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David Brooks on America’s Tribes

with 13 comments

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

That is TRC’s ever-favorite “conservative” editorialist, David Brooks, writing about the widening gaps between American tribes in his piece yesterday, titled, the Great Divorce.

Brooks clearly is enamored by his idea that American culture is tribal, not classist, and he runs and runs and runs with it. As a major news and opinion consumer, TRC thinks it can be pretty easy to notice when a writer has come up with something he or she thinks is quite clever, and, maybe doesn’t think it all the way through. Thus is Brooks’ dilemma.

It looks today as though David Brooks’ piece is causing a bit of an internet uproar. Politico has the rundown. The main complaint seems to be that Brooks, that harbinger of east-coast 1950s conservatism who longs for America to regain its glory by acknowledging it is losing its moral compass and soul (or some such nonsense), is oozing with bourgouis elitism and condescension.

So, internet, I have to ask: Why are you surprised? This is David Brooks. He is a standard upper-class (ahem, upper-tribe) ideas man, who when it comes down to it, is thoughtful, but clueless about modern life. I just assumed everyone knew that was David Brooks m.o. Brooks work in the last few years at the NY Times has represented only a swan-song to golden era nostalgia.

Even Brooks’ conclusion that we need a big national service program to bring the upper and lower tribes together (I agree), falls apart in the need for one harmonious tribe that shares values and practices. He misses the entire point of what comes before in his piece: the tribes don’t have much in common, we don’t all need to share the same practices and institutions and values, and besides, the postmodern neighborhoods of the poor are probably too confusing to find their way to each other anyway.


Written by Christopher ZF

February 1, 2012 at 14:11

13 Responses

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  1. The practices and institutions and values that the upper tribe have lead to wealth, health and prosperity. Why wouldn’t we want to share those with everyone?

    I think it was Rick Santorum who, in a debate, quoted a Brookings Institute (hardly a right wing think tank) study that said that if people focus on education, marriage and hard work, it’s almost impossible to end up homeless. It’s wrong to say that these values aren’t for everyone when the absence of them is the recipe for squalor.

    Claudia Procula

    February 1, 2012 at 15:13

    • True. I do not dispute that everyone should place a value on health, hard work and education. (Although I would personally dispute that marriage is a requirement in the recipe to avoid squalor).

      I’m lacking clarity here: The point isn’t that these ideas are not for everyone. The point is what those values mean to David Brooks is not for everyone. What those values represent to the upper tribe and the lower tribe are never going to be the same. It’s far more complicated than Brooks makes it.

      To wit: I do not think that Mitt Romney worked hard, got an education, and thus was rewarded with wealth. I think that he had wealth, and he keeps it through hard-work, education, and a system that favors the wealthy maintaining wealth. The institutions and values that such a life represent are not representative of my own. Unless I become super wealthy, I do not expect to ever share the values of those institutions with Mitt Romney.

      Why can’t we just accept that? To me, such a dispute is not a big deal. That’s what I mean when I say that everyone does not need to share the same values. That shouldn’t cloud our societal goals of bringing people out of poverty and seeking justice and equity.


      February 1, 2012 at 15:25

      • What I mean by marriage is that stable families are key to prosperity. I do not denigrate single people by saying this; I just mean that it’s important that, whenever possible, kids be raised in two-parent homes.

        Like it or not, the values of family (marriage), education and hard work are precisely the values that create prosperity. Whether or not someone starts off with wealth is irrelevant. I had an upper-middle class upbringing, but at some point I was off on my own, starting with absolutely nothing other than the college diploma in my hand. (Between public education, instate tuition, federal student loan programs and scholarships, a college or technical school degree is within reach of just about any American who has the gumption to earn one.)

        Had I thrown out my traditional values of marriage before children, working for what one owns, and striving for excellence in academic and professional achievement, my life would be completely different. How many children would I have (and how many would I have aborted or given up for adoption) and by how many different fathers? How would I finance child care so that I could go out and work as a single mother? I’d probably end up not working in that situation, regardless of my educational attainment. I’d become a welfare mother, at least until my children were old enough to be away all day at school. However, by then, I would have been out of work for so long that I’d probably only qualify for low-skilled, low-pay jobs. Okay, so perhaps I can stand out from my peers and become the manager of my McDonald’s restaurant. But since I lack the value of working hard, that’s never going to happen. I just do as little as possible to avoid losing my job because I’m really only in it for the money. But you can’t judge me because that would be racist or classist or saying that your lifestyle and values are better than mine.

        Can’t you see that by not judging the lifestyle choices of this person is the same as letting her and her kids languish in a spiral of poverty and welfare? By saying certain lifestyle choices are inherently better than others because they set one up for success, it gives people a path to make their own decisions about where they want to end up in life. What they choose is still their choice, of course, but it doesn’t encourage them to make poor choices. When you love your kids, you discipline them. When you love a person, you don’t condone their bad decisions by saying those decisions are as valid as good decisions.

