The Good Fight
David Brooks on Knowing Others (and Ourselves)

David Brooks on Knowing Others (and Ourselves)

Yascha Mounk and David Brooks discuss the role of character development in building strong liberal societies.

David Brooks is a writer and a columnist at the New York Times. He is the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. His latest book is How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and David Brooks discuss how he came to coin the term “bourgeois bohemians” (or “bobos”); whether today’s elite shares any traits with the bobo elite that first succeeded the WASPs; and how we can inspire stronger and deeper social connections between individuals of all backgrounds.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I have always heard this term “bobo,” which is shorthand for “bourgeois-bohemian.” When I learned that you had written a book called Bobos in Paradise, I assumed that, like me, you had imbibed this concept in France, that it was an old French concept, and then somehow applied it to America. But I was genuinely shocked to realize that you are, in fact, the originator of this concept. 

David Brooks: Yeah, I'm like Engelbert Humperdinck—I'm bigger in France than I am at home. And so when that book came out, it had this big impact in France. And French Vogue wanted to take a picture of me naked in a bathtub full of milk, which I said no to. And Le Monde wrote a front page editorial saying it's a French concept, not an American concept; it stands for “Bolshevik Bonapartist.” But le bobo has carried on in France. It’s on the margins here. And it came about because I went to high school in a town called Wayne, Pennsylvania, which is 13 miles west of Philadelphia. And it's part of where the old WASP elite used to live. In the early 1990s, I spent five years living in Europe, and I came back to a culture that was utterly transformed: the old WASP clothing stores, which were checkered pants and duck ties, had been replaced by Anthropologie. You had new, fancy coffee shops. 

What I saw was the replacement of one old elite, which is based on bloodlines, with a new elite which combined ‘60s values and ‘90s monies—in other words, bohemian values with bourgeois aspirations. They had created this code of financial correctness, ways to spend money to show you reject money and material things: it's bad to spend money on a yacht, but you can spend $90,000 on a stove, or a sub-zero refrigerator (because zero just wouldn't be cold enough). So it was really a story about the replacement of one elite, based on money and blood, with another based on education.

Mounk: If we think of the old fashioned bourgeois as somebody who's proud to be part of an establishment, who thinks it is, in certain ways, an ancestral right, who perhaps has a sense of noblesse oblige and certain moral responsibilities that come with it (but that would have been true to varying extents), and who is willing to spend money in a somewhat ostentatious way because that's part of their social position; and then you have this new bobo, who may be, structurally, in the same position, who’s a partner at a law firm or management consultancy firm and so on; how have they evolved over the couple of decades since your book was published? What does the bobo of today look like and what role do they play? 

Brooks: I should say, first, that I would never want to go back to the WASP establishment. In the book, I said that the new bobos are the most open class—all you have to do is get into a good school, work hard, succeed in the meritocracy and you can get in. And that turned out to be one of the most naive sentences I've ever written, because our class has basically done what every other elite class has done, which is to build up walls around ourselves and protect our own status. And so now, as you know, we highly educated people marry each other, we invest enormous amounts of money in our children, those children go to the same small number of elite schools and they marry each other. Then they congregate at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or to New York, DC, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, where most of the wealth is now created in the society. And they not only control the guiding heights of the media and the guiding heights of the university, but the entirety of what Jonathan Rauch calls the “epistemic regime”: if you're going to be recognized in society, it will usually be members of this cultural class that recognize you. And if you're unrecognized it is because members of our class do not recognize you. 

And so we have become an inherited Brahmin class. That's bad enough. But I think the cultural fault that our class suffers from is just a tremendous amount of bad faith. The old Protestant establishment, for whatever their vices (and there were many), the best of them at least recognized they didn't deserve their success, that they'd inherited it by some freakish chance. And they had to give it back in some way and be responsible in some way. There's a memorial hall at Harvard where names of the Harvard men who died in the Civil War, or World War I, particularly, are inscribed. And by the time Vietnam comes along, Harvard is not adding many names to the halls because they get to escape service in Vietnam. And so we didn't feel some sense of responsibility to sacrifice for the larger good. And if I had to indict my class and my culture, we have trouble thinking outside of our class and understanding how other people see us.

