Note: I wrote the heart of this several months ago, and the current federal shut-down has nothing to do with my presenting it now. Obama’s re-election, the overall character of today’s Democratic Party, and my own creepy premonitions are the “current events” that prompted it.
Don’t kid yourself. America is in trouble. Trouble of a more serious form than any it has faced since the Civil War. Indeed, we can no longer dismiss as absurd the possibility of her future political dissolution, even though the most immediate crises of the next several decades will likely wear a predominately economic aspect.
“Polarization” and “democratic dysfunction” will be the terms initially used to label and explain a growing set of problems, but they will eventually be found conceptually inadequate, found to presume a base-line of adequate-enough modern democratic normality that will no longer be creditable.
America’s trouble is related to and to some extent parallels a loss of confidence in democracy being experienced across the globe, which at first glance might provide Americans with a kind of reassuring sense of commiseration or comparative health. But it is actually all the more dismaying that it is occurring in the earliest and most stable of the modern democracies.
And democracy’s faltering in America’s case has a unique dynamic. Contrary to what many doomsayers tend to predict, it is one that portends division and deadlock more than it does Tyranny or Soft Despotism. The latter (in a gradated form) is already upon Europe, and here also it certainly will play a part, but not as the main event.
The Americans who see the trouble most clearly, who notice the widening of various cracks in the foundation, are conservatives.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan could say that it “was morning in America again,” and more substantially, by decade’s end, other center-right politicians and pundits could point to something of an American return, after the “Great Disruptions” of the 1960s and 1970s, to patriotism, to aversion to socialism, to more moderated personal mores, and to religion. Conservatives were still likely to read quite a few jeremiads, and social-conservatives in particular remained gloomy about a number of topics, but the world-wide spread of democracy and the undeniably higher standards of living attained in the U.S. and its more capitalism-friendly allies made optimism seem the rational stance. Further, objective analysts could highlight a gradual but inexorable rejection of racist attitudes, even in states where these had dominated politics. Riots, home-grown terrorism, and other manifestations of 60s radicalism and discontent, dramatically decreased, and by the later 90s, even the signs on crime and out-of-wedlock birth rates became comparatively hopeful.
A vision of an America united around liberty, racial integration, technological progress, widely-enjoyed economic opportunities and prosperity, and the defense of democracy around the world, and more deeply, around the values of the Founders and the Bible, was possible in those times.
That sense is now gone.
In the wake of Obama’s re-election, conservatives are deeply depressed and increasingly feel estranged from contemporary America, even though vote-wise, it remains a “50-50 nation,” and even though many of them live in areas in which conservatism is the dominant political creed by far.
They have had to face some depressing truths. That even after Marxism’s utter disgrace, a yearning for socialism could return, win elections, and work through the bureaucracy and massive pieces of legislation. That even in the aftermath of serious attacks on the homeland, reasonable American willingness to project power abroad would not be fairly criticized when it inevitably made errors and ran into difficulties, but rather be met with a deliberately-stirred anti-war hysteria of breathtaking rhetorical viciousness. That even given their earnestly-offered arguments, more widely available now due to the internet and something of a media-shake-up, conservatives would still get crudely labeled as racist for criticizing Obama, homophobic however they argued against the push for same-sex marriage, bloodthirsty wherever they called for more strength-projecting foreign policy, theocratic whenever they continued to defend the sexual morals and other norms taught by Christianity, etc., etc., and etc., and that the Democrat politicians, opinion leaders, and celebrities who regularly resorted to such demonization would pay no political nor social cost for doing so.
But not only was the Reaganite touting of America’s innate decency and common-sense revealed to be quite naïve by the developments of 2005-2013, the Reaganite free-market philosophy was revealed in a number of ways to be deficient. It emerged that Wall Street could not be trusted to further the interests of Main Street, nor of the Republican party, and especially not of conservatism. Market incentives certainly could not be trusted to get it to police itself. But beyond all debates about what caused the 2008 financial crisis, even during the prosperous years of the aughties a sense of unease was growing, a feeling that if this society was what triumph of global capitalism entailed, in which the small towns shriveled and most manufacturing went overseas, then maybe it wasn’t a good thing.
Moreover, the old Reaganite faith in progress and prosperity seemed to have little to say to the various sorts of life-style excesses that had been growing, nor to the sense that the internet and cell-phones increasingly made Americans interchangeable and easily manipulable. The hope one might have once placed in comparative advantage global capitalism and the internet/cell-phone wiring of all, began to look increasingly hollow, as Walmarts filled with cheap Chinese goods, real jobs went missing, real skills became rare, and the internet became known not so much for an Army of Davids shoring up our common commitment to liberty, but for mobbish comment swarms, porn, The Social Network, diversion all-the-more addictive for being personally tailored (see: the fictional fat-slobs of Wall-E, or the perpetually downward phone-gaze of our “dumb” millennials), and unprecedented possibilities for spying, defamation, and demagogic manipulation for those with access to big data.
