David Brooks succumbed to historical fundamentalism in his New York Times opinion column yesterday:
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders.As usual, Brooks was unable to name names while criticizing the American right, but able to do so while criticizing the American left. His column never mentions the last time the U.S. of A. was not adding to “huge peacetime debts” (the Clinton administration). In advocating a non-factional approach to problem-solving, it never mentions the last time a new President invited three members of the opposing party to join his Cabinet (Obama).
According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
Brooks’s presentation of history was equally selective. He described the founders’ stated ideal of “a state of equilibrium between [the nation’s] many factions” while ignoring how they quickly ended up practicing factional politics. Not only was the first generation of American politicians not above partisan strife, they weren’t above anathematizing their opponents.
Brooks’s description of “a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness,” fits perfectly with the Federalist-Jeffersonian battles. Only a month ago Reason TV uploaded a parody attack ad for the 1796 and 1800 campaigns using quotations from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and their adherents.
As for Brooks’s attempt to tie that approach to politics to “huge peacetime debts,” let’s look at the level of federal debt from 1800 to 2000 (i.e., not including the last decade). The debt was lowest during Andrew Jackson’s administration, just before the Civil War, and in the 1910s. Were those all periods of bipartisan cooperation and respect? Not really.
Federal debt went up as a percentage of G.D.P. during wartime, but also during peacetime economic downturns, including the Panics of 1837, 1873, and 1892, and the Depression of 1929. After the very large spike during World War 2, which ended with the U.S. relatively unscathed among major powers, the country paid down its debt steadily until the economic problems of the 1970s, then borrowed heavily in the 1980s. For more recent history, Wikipedia offers a helpful chart of the growth of U.S. debt, broken out by recent presidential terms.
Again, I’m not seeing the historical correlation that Brooks perceives. Instead, I’m seeing in his column the hallmarks of historical fundamentalism: declaring that the first generation of American founders were:
- in fundamental agreement with each other.
- largely right on most major issues.
- remarkably in line with the author’s own views.