We created a meritocracy based, to me, on two highly partial and dubious criteria, the first being IQ, the second being whether you are, between the ages of 18 and 22, able to effectively suck up to adults. My students were phenomenal at sucking up to me, they were awesome at it. They had this ability to be buddy-buddy with me in a cool way, while at the same time being insanely deferential and making me feel really good. And that was a skill that they learned—ease, the ability to walk into any room, in any circumstance, and basically know how to handle it. And that is a skill we've taught, but it's not really the important thing in life. And in my view, because of the rise of populism, because of artificial intelligence, because of the cold war with China, because the end of affirmative action, now is the time to redefine merit into a broader term so we don't just build this exclusive society based on who got to go to competitive colleges at age 19. We want a society in which a wider set of virtues are acknowledged. 

Mounk: Is the culture of Bobo today the culture of that ruling segment of a large part of America? Obviously, it's a big and varied country in which there are different kinds of ruling elites and different kinds of ruling segments, including conservative ones, or financial ones, and so on. But in terms of the sort of people who run everything from the big newspapers and magazines to the important think tanks to the universities (to even, in many important ways, the large corporations)—has the bobo now turned into a CEO, a university president and so on? Or do you think that there are additional elements to that culture? How would you describe that ruling culture of mainstream institutions in America today?

Brooks: Michael Lind said it's like a candelabra: if you can go up the stem, if you can get into these elite schools, then you can then branch out and you'll have access to a wide array of institutions, whether it's law firms, consulting firms, media firms, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. There was a 2018 study that suggested more than 50% of the writers went to a small number of maybe 26 elite schools. And that's just disproportionate. When I started out in journalism, there were still guys there who'd never been to college and it was still similar to a working class profession. But that is no longer true. And then you go to tech, it's the same group of people. Even corporations are much more drawn from the elite. Beyond that there are whole new professions that have been created with awesome economic power, which really are the cognitive elite, and those would be in particular hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. And so, now, corporate power in this country is less in the boardrooms and more in VC and private equity. 

And it's not just economic power; it's cultural and social power. I keep coming back to this French intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, who said class difference is not just about economics; it's about cultural capital and social capital. It's the way you can show yourself off, the words you can drop, the musical tastes you have. And in all these ways, I do think we are becoming bifurcated. 

Mounk: One thing I wonder about is the relationship between the bobo and a different kind of social category that has various labels attached to it (all of which sound polemical) but a person who is animated by social justice, or who is “woke.” Because it seems to me that, in a certain kind of sense, those people are often part of the same social class.

How do you think about the relationship between the sociological category of the bobo, and perhaps, the ideological category of somebody who embraces what I tend to call the “identity synthesis?”

Brooks: I'm planning someday to write an article called “The Rise of the Wobos,” or the woke bourgeoisie. But without a high degree of confidence, the story I'll tell is that the boomer bobos rose up, dominated all these institutions, and created a series of rebellions against them. And so it was just a straight-up working class populace who said, “The top 20% has too much power, screw them, I'm voting for Donald Trump.” The second rebellion was, in a European term, the “bobars,” or the bourgeois barbarians. And those are the rich guys who are super pro-Trump, pro-Orbán, or pro-Le Pen. They happen to be economically well off, but they're offended by the bobos, and they adopt opposite social manners. 

