The New York Times political and cultural columnist David Brooks believes American society has perhaps gotten a little big for its britches, having grown over the past half-century into “a more narcissistic culture” that has become “over-politicized and under-moralized.”
“We’ve become a country that’s just really pleased with itself,” said Brooks, who came to Fresno State on Tuesday evening to talk about politics, his work and his 2015 bestselling book, “The Road to Character.” The book explores America’s obsession with personal traits that connote success – what Brooks refers to as “résumé” traits – at the seeming expense of “eulogy” traits, “the things they say about you when you’re dead,” he said.
The conservative Brooks has written columns for The Times for 13 years. He has covered politics – interspersed with stints as a crime reporter, movie critic and foreign correspondent – since about 1985. “The Road to Character” is the latest in a string of bestselling books to his credit. His talk at Fresno State was co-sponsored by The Fresno Bee, ValleyPBS and the Ethics Center at Fresno State.
“The argument in the book is that we spend a lot of time, especially in our educational system, on the résumé virtues and not enough time on the eulogy – are you a good person? – even though we know those are more important,” he said in an interview before his talk. “Part of the idea is to regard the things we think of as professional; (instead) how do we think about them morally?”
Brooks’ book illustrates the dichotomy between the two competing sets of virtues with stories of historical figures. “At age 20, they were all kind of pathetic, and by age 70 they were all kind of amazing,” he said. “It’s basically, ‘How did they do that?’ They figured stuff out.”
Among those examples are a pair of presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush; Gen. George C. Marshall; writer George Eliot; workplace safety advocate Frances Perkins, who served as labor secretary under President Franklin Roosevelt; and Dorothy Day, who spent 50 years of her life serving the homeless through shelters and soup kitchens and embracing a life of poverty.
The points of the book, and of the talk in Fresno, were “to get people in the mood to think about themselves this way,” Brooks said, “and to be a little inspiring: Here are people who really made themselves into amazing people, and here’s what ‘amazing’ looks like.”
Brooks said his selected characters all made conscious choices to subvert personal glory in favor of virtuous sacrifice and commitment to something larger than their own aspirations. “Since the book came out, I’ve become much more aware of how well the people in the book threw themselves into their commitments, either marriage or vocation or their community,” he said. “They were able to make a commitment at age 40 and keep it for the next 40 or 50 years.”
Not lost on Brooks is the irony of timing and the current climate of presidential politics within the Republican Party. “Yeah, so I wrote a book about humility and then we get Donald Trump,” he said of the bombastic billionaire who is the GOP’s presumptive candidate for president.
The political success of Trump throughout the Republican Party’s nominating primaries and caucuses underscores Brooks’ point about a narcissistic culture. “There’s a lot of data out there that we think extremely well of ourselves,” Brooks said. In the 1950s, when high school students were asked, “Do you think you’re a very important person?” about 12 percent said yes, he said. By the 1990s, “about 80 percent said, ‘Yeah, I’m really important.’ ”
“That doesn’t explain Trump, but it means that somebody with his manners is not going to offend people,” he added. “So a guy who talks about himself and tells everybody how smart he is all the time – that just seems like part of normal conversation these days.”
By contrast, former President George H.W. Bush “was raised in an era where you did not talk about yourself,” Brooks said. “When Bush ran for president, he refused to do it if they put the word ‘I’ in a speech. Finally one time they persuaded him to do it, and his mom called him later and said, ‘George, you’re talking about yourself.” After that, he began cutting the “I” paragraphs from speeches again, Brooks said.
“But that was a different culture,” he said. “Now you’ve got Kanye (hip-hop musician Kanye West), who’s talking about himself all the time.”
But somewhere, Brooks said he believes there is a balance to be struck between self-esteem and humility. “We were a culture of humility in the 1940s and ’50s … and there were people in society, notably minorities and women, who were taught to think too lowly of themselves,” he said. “They needed the self-esteem movement to raise their ambitions where they should be. But now I think we’ve just overshot the mark and gone a little too extreme.”
Brooks said the ascendancy of Trump likely signals the demise of the Republican Party “as we know it.”
“The Ronald Reagan, small-government, pro-life party, I think is probably gone,” he said. “It wasn’t really responding to the problems of globalization, problems of a more diverse America, and so it was sort of dead, and Trump just sort of proved how dead it was.”
Brooks said he has been traveling around the country trying to get an understanding of public sentiments. “There’s a lot of pain in the country, and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders grow out of that,” he said. “Some of it is people who suffered loss of jobs, loss of status. They feel immigrants have taken away whatever they had, or their family is struggling. … So out of that pain and out of disgust with Washington and the government’s inability to deal with that pain, you get these protest candidates.”
But Brooks added that he doesn’t believe Trump can win the presidency. “I think the most likely thing is, he’ll go down in a massive defeat in November, and then there will be a period of ferment and creativity in the Republican Party,” he said. “Political systems, intellectual systems, they slowly get too old and decay. Somebody smashes them and then you get a period where all these competing things start bubbling up. They have a struggle and one of them wins.
“I think we’re about to have that big struggle in the party.”
But Brooks also decried America’s obsession with politics. “We’re used to thinking a lot about politics, but we’re not used to thinking about having conversations about virtue and sin and all that stuff,” he said before his speech Tuesday. “That seems a little old-fashioned to a lot of us, so I’m trying to figure out a modern way to talk about that stuff.”