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Pondering an Apology for Social and Political Madness

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At one level, watching former President Donald Trump and the GOP criticize President Biden and the Democratic Party in recent days concerning the events unfolding in Afghanistan, could be regarded as partisan politics as usual. Nonetheless, it is not, because the Republican Party has gone so far as to expunge from its website all previous instances of Trump calling for withdrawal from that country following two decades of U.S. presence, an obvious effort to recreate history to legitimate its current attacks. The GOP’s efforts must therefore be regarded not as politics as usual, but instead as another instance of Trump and his party demanding that their followers recalibrate their perceptions and understanding, even when those shifts are absolute changes in what actually occurred and outright lies. Trump has long called for withdrawal from Afghanistan as a part of his isolationist “America First” stance.

        Moreover, Trump’s administration negotiated a “date certain” United States departure from Afghanistan with the Taliban that did not include that nation’s government in the bargaining process. That situation set up an incentive for the Taliban simply to await an American pull-out and then press efforts to assume complete control of the nation. As matters have evolved, the country has rapidly devolved into chaos and Taliban rule much more quickly than most observers envisioned. As a result, many in the media (especially Fox News) and the GOP have pounced on the Biden administration, now eight months old, as the lone architects of that situation. Such assertions are simply counterfactual, whatever one makes of the present scenario.

        And it is that fact that interests me here. Trump and his party are again involved in a concerted effort to recreate reality and are demanding once more that their followers hew, without question, to their new dogma, completely antithetical to that pressed before. They are again being supported in their efforts to make such claims by Fox, among other right-leaning outlets.

        I have previously considered the question of why so many rank-and-file Republicans are prepared to follow these fascistic turns in which they are repeatedly asked to repudiate fact for fiction and accept the obviously absurd in so doing. Examples of previous efforts to declare black white and red green include describing Trump, a well-known misogynist and cruelly self-absorbed individual, as a “great” example of Christianity, or as an advocate of the common person, even as his principal legislative attainment was a massive tax reduction that accrued to the most wealthy disproportionately or, finally, as the leader of an effort to “drain the swamp,” even as his administration already ranks among the most corrupt in United States history.

        Amidst this scenario of millions of GOP and Trump supporters apparently willing to adopt whatever they are told—echoing dozens of past and present examples of authoritarian populism, in the name of their ideology, racism or other rage-inducing anxieties of various stripes—we do not need a respected writer arguing that the architects of those lies bear little or no responsibility for our nation’s governance crisis or its consequences for democracy. But that is just what New York Times columnist David Brooks has offered in a current article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “How the BOBOS Broke America.”[1]

        In this accounting, Trump and the GOP may be morally and ethically bankrupt, but that fact and the decades-long fall into increasingly wild extremism that now characterizes the Republican Party has little to do with our nation’s present plight of near ungovernability. Rather, that turn must be laid squarely at the feet of the BOBOS, a portmanteau of “bourgeois bohemians” that refers to a loosely defined group of millions of highly educated Americans, including professors, lawyers, engineers, nonprofit organization leaders and corporate managers, who “tend to have progressive values and metropolitan tastes” and who have been the principal beneficiaries of the information economy since 2000.[2] That status, according to Brooks, has led to a “… global backlash that is growing more and more vicious, deranged and apocalyptic. ... And yet not without basis.”[3] The economy has concentrated superstar (Brooks’ term) talent in a relatively few cities and suburban areas, and that fact has exposed gaping inequalities within cities and across the nation, revealing concentrated areas of affluence and disadvantage.

        One might reasonably ask why those who attained educational standing should be held accountable for how the neoliberal economy that Republicans have so long championed is sorting individuals. Brooks’ response is that BOBOS may be held responsible for the rage of those “left behind” because they have translated that “cultural attainment into economic privilege and vice versa.”[4]  As assemblage, and, unaccountably, Brooks always refers to this diverse large set of actors as a like-minded group, this population “determines what gets recognized, and what gets disdained and dismissed,” or as he summarizes this claim, “If you feel seen in society, that’s because the creative class sees you; if you feel unseen, that’s because this class does not.”[5] For Brooks, the nub of the matter is his assertion that this single-minded elite has “aggressively moved to assert [its] cultural dominance,” although he never successfully shows precisely how.[6]  And, he suggests, “when you tell a large chunk of the country that their voices are not worth hearing, they are going to react badly—and they have.”[7] It is this situation, in this view, that explains why a group of allegedly reviled citizens undertook an insurrection on January 6, 2021 at the United States Capitol aimed at upending the nation’s legitimate governing institutions. As Brooks noted:

In revolt, populist Trump voters sometimes create their own reality, inventing absurd conspiracy theories and alternative facts about pedophile rings among the elites who they believe disdain them.[8]

In all of this, according to Brooks, the creative class has ignored its own defining role in “… increasing inequality and social conflict.”[9] Worse, in so doing, and despite the fact that “they” have worked hard as they have made more money than other people,

… what causes the psychic crisis [among GOP devotees-who also remain very broadly defined] are the whiffs of ‘smarter than’ and ‘more enlightened than’ and ‘more tolerant than’ that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.[10]

        Finally, Brooks suggests that these highly educated individuals also had the temerity to allow government and other public institutions to deteriorate while simultaneously never earning the legitimacy across all levels of society to lead. In addition, and this seems to be the crux of the matter for the writer, organizing society on the basis of educational attainment is, as he concludes, “absurd.”[11] In his view, BOBOS should be indicted for sustaining such a framework, even if they did not create it or indeed, accord themselves power to maintain it.

