David Brooks, elite pundit par excellence, has been giving a master lesson for years in how to talk about class without actually talking about class. But class is about material realities, not empty cultural signifiers like one’s TV habits or food preferences.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’s recent gaffe on Twitter is hardly the first time he’s tried to write about food and inadvertently revealed something about himself. (William B. Plowman / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

The tweet was quick to elicit mockery, in part because its central claim obviously wasn’t true. And, within a few hours, Brooks’s hamburger fable had collapsed. By following a few visual breadcrumbs, internet sleuths quickly traced the table, chair, and cut of fries to Smokehouse Restaurant in Newark’s Terminal A, whose menu lists the cost of Brooks’s meal at a much less princely $17.

This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport. This is why Americans think the economy is terrible. pic.twitter.com/1qeV9qOBL3

— David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks) September 21, 2023

There was also deeper humor to Brooks’s tale about an overpriced airport burger apparently meant to stand in for popular frustration with the state of the economy. Were it possible to peek inside his patrician mind palace, we would undoubtedly have seen the frenzied calculations of an extremely well-off man doing his unconvincing utmost to appear ordinary.

Being stuck at the airport and compelled to shell out for an uninspiring meal, Brooks presumably imagines, is a predicament with which the simple commoner might be able to identify. The burger and fries, meanwhile, were meant to represent the crude but hearty fare that a salt-of-the-earth type who has never tasted striata baguette and uses “class” as a noun interchangeable with “refinement” might enjoy. The drink, of course, was a dead giveaway, and Brooks took care to mention it in a contrite moment with PBS’s William Brangham over the weekend — Brangham raising the issue but not pressing his guest on his rather dishonest math.

Were it possible to peek inside Brooks’s patrician mind palace, we would undoubtedly have seen the frenzied calculations of an extremely well-off man doing his unconvincing utmost to appear ordinary.

It’s hardly the first time Brooks has written about food and inadvertently revealed something about himself in the process. In a widely lampooned 2017 column, Brooks wondered aloud whether structural and material barriers to upward mobility are really as important as “the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.” What followed was another culinary anecdote, this time intended to illustrate the many layers of taste and sophistication that are supposedly preventing working-class Americans from improving their collective lots:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

While it’s drawn particular attention in recent years, Brooks’s bizarre habit of invoking culinary anecdotes and themes to talk about America’s class divides has a longer lineage. In a lengthy 2001 essay for the Atlantic on the preceding year’s contentious presidential election, the columnist compared two counties — one blue, one red — whose differences supposedly illustrated the nation’s deep-seated cultural fault lines: Maryland’s Montgomery (blue), where Brooks then lived, and Pennsylvania’s Franklin (at that time, a red county in a blue state).

“I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is,” wrote Brooks, going on to describe his ensuing traversal of a frontier he dubbed the “Meatloaf Line” and the exotic safari that awaited him. Queue the twanging banjo. . . .

After about forty-five minutes I pass a Cracker Barrel — Red America condensed into chain-restaurant form. I’ve crossed the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters. . . .

. . . [Franklin County is a place where] no blue New York Times delivery bags dot driveways on Sunday mornings . . . [where] people don’t complain that Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny. . . .

. . . In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing.

There was a good deal more in the same vein. But — much like Brooks’s recent musings on the crippling impact of inflation on the institution of the airport hamburger — it turned out there were some glaring factual inaccuracies in his portrait of an America neatly divisible by the competing sensibilities of meatloaf and sun-dried tomato.

While it’s drawn particular attention in recent years, Brooks’s bizarre habit of invoking culinary anecdotes and themes to talk about America’s class divides has a longer lineage.

For one thing, as Sasha Issenberg pointed out in a perceptive essay published a few years later, QVC actually had a larger audience in wealthy blue districts. “Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, Issenberg observed, six of the ten states with the largest populations of undocumented immigrants were red. “We in the coastal metro blue areas read more books,” insisted Brooks, though a study conducted shortly after at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater placed twenty out of the thirty “most literate cities” in red states (among its criteria were the presence of bookstores and libraries). Brooks also got it wrong in suggesting that “very few of us [blue state Americans] could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” In fact, three of the top five television markets for NASCAR’s premier racing series in 2002 were in blue states.

