David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence is interesting, both for what it says and for what it means. What it says is that the American political system is broken. What it means is that even a columnist at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world lacks the gumption to make his point directly.
Rather than simply reaching conclusions about America, Brooks softens his views by addressing both the European and American democratic systems. Does anyone actually believe there are similarities between these “systems”? America has been a representative democracy for almost 250 years; Europe still had crowned heads leading it into a bloody war less than 100 years ago. The balkanized, multi-party, coalition-dependent parliamentary systems in most European countries bear little relation to our two-party system, where nearly every election has a clear winner and loser and a ruling majority results. Until recently, America had stoutly resisted the European socio-economic model, with its early retirement ages and short work weeks and months of paid vacation. And no one in their right mind would equate the European Union with our Congress. The ponderous bureaucrats of the EU will be there forever, impossible to root out; in America, in contrast, voters can easily — as the last three election cycles have shown — toss out incumbents and install new representatives who purportedly will better reflect their views.
Still, Brooks reaches the right conclusion. America is on the wrong track because people have stopped viewing government as a necessary evil and have come to view it instead as a kind of personal gravy train. John Kennedy’s stirring statement in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has been turned completely on its head. Many Americans now just want to get government benefits without paying taxes. They want the government to provide them with jobs, and “loans” that will ultimately be forgiven, and “free” health care. And our poll-driven “leaders” are perfectly happy to encourage this dependency on government and are too craven to act responsibly, whether it comes to the federal budget or eliminating programs that don’t work well — and in some cases don’t work at all.
Brooks recognizes this. Why, then, does he create a false equivalence between America and Europe? I think it’s because simply stating that America is on the wrong track, and our politicians have led us there, requires more guts than he possesses. He doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset any of the powerful inside-the-beltway types that he hobnobs with, so he writes something that makes it seem as though democracies, generally, are doomed to fail through the sheer force of greedy human nature. That conclusion makes the bitter pill a lot easier to swallow: it’s no one’s fault, really.
I strongly disagree with that. America has been, is, can be, and should be different from Europe. Our failure is the failure of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who want to hold on to the reins of power and have pandered to the worst instincts of people and corporations and interest groups rather than saying “no” and even requiring sacrifice.
Europe is probably doomed; with America, though, there is still hope. We just need some leaders who will fight to get us back on the right track, rather than throwing up their hands and concluding that we and Europe are on the road to hell together. It would help, too, if we had journalists who were willing to state that conclusion, sharply and plainly, as journalists are supposed to do. One of the reasons our politicians have gotten away with their behavior is that the news media has for the most part failed to call them out for their irresponsibility.