But then I think there was a genuine rebellion among the young who said, “You guys are elite—you're not even very competent. You did the financial crisis. You started the war in Iraq. And then you've created a world in which the cost of education and housing has gone up so much that my opportunities have been destroyed. You pretend to be for all the social justice, but that's just to cover for your own success.” Really, they are rebelling against their parents to some degree, and for some good reasons. I do think they still are a member of the educated class and do all sorts of cultural signaling: to use words like “cisgender,” “problematic,” and “intersectional,” you've got to have cultural capital coming out of your ears. And so I do think they suffer from some of the same sins as my generation suffered from in that, as time has gone by, they have become less transgressive, and they've gone more into HR departments in corporations. They’ve become university administrators, and as they've marched through the institutions, I do think they're becoming more co-opted by the institutions and become a less ideologically pure version of their former selves. That’s what happened to the bobos in the 1960s: we started with protesting against the war in Vietnam and we ended up with Whole Foods. And I think we'll start out with some of the excesses of what the right calls “wokism,” but we'll end up with something much more moderate. I think that's already beginning to happen.

Mounk: I want to touch on a different strain of your work, starting with The Social Animal but going all the way to some of your most recent work and your forthcoming book, you operate at the intersection of psychology and social science, and emphasize the importance of things like character. Before we discuss some of those particular arguments, I would love to hear in your words what you think makes that lane distinct. What drew you to that form of inquiry and what do you think we can gain from it?

Brooks: My favorite period in American nonfiction writing is the period between 1955 and 1965. When you had all sorts of people, like Jane Jacobs and Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Irving Kristol, David Riesman. And they were writing big books that were a little higher than journalism, but not quite as specialized as academics. And these are like The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man, which covers a lot of ground. But they had explicitly moral visions. And Niebuhr, like Walter Lippmann or Isaiah Berlin, believed that history is fundamentally driven by ideas and culture, which I believe, and that we all live in a moral ecology, which either makes it easier for us to be good or makes it harder. That's the world I grew up in, journalistically. And over the last 20 or 30 years, it's not that we've gotten worse, but we've gotten less morally articulate. 

I taught these classes at Yale, and my students were phenomenal students, as you can imagine. And they were very articulate about their careers. But they were not articulate on developing their own soul, and how to develop their own character, or how to lead fulfilling lives. And so I wrote this book The Road to Character, which starts with this dualism between the résumé virtues, the things that make you good at your job; and the eulogy virtues, how you become honest, courageous, and capable of great love. Everyone knows the eulogy virtues are more important, but we don't spend as much time talking about them. Like most writers, I work out my stuff in public. And I wanted to become a better person, a more emotionally open person, and a more reliable person. How do we build a moral order in which it's easier to be good? And so I wrote that book, which is about seven people who were pathetic at age 20, and became kind of amazing at age 70, like Dorothy Day, Francis Perkins, and A. Philip Randolph. I just wanted to see how moral formation happens. 

Then I wrote a book called The Second Mountain, which is about how you learn from suffering. How do you cast aside some of the egotistical desires we have early in life to lead a more other-centered life? Iris Murdoch says, this most immoral thing we do is to see other people in self-serving ways, and that the most moral thing you can do is cast a just and loving attention on others. The very act of casting a just and loving attention is how we grow. And so I'm sure I've slipped over many times into piety and self-righteousness. But I just think we're over-politicized and under-moralized. And so I found myself in the secular sermon business, just exploring what it looks like to try to become a better person.

Mounk: I find this really interesting for a number of reasons. One of them is just how allergic many members of the kind of broader bobo culture are to the suggestion that these moral character virtues are important. It's not just that they disagree with it, but there's something about it which inspires a very particular kind of rage and condescension. 

What is it about the people who, in fact, follow a lot of the kinds of advice that you give in these books—who, in some sense, clearly agree with you—that makes them allergic to those suggestions? What makes them think that we really shouldn't be talking about this stuff?

Brooks: I think, first of all, that a lot of people see their role as advanced figures, enlightened figures in society, in rebellion against those puritanical, self-righteous, moralist forces who didn't like masturbation and stuff like that. They associate anybody who talks from a moral platform as just trying to destroy fun. And a lot of that is well-earned. There were a lot of people in the 20th century, and in centuries before, who really used morality as a weapon to shame and destroy. And so I understand that rebellion. 

