David Brooks: ‘Comments are so much more vicious than even 10 years ago’

The New York Times columnist can aggravate diehard liberals but his latest book merits a fair hearing

You can tell the sort of guy David Brooks is from his Twitter feed. A polite comment about women's sport being better to watch than men's is condemned for "value signaling". A suggestion that "there's room for a party that is economically left and socially right" prompts the accusation that he is sugar-coating racism. And the sharing of an excerpt from his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, unleashes a scattershot of snide remarks about his personal life.

Brooks is, in other words, a guy used to getting shedloads of abuse.

“I try to have a civil, gentle tone but that seems to set people off even more.” He laughs grimly. “They would like it if I were angry.”

Indeed, the very idea of Brooks is enough to cause some people offence. Notionally a moderate Republican – his ideological lodestar is the Dublin-born "father of modern conservatism" Edmund Burke – Brooks started writing for the New York Times in September 2003.


“When I was hired I was told I was as conservative as our readers could stand. And I’m not sure how conservative I am any more but I will say it’s harder to be in this job than it used to, just because the comments are so much more vicious and the level of rancour and hatred and resentment, I feel, it’s two or three times higher than it was even 10 years ago.”

‘Weekly punching bag’

Described by one critic as the “weekly punching bag of the millennials”, Brooks has developed a style of column that blends pop psychology with folksy wisdom underscored by a deep sincerity that really gets up the noses of diehard liberals. But, he says, “when I go into the country, into red America, I feel it just as strongly from the other side. People feel uninhibited, or people feel they are doing a righteous thing by condemning you in the most vicious personal terms. It’s as if you prove your virtue not by how compassionate you can be but by how indignant you can be.”

Snarky remark

None of this is to say Brooks should be pitied; he can dish out the odd snarky remark and he gets plenty of public praise too. Rather, Brooks’ experience can be seen as a measure of the health of the body politic – an indicator of whether our society is capable of rationally debating certain issues.

By talking about human purpose, Brooks takes on that most weighty of problems – the meaning of life

Is it possible to address our common problems despite individual flaws and prejudices? Is it possible to find common purpose? These are the questions at the heart of Brooks’ latest project, and yet before even taking flight you can sense the crosshairs lining up from the ground.

By talking about human purpose, Brooks takes on that most weighty of problems – the meaning of life, what Terry Eagleton calls "a subject fit for either the crazed or the comic". Following in the trail of Viktor Frankl, Dorothy Day and countless other philosophisers, Brooks asks: "How is it that on this biggest question of all, we have nothing to say?"

Across more than 300 pages of heartfelt prose, Brooks reworks the problem into a neat story. You’ve a choice between two mountains in life. The first is all about material success and personal happiness. The second is about serving others and sacrifice.

“It’s gotten so I can recognise first- and second-mountain people,” Brooks writes. “The first-mountain people are often cheerful, interesting and fun to be around. They often have impressive jobs and can take you to an amazing variety of restaurants. The second-mountain people aren’t averse to the pleasure of the world… But they have surpassed these pleasures in pursuit of moral joy, a feeling that they have aligned their life toward some ultimate good.”

Brooks bolsters the thesis with examples of volunteers, social workers and everyday saints who he has met in recent years for Weave, a project of the nonprofit Aspen Institute. He says people struggle to commit to higher ideals "partly because we emphasise freedom a lot. We think life is a series of experiences we have… but I think after a while even that begins to tire. You have eight million different sunsets but you're not really planted with people. So this book is an argument against freedom, against that kind of personal freedom, and it's for the idea of actually planting yourself down."

Moral indifference

A criticism of the book is that it ignores the role the economy plays in incentivising individualism and moral indifference. Can you really build communities without tackling America’s underlying economic ideology? “I do think capitalism encourages that dog-eat-dog competition,” Brooks replies, “but in earlier eras when we were much poorer than we are now people had built opposing moral systems to sort of push against the moral effects of capitalism, to create community in the face of capitalism.”

The election of Trump introduced people to their own country; they did not recognise the country that voted for him

As a Burkean conservative, you’d expect nothing less; Brooks isn’t one for leading revolutions. He does believe, however, America needs to resist the growth of tribalism – what he calls “a bad attempt to create community”. And he puts an optimistic gloss on current affairs. “The election of Trump introduced people to their own country; they did not recognise the country that voted for him. They did not know a lot of this pain existed…And I think that’s made millions of people leap into action to say: What can I do to heal the pain, build solidarity, reduce alienation?”

Inevitably, Brooks observations are bound up with the stage of life he's at. "What makes life worth living? No child asks itself that question," says the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Brooks says he has spent most of his life scrambling up the first mountain, and he is sceptical of the suggestion that he could have been talked out of this course in his youth.

Asked what he would say to the early David Brooks if he could speak to him, he replies: “I guess in my case it would be: What level of consciousness are you living on? I was somehow able to live more on the surface of life… As long as people liked my articles or I was reasonably popular, and as long as I wasn’t doing any real harm in the world, I was sort of content with that. And after a while the sins of omission began to pile up and the lack of actual relationships began to pile up.”

Could a smart argument, or some words of wisdom, have persuaded him to change his ways?

“Yeah, no, I read a lot of these books; so they didn’t work. They say you can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom. I think you have to have the experiences yourself.”

Turn towards religion

Brooks (57) divorced his first wife in 2013 and four years later he married his researcher, 23 years his junior. His changed personal circumstances coincided with a “most unexpected turn” towards religion.

Does the media fail to speak the things that matter most to people? Yeah, I think we do

The description of this spiritual evolution – his rejection of the “surprisingly untroubling” condition of atheism – is not something you tend to hear from a journalist. But maybe that’s the fault of journalism. Does the media fail to speak the things that matter most to people?

“Yeah, I think we do. Partly, I think we just talk too much about politics and not enough about the things that actually shape people’s lives. And second, we do have an air of irony and cynicism about us as we go into journalism, and anybody who leads with vulnerability is liable to get poked.”

Brooks’ willingness to be “a little vulnerable” results in a refreshing honest confession, even though some anti-Catholics will use it as an excuse for dismissing his entire oeuvre. There’s no top-of-the-mountain moment; no parting of the skies or sudden rapture. Just a friendly, gentle nudging toward the conclusion that real joy lies in moral commitment.

The second mountain is “really just a narrative device for people who move from one moral system to another. No one wants to read a straight moral diatribe: ‘The country’s going to hell’; they want to read something with a story arc.”

‘Weird position’

Where next for Brooks? One senses his religious journey is only just beginning. While he was born into a Jewish family in Toronto, he is more drawn today to Christian teaching. “I am still in this weird position of feeling connections to both religious camps. My only solace is that Jesus himself didn’t think he was a Christian. He thought he was Jewish so that’s a good model.”

You can almost hear the keyboard snipers reloading but Brooks makes clear that he has no messiah complex.

Asked where he’d locate himself orologically, he replies: “I’d say I’m in the foothills of the second mountain. One of the nice things about mountains is you can see them from a long way off – so you can kind of see where you have to go, but for me the struggle against self-centredness and ego is something that never goes away.”

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks is published by Allen Lane, £20 hardback.