With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Interview with David Brooks

David Brooks is the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and the editor of the anthology Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing (Vintage Books, 1996) He is working on a book called How to Be American (forthcoming from Simon and Schuster). He was recently appointed an op-ed columnist at the NYT.

Joseph Lucas: When you were in college, at the University of Chicago, you planned to become an academic historian. What got you interested in history? Did you have an idea back then of what you would write about once you became a history professor?

David Brooks: I grew up in an academic household. My father was an English professor who worked at New York University and then Westchester University teaching mostly 19th-century English literature. And my mother wrote her history dissertation at Columbia University—on Wimbledon Common—and then went on to teach Western Civ. as a traveling, starving professor. So history was basically something I grew up with. It was normal for me to want to become a history professor. It was the family business.

I became interested in American history, particularly late 19th- and early 20th-century technological history, and social and cultural history. One of my professors at the University of Chicago was Neil Harris. He was my senior paper advisor, and I took a number of courses from him on the effects of technology and other things on culture.

Even at an early age I fixated on the books of the late 1950s and early 1960s—Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964), William Taylor’s Cavalier and Yankee (1961), Cesar Graña’s Bohemian versus Bourgeois (1964), and the books that came from that American historical tradition of Richard Hofstadter and Henry Steele Commager. Those were the books I liked the most.

Lucas: Do you still like those books?

Brooks: Absolutely. I go back to those books all the time. I’m writing a book now that’s sort of an updated version of David Potter’s People of Plenty (1954). In the 1950s historical writing was more for the general public—sometimes a little too broad, maybe, but usually more interesting than the stuff that came before and after.

Lucas: At that time, historians were in the habit of taking on big themes. They didn’t hesitate to conceive of and then tackle subjects like “the history of the American mind.”

Brooks: My favorite example is Reinhold Neibuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, which I always say covers a lot of ground. I admire the serious scholarship of that era—on Neibuhr’s part or Commager’s (his book The American Mind). But there was also a willingness to generalize and the understanding that you were writing for the educated lay reader.

Lucas: What do you think has changed since then?

Brooks: I would say professionalization and scientism are the two main culprits. I didn’t become an academic in part because I didn’t want to write for journals whose readers numbered only in the single digits.

When I was a senior in college I went to a conference which was put on by the Chicago literary magazine Triquarterly. Lots of academic all-stars were there, mainly from literary studies, but not exclusively: Wayne Booth, Edward Said, Ronald Dworkin. There were about fifteen or twenty superstars, very impressive people. I sat there for twenty-two hours, and I barely understood a word they said. I wrote in the school paper that maybe this language is useful, and I could go to graduate school and learn it. But suppose it turns out to be a racket? Then I’ll have wasted ten years, and then I’ll have to unlearn what I’ve learned. So I ended up not going to graduate school, and went into journalism instead.

Lucas: Yet it’s clear from your writing that you keep tabs on what academics are up to.

Brooks: I look at the catalogues of academic presses, and I spend a lot of time cruising the better bookstores. When Lingua Franca was around, they would have people in the field describing what they thought were the best books in the field, and you could pick up a few of those if you were interested.

I need to keep in touch with the world of scholarship for the sort of reporting I do. Every reporter needs to bring something to the table. Some people bring the fact that they’ve just gotten off the phone with somebody who was at a meeting with the president. I don’t do that sort of reporting, so I try to bring the world of ideas to bear on modern politics and modern events. I just went down to Nashville to look into Bill Frist’s background, and I needed to find books about either Nashville or the South, or the “southern mind.”

Lucas: What did you read to prepare for the Nashville trip?

Brooks: I read John Egerton’s The Americanization of Dixie. I went back and read a book I mentioned already, Cavalier and Yankee, which is a favorite of mine. It’s about the cavalier mentality of the Confederacy and its anti-commercial feeling. I have a reasonable knowledge of the Southern Agrarians—I’ll Take My Stand was assigned to me in college.

