Wayne O’Leary

The World According to Brooks

In the recent merry month of May, an opinion column appeared in The New York Times, America’s paper of record, that literally begs for a reply. The piece, entitled “The Center-Right Moment” (5/12/15), was penned by op-ed pundit David Brooks, who is gradually displacing Thomas Friedman as the paper’s media star and editorial dispenser of conventional wisdom.

Normally a Brooks column, written as always from an establishment perspective, would not warrant commenting upon, but for the fact that he’s lately been lionized by network television and held up as America’s comforting voice of common sense in a confused and topsy-turvy world. The Charlie Roses of TV land dote on his congenial nice-guy rendering of what is called centrism (actually, reconstituted compassionate conservatism); it’s a more agreeable representation of market supremacy and government incapacity than is served up, wiseass fashion, by the more brash, abrasive globalization enthusiast Friedman.

Brooks, at least, occasionally acknowledges he could be wrong, and certainly is in this instance. Writing in the immediate afterglow of right-wing electoral successes in Great Britain and Israel, he thinks he sees a political pattern for our times: mainstream conservatism triumphant and fiscal austerity rewarded. It’s a simplistic overinterpretation of what really transpired, incorporating more than a little wishful thinking.

True, the right has been successful in recent weeks, but look beneath the surface. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office only by playing the Mideast race card, exploiting fears of bloc voting by Israeli Arabs and the creation of an Arab Palestinian state. It smacked of desperation by a politician whose conservative economic policies had failed, producing rising poverty and inequality, as well as a housing and general cost-of-living crisis.

In the short run, the nationalist appeal to racist xenophobia worked well enough to prevent an expected center-left majority, save the prime minister’s skin (barely), and force Israel into a temporary, Netanyahu-led coalition government of the far right. Score another one for Samuel Johnson’s edict of patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.

But does Netanyahu’s slim victory contribute to a Brooksian “center-right moment,” a positive triumph for conservative policies, or is it just a last-gasp expression of paranoia by an Israeli government cynically peddling fear to a population living under psychological siege? Tel Aviv’s one percenters will continue to run the country’s domestic politics and economy for a while longer, but their days are clearly numbered.

The other Brooks testament to resurgent conservatism is the recent victory of David Cameron’s Tories over Ed Miliband’s hapless Labourites in May’s British parliamentary election. Here, Brooks is on slightly firmer ground. Labour did take a thorough “thumping,” but there’s less there than meets the eye. Both parties were unpopular, and neither party leader especially loved; it was a question for voters of relative dislikes.

In contrast to most previous UK elections, the decision was based more on personalities than ideology or party identification. This was unsurprising, in light of the growing transatlantic outreach of American political consultants and the consequent Americanization of European elections. Our national campaigns tend to be personality-driven contests in which candidates compete for individual popularity — Kennedy outshone Nixon, Reagan was more likeable than Carter (or Mondale), Clinton more empathetic than Dole, Bush less “wooden” than Gore, Obama more personable than Romney, and so on. In the UK contest, the US presidential model predominated, and Miliband’s curious reverse charisma handicapped his chances, even against a little-admired prime minister.

There were other factors, of course. After years of grinding austerity, the British economy had marginally improved, permitting specious Tory claims of a morning-in-Britain recovery. But the real key to the Conservative victory can be found in Scotland, where the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) totally decimated Labour.

For decades, Scotland and Wales — the “Celtic periphery” — have comprised, along with the industrial north of England, the Labour Party’s working-class core. The first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and the last, Gordon Brown, were Scottish; party leaders Aneurin Bevan (who developed the socialized National Health Service) and Neil Kinnock, were Welsh. The Conservatives, by contrast, have usually dominated southern, or “middle” (in both a geographic and socioeconomic sense) England, including the country’s commercial and financial centers.

The SNP’s wipeout of Labour in the latter’s formerly solid Scottish constituencies removed one of the three century-old legs of the Labourite stool. Again, this was no “center-right moment” politically — except that Cameron’s Conservatives took Parliament by default; the SNP is, if anything, more left-wing than Labour. It does mean Labour’s future as a viable party has been put into question, but that’s because Scottish independence may put an end to the UK as an entity, leaving intact only England, Northern Ireland, and Wales (and the Welsh also have a home-grown secessionist movement). Hardly a Brooksian triumph of conservatism.

So what other manifestations of a center-right moment does David Brooks perceive? Well, he points to Chicago, where centrist Mayor Rahm Emanuel bested little-known and under-funded progressive challenger Chuy Garcia to win reelection — evidence mainly of what’s possible when you have all the corporate campaign money pro-business governance can attract. Brooks offers little else, except to dismiss as aberrations the prior overwhelming progressive victories of Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York and Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, which he demeans as isolated examples of dated “redistributionist progressivism.” This despite their already profound influence on the upcoming US presidential contest.

Brooks fails to mention another recent political “moment,” the Greek and Spanish revolts against Eurozone austerity represented by the tumultuous rise of the left-leaning Syriza and Podemos parties. And the Brooks crystal ball must have been cracked the week before his column appeared, when the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) swept Alberta’s provincial election in overwhelming fashion, sending a harsh wake-up call to Canadian Prime Minister Harper and his suddenly vulnerable Conservatives. Since then, the sudden emergence of progressive presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders has further complated life for the Times oracle.

As David Brooks portrays it, the so-called center-right moment has ushered in the arrival of a global political consensus favoring smaller public sectors, fiscal retrenchment, welfare-state reductions, and more open (less regulated) labor markets — all overlaid with a veneer of social liberalism. Is this the centrist dream Americans really hunger after heading into 2016? Sounds more like the nightmarish and discredited Clinton-Blair Third Way of the 1990s.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2015


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