David Brooks on the “baggy” American dream

David brooks David Brooks does one of his excellent readings of the American soul today in the Times. 

He notes the new Pew study that identifies Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa as the cities American would most like to live in. 

And he stops to ask why these cities should represent the American Dream circa 2009. 

His answer:

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

Brilliant.  Is it true?  Without tons more research, it is hard to say.  But what an excellent start. 

What I like about this speculation is the "bagginess" it identifies in the American dream.  It wants X and not-X.  City and not city.  Well organized but not hierarchical.  Clustered but distributed.  Well defined but open-ended.  Valued but not ideological. Machine but garden.



Brooks, David. 2009. “I Dream of Denver.” The New York Times, February 17 here (Accessed February 17, 2009).

5 thoughts on “David Brooks on the “baggy” American dream

  1. Tom Asacker

    I suppose, then, that housing prices have been largely unaffected by the downturn in those particular cities? And businesses must be moving there in droves. And where does David Brooks live?

  2. Alan Brewer

    I’m not sure how to take Mr. Asacker’s questions? They seem to be cast in order to throw doubt on Brooks’ analysis. Are those cities on the high ground, out of reach of the economic tidal wave? Probably not. Moreover, it is not the point Brooks is making. More to the point, Brooks could have added that Americans desire the virtual and the not virtual. Of course, to think of reality as the not virtual or non-virtual will certainly signals a sea change in the concept of reality. For some, that sea change has already happened.

  3. Mary Walker

    Hi Grant — Per the “bagginess” or contradictions of wanting X but also not-X: well, that’s the nature of dreams/ideals, isn’t it? We all want the good stuff and we also want avoid the negatives associated with that choice when it’s made in real life. Part of the appeal of dreaming/ideals is the avoidance of realistic tradeoffs.

    And you’re right — there’s some interesting research that could be done on the trends: how people’s definitions of “the American Dream” have evolved over time, across generations, etc: perceptions of different living options (country vs small town vs city) etc.

    The Brooks article: I find the comments thread more intriguing than the original article. It always strikes me (and I know this is an ongoing theme in your own work) — the contempt that some people have for other people’s life choices — lots of comments about how “mainstream Americans” are stupid, greedy, short-sighted, fat, ignorant, SUV-driving, fast-food-gobbling subhumans.

    The emotion of contempt interests me: what’s really going on underneath, for someone to have that level of judgment and hostility directed at strangers/people who live differently than oneself? Moral outrage and contempt seem like the modern version of old-fashioned xenophobia.

  4. AJ Kandy

    David Brooks, on the surface, may appear to be insightful, but he relies almost entirely on anecdotes and partial citations which fit his particular, right-wing (if not rabidly so) worldview. He really doesn’t do very good research, if any, to support his contentions, as Philadelphia Magazine laid out when they actually went out to research all the claims he made in Bobos In Paradise. http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos_in_paradise/

    Let’s not forget this is the person who cheer-led the Iraq War from the beginning, and also suggested that women are happier staying home and raising families. A grasp of both the big picture and fine detail seems beyond him — which led satirical cartoonist Tom Tomorrow to dub him ‘Mr McBobo, the Intellectually Nearsighted Pundit’ in one of his strips. http://dir.salon.com/story/comics/tomo/2005/01/31/tomo/index1.html

  5. alsomike

    I like David Brooks much of the time. But I think he’s taken a bunch of cities, found some commonalities between them (which are suspect in themselves: san francisco, portland, seattle, and san antonio are not ideological?) and draws broad conclusions about What Americans Want, as if that is a single, unified, well-defined thing.

    I think he’s right to say that lots of Americans don’t want to live like the Dutch. But on the other hand, there is a significant minority of Americans who do want that, which is why the thrust of his essay is deeply problematic for him as a thinker. He spends his time trying to demonstrate that what those people want is “Unamerican”, which I think just shows the bind that he’s in. The only people offering a way out of the (economic, ecological) crises we face are offering solutions that are flatly unacceptable to him.

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