Another of Brooks’s dispatches from Rubesville saw him insist that the local slop was so cheap he was unable to spend $20 at a restaurant:

On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, “slippery beef pot pie,” or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s. I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and “seafood delight” trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.

Again, as Issenberg noted upon his own visit to the county, even a cursory survey of local establishments suggested it would have been incredibly easy to spend more than $20 on steak or lobster. Amusingly, the owners of one inn — having just dished him up a “$50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce” — even said they had hosted Brooks shortly after the publication of his Atlantic essay.

Class may exist and be acknowledged, but only in a quasi-mystified form.

“For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Issenberg was informed. “[Brooks] said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”

Its various liberties with the truth notwithstanding, there was clearly something else going on in Brooks’s 2001 Atlantic essay beyond just sloppy reporting and embellished anecdote. In the political cosmology of conservatism — and to some extent that of mainstream liberalism as well — class division is less the product of material realities intrinsic to capitalist society than an epiphenomenon of culture. Class may exist and be acknowledged, but only in a quasi-mystified form. It is not a matter of political economy but a question of taste, gesture, and affect: something ultimately reducible to bland signifiers like television habits or food preferences.

A significant implication of this view is that culture shapes and determines class rather than vice versa. The norms, traditions, values, or codes of behavior found in a particular place are not the expression of its material realities but instead the cause of them. When such an outlook is taken to its logical conclusion, the upshot is a conception of class partly or even completely divorced from anything resembling a coherent foundation. As a mere appendage of culture, it is basically just another identity to be inherited or perhaps even adopted.

One thinks here of Florida governor Ron DeSantis informing us in his recent memoir that, while he did not actually grow up in such a milieu, he nevertheless identifies as a blue-collar Midwesterner:

I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving.

In normative terms, there are much more significant consequences to this facile treatment of class than Ivy League–educated politicians like DeSantis cynically attempting to align themselves with some mythologized version of the Midwestern demos. If culture is a determinant, it follows that it can be indicted as well as celebrated, and, for Brooks, the defective culture of the “lower orders” has always been the most convincing explanation of their plight.

People, in other words, are not poor because of poverty but because they have been allowed to behave like poor people.

Consider a 2015 column (“The Cost of Relativism”) in which Brooks took on “the growing chasm between those who live in college-educated America and those who live in high-school-educated America.” This latter group — beset by an epidemic of drugs, crime, and unplanned pregnancies — had, Brooks argued, been “destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism,” the remedy for which was “not only money and better policy” but the reintroduction of norms prescribing good behavior. People, in other words, are not poor because of poverty but because they have been allowed to behave like poor people. The 2016 version of J. D. Vance would certainly have agreed.

That very year, the United States’ elite pundits were caught flat-footed by an election result they neither anticipated nor understood. The “culture” of the working-class (which almost invariably implied a particular image of the “white working class”) thus quickly became an object of both fascination and study. For many, what had been missing was an adequate understanding of the way ordinary, non-coastal Americans lived. Their concerns, coastal pundits declared, had for too long been dismissed and ignored by coastal pundits, and it was finally time to show them the respect and empathy they deserved. Though there were undoubtedly exceptions, the main outcome of such introspection was more long-winded write-ups espousing the need for greater understanding across the nation’s political and cultural divide that — like Brooks’s 2001 safari to Franklin County — often simply reproduced the inaccurate and patronizing preconceptions of their patrician authors.

Both elite pundits’ blinkered notion of class and their fundamental condescension toward those beneath them have survived 2016. But they now come with a side of feigned empathy and the occasional dash of performative solidarity as well. I, your humble coastal pundit, feel your pain. I, too, have been gouged whilst trying to enjoy a beefburger and frites at my local aerodrome.

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