My counter-argument would be: we've rebelled against it, but we haven't replaced it with anything. And we've created a moral vacuum and, worse, we've created a sense that other-centeredness and radical self-giving (which is what most religions counsel) is unrealistic and impossible.

I started this little non-profit a few years ago called Weave, where we would go around from community to community and see who's trusted there. And I spent several years with people who work with the homeless people, LGBTQ kids who've been attacked in their homes, and I was surrounded by people who are driven by a moral motivation, who live lives of beautiful, self-sacrificial love. And so how can we be a little more like that? I say, listen, we're all egotistical. We're all somewhat selfish. How can we live in a way that's a little less selfish? To me, moral formation is about helping us to restrain our selfishness, helping us identify a purpose in life, and communicating the social skills so you know how to ask for forgiveness and offer forgiveness. These are moral and social skills. I don't need to sort of crusade against drink and sin and shame. I just tried to say, “If you're looking to find your purpose in life, here's how other people have done it.” 

My books on Bobos sold ok. And I'm proud of it. But my last three books, on these moral subjects, they've sold ten times as much as that, and that's not necessarily because they're better. I just think there's this yearning hunger for, you know, how can I find meaning and purpose in life. I'm not trying to say that I have achieved mastery. But somewhere I ran across this phrase: writers are beggars who tell other beggars where they found bread. I don't have a job but to read these books. I read books by Parker Palmer, Dorothy Day, Michael Walzer, and Iris Murdoch. It's not like I’m Einstein here. I just pass along things that I found helpful.

Mounk: One of the things you started to touch on a few minutes ago was the role of loneliness in our society today. There are truly shocking statistics about how many American adults and how many American men, in particular, don't have any close friends and don't have anybody who knows them in a profound way. Why should we worry about that and, perhaps more importantly, how did we get here? Why does America feel so atomized in these ways?

Brooks: There are a lot of stories one could tell about how we got here. And one of them would be the social media story—it's driving us crazy. One would be the Bowling Alone story that Robert Putnam tells, we’re not in community organizations. One would be the decline of religious faith. One would be the diversity story; we’ve become a much more diverse society and we have trouble crossing boundaries. One would be the economic story of widening inequality. I agree with all those stories. But the story I tell in a recent Atlantic piece says it's a story about moral institutions; that the world used to be filled with institutions that taught you social skills. And some of them were like schools: like schools used to have the Thrift Club and the Courtesy Club. There was a headmaster at a school who said, “My job is to turn out young boys who are acceptable at a dance and invaluable at a shipwreck.” He's talking about character formation. And society was filled with these institutions, from left and right, from secular to religious. Our founders knew that human beings are wonderfully made, but also deeply broken, and they had a sense of this: if we're going to build a democracy out of these people, we have to do a lot of moral formation. 

That lasted for about 150 years. And then, after World War II, a whole group of thinkers said, “No, we're not deeply broken, we're actually quite good. The problem is authority. We need to liberate people from authority so they can self-actualize themselves.” And so you get Carl Rogers, the self-esteem psychologists, you get Abraham Maslow—the idea that self-actualization is the key to self. And so we have a very individualistic moral sense; that the way to be moral is to break free from everything around you and just be true to yourself. I think that's just the wrong formula. I think that we live our best lives where we're embedded in institutions and embedded in relationships. And if you think you're just good, then you don't need more information. You're just turning inward. And I think that's what happened. 

We became highly individualistic and autonomy oriented. And when you leave people naked, alone, and without a moral landscape, they try to find one, and they find that in politics. Normal societies have what I call redistributive politics, where we argue about tax rates and how we should spend money. But lonely and socially ill societies have the politics of recognition. Everybody's hungry to be affirmed. They're hungry for heroes who will shame and humiliate the other side. And so politics seems to offer them a moral landscape. Recognition-politik seems to offer a sense of moral action: I do good not when I sit with a widow or feed the hungry, I do good when I hate the other side or when I'm infuriated about the other side. 

