Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump together are likely to end this primary season with a majority of all votes cast. Add the votes for Republican bad boy Ted Cruz, and the vote total for anti-establishment candidates may reach 60 percent. This represents a stunning repudiation of the existing political leadership in America. I can’t pretend to know who will be elected president of the United States this November. But I’m convinced that the voter rebellions, both left and right, suggest deep changes in our political culture.
We’re in a populist moment. Distrust of our ruling class, ruling paradigms, and ruling ideas drives our politics. This distrust undoubtedly has many sources. Sanders gains traction when he accuses Hillary Clinton of being bought and paid for by Goldman Sachs. Trump’s supporters are thrilled when he swipes at the political class as clueless and incompetent. We need to shift, however, from particular politicians to larger forces at work, allowing us to see that populist distrust has systemic sources.
Our economic, intellectual, and political elites in America feel at home in today’s system. They flourish in the global economy, and they’re comfortable with a multiculturalist ideology. By contrast, ordinary people feel less and less at home. This homelessness is creating our populist moment.
We hear a lot about the economic situation. Globalization has reshaped our society in ways similar to the transformation of America from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the late nineteenth century, the last period of sustained populist politics. The economic interests of America’s leadership class are increasingly opposed to those of most other Americans. For someone like me, globalization is almost entirely a winning proposition. It lowers the cost of the consumer goods I buy and it increases the value of my talents and training. The guy with a high-school diploma? Yes, prices at Walmart are lower, but he has to compete with low-wage labor abroad. And the future? Deregulation of capital markets (“financialization,” as it’s called by some) and ever-expanding free trade bids fair to improve my children’s future. That’s not likely to be true for working-class families. Thomas Friedman writes, “average is over,” which means those families either have to get with it—or get lost.
We don’t hear much about the “get lost” message as it resounds in the cultural sphere. But we should, because in tandem with a pervasive sense of economic insecurity, it’s driving the populism. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart shows the many ways in which the economic winners of our era are also the cultural winners. They’ve succeeded in sustaining strong families and communities in spite of endorsing lifestyle liberalism, multiculturalism, and an official non-judgmentalism, commitments that don’t seem compatible with their neo-bourgeois lives. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, Murray doesn’t grasp the ways in which multiculturalism and non-judgmentalism serve upper-class interests. They inculcate a flexible, adaptive mentality, which is very helpful for those who work in a globalized context. One can do business in Saudi Arabia while bracketing moral reservations.
Trained to speak about culture and morality in “neutral” ways (“value systems” and that sort of thing), people like me can offer ourselves as “global leaders” rather than parochial Americans. Multiculturalism and political correctness are especially useful in this regard, for they prepare the rising elite to be circumspect when speaking about “divisive” issues. They learn to be exemplary technocrats, able to manage organizations that draw from a global workforce. This managerial pay-off explains why political correctness remains in force in so many elite institutions, even though most recognize its artificiality.
The supposedly “anti-Western” curricula in higher education reflect the ambitions of our leadership class, not self-flagellating guilt. After World War II, our foreign-policy establishment formed an internationalist consensus that replaced the previous generation’s isolationism. Strengthening international institutions (under American leadership, of course) was the best way to protect American interests. Today’s educational consensus follows this pattern. We’re supposed to set aside the cultural equivalent of isolationism and develop a globalized cultural literacy. As we know, the upshot is not deep knowledge of world cultures, but just a passing acquaintance, at best. I’ve long criticized the resulting cultural thinness. Now I can see that it’s an asset for our ruling class. Shallow roots provide technocrats and corporate managers with greater psychological freedom to glide along the surfaces of the increasingly global system of interlocking corporations, NGOs, philanthropies, and international institutions. They want to run the world, not just America.
Meanwhile, the thinning of moral and cultural norms tends to leave ordinary people disoriented and without a sense of belonging. As elites roam the globe doing business and running things, it’s less and less clear what binds them to the folks who stay behind. “Diversity,” like the global capitalism it both mirrors and serves, works well for our upper class, but not so well for everybody else. It makes culture fluid, redoubling the sense of vulnerability brought about by an economic system of “disruptive innovation” and expanded competition. Not only do ordinary people have less and less of a place in the global economy; they’re told that their cultural inheritance is benighted.
Sanders does not address this growing cultural gap, but Trump certainly does. His slogan, “Make America great again,” implies that our established leaders don’t have that goal in mind. “Trust me to promote your interests,” Trump is saying, “not just your economic ones, but your cultural ones.” He lacks the traditional bludgeon of anti-communism, one that Joseph McCarthy used in an earlier era to stir up resentment against the then-powerful WASP elite. But when Trump says we’re currently governed by “very stupid people,” he’s appealing to resentment and the gnawing sense that our leaders aren’t working for us.