I just wrote a piece about why Americans lack class consciousness. There you can go back to Seymour Martin Lipset and his writings on American exceptionalism. Or you can go further back to Puritanism. One of the writers I often turn to is Sacvan Bercovitch (named after Sacco and Vanzetti). His description of the eschatological framework of the Puritan mind is something I find very applicable to a lot of current public policy debates.

Lucas: So you believe that ideas from the colonial period still inform American culture?

Brooks: Why does George Bush—who, as he said during the campaign, has no interest in nation-building, who doesn’t have a great interest in history and probably hasn’t read too many books—react to September 11 in such an overtly moralistic way? I’d say it’s because he subconsciously has inherited certain ideas about what America should be and certain religious impulses. And those ideas and impulses are deep and longstanding, as many historians have described them.

Lucas: Are these the kind of ideas you write about in your forthcoming book, How to Be American?

Brooks: Essentially the question of the book is: if you drive around your basic fast-growing suburb in America , are these people as shallow as they look? I hope to show that while there are many excesses of materialism and shallowness and complacency, the ideas that, say, Bercovitch talks about, and some of the nobler impulses that Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt talked about, are still alive, if submerged, in these people.

Lucas: You started your first book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by writing about the changes you noticed in America when you got back from Europe after working there for several years for the Wall Street Journal. You’ve written elsewhere about the differences between Europeans and Americans. These are differences you’ve experienced first-hand.

Brooks: I left America a big Europhile, and came back still admiring Europebut feeling much more estranged from it than before I lived there. My two turtles when I was a boy were named Disraeli and Gladstone. My family was Anglophilic, very much in the “think Yiddish act British” style of New York Jewry. When I lived in Brussels for four and a half years I came to see that the mentality really is very different. I felt more like a stranger there than I expected to.

Lucas: In “Among the Bourgeoisophobes: Why the Europeans and Arabs, Each in Their Own Way, Hate America and Israel ,” Weekly Standard (April 15, 2002), you argue that an anti-bourgeois ethos shapes elite Europeans’ ideas about America . Is this a vestige of the aristocratic disdain for ordinary people?

Brooks: There is definitely a different attitude toward democracy. I would get invited to these conferences at a place called Ditchley Park, which is in Oxfordshire where Churchill spent part of World War II. In attendance were elite diplomats from across Europe, academics and foreign policy people from the States, and a few journalists. You would hear from the European diplomats—and there were also former prime ministers and cabinet ministers—anti-democratic attitudes that you just wouldn’t hear in America , uttered publicly at least. The idea that we can never let the people know about this, we can’t let them vote on this because they’ll get it all wrong. Those are attitudes that I think are prevalent in Europe and just not found in the United States.

Europeans have more sophisticated public discussions. And frankly a lot of Europeans, particularly the French, write the sort of books I like. Scholars there are less professionalized and what they write is read by the general public.

But I came away thinking—and maybe this was just Belgium—that Francis Fukuyama’s “last man” really was to be found in northern Europe; complacent, flat, comfort-oriented lives—not enough work.

Lucas: Since Bobos in Paradise [which argues that the American elite of the 1990s successfully merged two sets of values that have historically been at odds: bourgeois and bohemian—hence, “bobo”] you’ve continued to write about the American bourgeoisie, and also its enemies. I’m thinking of “Among the Bourgeoisophobes,” and also “Patio Man and the Sprawl People: America’s Newest Suburbs,” Weekly Standard (August 12-19, 2002) and “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” Atlantic Monthly (December 2001). Why is it that Bobos don’t figure very largely in these essays?

Brooks: I’m sick of them. While promoting the book, actually, I found myself in places like Scottsdale, Arizona, where golf is far more important as a cultural influence than universities. I remember being in Piffin, Ohio, a rural town where a lot of the things I was writing about didn’t touch these people at all. I sort of knew this already, but I came to see more vividly that the slice of America I wrote about in Bobos, the coastal, upper-middle class suburb, is an influential but small part of America. And so since then I’ve tried to do more reporting from rural America, exurban America, and in Nashville, where I just came back from, pretty well-preserved Protestant establishment America, with white-tie balls and country clubs, and rich people who’ve been rich for four generations.

