From bobos to social animals: the upcoming book from David Brooks

Commentator David Brooks will soon be releasing a new book titled The Social Animal. This Newsweek story provides some clues about the new book:

The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. Brooks’s first two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, were acutely witty satires of a social group whose name he coined: bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians,” the “affluent educated class” that frequents “gourmet coffeehouses” and issues corporate reports “with quotations from Émile Zola.” The books are smart—Brooks is a shrewd anthropologist of this fanciful type—and hugely entertaining. But they lack gravitas. The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.

Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.”

Brooks has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it. He’s been busy, working on the book over the past three years during the stray hours when he isn’t writing his column, appearing on TV, or lecturing around the country. “I used to play golf,” he says. “I gave up every second that I wasn’t hanging around with my wife and kids.” (He has three, and lives, bobolike, in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.)

To create a readable narrative from this daunting store of information, Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb.

Based on the summary here, it sounds like I will pick up this book somewhere down the road.

It is interesting that this reviewer suggests that Brooks was an “anthropologist” in writing his first two books. Brooks himself suggests in Bobos in Paradise that he was practicing “comic sociology.” This new book sounds more like anthropology as Brooks sets out to explore why humans are the way they are. Or more broadly, Brooks is approaching a question that many humans throughout history have asked(see a recent example here): what exactly makes us human?

Also, I am not sure about the idea that his first two books suffered from a lack of gravitas. Sure, the books were somewhat snarky. But there was also some truth in them about recent changes in American suburbs. Did they lack gravitas because they pointed out some of the foibles of bourgeois bohemians?

(Read other posts about David Brooks: making a pitch for sociology; a system that might discourage good candidates from running for political office; and defending the liberal arts.)

Kotkin: election results “the smackdown of the creative class”

Amongst pundits sifting through the election returns, I have only seen Joel Kotkin explore how votes broke down by broad location categories: cities vs. suburbs. Before the election, Kotkin suggested that both parties were fighting over middle-class suburbanites (and the Democrats were losing at this). Afterward, he continues this argument and suggests the creative class and bourgeois bohemians were overwhelmed by the middle-class, suburban vote:

More than anything, this election marked a shift in American class dynamics. In 2008 President Obama managed to win enough middle-class, suburban voters to win an impressive victory. This year, those same voters deserted, rejecting policies more geared to the “creative class” than mainstream America.

A term coined by urban guru Richard Florida, “the creative class” also covers what David Brooks more cunningly calls “bourgeois bohemians”–socially liberal, well-educated, predominately white, upper middle-class voters. They are clustered largely in expensive urban centers, along the coasts, around universities and high-tech regions. To this base, Obama can add the welfare dependents, virtually all African-Americans, and the well-organized legions of public employees…

But the real decider–to use George W. Bush’s unfortunate phrase–remains the much larger, more amorphous middle class. Given the economy of the past two years, the subsequent alienation of this group should pose no mystery. Suburban swing voters didn’t suddenly turn into racists or right-wing cranks. Instead they have seen, correctly, that Obama’s economic policy has to date worked to the advantage of others far more than themselves or their families. Until the Democrats and Obama can prove that they once again can serve the interests of these voters, they will continue to struggle to recapture the optimism so appropriate two years ago.

I would love to see some actual numbers on this. It seems like Richard Florida could post some maps like he has recently been doing on that would correlate voting patterns with the presence of the creative class.

I wonder if Kotkin would suggest this is a continuation of the older “culture wars” idea (progressives vs. conservatives, religious vs. non-religious, etc.) or a new trend (the creative class vs. middle-class suburbanites).

More broadly, how big will the creative class in America grow to be? Is it possible, or even desirable, that a significant number of Americans become part of the creative class or the bourgeois bohemians?