David Brooks – The Great Resource

April 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What would I do without David Brooks?

One of the exercises I always assign asks students to find an opinion piece – an op-ed, a letter to the editor – and to reduce its central point to a testable hypothesis about the relation between variables. What are the variables, how would you operationalize them, what would be their categories or values, what would be your units of analysis, and what information would you use to decide which category each unit goes in?

To save them the trouble of sifting through the media, I have a stockpile of articles that I’ve collected over the years – articles that make all sorts of assertions but without any evidence.  Most of them are by David Brooks. (OK, not most, but his oeuvre is well represented.)

Yesterday’s column (here) is an excellent example. His point is very simple: We should consider personal morality when choosing our political leaders. People with bad morals will also be bad leaders.

Voting for someone with bad private morals is like setting off on a battleship with awesome guns and a rotting hull. There’s a good chance you’re going to sink before the voyage is over.

People who are dishonest, unkind and inconsiderate have trouble attracting and retaining good people to their team. They tend to have sleazy friends. They may be personally canny, but they are almost always surrounded by sycophants and second-raters who kick up scandal and undermine the leader’s effectiveness. . .

But, historically, most effective leaders — like, say, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — had a dual consciousness. They had an earnest, inner moral voice capable of radical self-awareness, rectitude and great compassion. They also had a pragmatic, canny outer voice. . . .

Those three – Washington, TR, and Churchill – constitute the entirety of Brooks’s evidence for his basic proposition: “If candidates don’t acquire a moral compass outside of politics, they’re not going to get it in the White House, and they won’t be effective there.”

The comments from readers mentioned others leaders, mostly presidents. But how do you measure a politician’s effectiveness? And how do you measure a politician’s morality? More important, how do you measure them separately. Was Bush II moral? It’s very tempting to those on the left to see the failures of his presidency as not just bad decisions but as sins, violations of morality. Was Bill Clinton effective? Those who dwell on his moral failings probably don’t think so. Presumably, political scientists have some way of measuring effectiveness. Or do they? But does anyone have a standard measure of morality?

So Brooks gets a pass on this one. It’s not that he’s wrong, it’s that it would be impossible to get systematic evidence that might help settle the question.

Still, Brooks, in this column as in so many others, provides a useful material for an exercise in methodology. If David Brooks didn’t exist, I would have to create him.

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