David Brooks explains the Republican Party’s Catholic problem

By Angelo Matera

Posted 9/12/08 at 1:00 PM


In a NY Times column today called “The Social Animal,” David Brooks pinpoints exactly why so many Catholics hold their noses every four years as they vote Republican for president merely because of the party’s stance against abortion and gay marriage.
As any Catholic who’s watched a Republican convention knows, the GOP is about individualism—“the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe,” as Brooks describes it.

We’ve heard often enough that this Republican vision doesn’t square with the Church’s more communitarian view of life and reality, which stresses the common good, and a sense of “communion” best represented (although imperfectly) by the Church itself.

The problem is that in U.S. politics, the alternative—the Democratic Party—suffers from its own form of individualism (despite its advocacy of social programs). Their view of life and family is rooted in a radical autonomy that undercuts its talk about building community. 

As Brooks describes it, the world is learning what the Church already knows, but has a hard time communicating to secular society:

“The problem is, this individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.”

Brooks isn’t arguing for socialism, but what I would say is the Church’s view of the person, as opposed to the individual. There is a big difference, as Brooks understands:

Cognitive scientists have shown that our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context — by the frames, biases and filters that are shared subconsciously by those around. Neuroscientists have shown that we have permeable minds. When we watch somebody do something, we recreate their mental processes in our own brains as if we were performing the action ourselves, and it is through this process of deep imitation that we learn, empathize and share culture.

Geneticists have shown that our behavior is influenced by our ancestors and the exigencies of the past. Behavioral economists have shown the limits of the classical economic model, which assumes that individuals are efficient, rational, utility-maximizing creatures.
Psychologists have shown that we are organized by our attachments. Sociologists have shown the power of social networks to affect individual behavior.

What emerges is not a picture of self-creating individuals gloriously free from one another, but of autonomous creatures deeply interconnected with one another. Recent Republican Party doctrine has emphasized the power of the individual, but underestimates the importance of connections, relationships, institutions and social filaments that organize personal choices and make individuals what they are.”

Brooks is describing a view of reality that is no less than a reflection of the Trinity. The theological implications are too complex to discuss here. But on a practical level, what he’s saying has implications that go well beyond current party platforms. For instance, the brain imaging discoveries he cites help to explain why pornography and violent video games like Grand Theft Auto are so destructive—put simply, our brains can’t tell the difference between doing and watching. (That’s why therapists are using virtual reality to heal soldiers suffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder)

Brooks traces the Republican cowboy mentality to Barry Goldwater, who despite losing to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, sparked the conservative revolution that has given us thirty years of every-man-for-himself government. The failures of that program, says Brooks, are the reason people are so unhappy:

“If there’s a thread running through the gravest current concerns, it is that people lack a secure environment in which they can lead their lives. Wild swings in global capital and energy markets buffet family budgets. Nobody is sure the health care system will be there when they need it. National productivity gains don’t seem to alleviate economic anxiety. Inequality strains national cohesion. In many communities, social norms do not encourage academic achievement, decent values or family stability. These problems straining the social fabric aren’t directly addressed by maximizing individual freedom.

Last spring I wrote that I would voting for “None of the Above.” I believe my argument still stands, although I may vote for McCain and a divided government. (The Dems will control Congress. Each side can keep the other from doing too much damage).

Until one party takes Brook’s analysis to heart, I don’t believe this country will be able to adequately address it problems. And Catholics will continue to lack good choices at election time.