September 9, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
David Brooks and the decay of white boomer politics
The stand-in for a fading political order is bewildered by politics, a sign of the GOP’s half-century dominance may be coming to an end.
On Monday, David Brooks, the Times columnist, wrote about No Labels, a third party. He could have been talking about himself, though. He could have been talking about the cycles of political time in which a darkening political order gives way to a bright new one.
What will we do, he asked, if the major parties nominate, in 2024, a redhat fascist on the one hand or a Bernie-Bro progressive on the other? No Labels provides an escape from both extremes, Brooks said. Unfortunately, it’s a pixie-dust alternative to stone-cold reality.
Brooks understands better than most that third parties never win. Yet apparently he clings so tightly to an imaginary “moderate middle” that he can’t accept that the Democratic Party represents the full spectrum of legitimate politics. The actual moderate middle is somewhere between Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Meanwhile, the Republicans are now lost in a miasma of redhat fascism.
For a “conservative” pundit who’s been watching politics for around three decades (nearly 20 years at the Times), this new political reality must feel intolerable – so intolerable that hyping a third party as if it were a serious alternative does not sound totally deranged. That it is deranged (totally) speaks more about David Brooks than to No Labels.
It tells us that he’s outside the center, looking in.
That should be welcomed news.
Yes, he can be a horse’s ass, but a more practical way to understand Brooks is not as a maddeningly inane individual, but as the avatar of a mainstream political consensus that emerged from upheavals of the 1960s – when the civil rights movement finally triumphed and the United States government finally conceded that the claims of the Declaration of Independence applied equally and universally.
Brooks is the personification of the white-power reaction to the rise of nonwhite and female political power. By 1980, reactionary politics had lifted a D-list actor and rightwing propagandist to the White House. With white conservative Christian in charge, no one talked anymore about women’s rights or Black liberty. As a result, NBC’s Tom Brokaw told us, America could feel good about itself again.
In short, Brooks, age 61, embodies his generation’s politics.
The politics of white boomer men.
I risk looking like I care about Brooks. I don’t. I find him useful, though. He can help us see clearly that the old political order, which centered white boomer men like him, is falling beneath a new one, like a tectonic plate grinding overtop another, creating a landscape so new that no one remembers what the old one looked like.
For this reason, we shouldn’t see his inanity as maddening. To the contrary, we should see it as exciting. The greater the inanity, the greater the irrelevance of white boomer politics. The more he struggles to comprehend – the more he refuses to accept new realities – the more the current political order is losing its grip.
I am not in any way overstating things when I say that white boomer politics has constituted America’s political order for the last 50 years.
Since 1976, majorities of white boomers have voted for the GOP presidential candidate. They endorsed endless culture wars as well as real forever wars. They endorsed rapacious market capitalism. They endorsed starving government of, by and for the people. White boomers were and still are the richest cohort in US history. Yet their lifetimes have seen their country decay and fade in every conceivable way, whether it’s education, infrastructure, climate or equality.
In an interview with a promising young office seeker, CNN anchor Jake Tapper said: “I don’t blame Generation Z. Let me give you a secret. It’s all the fault of the boomers. They ruined everything.”
Since Tapper’s comment last month, his employer has dramatically pivoted from a neutral source of news to a network similar to Fox. That shift reflects, I think, how the prevailing political order is fading away. And it points to an essential element of white boomer politics.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its power is weakening at the same time that the Republicans’ half-century dominance is too.
According to a former senior executive, writing on Twitter, CNN “printed money,” in the 1990s. “Cash. Hand over fist. Then MSNBC and Fox News came along. The race was on. MSNBC went velvet rope. Fox News went diner. CNN got caught in no man’s land.”
It profited from the Iraq War, but between 2008 and 2016, he said, CNN lost 60 percent of its 50-plus audience. “We didn’t … take a look at what was happening. The viewership started to splinter to MSNBC because some folks wanted a left bent. But a lot went to Fox News.” Indeed, Fox executives double-, then triple-downed on the olds, thus increasing their viewership by 70 percent over the same period.
Then came Donald Trump. Profits returned, but they were illusory, the former executive said. The over-65 set had fled to Fox. By the time CNN+ came along, its failure was foretold. The former executive said: “What 65-year-old is going to download and subscribe to a news streaming service with a basketball star, Rex Chapman.”
People under 50 cut the cord.
They stopped watching cable news.
Only boomers do.
I need not remind you there would not have been a President Trump without television power. White boomers watch TV. Most voted for Trump, twice. But as the television’s influence on the electorate decays and fades, so will the influence of white boomer politics.
It’s just a matter of time.
Is that time now?
Given that things that used to be true are no longer true, and that things that never happened before are happening, yeah, maybe.
Consider the conventional wisdom about midterms. They never go the president’s way. Joe Biden is supposed to lose the House.
But Amy Walters, of the Cook Political Report, said: “Poll after poll shows Democrats winning among voters who rate Joe Biden ‘somewhat unfavorably.’ That’s not happened before. In five midterms for which Pew Research had data, ‘somewhat disapprovers’ have never been this supportive of his party in the upcoming election.”
No one knows why this is happening, but it surely links up with the criminal former president who packed a renegade Supreme Court.
For now, let’s ask: what does it tell us when something that’s never happened before happens? Maybe that the political fundamentals in which things used to happen – like the president losing the Congress – have changed so profoundly that something that’s never happened before can really happen, like the president holding the Congress.
It’s no wonder David Brooks is confused.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.