And, of course, it doesn't work. Politics doesn't really give you communities, you're just a bunch of co-belligerents. It doesn't really lead you to do the things that make you generous, it just envelops you in this culture war. And so, to me, we should care about the fragmentation of society because it leads to the diseased politics all around us.

Mounk: I find that compelling. I had Sam Harris on the podcast a while ago, and I think he's a really insightful thinker. But one of the things that we may have disagreed about is that he believes that religion was, on the whole, a negative force for society. And even though I'm not religious myself, I've started to really worry about the way in which people who don't have a church to go to, as well as a stable theology, are much more likely to turn bitter, angry and lonely and become attracted to people like Donald Trump (and, for that matter, to embrace the kind of conspiracy theorizing of QAnon or movements like it). The importance of that social fabric, I think, is really fundamental. 

If listeners to this podcast feel that they don't have enough of those meaningful human connections in their lives, or that they are profoundly lonely, in some kind of way, what advice do you give them about how to change that? How can they transform their personal lives to make them more connected and more meaningful and less lonely?

Brooks: One of our problems is we don't know our immediate neighbors, the people who live in the homes right near us. I have a friend here in DC, and she says, “I practice aggressive friendship. I'm the person on the block who organizes the picnics, the parties.” That's a small thing you can do. But I will say of these Weavers, these community leaders, they just assumed responsibility for something in their neighborhood. Usually it was geographic. Whatever the problem in your community is, you get involved in that, and pretty soon you will be surrounded by relationships. And these Weavers really were exhausted a lot of the time, because they had taken on a lot of obligations. But they knew why they were put on this earth. Their life had a clear sense of purpose: I'm here to help guys who've come back with PTSD; I'm here to help kids who have nothing to do in the afternoons. They had a moral purpose. They had moral motivation. They knew why they were put on this earth. They were enmeshed in a series of deep relationships. My view is that culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy it. 

I was completely bereft for a couple of years of that kind of relationship. I was like a lot of people. I was lonely. And I got helped out—I got invited to a couple's house in DC, who had a kid in the DC public schools, who had a friend that didn't have a place to sleep or eat. And so they invited him to stay with him and then that kid had a friend, and that friend had a friend, and when I got to dinner there, there were 40 kids around the table and 14 sleeping bags in the basement. And it was exhausting to be one of the adults in this community. But we had dinner once a week, we bought them bikes when they needed it, we took them on vacation, and we celebrated holidays together. The kids have grown up now and spread around. But for a little while there, it was really a beautiful community. 

It's possible to find a place of need and fill it. All you need is some technology of convening: some people will have a bike club, some people have dinners every night, some people have a monthly meeting. But it is some sort of technology of convenience, so you're getting together again and again with the same people who are different from you. And it's doable in every community in America.

Mounk: There's one last topic I want to broach with you, which is your somewhat ambivalent relationship to liberalism. You're a defender of liberalism, as you said earlier on. But you also worry that some core liberal principles taken to their extreme could undermine our society. I think this is somewhere where I'm sympathetic to you and certainly sympathetic to your criticism of a certain kind of rationalism of which some philosophical liberals are guilty, but I ultimately might have a philosophical disagreement—I'm not sure that liberalism, rightly understood, pushes us to those positions. 

If you don't mind, tell us the exact nature of your criticism of liberalism. Is it that a lot of philosophical liberals are prone to falling into pitfalls? Is it that you think there's something about the actual constitutive principles of liberalism that can guide us towards those mistakes?

