We hear too often about America’s impending doom, said David Brooks, political pundit and New York Times journalist. It is time, he believes, that we started talking about the remedy.
In Tuesday’s annual Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture, Brooks spoke to hundreds of students, faculty and political enthusiasts about legislative gridlock. Brooks believes that increasing polarization has poisoned the political process and shaken Americans’ faith in government.
“People basically know what needs to be done,” he said of the need to reform the system. “[But] we don’t know the avenue to get there.”
Brooks said he believes that the two-party system has trapped politicians in a “social, tribal cycle” which prevents them from straying too far from their party’s ideology. This rigidity is a product of a congressional culture rooted less and less in personal interaction.
“The parties talk about each other as if the other side lacks human features,” he said, noting that congressmen rarely lunch together, as they once did, and frequently choose to live outside Washington D.C.
As a result, Brooks said, congressmen are less able to reach across the aisle, for fear of losing the party support necessary for re-election. The columnist said he thinks the broken system will render America unable to avoid the national bankruptcy and financial meltdown he believes is currently inevitable. In order to change course American government needs a “total system reformation,” he said.
Brooks said that President Barack Obama has worsened the problem by pushing an aggressive agenda insensitive to the nation’s economic fears. He noted that the president set in motion 131 major initiatives in his first six months with an administration that Brooks described as “woefully understaffed.”
Tuesday’s midterm “shellacking,” as Obama called it, was a message from voters that they did not like his legislative priorities, especially his decision to push health care reform when nationwide unemployment was hovering at its highest rates in a decade, Brooks said. Just as Bush’s failed policies helped Obama take office two years ago, he said, the president’s agenda to date has fostered voter discontent and engendered grassroots movements like the Tea Party.
Although Brooks believes that the rise of the Tea Party is representative of a desire to reform government, he said the movement itself relies on twisting the truth and manipulating societal ignorance to gain a following.
Brooks insists the solution lies with America’s third ideological tradition: centrism. He said centrists want “a limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility,” but find themselves hampered by an insufficient fund-raising apparatus and an inability to spread their message.
Still, Brooks remains hopeful that the system can change.
“I maintain my optimism against all sanity,” he said. “There has to be change in intellectual landscape, change in the institutional landscape and change in the political landscape.”
Brooks, who was a guest professor at Duke in Fall 2006, was invited to speak at the Sanford School of Public Policy by Gridlock, a new program that aims to find solutions to restructuring America’s inefficient bureaucracy.
“When walking around Duke, [Brooks] gazed into an empty classroom and remembered when he was a guest lecturer here,” said David Schanzer, co-founder of the Gridlock program and associate professor of the practice for public policy. “He spoke nostalgically about the free flow of creative ideas in that class. He sees that as the promising future of America.”
Brooks concluded his remarks by conveying his faith in that future.
“[This is] the most wholesome generation in history,” he said, noting that the next generation to enter Washington will be able to boast a third fewer teenage pregnancies and abortions than this one.
His remarks seemed to resonate with students in attendance.
“I was very impressed by his open consideration of various Democratic and Republican party strategies, with equal critique for both,” freshman Jack Wagner said. “[But] I think maybe his views of sweeping systematic change might be hyperbolic and idealistic.”
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