CHARLESTON, W.Va. — New York Times columnist David Brooks is “politically homeless.”
It is the phrase Brooks, a conservative, used in a Dec. 7 column to describe how President Donald Trump has pushed populism in place of the Republican Party’s platform. He also used it during an interview prior to an event Tuesday at the University of Charleston in regards to his move away from the Republican Party.
“(President Ronald) Reagan was great for 1984, but that was pretty much a long time ago,” he said. “The party didn’t evolve with the times.”
Brooks spoke to a packed Geary Auditorium about the decline of civility in American politics and how it can be restored.
He said the problem began in the 1960s, when society shifted from being group oriented to individualized.
“If we were going to have an information-age economy, feminism or a civil rights movement, we needed much more individualistic, creative culture. They traded community for freedom,” he said. “That was a decision I think I understand, but now we’ve had about 50 years of individualism, and we’ve run out the string. We’ve ended up with a rise of loneliness, a rise of distrust and much, much worse communities.”
Brooks said in the 1980s, he fit in with Reagan and the GOP, noting the party stood up for low taxes and free trade.
“I felt very at home,” he said.
“By the time Donald Trump came along, it was a party that had grown static and stale. He was able to take it over pretty easily because the ideology of the Republican Party no longer applied to reality,” he added.
Brooks said he is not alone being without a party, noting conversations with readers and lawmakers about feeling lost in the current political culture.
“We’ve got what people call negative polarization. People don’t like their own party very much, but they really hate the other one,” he said. “I think what we are seeing is parties are going to swing more wildly, get more radical. And it’s like a pendulum that just goes off to one extreme and goes off to another.”
He added he knows of Republican lawmakers who would love to challenge Trump’s decisions, but it is a difficult task in the age of special interest groups and politically-bent media outlets.
“They don’t want to commit political suicide by expressing what they really believe,” he said.
In an April 9 column, Brooks said the first year of the anti-Trump movement was a failure, citing overwhelming Republican support for the president in public polls as one piece of evidence. He also said the current GOP has a tribalistic mentality of following the president’s opinion with little confrontation.
“It’s not about passing legislation to solve problems. It’s just about sort of a TV reality show,” he said Tuesday. “If we want to get something, we can’t get anything done if it’s just reality TV.”
He also said in the column political opponents of the president have done little to present insightful arguments against policies, instead only gaining favorability among groups already opposed to Trump.
“You get to a point where compromise is seen as weakness or moderation is seen as lack of courage,” he said. “It’s deep in the society where you just get this deep tribal mentality.”
Civility, from Brooks’ perspective, involves “poking” people to pay attention to your arguments rather than placing partisanship over compromise. It is a trait Brooks said he uses as being a conservative writing for the New York Times, which he described on stage as similar to being “chief rabbi at Mecca.”
“I think we’ve gotten out of the habit of talking about what is good character and what is good morality,” he said. “My audience at the New York Times is pretty left wing and I’m not, so I try to write to them in a way that’s respectful and understands where they are coming from, but here’s where I think you’re wrong.”
Brooks said discussion will result in better decision-making and healthier politics, thus a healthier society.
“You have to figure out what is a good life,” he said. “If we can live good lives together, we can figure the rest out.”