David Brooks has found a congenial story in Google ngrams — or rather, in three papers about ngrammatical history, which he interprets to show that virtue, discipline, and concern for the common good have been declining, while subjectivity and concern for self-esteem have increased ("What Our Words Tell Us", NYT 5/20/2013)).
Brooks doesn't cite or link to the papers, which in my opinion is a form of journalistic malpractice, so here they are:
Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile, "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960–2008", PLoS One 7/10/2012
Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir, "The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America", Journal of Positive Psychology, Forthcoming
Daniel B. Klein, "Ngrams of the Great Transformations", GMU Working Paper in Economics, 2013
I discussed the Twenge et al. paper last summer, with some (non-)replications:
I haven't read the Kesebir and Klein papers carefully, and don't have time to do so this morning, but a glance at them raises an interesting point about the ideological resonances of certain time spans.
Daniel Klein's "very casual paper" surveys the past 250 years or so, because he's interested in the "governmentalization of society and culture" which on his view "began to set in" around 1880, "as a reaction to liberalism, the first great transformation". (By which he means classical liberalism, as represented by Adam Smith.) Since Klein is himself a liberal/libertarian, he notes with disapproval the rise since 1880 of phrases like "social needs", "needs of the community", "needs of society", "national unity", "social unity", "our society". He also notes a "long decline" — since the early 19th century — in words and phrases like "liberty", "ought", "duty", "goodness", "good conduct".
In contrast, the Kesebirs are concerned with what they call the "well-established cultural trend in the United States toward greater individualism and its implications for the moral domain", which predicts that "during the twentieth century, words related to moral excellence and virtue" would "largely [wane] from the public conversation". This perspective resonates with the view that moral decline is a consequence of the rise of secular modernism. The underlying ideology, while not precisely the opposite of Klein's, certainly assigns a very different evaluation to the individualism/communalism dimension(s).
Jean Twenge also takes a negative attitude towards the rise in individualism — she calls it "narcissism", just so that we're clear what she thinks about it — but she sees the crucial cultural change as something that's happened since 1960 or so, presumably as a consequence of the counterculture and the hippies and all. In the previously–cited blog posts, I noted that the trends of interest to her are actually much more striking in the period from 1900 to 1960, and in fact are hard to discern (or even reversed) in the post-flower-power era.
David Brooks doesn't mention this ideological and temporal inconsistency in his sources. In general, as I've noted in discussions of his earlier columns, his "unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece" crucially depends on skillful editing — or revision — of his raw materials into a form that fits his theme.
In one of the posts about Twenge on narcissism, I observed that there had been "surprisingly little uptake in the mass media", and expressed particular surprise that "so far, neither David Brooks nor the Daily Mail has taken the bait". So I'm glad to see that despite the debilitating influence of social democracy, modernism, and the counterculture, Mr. Brooks continues to demonstrate the virtue of self-consistency.