        Claudia Procula

        February 1, 2012 at 20:05

  2. This is your question:
    “Can’t you see that by not judging the lifestyle choices of this person is the same as letting her and her kids languish in a spiral of poverty and welfare?”

    My answer is no. I don’t think so. I am unable to make the judgment you are asking–I will leave the “inherently better” decisions to you. And this is the point of my whole post. I do not agree with you. So what are we going to do about it? It doesn’t mean I want folks living in poverty, it doesn’t mean that I think we should encourage individuals to work in McDs and have teen children and all the other descriptions you have chosen. I want everyone to get an education, to be loved, and to have a life they are proud of.


    February 2, 2012 at 09:13

    • There is of course no problem with have teen children. I think that happens after having adolescent children. I mean, of course, teen’s having children.


      February 2, 2012 at 09:34

  3. If someone doesn’t value education, marriage before children and hard work, in 99 times out of 100, they will NECESSARILY be poor. Empirical statistics bear this out; I’m not setting the rules here, just describing them. The Brookings Institute described them.

    Claudia Procula

    February 2, 2012 at 10:56

    • do you have a link? I’ve found Brookings to do good work before. And I’m interested in seeing how they quantify such values.

      But I wonder if you see why this leaves such a bad taste. You are stating that if you are poor, necessarily, you do not value education and marriage over children and hard work.
      I’m happy to look at the numbers and to be persuaded, but I have known too many folks who are poor who do not fit your picture.

      You are saying that by necessity, if you value hard work and education, you will not be poor.

      I find that not just wrong, but absolutely infuriating. It makes my stomach boil.It might all be liberal hogwash or being unable to objectively view such things. But that’s the case.


      February 2, 2012 at 11:04

      • It is a book, not a report: and it doesn’t say, (and neither did Santorum), that someone who doesn’t value education, marriage before children and hard work will “necessarily” be poor. I have to assume that was hyperbole. Other highlights from that study/book include: The importance of both personal responsibility and government assistance in helping people get ahead.
        • The importance of providing any new assistance in a fiscally responsible way — all of our proposals are paid for.
        • A call for greater intergenerational equity achieved by gradually allocating resources from more affluent seniors to less affluent younger families and their children.


        February 2, 2012 at 14:31

  4. I think the difference in this discussion comes down to this sentence: “I had an upper-middle class upbringing, but at some point I was off on my own, starting with absolutely nothing other than the college diploma in my hand.”
    All the other aspects (is it good to be stable economically and work hard, etc… are ancillary).
    The fundamental problem with a comment like this is that it acknowledges all the advantages of class and then fails to imagine life outside that class.
    But let me put this on myself so that I can self-criticize and not make assumptions. I, too, grew up in a middle class family (also, it’s a white family, which helps). In the middle of college, my family declared bankruptcy because a small-business that had done quite well went through hard times. I dropped out of college, unable to get school loans because of the bankruptcy. I went back to school after my brother (older, financially secure) co-signed those loans. The point of my story? I worked very hard for what I have, but there are millions of people who work hard (even harder) than myself and don’t have A) the suburban, top-quality public school education I had, 2) the financial safety net of a family who could support each other in bad times, 3) the economic literacy that comes from having a father who could explain how investments work, how loans work, etc… 4) the access to things such as a journalism internship that was the reason I got my next two jobs… etc…
    The fundamental problem with the “I was off on my own…” idea that is pervasive in society is that it pretends there is an equal footing that doesn’t exist. It fails to recognize all the invisible advantages that class and race have in society. It also fails to empathize with how difficult it is to live and succeed in America without the benefits that many have.
    Then you get to the Brooks’ morals thing. I dislike it for many reasons, but for one it smacks of simple answers from a morally corrupt upper class. This is the class that boils life down to money and success. Work hard, buy shit, etc… and then judges: why are these dumb black girls getting pregnant? Don’t they know they should go to college?
    Think for a second what it is like to be someone else. What it’s like to have none of the models for “success” (again, using the bullshit rubric that life is somehow about achieving a middle class security) around you. What is it like to have educational success become something suspicious because when you start to achieve your peers and relatives see it as a judgment on them. Pushing the idea of stable families is not bad, but it’s patronizing. 90% of marriage break up because of finances. Take one second to think about trying to hold a marriage together when your family barely survives and has no viable way out. Fix the class system and you’ll fix marriages, not the other way around.
    The brazen arrogance involved in the middle class judgment of those in poverty and those who had few of their luxuries is hilarious. “I pulled myself up by some really expensive bootstraps.”


    February 2, 2012 at 12:45

    • I didn’t say it was easy for people to embody the values of education, marriage before children, and hard work. I also didn’t say that I had to develop these values myself; yes, I was born into them. Hence I had some expensive bootstraps when I started from nothing. (By the way, the leather boots I’m wearing today are nearly 4-years-old and very, very well-worn. I bought them at a discount store.)