There’s something right about this suspicion. Trump’s many sins against political correctness make him a hero in the eyes of those tired of being beaten up by elites who portray them as moral cretins not properly catechized in the latest standards of “inclusion.” Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times specializes in the “punching down” that Charlotte Allen speaks of in this issue (“Punching Down”). He never tires of the epithet of bigotry.
Immigration evokes both economic and cultural anxieties in particularly powerful ways, which is why it has become such a volatile issue. As Christopher Caldwell outlines in a Weekly Standard essay (“The Migrants of Calais,” March 7, 2016), the winners in the global economy share economic interests with immigrants from the poor world. Both benefit from the greater fluidity of labor and capital. Someone like me gets cheap housekeeping and take-out delivery, while poor immigrants get paying jobs. Meanwhile, my fellow citizens in the sagging middle, who aren’t part of the winning class in the global economy, get competition.
Large-scale immigration creates winners and losers, and it’s disingenuous to say otherwise. We can use redistribution, however, to ameliorate the economic consequences. The cultural consequences of immigration pose a more difficult problem, one less amenable to remediation, which is why it is probably the deeper source of populist anger. We are social animals. We need to belong; we need a sense of home. High rates of immigration change communities and alter cultures. This cannot help but lead to a diminished feeling of being at home in the place you’re from. Redistribution cannot compensate for feelings of cultural dislocation. We can’t buy our way toward a sense of belonging. As Trump says, “We either have a country, or we don’t.”
Those successful in the global economy are largely immune. Immigrants don’t move to wealthy neighborhoods. Moreover, people in my social class define themselves by educational and career achievements, not cultural inheritance. We feel at home with other well-educated, ambitious, and successful people, no matter where they’re from. The new meritocracy is relatively placeless. New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong—does it really matter as long as you have companions in the “creative class” who share your “values”?
We’re in a volatile moment in American political history. Our leaders, whether Republican or Democratic, seek a more globalized economy. Our major corporations are behind this goal. Our leaders also seek a thinner, more globalized culture. Elite universities in America are forthright. They advertise that they train global leaders, not national ones, which is why sidelining the Western tradition and substituting the ersatz cultural project of multiculturalism is so common.
These seem like good ambitions, and perhaps they are. Economic globalization has meant opportunity for lots of people who never enjoyed the prosperity of modern economic life. The editors of the Wall Street Journal like to point this out, and rightly so. Likewise, the spirit of inclusive internationalism and the aspiration toward a cosmopolitan solidarity certainly are not ignoble. The editors of the New York Times take pride in this. But Trump and Sanders are exposing an inconvenient reality. Many, perhaps most, sense that they have no role or place in this future. (Take a look at David and Amber Lapp’s on-the-ground report, “Alone in the New America,” in our February 2014 issue.) Increasing numbers feel themselves homeless in the world our establishment wants to bring about—and to a great degree already has.
Homeless. Many young people, especially those not raised by economic winners, now grow up in broken families. Home has become more ambiguous and less secure. An obligatory gender regime leaves young people without a clear sense of what it means to be a man or a woman. We teach the rising generation not to be at home in their own bodies, as the strange fixation on transgender rights illustrates.
The language of diversity and identity politics promises to provide us with a home. But the actual outcome is otherwise. We can affirm our sexual, racial, and ethnic identities, yet for most, only in private ways. (Some “identities” are permitted, even encouraged, to make public demands, but not those of most people.) In public we must maintain a welcoming neutrality that requires careful self-policing. We’re not to judge or censure anyone else’s identity, which leaves us with the thin identity allowed by multiculturalism and political correctness.
Even the nation-state, once a powerful source of unity, not just in America, but in Europe and elsewhere, has weakened. We fight about civic education and U.S. history. Are young Americans to be proud—or should they be penitent? We quarrel over what America means, or over what “the West” means. Our cultural inheritance is a point of contestation, not a shared, common home. Is Christopher Columbus to be celebrated—or denounced as a genocidal imperialist? Thus the paradox of our time: We speak endlessly about “identity,” yet our existence is more atomized and isolated. We’re increasingly homeless.
Populism leads to a politics of frustration and resentment. Born of distrust, it vetoes and negates rather than builds or creates. Rejecting established leaders, voters who feel abandoned are vulnerable to manipulation. Feeling as though they have no place to stand, they can be seduced by strong men who promise protection and become infatuated with artificial, coercive, and violent forms of solidarity. Fascism in Italy and Germany in the twentieth century provide cautionary examples.
