Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements -- the civil rights movement. But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.Now, here's David Brooks in May 2010, writing about the Tea Party:
Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. They have a social experience with a lot of people and fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community. Such movements descend to the language of mass therapy.
Moreover, the tea party movement has passion. Think back on the recent decades of American history -- the way the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s. American history is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life.Emphasis added in both cases, obviously.
Brooks was wrong, of course, when he described the Koch-led, Fox-bred, ultimately loyal-Republican teabaggers as "outsiders." But please note for the record that when it suited him, he thought being outside the party structure was just fine for a movement that wanted to have an impact on American politics.
There are a hundred things wrong with Brooks's column on Saturday's marches, from the premature dismissal (yes, let's write off the civil rights movement because the Montgomery buses were still segregated after one day's boycott) to this:
In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”First, Brooks is relying on a Washington Post editorial (not a news story) for an assessment of what the demonstrations were about rather than, y'know, actually showing up to see for himself. Second, he's engaging in one of the cheapest forms of trollery, familiar to those of us who maintain online comments sections: You have just made an assertion about Subject A for which I have no intelligent rebuttal, so I'm just going to stamp my foot very loudly and demand that you address Subject B, on which I believe you are quite vulnerable. Oh, so you won't talk about Subject B? Why are you evading the issue? This form of trolling isn't limited to comments sections, of course -- it's the go-to Fox News response whenever there are protests after the police shooting of an unarmed black person (Hey, why aren't you talking about the murder rate in Chicago?).
These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities. But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.
All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.
Furthermore, Brooks's insistence that the anti-Trump movement can't talk about some vital issues because (in his opinion) there are other issues that are even more vital ignores the right's skill at making us change the political conversation to completely irrelevant issues -- birth certificate authenticity during the Obama years, the Massachusetts furlough program during the Dukakis campaign, email record-keeping during the Hillary Clinton campaign (although the right had a huge assist on that one from the mainstream media and the purist left).
Basically, the vital issues are whatever a lot of people say they are. A few dozen wingnut malcontents with semiautomatic weapons can occupy a bird sanctuary and suddenly we're all talking about federal land management. Why aren't a million-plus angry progressives allowed to set the terms of the debate that way?