No, David Brooks, the Task is to Go Forward, Not Back—Just Not Toward a Reactive and Naive Populism, Rather Toward a More “Grown Up” Kind of Understanding That We are Only Now Beginning to Grasp.

posted in: Reviews | 0

David Brooks is one of the writers in the political sphere that I most respect. In a recent piece, he made a dramatic observation that I think could very well be accurate and prescient. But his observation left us hanging. He provided no explanation for what he observed. And he offered us no useful way forward.   

The piece reflected on the possibility that with today’s rise of extreme populist sentiments on the political left, we may be seeing a fissure within the Democratic party as fundamental and disruptive as that which has wrecked havoc in the Republican party in recent times. He contrasts traditional liberalism with its respect for difference and dialogue—making references as far back as Lincoln—with today’s increasingly essentialist and dogmatic beliefs that he describes as “the antithesis of liberalism. He then asks “So which side will prevail?” His answer, “Over the short term, I’d put my money on the anti-liberals.”

I don’t know if he his correct in his prediction. There is a good chance the Democrats, almost in spite of themselves, will, as they often do, somehow in the end get their act together. But I also think there is a good chance that he is correct. It is also hard to know, even if he is correct, whether we should expect significant long-term effects. We could be seeing only a momentary historical blip, a brief period of intense polarization and acrimony as we’ve witnessed with some frequency in times past. But it is also possible that we are seeing evidence of something more fundamental, and more fundamentally consequential. 

I mentioned that Brooks, along with offering no explanation for the division he observes, also provides no workable way to forward. His descriptions suggest that he would advocate for a return to more traditional liberal sensibilities. But he also makes clear that it is very hard to conceive of how this might be possible given current circumstances. In his words:  

“Americans of both left and right have moved into lifestyle enclaves with people like themselves. Americans have stopped seeing each other accurately. Conversation, the very lifeblood of liberalism, is blocked…. A liberal society needs universities where ideas are openly debated, it needs media outlets that strive to be objective, it needs political institutions, like the Senate, that are governed by procedures designed to keep the process fair to both sides. It needs people who put the rules of fair play above short-term partisan passion. Those people scarcely exist.”

I take the time to respond to Brooks’ piece only because Creative Systems Theory provides perspective for making sense of his observations and also for discerning what is needed as we look to the future. I hesitate some in making such assertions. Creative Systems Theory’s concern is big-picture understanding, with cultural changes over the long term. It is in the nature of such overarching perspective that it is never possible to know for sure whether some particular, localized event is a product of what it describes. Like I’ve said, what we see today may be only a momentary blip. And even if it is more than just a blip, the consequences could be very different from the specifically evolutionary kind of change the theory points toward. It is possible, for example, that what we are see today could have more calamitous implications, perhaps signal the impending collapse of the whole democratic experiment. But Creative Systems Theory does very specifically predict that we should encounter the kind of extreme polarization that we witness today, at least at some point. 

Creative Systems Theory delineates how modern age institutions and ways of thinking should be thought of not as ideals and end points, but rather as products of one important chapter in culture’s story. It also predicts that we should be seeing the beginnings of a further developmental chapter, what it calls Cultural Maturity. The theory describes how new capacities and ways of thinking that become possible with Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” as a species will be critical if we are to effectively address essential challenges ahead for us as a species. 

Today’s disruption of traditional political sensibilities and extreme polarization are consistent with what Creative Systems Theory predicts as old forms give way. The theory describes how beginning to engaging Cultural Maturity’s changes necessarily takes us through an awkward in-between, transitional period. It also describes an easily disturbing dynamic that predictably accompanies that time of transition, what it calls Transitional Absurdity. The populist challenging of established structures and political polarization to the point that any possibility of functional decision-making is lost is one example. (Other predicted Transitional Absurdities include denial of critical environmental limits; increasingly rates of addiction, depression, and suicide; and mass consumer culture and various forms of superficial stimulation coming to be our primary definers of meaning—each of which we see evidence of today.)    

Is it possible that the explanation for what David Books describes is that in confronting the limitations of the modern age story we are witnessing the effects of Transitional Absurdity? Again, being this close to events, there is no way to know for sure whether this explanation plays a role. And the greatest likelihood, even if it does, is that these are only early perturbations. But if Creative Systems Theory is correct, this is a kind of dynamic we should expect to confront eventually. 

Whatever the appropriate explanation, I am comfortable saying that, in the end, going back can’t get us where we need to go. I am also comfortable saying that, with time, we will have no choice but to take on the challenges that Cultural Maturity’s changes present. Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” as a species will ask a lot of us. But eventually it will become the only real option. 


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.