The worst way to combat populism, however, is to denounce it as crude and irresponsible. One can’t tame an anti-establishment movement by shaming it for being anti-establishment. We need to address the underlying homelessness. Populism’s distrust of established leaders reflects a suspicion that ordinary people are being ignored, or at best manipulated, managed, and administered. That, too, needs to be addressed.
It’s not going to be easy. The homelessness and abandonment are well along. Apple and other companies export what’s left of high-tech manufacturing. Amazon drives Main Street shops out of business. But as long as they’re on the forefront of identity politics, they’re championed as “progressive.” The great imperative in Silicon Valley right now is to get more women and minorities into very high-paying jobs. Why are so many technology billionaires white males? Surely there’s no question more One Percent than that one. Meanwhile, the economic and moral basis for middle-class America is eroding. Transgender rights? Like gay marriage, it’s a luxury good for the rich, paid for by the poor, who are not just abandoned but, if insufficiently docile, are denounced as bigots.
And it’s not just today’s progressivism. A number of conservative columnists are appalled that more people aren’t appalled by the appalling Donald Trump. In a number of his columns for the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens judges the American people unworthy of true conservatism. He’s more blunt than most, but nevertheless representative of many in our leadership class.
The anti-populist tut-tutting, both left and right, reminds me of “The Solution,” by Bertolt Brecht, the German poet and playwright who cast his lot with Communist East Germany after World War II. He composed it after a construction workers’ strike led to a brief uprising against the Communist government on June 17, 1953.
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
We can’t elect another people more suited to our political and economic theories. We have to face public realities. Throughout the postwar period, the all-encompassing and largely successful middle class provided ballast for our political system. Almost everybody felt themselves at home in the “middle,” as the euphemism for the well-off, “upper middle class,” indicates. The once great American middle class is now being dissolved by economic, moral, and spiritual forces our leadership class won’t—or can’t—address. Thus our populist moment.
I’m an American optimist. We have a rich inheritance. It is not our wealth or military power, nor is it an “idea.” Our most valuable inheritance is what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory.” They’re open and capacious memories, running from Bunker Hill to Ellis Island, from Pickett’s Charge to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They’re triumphant memories, but anguished ones, too. Some evoke pride, others regret—like life itself. We need to return to these memories. They possess a power of solidarity that can bind us together.
But I’m also a cold analyst. The double project of capitalism and globalized multiculturalism may overwhelm us. In “The Fusion of Civilizations: The Case for Global Optimism” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers champion “pragmatic problem-solving” in a “stable and sustainable rules-based order,” undergirded by a scientific, technological, and economic consensus that encourages a “fusion of civilizations.” This possibility makes them hopeful. It fills me with dread, for it’s a technocratic future, not a democratic one.
A few months ago, I wrote about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent book, Between the World and Me. I found myself sympathetic to his Afro-centric themes, thinking the book best read as a heartfelt attempt to prevent black American culture from being assimilated into the mainstream. I judged that effort admirable, but doomed. Twenty-first-century America will very likely swallow and digest the poor, urban African-American experience. We’ve already made it into very profitable products: rap music, gangsta films, and thug fashions.
Now I find myself brought up short. If the globalized music industry can commodify and sell a degraded version of what Coates cherishes and wants to preserve, why do I exempt myself? Why won’t the mystic chords of memory that bind my heart also be commodified and sold? Perhaps America itself will be swallowed and digested by the global system for which Mahbubani and Summers are such earnest cheerleaders. In such a future, we may be richer, healthier, and perhaps even more peaceful. But we’ll be fundamentally homeless.
amily and faith. These are two powerful ways of belonging, one natural, and the other supernatural. But they, too, are weakened by the dissolving forces of our time. Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia, represents an effort to combat this trend. The document affirms many aspects of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, including permanence. But it also seeks to increase scope for pastoral discretion so that those in “irregular” situations can participate as fully as possible in the Church’s sacramental life.
The effort to be more pastoral characterizes this papacy. Francis wants to emphasize the power of God’s love, even in circumstances when we’ve wavered, failed, and fallen. Unfortunately, Amoris Laetitia participates in the dissolving trends of our times rather than resisting them. This is an unwitting complicity, no doubt. But we can see it in the way in which the exhortation turns marriage into something we aspire to rather than a sacramental reality we can rely on. The Church seems to become a plastic instrument of mercy, not a stable anchor.
When the document was released, journalists fixed on chapter eight, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” There, Francis takes up the controversial question of whether those in “irregular” situations can receive Communion, including those who have been civilly divorced and remarried, but have not received an annulment.
There’s been lots of commentary on just what is implied in the often technical and sometimes muddy verbiage of the chapter. Canon lawyers and moral theologians have parsed what Francis has written in different ways. But one thing is clear: Francis makes an ill-considered conceptual move. In order to create an atmosphere of flexibility and welcome, he speaks of marriage as an “ideal” rather than a sacramental reality.