I’ve become incredibly impatient with people who don’t know about these parts of America (which was me only five years ago)—people who don’t know what Pentecostalism is, or don’t know who Tim LaHaye is (whose books have sold 42 million copies). It seems to me you have a responsibility to know your own country.

Lucas: Do you think that these neglected parts of America have closer ties to the country’s cultural roots?

Brooks: All the country’s regions have ties to America ’s many different traditions. But if you use the phrase “middle America,” you’re talking about the people who live in rural areas and exurbs. And exurban America is interesting because it’s growing. One of the things that intrigues me is that in the 1990s 90 percent of the offices that were built in this country were built in exurbs. Whereas in 1979 the vast majority—I think 80 percent—of the office space in America was in cities. Now it’s almost 50/50. So you have a whole new crowd of people who don’t commute to cities, don’t go to dinner in cities, don’t have any contact with urban life. They live in these fast-growing exurbs, and it’s interesting to know what they’re all about.

Lucas: Do you think these people are more capable than Bobos of articulating and defending American values?

Brooks: No, they’re much less capable. They don’t read as much; they don’t listen to NPR; they don’t even watch PBS. The paradox of their lives is that they seek out the pleasures of private life, but because they work so hard and create so many companies and jobs and products, they account for the U.S. economy being so dominant in the world, and therefore arousing hatred, envy, resentment—all sorts of feelings—from people around the world. So while they seek out just private satisfaction, America ’s position in the world means that they’re inescapably drawn to foreign conflicts, as we learned on September 11, 2001. So they get woken up and dragged into politics, which they desperately want to avoid. They’re not inclined or trained or interested in—I’m speaking generally, of course—the wars of ideas and debates about the future of the country.

Lucas: You mentioned Francis Fukuyama. Since September 11, 2001, intellectuals have waged a modern battle of the books, pitting Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man against Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. What do you make of this?

Brooks: I used to be a firm Fukuyaman. I was the only person in America, aside from him maybe, who would go around saying his book was absolutely right. The second part of the book is about “the last man,” which as I said is who I found in Brussels. Fukuyama’s intellectual guru, Alexandre Kojève, moved to Brussels when he decided history was over, which was an act of integrity, if boringness.

Now I’m a little less convinced that Fukuyama is right. One of things you see across the United States and especially across the world is religious revival being so strong. Philip Jenkins, a historian at Penn State, notes in his book The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity that the most successful social idea of the 20th century was Pentecostalism, which started at nothing and now has 400-500 million adherents. According to projections there will be about one billion Pentecostals in the world in 2050.

Jenkins writes about the rise of Christianity in Latin America and Africa, especially the rise of Protestantism, which is displacing Catholicism in many places. What this shows is that, as Peter Berger argues, the secularization thesis is not true. You have to be a lot more religiously minded when you think about grand politics. You have to be aware of religion when you think about this Fukuyama/Huntington debate. To me it’s not so much a clash of religions but a clash of eschatologies. Saddam Hussein has one vision of how history ends, Osama bin Laden has another, and many Americans share a vision of how history ends—with the United States as the last, best hope on earth leading the whole world to democracy.

Lucas: In much of your work you suggest that big changes have recently happened or are happening right now. How do you think future historians will describe our era?

Brooks: One of the things I think future scholars will emphasize is the tremendous wave of democratization throughout the world. I think there were 10 multi-party democracies in the world at the turn of the 20th century, and now there are 120 real democracies and 170 multi-party nations, 33 new democracies in the last 20 years.

I think that our look at the world does not take into account our victory in the Cold War. When historians look back on this era that will be a tremendous victory, and I think we’re either too close to it or don’t really understand what it means. We’re shaped more by World War II and Vietnam than our victory in the Cold War.

Historians will also focus on the unprecedented mass affluence of the country. When you go to places like Douglas County or Loudoun County or Henderson, Nevada, they’re carving golf courses out of the desert, and these places are huge. Mesa, Arizona, has more people living in it than live in St. Louis, Minneapolis, or Cincinnati. That’s the emergence of a new sort of person. And we really haven’t caught up with that.

This interview was published by The Historical Society and is reprinted with permission.