David Brooks is right, but not for the reason he thinks

Jimmy Carter’s well-spirited but perhaps poorly worded statement about racism being the primary motivator of teabaggers has touched off a fiery back-and-forth about the role of race relations in the health care debate. One of the latest salvos was supplied by NY Times columnist and egghead extraordinaire David Brooks, whose most recent column claims that “No, It’s Not About Race“:

Well, I don’t have a machine for peering into the souls of Obama’s critics, so I can’t measure how much racism is in there. But my impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts.

The populist tendency has always used the same sort of rhetoric: for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers.

And it has always had the same morality, which the historian Michael Kazin has called producerism. The idea is that free labor is the essence of Americanism. Hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways, are the moral backbone of the country. In this free, capitalist nation, people should be held responsible for their own output. Money should not be redistributed to those who do not work, and it should not be sucked off by condescending, manipulative elites.

Brooks is invoking the same notion of cultural “populism” that he always does – a faux populism that entirely disregards the importance of the economic elite in, well, the economy. I’m sure the old 1890’s Kansas-style populists would agree that the wealth they produce should not be sucked off by manipulative elites, the cocktail party class of which Brooks is an enthusiastic member. But they clearly wouldn’t agree with the modern laissez-faire implications of the statement “people should be held responsible for their own output”. Brooks’ depiction of  an “effete liberal” elite is fundamentally dishonest in that it looks entirely at cultural differences and completely ignores the fact that a government committed to laissez-faire economics is deliberately designed to redistribute wealth to the upper echelons and keep it there. The original populists knew this point all too well, and it was perhaps the primary motivator of their movement.

But that’s not my main point here. Brooks’ incessant invocation of the fake culture war is executed with one goal in mind: by playing the have-a-littles against the have-nots; it ensures the true haves will be left alone to control the means of production with little resistance of note. The true teabaggers, to generalize a bit, are those who are getting by but not thriving by any means. These are generally religious, culturally conservative and almost exclusively white folks. And they’ve been conditioned by people like Brooks to believe that the government’s primary purpose is to take their hard-earned winnings to line the pockets of both the urban elites and the lazy have-nots.

Yes, there is a lot of overlap between racists and teabaggers, because the efforts of the elite to manipulate class war between the underclasses is very familiar throughout American history, and used to take an overtly racist form in the days when that was acceptable. It’s a classic Machiavellian move to protect the powerful. So perhaps that’s where  Carter is coming from – he clearly remembers those days.

But at its core, the teabagger ethos really isn’t about race. We would be wise to remember that when engaging them.



1 comment so far

  1. Chris on

    Well certainly Brooks is off base on his description of historical populism, which just not all similar to his vision of American values rejecting the welfare state.

    Huey Long proposed both a hard cap on maximum income and a guaranteed minimum income floor, which far exceeds the government intervention enacted by Roosevelt.

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