        I want to raise several questions concerning this argument and others like it that ascribe the same values and motivations to millions. In this case, as I noted above, glib acceptance of this sort of contention prompts Brooks de facto to absolve the Republican Party and Donald Trump for their ongoing efforts constantly to lie to their followers and the American people with cynical disdain, even as it justifies any behavior they might undertake in the name of power. It also sets aside history. This is so because in this view, the creative class is responsible for all that ails our nation, and for why the GOP’s core supporters are behaving as they are.

        First, Brooks’ analysis is silent about the fact that the Republican Party embraced what became a decades-long successful attack on the commons and on government as its signal representative, beginning as early as the 1964 presidential election. The GOP has sought since to undermine the legitimacy of governance in favor of markets and of lone arbiters—not simply members of the creative class. Second, that Party has paired those criticisms with an argument that permitting government to address perceived social inequalities will result in the “undeserving” (read minorities and vulnerable groups) receiving unearned and unmerited tax dollars. Third, Republicans, especially under Trump, have become ever bolder in embracing the view that only Whites and Christians, even those who are nominally adherents of that religion, deserve social and political standing, and that all others do not merit full human or civil rights in our nation’s governance. Trump has used this argument repeatedly both to play on the economic and social anxieties of his supporters and to provide justification for their embrace of his racism and calls for racial hierarchy.

        More deeply and more disturbing, Brooks sets aside these historic realities and the decline of the GOP into a Party that today stands for a shifting panoply of cynical strategic lies designed to enrage its supporters and for tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest citizens, in favor of contending that education is the nation’s bane, and we must discern other pathways to accord social standing. While I have no quibble with those who argue that college is not for everyone, I find the contention that education per se is our principal social problem absurd, to borrow Brooks’ term. We have important challenges in our educational system, principally arising from a GOP proselytized mythology of the market that has driven commodification and corporatization of such efforts at all scales, but these are matters of how to educate and not an indictment of education as the creator of our social maladies per se. Try as I might, I cannot see the downside of offering the strongest possible education to all Americans, irrespective of their residence location, religion, ethnicity, skin color or any other characteristic. Indeed, providing that opportunity is essential to the probity and sustainability of democratic governance. We can surely valorize non-college career paths and expect employers to pay people in such fields in accord with their true value and shift our social norms to support such wages (an important caveat to be sure), but to date, the GOP has made no such claims of which I am aware, and Trump is certainly not making them.

        Moreover, doing so would not find analysts blaming educated citizens for the adoption of intolerance and conspiracies and lies by those who resent that education, but have not themselves elected to pursue it, as Brooks would have his readers believe. Relatedly, while Brooks indicts cosmopolitan values and openness as somehow “giving off whiffs” of intolerance, neither disposition, by definition, necessarily carries with it that possibility. Indeed, it is Trump and those supporting the current GOP who embrace lies and who call for widespread social intolerance ranging from threatening or carrying out violence against those of different views, to denigrating refugees and immigrants, to working doggedly to impair the voting and civil rights of Black and Brown Americans to ensure the electoral dominance of a minority.  I was fascinated that Brooks quoted interviewees who said they are “sure” others look down on them and that is the raison d’être for their own intolerance. One cannot defeat so circular an argument.

        Finally, and most basically, Brooks’ claims do not address the fact that social values are always subject to change. Trump and the GOP have attacked scientists and many others who have called for steps to address climate change, and the Party and its leaders have also actively sought to suppress the voting rights of African Americans. Each of these assertions has been both wildly illogical and anti-democratic in that each has contradicted reality and the requirements of self-governance. Women, Blacks and Native Americans can now vote and that was not always so in our nation. Likewise, individuals with disabilities are no longer automatically consigned to institutions. Similarly, gay Americans are now guaranteed rights that were routinely denied them even two generations ago. All of these democratic steps have occurred as the values of a majority of the nation’s population have shifted and each has undeniably led to a more robustly democratic polity and society. I fail to see how blaming a majority of the educated for supporting these changes constitutes an adequate response to those now behaving violently and intolerantly and willing to undermine our nation’s Constitution. It is also unclear why impugning the highly educated in this way explains or addresses the GOP’s ongoing strong efforts to prevent many of the nation’s most vulnerable populations that have lately gained a measure of civil rights, from continuing to enjoy them.

        However well intended, and I do not doubt Brooks’ good intentions, a de facto rationalization of hatred, intolerance and cruelty, severed from the social and political realities in which it is occurring, as he has offered, is not an argument anyone should take seriously. It also is pernicious on its face for its ugly implications for democracy in a pluralistic society.

Notes

[1]Brooks, David. “How the BOBOS Broke America,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/09/blame-the-bobos-creative-class/619492/, Accessed August 16, 2021. 

[2] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 4.

[3] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 12.

[4] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 19.

[5] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 19.

[6] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 27.

[7] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 28.

[8] Brooks  “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 29.

[9] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 33.

[10] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 30.

[11] Brooks. “How the BOBOS Broke,” para 62.

Publication Date

August 23, 2021

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