For at least the third time, I am genuinely disturbed by David Brooks' latest for The New York Times. After spending some time in the United Kingdom, Brooks comes away with a newfound admiration for the British political system that happens to focus on its worst and most undemocratic elements:
Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.
But the plusses outweigh the minuses. The big newspapers still set the agenda, not cable TV or talk radio. If the quintessential American pol is standing in his sandbox screaming affirmations to members of his own tribe, the quintessential British pol is standing across a table arguing face to face with his opponents.
British leaders and pundits know their counterparts better. They are less likely to get away with distortions and factual howlers. They are less likely to believe the other party is homogenously evil. They are more likely to learn from a wide range of people. When they do hate, their hatreds are more likely to be personal and less likely to take on the tenor of a holy war.
In other words, Brooks is praising the British political culture for its ability to distance the voting public from the actual mechanisms of governing. Because the British political culture is shaped around a handful of people from a handful of elite schools, ordinary people (from unassuming backgrounds) are essentially barred from entering politics in a meaningful sense. Likewise, because British politicians see themselves as accountable to each other and their relationships (in Brooks' depiction, at least), they aren't forced to deal with pesky constituents, who might prefer representation to dictation. And because major newspapers dominate British political journalism, there are fewer avenues for non-elites -- informed or otherwise -- to participate in the political conversation.
If this column is any indication, Brooks is clearly uncomfortable with politics as traditionally practiced in the United States, with its low barriers for entry and capacity for meaningful citizen participation. As such, he glamorizes a British system that keeps politics restricted to a small, isolated elite, with little individual accountability to the people they represent. For my part, I genuinely believe that the United States benefits from the wide range of voices and experiences that comes with a porous and malleable political system.
Insofar that our government is dysfunctional, it has less to do with provincial people in the halls of power, and more to do with veto point saturation, which ensures a strong status quo bias and keeps the system from making even minor shifts in either direction, to say nothing of drastic ones. If Brooks were actually interested in a more responsive government, he'd champion efforts to reform or remove the most abused veto mechanisms, like the filibuster. Absent that, I can't but read this column as a statement of Brooks' fundamental discomfort with democratic participation.