathy: Jill Lepore herself indulges in “both-siderism.” For example, read the last several chapters of “These Truths.” Admittedly, this history was an overview but her generalizations include comments about left-leaning truth squads.

  46. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I really think that the monoculture notion is a caricature

    Thank you, Dr. Taylor. I suspect that carries a lot more weight coming from you than it would have coming from me.