Brooks: I used to be pretty conservative, worked at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review—all that. And I've drifted left, in part because of Donald Trump, but my views have changed on lots of things. But so I went back and reread all the books that turned me into a conservative—The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet; Edmund Burke; Isaiah Berlin. And I reread them all and I loved them. And I realized I'm still a Burkean conservative at my core, and one of the conservative insights is that liberal institutions depend on pre-liberal institutions; that if we're going to make sure our society is built on individual choice, it has to be embedded in relationships that precede choice. These are things like family, maybe faith, but certainly flag: my love of America is not a choice I made, it's so deeply in me that I couldn't shake it if I ever wanted to. It's pre-liberal, in that sense. It's an attachment. I'm not gonna wake up one day and say I don't love America, or I don't love my family. I think that's a genuine conservative instinct. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton used to make the case that reason relies upon institutions that precede reason. 

I think John Stuart Mill’s original vision of liberalism has become thin, in part because of the economic libertarianism of the right and the social libertarianism of the left; and in part because we've confused individual liberalism with maximum autonomy and individualism. And when you take individualism to the extreme, it seems like you're going liberal, but you end up undermining liberalism, because you're undermining the institutions, the conditions, and the permanent attachments that a liberal polity rests upon.

Mounk: I think that helps me think through where we agree and where we disagree. And I think we agree on the most important thing, which is a substantive account of what a good society looks like, and what the role of political principles would be within it. I think perhaps we have a mild disagreement about what the true nature of liberalism is, though, as you yourself said, people like John Stuart Mill actually have that more tolerant understanding of liberalism that perhaps some people have now gotten away from. 

To delve into it, I would say, yes, there are some philosophical liberals who misunderstand the tradition and who basically conflate it with a set of ideas about how to live in which you should be maximally self-creating, maximally autonomous, as if leaving your hometown in order to go and pursue a career in the arts in New York City and experiment with the way you live is somehow living a better, truer, more autonomous life than staying in your community and continuing to draw on and to perpetuate the kind of ties and networks into which you were born. I guess I never thought of liberalism in exactly those terms. I think liberalism is the set of political and moral precepts that tell us that, in a thriving democracy, both of those things are going to be happening, that some people will make the choice to leave their hometown and go and lead these lives of radical experimentation. And they should have a right to do that and, in fact, it'll enrich our polity. But other people will make the choice to say, “I will remain a member of my faith, I will live close to my parents for all of my life, I will give great importance to family and so on.” And that, too, will enrich our polity in other kinds of ways. 

Brooks: One vision (and this comes out in that piece on assisted suicide) is: “I control myself, my body is my own, I get to do what I want. If I want to take my own life, I get to do that.” And that has a respectable philosophical pedigree. The other strain, which I guess I would associate with, is: “I'm not my own; I inherited my life from many ancestors who came before, and I have an obligation to pass it along to those who come after, and I do not have the right to take my own life.” And that if somebody is rushing to a bridge to jump off it, I'm going to do all I can to stop them. And, not only that, but I have inherited this massive moral tradition from the West and other parts of the world. I inherited a wonderful concept of citizenship by being born in America. I inherited a sense of reading and a special moral pressure from being born Jewish. I didn't create any of that. But it was gifted to me. And my job was to continue and carry it along and to pass it down, hopefully, a little better than I found it. And so I think these are two different conceptions of how you conceive of a life: “I control myself” versus “I'm just a piece in a long chain, and there are a lot of things about which I do not have control and do not have a choice and should not have a choice.”

Mounk: To give a little bit more context to listeners who may not quite be aware of this exchange: David wrote an, I think, very compelling article in The Atlantic criticizing, in part, the Canadian practice of assisted suicide, of which the factual details are slightly in dispute, but basically it goes way beyond the kind of context in which we've historically thought about assisted suicide. Here, we're not talking exclusively, or perhaps even predominantly, about people who have a serious cancer diagnosis (which is agreed by doctors to be terminal and who are in great amounts of pain)—we're talking, here, about young people who are depressed, or have some minor physical ailment, and who have been able to take advantage of this program to to kill themselves. And I think we are agreed in our disquiet about that. I'm open to certain forms of assisted suicide. But I certainly think that the form which it seems to have taken in Canada is quite deeply disturbing, actually, I guess the question is whether I have to jump between the two positions that you've outlined or formulate a third position, which is a liberal critique of something like that program of assisted suicide. 

