David Brooks Discusses Inspirations, Shortcomings and the American Dream in Virtual Lecture

On Thursday, March 11, the college hosted its first event in a new virtual series titled “Politics and Poetry.” The six-part edition of the Point/Counterpoint series was a conversation between Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture Ilan Stavans and David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, political commentator for the PBS NewsHour and former professor at Yale University. There were 225 registered attendees at the event.

During their political conversation, left-leaning Stavans and right-leaning Brooks discussed American partisanship and whether or not they believe it can be reconciled. The two traced Brooks’ journey as a conservative thinker, investigated the present crisis of the Republican Party, pondered the definition of “American Character” and underlined the importance of undergraduate institutions in asking the “big questions.” The questions that directed the discussion were submitted by students of the “Politics and Poetry” class, Amherst alumni and other members of the Amherst community.

In an interview with The Student, Stavans said that his “intention was to understand who David Brooks is, what motivates him, how his political thinking has shifted, to what degree he understands the deep changes our nation has undergone or if he, like many of us, lives in a silo, where his fascination with ethics and morality comes from, his appraisal of the American character [and] his religious journey as a base for his ideas.”

The virtual event opened with introductory remarks from Stavans. He expressed his gratitude for funding provided by members of the Class of 1970 for the series and advertised the upcoming interviews with Jericho Brown, the poet laureate of the United States and John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. 

After presenting Brooks as a renowned contributor to the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and the New York Times, Stavans asked Brooks to lay out his path to conservatism. 

Brooks explained that he was born into a 1960s left-wing household in Greenwich Village in New York City. His first step to the right, he said, occured when he saw “hippies” in Central Park lighting their wallets on fire to demonstrate how little they cared about money and material things.

Later in life, when he was a police reporter at the onset of his career, Brooks read Edmund Burke, an 18th century classic conservative thinker who came up with the concept of epistemological modesty. “[Burke] said when [a person] changes, they should do it incrementally. They must be aware that society is really complex and that they will create all sorts of bad social outcomes, unintentionally. This hit home because, at the time, I was covering housing projects in Chicago that were put in with the best of intentions, but had turned into terrible places for the residents,” he said.

Brooks then revealed that he is inspired by Alexander Hamilton, an early instigator of the moderate republicanism movement in the United States. Brooks identifies with Hamiltonian and Lincolnian ideas that advocate for the use of government to drive social mobility, enhance equality and expand freedoms.

Stavans shifted the conversation next to the post-Trump identity crisis that’s fracturing the Republican Party. A relatively recent immigrant, Stavans compared the contemporary political landscape to Argentina in the wake of former President Juan Perón’s death and Venezuela when it lost former President Hugo Chávez. He asked Brooks whether he sees the country moving away from the grasps of a narcissistic leader and toward ideas like diversity of thought and pluralism.

Drawing on a phone call he had earlier that day, Brooks confessed that the Trump versus anti-Trump divide is more bitter than ever. “Something is intensifying right now. There’s as much intense social distrust and social fragmentation [in the United States now] as I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“Now that [Pro-Trumpers] are under assault, they’re building defenses, and they’re lashing out even more. It’s so intense that it divides families,” he said.

Brooks’ instinct is that Trump as a personality will slowly fade away. He cited how the American public has barely heard from him since he left the White House and how only 55 percent of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) indicated that they wanted Trump to be the Republican nominee in the next election.

The two moved on to discuss the definition of “American Character.” In other words, the two investigated the moral mechanics that underlie the “American Dream” — the idea that one can arrive in the United States and ascend the social ladder through education and hard work. This brought the two to a head about meritocracy and the lack of economic diversity at America’s elite colleges. Stavans pushed back after Brooks reflected on the “uncomfortable” effects of economic inequality amongst students in the classroom. Stavans said, “Isn’t there an advantage, even a beautiful advantage, living in discomfort? It leads to students to say: ‘I’m not fully satisfied with the education that I’m getting … I need to decode what is happening.’”

To this, Brooks admitted that the college experience does lead to students to ask the “big questions.” He expressed that trading his status as a professor to pursue journalism full-time has brought many challenges. Namely, he misses the inquisitiveness of students and has struggled to deal with barraging comments on his articles. Yet, after a tough first six months at the New York Times, Brooks thickened his skin and dove into perfecting his writing form.

Brooks has since learned to embrace his shortcomings as a journalist and accept that no column he writes will be perfect. For instance, Brooks wrongly predicted the outcome of the Iraq War. He recounted that he was in the Soviet Union when it imploded, South Africa when apartheid collapsed and predicted that democracy was “on a roll” in the Middle East. “I don’t write to tell people what to think, I write to provoke them to think. And so, that means you’re often a little more sure in print than you are in real life. It also means there’s never been a column that I’m completely satisfied with. When I look back on my career, I see that every column is a failure on some level,” he said. 

Neil Bicknell ’64, who is auditing the “Politics and Poetry” course, attended the event. “Professor Stavans did a stellar job in conducting the interview of David Brooks. He controlled the direction of the discussion and was effective in getting his interviewee to reveal himself. It was a pleasure to watch,” he said.

Bicknell emphasized that sustainability of the democratic system was an important theme in the discussion and also in Stavan’s class. He added that “Thursday’s discussion included the following statement of purpose for a liberal arts education — ‘to hear voices we haven’t heard, may not agree with, but need to respect.’ In other words, an education that promotes an appreciation of our shared humanity, an empathy that is the basis of morality. We need more such discussions.”

Haoran Tong ’23 also thought that Brooks offered a valuable counterpoint to the merits of the elite education system. “Many solutions that Brooks has proposed are actually imprinted in the liberal arts values that Amherst cherishes. For example, President [Biddy] Martin has repeatedly spoken about the value of listening to different voices and being able to hold conversations respectfully with those you disagree with. Brooks is not criticizing the liberal arts values, but rather the elitism that misrepresents it,” Tong said.

Overall, Tong was inspired by the event and enjoyed hearing about the process behind Brooks’ article production process. Tong said, “[The talk] provided a context [and now I can] read through his lines and see what he actually wanted to convey. While he intends to influence his audience for a positive change, his power is nevertheless constrained by the platform.”