Brutal era can be overcome by retuning to core values, Times columnist tells SD audience

David Brooks delivers a speech during the Boe Forum on Public Affairs on March 19, 2024, at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. (Courtesy of Augustana University)

Brad Johnson, South Dakota Searchlight

SIOUX FALLS — The United States is living in a “brutal era,” New York Times columnist David Brooks told about 2,000 people Tuesday at Augustana University, but there is hope today’s ugly politics and social turmoil will lead to a better world.

Brooks, who also is a PBS NewsHour commentator and book author, was the featured speaker at The Center for Western Studies’ 27th Boe Forum on Public Affairs.

First he took the audience on a depressing, but not surprising, journey.

“The famous dates of our recent lives have been brutal dates,” he said. “September 11, January 6, October 7. Sometimes it seems the forces of dehumanization are on the march.”

It is tempting, he said, to crawl under the covers and curl up. He noted that 36% of Americans feel lonely “frequently or most of the time.”

The number of Americans reporting they have no close friends has increased fourfold and the number not in romantic relationships has “gone up 30% since 2000.” During the same period, there has been a 50% increase of Americans placing themselves in the lowest happiness category, and 45% of teenagers say they are persistently hopeless or despondent.

“There is some sort of weird spiritual-relational crisis in this country,” he said. “And my fear is it is affecting our politics.”

“We have become a sadder nation,” he said, and correspondingly, we’ve become a “meaner nation.”

Just 20 years ago, he said, “more than two-thirds of Americans gave to charity. Now less than half of Americans do.”

Unfortunately, “The meanness shows up in our politics. It bleeds over everything.”

He added that Google statics show that the usage of the word bravery has dropped by 65% over the last seven years. Gratitude is down 58%; humbleness is down 55%.

“I think the cause and the result is that we are just not as kind to each other,” he said.

Mistrust is a major problem. About 75% of people in 1950 believed government would do the right thing, he said. “Now it is down to 18%.”

With a lack of trust in institutions, he said, “people began to doubt vaccines. They doubt election results. They doubt the media. They doubt the legal system. You don’t get rule of law. You get rule breakers.”

His dire statistics continued as he referred to a 2018 survey that said 71% of young adults said most people would take advantage of them if they had a chance, and 80% said people just look out for themselves most of the time.

He cited a recent South Dakota News Watch survey that said 68% of South Dakotans believe democracy is under attack and 39% strongly or somewhat agree that violence is acceptable to protect American democracy.

Only 20% were very confident in the election results and, in a prior poll, 80% said civility has gotten worse.

The causes of our current problems are deeper than politics, he said, but voters easily can solve the political problems.

“First,” he said, “stop voting for politicians who make it worse.”

Secondly, “Don’t vote for candidates who lie incessantly.”

Repairing the tears in society will take more work.

“We have a society in which people are no longer trained on how to treat each other with kindness and consideration,” Brooks said.

Our education system is focused on helping students get good grades. That system, he said, has created a meritocracy system where students of wealthier families perform better academically.

Those students then attend the more elite colleges, marry people of similar education and wealth, and move to the same cities. They become the 20% who “control the cultural lights. They control the media.”

Eventually, the other 80% become fed up and support the populist politicians.

Changing society requires a change in how we view others.

“Our everyday actions are how society gets rebuilt,” he said. “And it is not naive to lead with trust. It is not naive to lead with curiosity. It is not naive to lead with genuineness. You will be betrayed. You will be hurt. But it is still worth it.”

He spoke of a college football coach who said his mission was to create better people on and off the field.

“That’s what good leaders do,” Brooks said. “That’s what good societies do. They try to nurture the atmosphere in which it is easier to be good. They set the norms, the standards and they instill the habits, and people in such an atmosphere are likely to treat each other well.”

It is important, he said, to make other people feel respected.

“When you see an individual, any person in this room,” Brooks said, “you see someone made in the image of God. You are looking into the face of God. What you see is somebody who has some piece of them that has no size, color and shape. That is their soul, and it gives them infinite value and dignity.

“You can be any religion, or an atheist,” said Brooks. “But seeing someone with that much reverence and respect is a precondition for treating them well.”

Building that trust and repairing society really comes down to the following, Brooks said: “being gentle, being trustworthy, being humble and being considerate.