David Brooks chats with students about politics and the debate
Before New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered the Press Lecture at Centre on Oct. 2, he took time to chat with 24 students representing the Centre Democrats, Centre Republicans, student newspaper the Cento and the Student Government Association (SGA).
The students’ admiration and esteem for Brooks was evident from the first question, when Luke Wetton ’14, president of the Centre Republicans, asked, “When you stop writing, will you come be a professor at Centre?”
“You know why you want me to do that? Because I taught once at Yale and at the end of the term, I had no idea how to grade,” Brooks said to laughter. “I like teaching, but it’s very hard. It’s easy to lecture, but it’s hard to generate discussion.
“I did go out to dinner with every student in my classes, so I learned a lot about social life in this generation—that was my main take-away,” Brooks continued. “Learning about their culture was very educational.”
Brooks is renowned for his commentary on politics and society. In the past, he has edited and reported for publications including The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, Newsweek and Atlantic Monthly. He is a commentator PBS NewsHour and is often invited to speak on National Public Radio. Brooks has also authored several books, including his most recent, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list after its 2011 release.
Students were interested in getting Brooks’ take on a range of issues. Much of the conversation focused on the current political climate and election, with several questions about the extreme partisanship in Congress.
“There’s zero trust. And you can’t just get together and say, let’s start trusting each other. You have to work together,” Brooks said. “You know those trust-building games people do? That wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“They all know it’s unacceptable,” Brooks continued. “What’s happened is the tribal mentality has taken over, and they’re trapped in a system they detest. Very few of them want to live this life, but it would take a different sort of leadership to get out of it.”
Cento Staff Writer CJ Donald ’13 asked Brooks for his thoughts on leadership and a vacuum of leaders like President Franklin Roosevelt to help galvanize the country.
“First of all, we’d never want to go back to that generation. To be in the leadership circle, your family had to come over on the Mayflower. But they did have a culture of how to breed leaders. Along with that came an idea of responsibility of what you owed the country,” Brooks responded. “They had a real character code and created a lot of very fine leaders who were toughened by the code of service. We’ve fallen down on teaching people how to serve as leaders. Based on these social indicators, though—like graduation rates—we’re moving very much in the right direction. Your generation is very socially responsible.”
Talk moved to the presidential election, and Brooks pointed out the uniqueness of this particular campaign and how the election process has changed.
“I’ve covered a lot of campaigns, but I’ve never covered one with so few policy proposals on the table,” he said. “Used to be, when you started running a campaign, you gave ten or fifteen big policy speeches laying out your agenda. Now candidates have gotten rid of the policy speeches, gotten rid of the agendas, to focus on the end goal.”
When asked why he thought candidates have shifted away from policy-focused campaigns, Brooks replied, “A different theory about the electorate has emerged. We used to think there were a lot of swing voters and politicians had to present a plan to appeal to them. There aren’t many swing voters anymore—or they’re people who don’t pay attention to politics.”
As a member of the press himself, students were interested in gauging Brooks’ opinion on the role of the media in modern political campaigns.
“One thing that has changed in the last fifteen years is that there used to be very few cameras around. There were cameras at press conferences, but then you got on the bus with a candidate and you just sat around talking, and they’d gossip about other politicians —they were pretty wide open,” Brooks said. “Now there are cameras everywhere, so they never do that. The other factor is because they have iPhones, they know what the other candidate said five seconds ago, so they’re reacting constantly. They’re caught in this very short-term cycle of tit for tat. That’s how technology has changed things.”
Brooks also spoke specifically about the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre on 10.11.12 and the issues that will be brought up that evening.
“The big factor for me is how Biden attacks Romney for Ryan’s budget policy and how Ryan defends it,” he said. “Medicare will be a huge weakness for Romney and Ryan. I assume Biden’s going to go after them on that, and Ryan will have to make the case for it. I assume that will be one of the key moments of the debate here.”
SGA Representative Parker Lawson ’15 asked Brooks, “What intrigues you about the role Centre plays in the Vice Presidential Debate?”
“I think it’s a great opportunity for you guys—you either have a Division I basketball team or get to host one of the debates,” Brooks replied with a grin. “I think it’s great on a number of levels. It gets people interested in politics. To be honest, when I was in college, I didn’t pick up a newspaper every day, so I was only thinly aware.
“Anything to raise the political consciousness on a campus is good,” Brooks continued, “and you’ll get to see Joe Biden and Paul Ryan—and the traveling circus that I’m a part of.”