Out of the Bubble

There's a bright, new columnist working at The New York Times, a fresh voice who may bring a bit of sanity to our national conversation. His name is David Brooks. Oh, you've heard that name already? Well, he appears to be a new man. Here is his description of what amounts to his Road to Damascus moment, from his recent column, "If Not Trump, What?":

I've slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata--in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.

This describes the plight of so many people I know and like: they are living in that bubble he has fled, refusing to come out from under it. It would be interesting to know what was the catalyst for his awakening, but it isn't important. The fact that he's aware of his own ignorance of what's been happening in this country is thrilling, not only because he's a smart, talented pundit, but because it shows that this kind of awakening can actually happen. He has recognized the rising suicide rate among white American males and our growing social isolation, He has finally come to grips with the Trump/Sanders phenomenon: recognizing it as a sign that this country has run out of rope. We're hanging onto the last knot at the bottom, economically and socially, and, as a country, we need a way to start pulling ourselves back up from the abyss, one knot at a time. The rise of populist candidates isn't an anomaly, but a crucial sign that we need, as Brooks puts it, "a new national story."

Brooks, and most people in this nation, have given up on the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger model of a lone, plucky individual working hard to rise from the worst zip code to the best. What's needed is a paradigm of what it means to be American: the healing of communities through a new sense of solidarity among all social groups. The sense that we are all in this together, one for all and all for one, which was the spirit that prevailed during the Great Depression and through World War II--and then governed the way we ran our corporations in the 50s and 60s. Brooks acknowledges this, obliquely, by saying maybe we need a new national public works program that will re-employ and rebuild our nation the way "railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and NASA have bound this diverse nation." (Ironically, Trump himself advises the same thing, decreasing military intervention and rebuilding infrastructure, but without doing the painful math in terms of taxes and the federal budget. Sanders also avoids the painful math.)

For a while now, I've been talking about how most leaders in the private sector have been keeping company with Brooks inside the bubble. Like him, they have refused to pay attention to all the warning signs. They keep checking their stock prices (just fine), listening to shareholder advocates (not mutinous), checking their tax rates (comfortably low), and assuming most people in this country are also doing better than they were a decade ago. (In reality, most have given up on the notion of social mobility and the idea that hard work can give them a better life than their parents had.) Instead, they should be redesigning their business plans to put employees and customers at the top of their list of priorities--lowering prices while increasing compensation. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it's working at dozens of companies already and it needs to be working everywhere. It's the first step toward the sort of "communitarianism" Brooks is advocating here. It's another way of waking up to the new meaning of what it means to be an American. How many of us are big enough to publically admit to a personal transformation as David Brook has done? He's won my eternal respect and admiration.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.