10 Questions for David Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks discusses his new book on brain science, The Social Animal

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Alexander Ho for TIME

You tell me: what's your book about?

Over the past 30 years, researchers across a vast array of fields have learned a lot about things that are happening at the unconscious level: how we relate to people, how our characters form, how we view the world. The book takes research from all these different spheres and puts it into one story to give us a better sense of who we are.

One of your main points is that we are primarily emotional when making decisions as opposed to rational. How could someone who seems so steady, so lacking in overt emotion write this book?
My wife says that me writing a book about emotion is like Gandhi writing a book about gluttony. I'm not good at moments of intimacy with family or friends.

You don't do angry columns. Don't you ever get riled up?

There's enough anger in the world. They don't need me.

What is it like being a conservative at the New York Times?

My joke is that it's like being the chief rabbi at Mecca. It's lonely some of the time. Mostly it's the readers that are more liberal than the journalists. And you respect [the readers]. You're trying to reach them. You want to write the column that will persuade people who start off disagreeing with you.

Is it true that op-ed columnists are not edited at the Times?

That is correct. We [just] have a copy editor who checks our spelling and facts. It forces you to try to be your own editor, because you've got no safety net.

Is Obama beatable in 2012?

Certainly. He's got real problems in the Midwest. He's popular in New York and California, but if you're thinking about Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin, those are states that Republicans have done extraordinarily well in.

And the GOP field?

I'm a little meh. Some people are interesting, like Newt Gingrich, but Newt Gingrich is not going to be President. I wouldn't let that guy run a 7-Eleven, let alone a country. No management skills. There are a couple leaders: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels. Haley Barbour's a good governor, but he looks like the kind of guy Michael Moore would cast: Southern guy, heavy guy, was a tobacco lobbyist. I just don't think that's going to fly.

If people in Washington were to internalize your book's thesis — the importance of emotional connection — how would they make decisions differently?
Well, they'd actually talk to each other. Right now, what they do is issue statements, a series of monologues. In Washington, we have the dictionary definition of a dysfunctional group in the U.S. Congress. That's because people there haven't learned how to communicate.

Is America in decline?

No way. We have problems. But people come here from all over the world. They make it. They magnify their talents. We've had this for 250 years. I expect we'll still have it.

Does your book's emphasis on community over individualism clash with the American ideal of self-reliance?

We have this mythology of the lone cowboy. But the West was [built] by people joining together. We may think of ourselves as lone wolves, but that's not how we behave.