David Brooks, Part Two: Demography Is King

In his editorial Demography Is King, Brooks describes how in recent decades in the US, “some social divides, mostly involving ethnicity, have narrowed. But others, mostly involving education, have widened. Today there is a mass educated class. The college educated and non-college educated are likely to live in different towns. They have radically different divorce rates and starkly different ways of raising their children. The non-college educated not only earn less, they smoke more, grow more obese and die sooner.”

He relates how Barack Obama has won “densely populated, well-educated areas” while Hillary Clinton has carried “less-populated, less-educated areas.” “For example, Obama has won roughly 70 percent of the most-educated counties in the primary states. Clinton has won 90 percent of the least-educated counties… This social divide has overshadowed regional differences. Sixty-year-old, working-class Catholics vote the same, whether they live in Fresno, Scranton, Nashua or Orlando.”

His argument? “In this election, persuasion isn’t important. Social identity is everything. Demography is king.”

What makes the editorial interesting is how he bucks the trend of buying into popular explanations about social identity. “Over the years, different theories have emerged to describe the educated/less-educated divide. Conservatives have gravitated toward the culture war narrative, dividing the country between the wholesome masses and the decadent cultural elites. Some liberals believe income inequality drives everything. They wait for an uprising of economic populism. Other liberals divide the country morally, between the enlightened urbanites and the racist rednecks who will never vote for a black man.”

In its place, Brooks advances an anthropological argument:

It’s more accurate to say that the country has simply drifted apart into different subcultures. There’s no great hostility between the cultures. Americans have a fuzzy sense of where the boundaries lie. But people in different niches have developed different unconscious maps of reality. They have developed different communal understandings of what constitutes a good leader, of what sort of world they live in. They have developed different communal definitions, which they can’t even articulate, of what they mean by liberty, security and virtue. Demographic groups have begun to function like tribes or cultures.

The mental maps people in different cultures form are infinitely complex and poorly understood even by those who hold them. People pick up millions of subtle signals from body language, word choice, facial expressions, policy positions and biographical details. Efforts to rebrand a candidate to appeal to down-market voters are inevitably crude and counterproductive.

In the end, Brooks wants to make an important point: “The core message is that even if you take away the ideological differences between the parties, you are still left with profound social gulfs within the parties.” Demography trumps ideology. That, I believe, became the impetus for Brook’s second editorial, The Cognitive Age, which I just covered. For here is how he finishes his editorial, “The upscale liberals who revere Obama have spent their lives championing equality and opposing privilege. But they’ve smashed the old WASP social hierarchy only to create a new educational one.” Hence, a revolution in knowledge and skills, and how those related to the profound socioeconomic changes happening in the world.

There is just one problem. If only David Brooks had read my student Casey Bouskill’s senior thesis. Casey writes, “demography in the last thirty years has remained virtually unchanged within the positivist, utilitarian framework.” Its bread and butter remains examining fertility and mortality rates, with accompanying efforts at population control. In other words, demography isn’t the best way to get at social identity, globalization, or the creation of sub-cultures.

He should have written, Anthropology Is King! That is the field that gets at the stuff he’s talking about (well, a shout out to sociology too), a point I made in a previous post on Microtargeting or Macrotargeting? On Politics and Culture. He could also have thrown in some human geography, and pointed us towards novel methods like geographic information systems (check out your zipcode and much more at gis.com). Finally he could have offered us ideas for the future. For that I recommend you look to David Harvey and his Spaces of Hope.

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