Moreover, all the genuinely good things the Internet brought seemed to even more directly make us dependent on a system almost no-one understood that much of—this of course had always applied to market capitalism in general, but now such dependence was more immediately and viscerally apparent.
Finally, the very idea of the nation-stirring “Demosthenes blogger,” the one presented in the 90s sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, was revealed to be hopelessly naïve: the true guides to how the Internet World would and would not empower individuals, and whether it would allow underdogs and unknowns to be heard by society, turned out to be Hobbes’s meditations on self-promotion and Tocqueville’s on the way equality stoked and then discouraged each individual’s ambition.
In this context of aughties-unease, older conservative assumptions of a natural alliance between more libertarian Americans and more socially conservative ones, around the supposedly shared attributes of religious Liberty, economic Liberty, and political Liberty, with the threat of Islamist terror cast as the substitute for that of Communist domination, fell flat. For one thing, the religious revival of the 70s-90s was fading, and the successes of the 1990s political marshalling of evangelical votes by the Religious Right had provoked an emotional counter-reaction, one documented by the many books sold by the “New Athiests” and more scientifically by various sociologists. For another, many younger religious types became repulsed by it as well.
Moreover, some of the more powerful “moderate” voices, i.e., voices which counsel a rejection of both parties, began presenting genuinely radical criticisms of the entire American regime, often from a religious angle. I am thinking here especially of our friend Patrick Deneen–read his latest here–, of the “radical orthodoxy” theologians, etc. Conservatives have had little effective answer to these voices about the spiritual ravages of modern commerce and technology, especially as the concrete social consequences of these (vanishing middle-class, birth dearth, skill-famine, etc,) came more and more undeniably into view.
So today, America’s conservatives need less of the Reagan-esque optimism and the knee-jerk patriotism and more of the hard wisdom about democracy one gains from political philosophy, and from a more realistic assessment of our own history. We have entered times when many of Tocqueville’s more depressing predictions about modern democracy are being borne out, and actually experienced, although of course in less dramatic ways that he sketched. Whatever the necessary concessions to short-term political rhetoric, and despite the ever-present leadership need for forward-looking-encouragement, the time has come for a far more sober cast of mind.
The darker meditations about the interaction of human nature and democracy we find in Tocqueville and The Federalist, rooted in some ways in the perennial concerns about republican government voiced so powerfully in book VIII of Plato’s Republic or in Shakespeare’s tragedy of Coriolanus, these are what we need to attend to.
But in doing so, we must not indulge the sort of delectation in doom-saying that has become a widespread conservative habit. That habit is far from sobriety: it is actually the flip-side of yesterday’s patriotic and complacent sunniness.
(And since we are entering an era in which conservatives may be forced into considering, at all levels of government, the use of more dramatically intransigent constitutional resistance options to various budget-destroying, Constitution-eroding, and religious-liberty threatening trends of liberal “governance,” a Lincoln-like precision about what we intend to do, and about what enormities we are constitutionally obliged to put up with, is all the more necessary. Loose, bitter, and doom-saying talk about unserious secession-like ideas, or about the psychological or philosophical impossibility of dialoguing with Democrats, is a cathartic luxury we can no longer afford.)
Let us not become like Tolkien’s Denethor. He’s the decadently cynical, and ultimately apostate character featured in the third part of The Lord of the Rings, who in his effort to gain a comprehensive defend-civilization view of the Situation, overwhelmed his spirit with all the doom-portending evidence.
We must rather become like Solzhentisyn’s Vorotyntsev, a character too few know about because too few read one of the very greatest historical novels, November 1916. Facing the unfolding of Russia’s all-too-non-fictional Soviet Calamity, Vorotyntsev was not pondering grand vistas of doom from a “palantir-wired” tower of observation like Denethor, but wading out into society in search of any and all allies and advices, standing for a fierce moderation ready to do battle and take radical actions for plausible hopes, in the manner expressed in this motto:
Nothing is more difficult than drawing a middle line for social development. The loud mouth, the big fist, the bomb, the prison’s bars are of no help to you, as they are to those at the two extremes. Following the middle line demands the utmost self-control, the most inflexible courage, the most patient calculation, the most precise knowledge.
How such a spirit of sobriety expresses itself, not simply in literary or philosophic reading lists, but in platforms and party rhetoric that can resonate with 21st century Americans, I to a large degree leave to others (our Pete comes to mind), even if my turning here to the example of Solzhenitsyn reminds me that faith in God’s promises will be necessary to sustain us in the quite possible event that even our grasping and steadfastly acting upon the “most precise” political prudence might yet fail to stop catastrophe. (At least America’s, if God forbid it comes, will never be one-hundreth as horrific as Russia’s, even if it will serve to demoralize the world for centuries to come.)
What I can more fully explain, and this is why this essay connects with my book project concerning liberty, is how this sobriety must extend to the discussion of our first principles, politically speaking.
For too long, too many popular conservative leaders and intellectuals have offered the comforting and flattering idea that if conservatives can just get their fellow Americans to really attend to the correct principles of our democracy, all will be well. It just isn’t that easy. Nor, I am arguing, is Liberty.
So more on that next.