New York Times’ Brooks argues that “Organization Kid” culture has deepened in his return to Princeton
New York Times opinion columnist and conservative commentator David Brooks described a recent cultural shift from self-effacement to self-advancement and warned of its implications for national politics.
As a precursor to his larger discussion of this cultural shift, Brooks recalled his visit to Princeton in the early 2000s and the distinct cultural ethos that he observed among the students here. On the basis of numerous interviews with Princeton students, Brooks developed a portrait of modern college students — particularly Ivy Leaguers — as industrious, optimistic and deferential to authority. In a 2001 article for The Atlantic magazine, he coined the moniker “Organization Kid” to describe the generation of college students born between 1979 and 1982 who would constitute America’s future elite.
Unlike their baby boomer parents, these so-called Organization Kids grew up in an era of unparalleled prosperity, unaware of the tensions of the Cold War and lived structured, activity-filled lives. Though talented and highly motivated to succeed in a competitive world, these Organization Kids were generally apathetic about politics and lacked a definite moral character, he argued in the piece.
“My conclusion about that ethos has only deepened with time,” Brooks said Monday evening. But beyond the transformed attitude of the younger generation exemplified by Princeton students, a broader shift affecting many age groups has occurred across American society, Brooks said.
Citing a slew of statistics, Brooks argued that American culture has become more self-congratulatory over time, and that this change has had clear political and economic consequences. Compared to people living in the 1950s, modern Americans spend more money on consumer goods, accrue more debt, are more politically polarized, see the world through a tribalist lens, have a greater distrust of government and have suffered a loss in “moral articulateness,” he said.
This loss of “moral articulateness” — which Brooks loosely defined as the possession of a vocabulary with which to frame one’s moral beliefs — has in turn led to a “loss in public virtue,” manifested in Americans’ unwillingness to exercise self-restraint or to compromise. The 2012 presidential campaign, which Brooks described as the most “dishonest” and “negative” that he had ever covered, aptly demonstrated this loss of public virtue because it featured numerous false attack ads and misleading rhetoric on both sides, he said.
“None of us would want to go back to the 1950s,” Brooks said, anticipating criticism of the idea that the 1950s, with its rampant racism and sexism, represented a more virtuous era. But the country can refer back to that era to better understand our current times, he said.
In addition to this loss of public virtue, Brooks noted, American politics is increasingly responding to pressure from another kind of shift: demographic changes. As the traditionally white electorate gives way to one that is much more diverse, the Republican party is losing 1.5 percent of its base every four years, he said.
“The bad part for Republicans is that they’ve missed the [demographic] shift,” Brooks said. “The Republican party is the only white organization I know except the Winter Olympics,” he said to laughter.
Though they do not suffer from the shrinking base problem, Democrats have the unappealing task of governing a public that distrusts government alongside a Congress that shies away from compromise, Brooks said. President Barack Obama may successfully avert the impending fiscal cliff in negotiations with congressional Republicans, but it is unlikely that he will be able to lay the groundwork for future big deals and compromises, he said.
Adding to the dire picture of American politics that he had painted, Brooks compared politics in 2012 to those of the 1890s, which were characterized by political corruption and “ossified institutions.” Without reforms, Brooks warned, American gross domestic product growth is projected to decline by a full percentage point and inequality is expected to increase over the next 20 years.
“It’s the cultural construct around Washington that makes me pessimistic,” Brooks said, adding that he thought many of the politicians he’d met were “good people” caught in a “rotten” political system.
Despite the gloomy predictions, Brooks insisted that he was a “national optimist,” and that Americans under 35 were beginning to voice the need for political reform. “There are a lot of optimistic people in America,” he said.
Brook’s talk, titled “Politics and the Organization Kid,” was delivered to a filled-to-capacity McCosh 50 on Monday night as part of the Stafford Little Lecture series.
After the lecture, Brooks sat down for a Q&A with the 'Prince' to talk more about Princeton culture. Click here to read more.