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David Brooks's argument for direct democracy

I disagree with quite a bit in David Brooks's column today. But I'm fascinated by its democratic radicalism. Based on a quick aggregation of polls and a special election in which the Democrat repeatedly insulted the local sports team, Brooks declares passing health-care reform "the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern." I don't remember Brooks reacting to the war in Iraq or the Bush tax cuts (which polls showed people would rather see devoted toward deficit reduction) with such fury, but people are obviously allowed their ideological commitments.

That said, polling on the health-care bill is, as Brooks surely knows, complicated. Voters don't know much about the plan. Most disapprove of it, but many disapprove because they want to see it go further (I count myself among them). Gallup's poll asking whether people would advise their representatives to vote for the bill shows a slight plurality supporting the legislation. In Massachusetts, a virtually identical bill was passed a few years back, and it’s now so popular that Brown, the Republican candidate, supports it.

At the same time, a majority of both chambers of Congress have voted to pass the bill. We send people to Congress and give them the time and the staff and the power to learn about issues and make decisions on our behalf. We stagger their elections to further insulate them from immediate popular retribution under the theory that some decisions will bear fruit in the long term, even as they're unpopular in the short term. Our system, in fact, is built for exactly this type of moment: A complicated issue that's hard for the public to understand and the subject of brutal political battles but that representatives think worth doing.

Brooks's column is about health-care reform. But his argument is with representative government. And the big question here is how far does Brooks's commitment to the polls extend? If Brooks thinks that they should be ignored in other cases, then he needs to argue against this policy on its own terms. But if he thinks they should be heeded in all cases, he should make that argument more directly and grapple with its implications. I think it would be very interesting to have an advocate for direct democracy writing on the New York Times op-ed page, but I'm not sure Brooks actually is that advocate, or if it's just a convenient argument to bring about his preferred short-term policy outcome.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 19, 2010; 6:35 PM ET
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"...just a convenient argument to bring about his preferred short-term policy outcome."

Just about everything that politicians and political pundits OF ALL STRIPES say is, "just a convenient argument to bring about her preferred short-term political/policy outcome."

Posted by: MyrtleParker | January 19, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

Hey, remember when there was that civil war thing happening between the Reasonable GOP and Crazy GOP? Remember how David Brooks was the flag-bearer for the Reasonable GOP, because he wanted the party to work with the administration?

Hm, I wonder who ever ended up winning...

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 19, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

What's even funnier than this is Brooks' poo-pooing of the idea that unemployment affects public opinion! I mean, there's pretty abundant empirical evidence that high unemployment puts the country in a bad mood in general, since they're not in Washington and thus rational.

The notion of basically installing Frank Newport and his Gallup poll results into the Oval Office appeals to some people, I'm sure, but its a pretty lousy way to run a country. I think I'm more informed than most, and I'm convinced I dont know enough to govern this country, so the idea of 1,000 random people answering their phones doing so is terrifying to me.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 19, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Ezra always trots out the Gallup poll but it's an outlier. Pollster's aggregation of poll results shows a large and persistant majority opposed to the Dems' reform effort:

I think Obama and his party mistook public displeasure with Bush and the Republicans for for a mandate for them to enact a costly liberal wish list of legislation. To the extent that Obama has a mandate it is for a platform of such amiguoous terms as "change" and "hope". Now that Americans have seen the specifics of the bills Pelosi and Reid have crafted - and the unseemly sweetheart deals employed to pass them (by razor-thin margins) - they are unhappy. And they are doubly unhappy that Obama and his party leadership refuse to read the repeated thumbs down signs various state electorates have been sending them.

Posted by: tbass1 | January 19, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

I think the strongest argument against direct democracy at present is the California State Constitution. How would you feel about 500+ amendments to our US Constitution?

Posted by: Jaycal | January 19, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

you have to wonder what brooks' true motivation is?

tbass1: i'm sure that when reagan was unpopular in 1981-82, you felt that meant that americans had seen the emptiness of tax cuts uber alles and rejected it.

i'm sure that when bush 43 was unpopular prior to 9/11, you felt that meant that americans had seen the emptiness of tax cuts uber alles and rejected it.

now all you have to do is demonstrate to the rest of us the consistency of your perspective.

Posted by: howard16 | January 19, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse


I wasn't of voting age during the Reagan era.

As for Bush, I acknowledged in my post above that the electorate grew tired of Bush and the Republicans. So, yes, I can see the handwriting on the wall. Can you?

Posted by: tbass1 | January 19, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse


But, but, the dance has hardly started! I'm actually looking forward to this Nov.'s election -- and the coming one in 2012. Especially when we pass HCR, albeit in a watered-down form.

As for Brooks, the guy's myopic; he only sees democracy when it suits his political schemes. That's why you never heard him call the countless thousands who demonstrated against the War in Iraq "populists".

Posted by: leoklein | January 20, 2010 1:09 AM | Report abuse

P.S. Glenn Greenwald has a good take-down of Brooks:

Posted by: leoklein | January 20, 2010 1:49 AM | Report abuse

You've been reading Brooks for years, right? Surely you've made up your mind on him -- and if you haven't, you can easily find analyses both others who have. This post reads as if you've adopted the post of a gentleman who is too well-mannered to directly state Brooks' failings, a sort of read-between-the-lines tut-tutting of another member of the club. And I don't see the point to that at all. NYT columnists have huge power and something like lifetime tenure. If they screw up, they should be called on it. Tut-tutting should be reserved for well-meaning subordinates who have some incentive to pay attention.

Posted by: SamPenrose | January 20, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Brooks doesn't even know what Hobbes actually says in _Leviathan_. (I'm not sure if that's why he's careful not to claim to have read anything beyond the frontispiece.) The hobbesian sovereign can as easily and explicitly be "the people" under direct democracy as a monarchy.

Posted by: | January 20, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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