This approach makes permanence itself into an ideal. Divorce betrays this, of course. As Francis writes, “It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and family.” Moreover, “In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.”
These seem like decisive affirmations, but they’re not. Remarrying after divorce is an “objective situation” that the Church teaches is an impediment to the reception of Communion. The reasoning is straightforward. The Church does not recognize civil divorce, and therefore regards the first marriage as ongoing. Thus the second marriage (without an annulment) isn’t a marriage at all, but instead an adulterous relationship.
To avoid this summary judgment based on the “objective situation” of divorce and remarriage, Francis implies that what really matters is the “ideal.” The driving questions become subjective, not objective. Divorced and remarried? Yes, that presents serious difficulties. But there is a way out (perhaps). Are you appropriately penitent for the past failure to live up to the “ideal,” and now newly committed to the “ideal” in a sincere way? A person’s conscientious discernment of the answer to that question, Francis suggests, is what’s important. One’s relation to the “ideal,” determined in “conversation with the priest,” can open the way to further discernment about “what hinders full participation in the life of the Church and [about] what steps can foster it and make it grow.”
Will this process of self-examination mean that divorced and remarried Catholics will receive Communion in some circumstances? The debate goes on, and it’s an important one. Yet I find myself concluding that the most important dimension of Amoris Laetitia is found in the fact that Francis adopts and affirms what most of us now experience. This is not helpful. In our culture of divorce, permanence is only a distant ideal to which we can aspire. Marriage is no longer a trustworthy institution we can rely on.
What’s true for marriage is true for a great deal of our experience. We suffer an increasingly atomized, fluid, and vulnerable existence, because we lack institutions we can trust. We have plenty of ideals, some quite noble. But we have very few stable places to stand and little in the way of reliable permanence.
At one point, Francis writes about “the values of the Gospel.” One understands why. Values-talk is popular these days. It’s a way of signaling moral aspiration without focusing on the troublesome “thou shalt not’s.” Along with ideals, “values” allow us to imagine a moral outlook without law, moral failure without shame, and moral discernment without negative judgments.
Which is why our therapeutic age is awash with ideals and values. They’re in university mission statements. Corporations proudly tout their values, and “idealism” becomes a marketing tool. Buy these shoes or that toothpaste, and Company X will make a contribution to eradicate polio, plant a tree, or bring Internet connections to Africa. It’s a dangerous misstep for Christianity to get into the business of marketing ideals and values.
Parmenides was one of the Greek thinkers who flourished before Socrates. His philosophical task was revealed to him when the goddess Justice whispered into his ear, “Cling to that which is and cannot not be.” “Unite yourself with permanence” was her message. That’s precisely what a man and a woman seek when they make their wedding vows. They desire a covenant that is, and cannot not be.
This desire is for a reality, not an ideal. For this reason, the Church’s teaching on marriage, strict though it may be by the standards of our time, is good news, a gospel in a way ideals and values can never be. We’re finite creatures, often sabotaged by our own deformed desires and bad choices, and always vulnerable to suffering and death. The sacrament of marriage anchors us, fusing our fragile lives to something that will not be eroded, will not fail us or betray us, even if we betray it. To refuse divorce, as the Catholic Church has done, is to reassure us that permanence in marriage is not an elusive ideal, but an accessible reality.
Francis misjudges our era. He seems to think we’re enclosed within rigid institutions and beaten down by legalistic systems. To my mind, the situation is otherwise. We live in a dissolving era. The problem is not that divorce is judged harshly. It’s that young people experience marriage as a fragile institution, one incapable of protecting them from the relentless flux of life.
This is part of life without a reliable inheritance. Few institutions are trustworthy today. The endless flow of power and money rules in our fluid world. Whatever permanence is possible now depends upon steadfast personal commitments—a terrible burden for anyone with enough self-knowledge to recognize the unreliability of our fallen nature. It’s a sad irony that Francis gravitates toward notions such as “ideals” and “values.” They’re part of the contemporary toolkit for dissolving permanent truths. They serve the master-ideal of our time: the solitary individual navigating on his own toward goals of his own.
St. Augustine observed that we’re all pilgrims in this world, journeying toward our home in heaven. But he did not think us alone and homeless. In Christ, God was made man, not an ideal. His sacraments make real what they signify; they do not symbolize values. His Church is an “objective situation,” a civitas with her own cult, rites, and laws.
Pope Francis speaks often and eloquently about “accompaniment.” As so many other institutions weaken in our dissolving age, the Church’s greatest gift is to accompany us with a stubborn givenness, an inflexible permanence.