Liberals should be deeply aware of the ways in which institutions can go wrong and create bad incentives and push people into things—and when you create a program in which it is so easy to sign off on medically assisted suicide, there is a real question about whether these people are the kinds of free agents who are able to make that choice about their fate. I think there's good reason from within liberal philosophy that, when responsible adults are making decisions that only affect themselves, we should defer to them. But that’s unlikely to be true in some of these cases. I guess I would try to formulate my critique in terms that are themselves philosophically liberal.

Brooks: The reason the Canadian assisted suicide program is germane to us is not because they created the program. When they created the program, I found it completely acceptable. It was restricted to people at the end of life, they had to be in real suffering. The problem was that, when the slippery slope started, the authorities had no philosophic basis on which to say no. So the program drifted to include all sorts of people who were not envisioned in the original program. And that's not just a political problem, that's a philosophical problem. It's a sign that they've decided to say that individual choice is not only a very important value (which it is) but the supreme value. And when you get that you get in a world where people are committing suicide, and they're not just affecting their own lives, because suicide is contagious. They're affecting lives all around them. And they're creating a culture in which the affirmation of life is not a central piece of your whole shared moral order. To me, that's terribly destructive. And that's not an abortion statement. We should believe that each human life is of infinite value and dignity. And it's more important than individual choice. We should be concerned because they couldn't say no. We as liberals have to be able to say that individual choice is very important to us. But it's not the only thing that's important to us.

Mounk: Perhaps, just to close, what can liberals do to stand up for the right version of the tradition? How can we defend what is valuable in our political institutions and in our principles while remaining open to critiques of their shortcomings?

Brooks: One of my heroes is a 19th century English journalist named Walter Bagehot. And Bagehot said if you want to sway people to your cause, you can write serious tracts, and you can give speeches, but the best way is just to enjoy it. Enjoy the land that we love, enjoy the institutions that we love. 

We liberals have a set of institutions where we have fun talking to each other, and we get to meet strangers and get into their lives and introduce them to our lives. Liberal democracy is not about politics. It's about a way of being in the world. I look at your institution, Persuasion. I think a lot of people are just living that life and trying to express those ideas. But I also see a lot of people in universities and in companies who are not standing for the pseudo-segregation that is being imposed upon us so that we can only hang out with those like us. We get to enjoy people we have nothing in common with, and that's just a more fun way to be. The daily act of being socially courageous—I used to be one of those people who had headphones on in the train all the time. Now I'm more prone to talk to random people. I talked to a guy who was a big Trump guy though he's switching to DeSantis. He came here from Russia. He was sweeping floors, he started selling clothing. He had about 6600 wives. He showed me his vacation photos, where he’s in Italy. This guy's like 85, and he’s on yachts, surrounded by these twenty-somethings (I didn't want to ask where these girls came from). He wasn't my cup of tea, particularly, but it was fun to talk to him. That's just a fun way to be a liberal in a society, just the social encounter, meeting and sharing our identities. 

There's a great line from Parker Palmer: that we have to share identities from time to time, or else we'll fall for the pseudo-image we throw up before the world to make ourselves seem impressive. And if we honestly share who we really are from time to time, it's good for them. And it's good for us.

Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.

If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.


Podcast production by Brendan Ruberry and Jack Shields.

Connect with us! Spotify | Apple | Google

Twitter: @Yascha_Mounk & @JoinPersuasion

YouTube: Yascha Mounk, Persuasion

LinkedIn: Persuasion Community

The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.