Friday, April 06, 2007

David Brooks: Neomoron

MT drew my attention to an article on the American Leftist by "Joe", who muses over a two-week-old David Brooks op-ed on the state of The New Republic. The Brooks article is about The New Republic's shift leftward; Foer is bringing some real progressives onto the staff, such as the "neopopulist" Tom Frank, whose column Brooks clearly isn't looking forward to perusing. Nor should he be: as Brooks surely realizes, Frank trashes Brooks repeatedly in "What's the matter with Kansas?" Indeed, Brooks becomes an embodiment of everything slimy and devious in the conservative movement (my favority Frank point is when he quotes David Brooks on class; to Brooks, America is not hierarchical, but like a "high school cafeteria," in which different groups choose to sit at different tables).

But Joe's piece on the American leftist really isn't about any of this. Primarily, Joe just can't believe that David Brooks doesn't know what the word "neoliberal" means. The "liberal" in "neoliberal" refers not to the American left, but to classical economic liberalism (laissez-faire economics--the word liberal just comes from the latin word "liber," meaning "free"). But for Brooks, the term seems to signify "centrist democrat." Writing about The New Republics move away from "neoliberalism," Brooks says, "On policy matters, the neoliberals were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspicious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism, reformist when it came to the welfare state, and urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues."

Now, it is true that many of the politicians and pundits Brooks is talking about support neoliberalism, and that Tom Frank does not. But Brooks clearly has no idea what this word means. I see Brooks' mistake as more than a silly botch. This makes me think of Walter Benn Michaels' point that neoliberalism is so pervasive in American thought that we no longer have any organized resistance to it. In other words, maybe Brooks doesn't know what the word means because he never has to argue against anyone who isn't classically liberal. Enter Tom Frank, whose column in the mainstream New Republic is a positive sign of possible changes to come.

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