      However, it does people a disservice to argue that these traditional values don’t matter when the empirical evidence shows they do. I’m not here to judge people for not subscribing to these values. I didn’t tell anyone to buy shit. (I actually dislike consumer culture.) But when we say that the absence of traditional values is okay, we’re setting people up for failure.

      It’s a huge problem that when members of certain socioeconomic groups achieve educational success, it causes their peers and relatives to “see it as a judgment on them.” In other words, some members of a group use guile to try to keep all members of a group down. Instead, shouldn’t we all be trying to build each other UP? Why isn’t someone DOING anything about that? (I don’t know what the answer is, and as a white, upper-middle class person, I’m not qualified to say what should be done about that.)

      To me, it seems like jealousies abound. Gwyneth Paltrow is taking huge flack right now (see because she said that one needs to put her family ahead of her career. A large part of that (besides the fact that Paltrow does work) is actually jealousy because Paltrow is wealthy, has a full-time nanny and can afford to work part-time. Many women want what Paltrow has (including myself) but can’t have that (including myself). But I would be dishonest if I told myself that the ideals didn’t matter and my lifestyle is just as good as Paltrow’s. I might FEEL better (sort of), but I wouldn’t actually BE better if I told myself this lie.

      We should not judge people who do not live up to ideals. None of us do. However, that’s no reason to dispense of the ideals altogether or say that all ideals are equal when reality doesn’t bear that out. Ideals are aspirational and breed success. Think of the last time you set a goal. Did you attain it? Then think of the parts of your life for which you don’t have any goals. What are those areas of life like? How would you rather live? Don’t you think it’s fair to give everyone a chance at that hope rather than pretending that the content (or lack thereof) of those goals/ideals/values is irrelevant?

      Claudia Procula

      February 2, 2012 at 15:39

  5. You’re making a logical fallacy. If A, then B does NOT equal, if B, then A.

    For example:

    If it’s a cat (A), then it’s an animal (B).

    If it’s an animal (B), then it’s a cat (A).

    However, you’re correct in this point: unfortunately, one can do all the right things and still end up poor. My point is that I find this preferable to neglecting to encourage people to do the right things, because if they don’t do the right things, it’s almost certain that they will end up poor. Brooks’ point (which I agree with) is that It’s a disservice for the bourgeoisie to preach bohemian ideals (e.g., traditional morality doesn’t matter) while subscribing to those ideals themselves and benefiting from the social and economic stability it gives them.

    I’ll look for that Brookings link.

    Claudia Procula

    February 2, 2012 at 12:54

    • Thanks, Claudia. I’d like to see it.
      And I want to point out that this conversation is central to the idea I’m making in the post. Neither of us is about to convince the other one, right? I frankly am unlikely to come around and close this gap anytime soon. Nationally, we are not going to coalesce around some shared values that imbue the nation with unity of values around marriage, education, etc.
      To me, there’s no point in carrying Brooks’ lament for the loss of our nation’s soul as he so frequently wants to do. It’s not a real thing, and probably never was.
      We should be more interested in figuring out ways to get real human beings out of poverty.

      And WHB: I love (LOVE) your line about very expensive bootstraps. It conveys exactly the notion I always labor to express when I hear the bourgeois talking about the poor these days.


      February 2, 2012 at 13:04

    • pot meet kettle (though WHB, I’m pretty sure that ‘pot’ is wrong about your argument being a logical fallacy and barring a better explanation from ‘pot’ as to what is A and what is B, I’m going to conclude that it is not one): “If someone doesn’t value education, marriage before children and hard work, in 99 times out of 100, they will NECESSARILY be poor.” This isn’t a logical fallacy, it is just a failure of logic. A formal fallacy is an error in logic that can be seen in the argument’s form without an understanding of the argument’s content. Here the three variables are the absence of value, of A (education) + B (marriage) + C (hard work), which should = 99/100 people will “necessarily” be poor. I don’t think that is a logical equation, but let me try. So, I’m a random person who doesn’t value education And I don’t value marriage And I don’t value hard work. And I’m poor because of those three things. We need a population to work with that we agree doesn’t value any of these things and ends up poor. I doubt we will agree on that population, but I’ll make a harmless suggestion. Let’s say the French aristocracy before and then after the French Revolution? No, that’s too easy. Let’s do Millenials. . No, forget it, it is an impossible equation to crunch. Statistics don’t generally test for moral values and when they do, almost no one says that they don’t value hard work and education. But I do recommend reading that Pew Research poll. Check out the stats on on education. More people as a percentage of the population have high school degree than ever before, but poverty is at a higher level today than it was just two decades ago. Look at the Chapter entitled Work and Education. My generation is having a hard time finding work despite their degrees. The point is that it is really complicated and you can’t point to a “lower tribe” (ugh, that is so annoying) and say, “hey you! get a job, value your education, and wait to have kids until your married; otherwise we’ll blame You for being poor.” No, the world doesn’t work that way.


      February 2, 2012 at 15:20

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