David Brooks writes an article in the New York Times called The governing cancer of our time. He suggests that outsiders who want to replace our experienced political leaders will destroy our country, along with its venerable traditions of compromise and civil discourse. He argues that this process of destruction is well underway.

Brooks is an articulate and intelligent voice for this conventional view. I like to listen to him discuss the questions of the day with Mark Shields on NPR. In the first half of this article, he makes an eloquent case for pluralist democracy: the kind we learned about as we grew up. In this world of ideal democracy, people who disagree talk to each other, political leaders reconcile differences, and we live peacefully despite our differences because we have no alternative. We find a way to settle our differences. Success depends on competent and wise leaders who know how to legislate, negotiate, and govern.

This vision of American democracy is so laden with the rosy halo of high school textbook covers that one can hardly oppose it without appearing unpatriotic. The vision assumes, patriotic or otherwise, that the people who lead us act in good faith. Yes, they form factions, fight for narrow interests, and are not always so honest as we want them to be. Yet we want them to care about their country’s welfare before their own, and we expect them to know the difference.

In the next portion of his argument, Brooks smashes his way through an indictment of what he calls the governing cancer of our time. In this world, partisan outsiders – he mentions the Tea Party by name, but says the cancer is growing – have ruined our democracy. They refuse to compromise or even to consider other points of view. More than that, they are incompetent. They do not have the political skills required to manage or lead a contentious democracy. We are in a big mess because these outsiders, as Brooks likes to call them, just want to fight. They don’t actually care to engage in politics.

This argument sounds reasonable enough, until you ask, was it putatively competent political leaders, or incompetent outsiders who gave us a regime of dishonesty, secrecy, aggressive war, prison camps, extraordinary rendition, and blatant torture – a regime that brings discredit to our nation everywhere in the world, even now? You want to ask, beyond that, who gave us:

  • The ACA, perhaps the worst single piece of legislation in our nation’s entire history?
  • A war in Iraq that many people at the time said was a critical, catastrophic blunder, one that would cause our country untold damage, and which has resulted more than a decade later in a deadly world war?
  • A national security and surveillance state that has destroyed our privacy and our Constitution, where people who try to warn us of our peril are called spies and traitors?
  • A crooked financial scam called too big to fail, a rationale for protecting financial con men after a panic, at the expense of taxpayers and stockholders, where government regulators go around later to shake down bankers for settlement money?
  • Militarized security forces and secret hit men at all levels, who unapologetically shoot to kill, and otherwise treat citizens like garbage?

In Brooks’ world, our competent, disinterested leaders gave us all these gifts! If we trust honest, dedicated people with essential political skills to take care of our public business, he maintains, we can set things right, excise the cancer of irresolvable conflict that outsiders bring, and cure our democracy of its worst problems. We have to get rid of these unhappy, resentful and intolerant people who have infested our government if we want to avoid dissension and disintegration.

By the time he’s done, Brooks does not sound so tolerant anymore. He praises tolerance in the first part of his article, but he has no patience at all with voters who themselves have lost patience. He wants to see them gone. Shut them up and get them out of government, because if we don’t, our country cannot recover.

My response, as you can tell from the short list of unconscionable disasters above, is that the insiders Brooks admires so much are incompetent criminals. They are exactly like the leaders portrayed in The Hunger Games: comfortable, corrupt, and smooth talking elites who care only about their own privileges and riches. They have no interest in good leadership or competent reconciliation of differences. Their only interest is to maintain their prestigious positions of power and influence. They say they’re looking after us, but everyone can see they’re looking after themselves.

These are the people who are the governing cancer of our time. Practically no one rightly called an outsider thinks otherwise by now. The criminality and failure of the governing class is too plain for anyone to ignore. The people who are supposed to protect us have become our enemies.

That is one of the compelling stories of The Hunger Games: people come to realize that they would rather die than live like this any longer. After seventy-five years of games where – on government orders – children massacre each other to entertain their masters, people become fed up. Meantime, Americans see thousands of their children swallowed up by wars born of corruption and dishonesty. They have witnessed unpunished crimes they could never conceive in their high-minded civics classes. They have had enough.

I’m reluctant to say Brooks acts solely as an apologist for illegitimate governing elites. We haven’t seen anyone as smooth or quite as ruthless as President Snow. Brooks would undoubtedly say that President Snow’s Capitol exceeds Washington’s air of contempt for the people they rule. I will observe that Brooks has no idea why the outsiders he disrespects have become so alienated and indignant. They are angry because the insiders, so-called competent leaders that Brooks praises, have become self-absorbed, incompetent, and corrupt. Moreover, they have clothed themselves with privilege for so long, they do not perceive how hateful they have become.

Related article

The governing cancer of our time, by David Brooks