The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Hello, hoist. Meet petard. Oh, you already know each other?

October 11, 2008

David Brooks always styled himself as a member of the conservative intellectual vanguard. He would much rather be an observer of “real people” than to actually dirty his hands at playing milkmaid in his own Hameau de la reine.

But David Brooks has recently come to a stunning realization: To borrow a line from Jeff Foxworthy, “you might be a member of the East Coast elite if… you have a column in The New York Times, are a regular commentator on the NEWSHOUR, and like to drop names like Edmund Burke and Russel Kirk.”

Now, fearing that he might be among the first against the wall when the revolution comes, Brooks fearlessly condemns the tenor of a McCain-Palin campaign likely to go down in flames.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

Poor David. He thought only his friends would be led to the guillotine. So he did his best to fan the flames of the culture war–but always in a soothing tone befitting a “conservative intellectual.”

Brooks assumed that the rabble was both virtuous and stupid. After all, he wagered, how could anyone smart actually believe the steady stream of transparent propaganda his team puts out on Fox News and Talk Radio? But Brooks was wrong. The Christian soldiers aren’t stupid. They may not know the difference between Russel Kirk and John Rawls–which Brooks should have recognized might be a problem for his ilk–but they have more than enough sense to recognize that anyone who teaches a course at Yale and “pals around” with Ivory Tower socialists is definitely not one of them (unless covered by the “Supreme Court Exception”).

Now Brooks can sense it all slipping away. He has to choose between two nightmares: the triumph of Obama, himself a liberal intellectual, or of McCain, who might not be able (or live long enough) to hold back the anti-intellectual tide.

But, despite the facts staring him in the face, Brooks still imagines this is all some sort of mistake, and that it will all be sorted out soon. “We just got a little too caught up in our attacks on Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry,” he thinks to himself. “When the adults take back control of the Republican party, I can return to business as usual and attack liberal intellectuals and East Coast elites with impunity.”

That’s why he can’t admit the whole truth: Sarah Palin is “smart [and] politically skilled,” but her debate performance was not “impressive” and, more to the point, she doesn’t write those speeches that “relentlessly [divide] the world between the ‘normal Joe Sixpack American’ and the coastal elite.”

Coastal elites, whether native or naturalized, do.

Brooks has met the enemy, and the enemy is David Brooks.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.