“I had seen a bigger self-puffing victory dance after a two-yard gain than I had heard after winning World War II,” said David Brooks, prominent political commentator and “New York Times” columnist, contrasting a football player’s celebration with the measured reaction of American radio hosts to V-J Day.
“This symbolized for me a shift in culture from self-effacement, which says ‘I’m no better than anybody else’…to a culture of self-advertisement, of self-branding.”
Delivering the 2012 Palitz Lecture on Wednesday, titled “The State of American Politics,” Brooks explained the psychological progression of the United States since the 1940s from humility to self-righteousness, in order to examine the effects of this social phenomenon on U.S. politics.
According to Brooks, one of the main problems in American politics and culture at large is that the nation’s values have shifted from ideals of humility and virtue to those of self-gain and self-branding.
Brooks said that in today’s society, in which egotistical behavior is rewarded, humility is one of the greatest virtues anyone can have.
He said, “Your primary battlefield is internal, against yourself, against your own weak or sinful nature, and you have to fight a battle against that everyday no matter how good or how special you are… Parents and schools have to inculcate that sense of fighting the weakness in yourself as their primary mission.”
Brooks recalled his encounters with American politicians, emphasizing the social skills he observed in Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton, to describe the importance of social prowess in becoming a successful politician.
“Government is really about personality and relationships…If [politicians] don’t have [social skills], they learn to fake social skills,” said Brooks. “It is that personal quality that really marks successful politicians.”
Brooks used results from nationwide polls to substantiate his claim that American culture has become increasingly narcissistic.
In a psychological “Narcissism Test,” in which people are asked whether they identify with statements including, “I find it easy to manipulate people,” or “I show off whenever I have the chance,” the number of people who answer affirmatively has increased by 30 percent, according to Brooks.
He said, “We have become a very self-affirmative and self-confident people.”
Brooks said that when “TIME Magazine” asked Americans if they were in the top one percent of earners, 19 percent of Americans responded that they comprised this group.
According to a study conducted by the Gallup Organization, the percent of high school Seniors who think they are an “important person” has increased from 12 percent in 1950 to 80 percent in 2005, said Brooks.
Brooks said that this egotistical attitude contributed to the economic crash of 2008, stating that their conceited mindset of invincibility led Wall Street bankers to take larger risks.
Brooks believes that most politicians are well-meaning people who are simply stuck in an unfortunate, partisan system in which aspiring candidates need backing from billionaire investors if they want to run for any major office.
Only 19 percent of Americans trusts the government to do the right thing, according to Brooks. He believes that this makes any kind of government leadership very difficult.
“It’s really hard to lead a majority when no one trusts you. It’s really hard to ask for shared sacrifice when no one trusts you.”
Brooks believes that the surest way to equalize the American political system is for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to create more explicitly defined regulations in campaign fundraising, specifically regarding the involvement of private corporations.
He said that this would ensure that private interests don’t influence who gets elected for office and how those incumbents behave once they’re governing.
The final problem Brooks explained is the concentration of power in the White House among a limited group of politicians.
“The power has gotten more and more concentrated as time goes by. In Congress, there used to be 435 legislators that would come up with their own ideas. Now there are only four people in Congress running Congress, everyone else is just a foot-soldier… Each White House is more centralized than the last.”
Though he considered himself more left-leaning in his college years, Brooks is now a self-proclaimed conservative, standing true to the belief that traditional thought can still be wise and that religion can keep one from falling into the trap of self-centeredness.
Head of School Barbara Chase invited Brooks to deliver the annual Bernard and Louise Palitz lecture.
According to the Andover website, the Bernard and Louise Palitz Lecture Fund was established in 1991 to fund yearly speakers to “enhance the curriculum of Phillips Academy through lectures, exhibits or performances that focus on history, current events, politics, economics or the arts.”
Before delivering his speech, Brooks toured campus, attended All-School Meeting, hosted a question-and-answer in Kemper Auditorium and had lunch with staff members of The Phillipian.