I don’t think we’ve fully realized how acute feelings of vulnerability have become in twenty-first-century America. At prestigious universities, young people with every reason to believe they’ll land on the top end of society nevertheless feel threatened, so much so that some call for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” It’s easy to mock this, as I have done in the past. But such a response is wrong, or at least short-sighted. Trump, Sanders, European populism, and the rest of the turmoil in today’s public life tell us something. A pervasive disquietude is transforming our society and politics.
One of the reasons is obvious, if we but open our eyes. Over the last two generations, American institutions have become much more competitive. The rising generation runs a gauntlet of tests. From an early age, their parents tell them how important it is to get good grades, attend a good college, and build a strong résumé. The days are gone when a white-collar job at a large corporation meant lifetime employment. One must always be on guard, preparing for an uncertain future.
And then there’s personal life. The sexual marketplace can be intensely competitive, making it a place of emotional danger. My son tells me that often it feels as though his world is full of frenemies, “friend-enemies,” a term that has gained currency in our hyper-networked, get-ahead society that is at once aggressively informal (encouraging us to see everyone as a friend) and relentlessly competitive (full of adversaries). Bosses in T-shirts send mixed messages. He’s a buddy who can fire you.
And what about the trajectory of life? Should one get married and have children? If so, when? Young adults aren’t so sure anymore. We no longer have very clear answers about what makes for a decent, honorable, and happy life. So we default to wealth and achievement as the measures of success—which brings us back to competition, 24/7 concerns about where one stands, and the specter of failure.
Our society is more and more unsettled in part because we feel we must survive endless competitions and navigate unending choices. This is especially true for the rising generation. Even when their future seems promising, they tend to see it as perilous.
A sense of vulnerability is not alien to me. To be human is to suffer finitude, which means knowing that one may have to endure setbacks, illnesses, and disappointments. But its pervasiveness hasn’t characterized my experience. I’m just old enough to have internalized a fairly straightforward set of expectations. Life would be like a train ride with regularly scheduled station stops: college, job, marriage, children, retirement, and the grave. I could make mistakes and be diverted for a time, but the train would still take me forward, guiding me along the main course of life, however many side trips I might take. This gave me a sense of security, a feeling that life would take care of itself.
A friend, somewhat younger than me, ventured a strikingly different metaphor. He said life is like a sailboat heading toward a self-chosen destination. The always changing winds require tacking first this way, and then that. You must always be vigilant, assessing conditions and making decisions, all with no guarantee you’ll get where you want to go.
I’ve thought a lot about these very different images of life’s journey. The one I inherited was one-size-fits-all. Some felt it as a prison of sorts. You’re stuck on the train and can’t get off. My friend’s sailboat allows for a great deal more freedom than the image I inherited. You get to choose the destination, and you get to make your own decisions about how to get there. That sounds appealing, and in some circumstances it is. But with this freedom, which is widespread today, comes a heightened sense of uncertainty, risk, and potential mishap.
This is something baby boomer political leaders consistently fail to address. Conservatives celebrate economic freedom and entrepreneurial ambition. Liberals point out how much more inclusive our society is now, allowing us to craft our own life plans rather than live according to a narrow set of expectations. All true, but a horizon of freedom is also a horizon of possible missteps, failures, and wounds. The very achievements of recent decades—a more dynamic economy and a less restrictive, more open and diverse public culture—have led to new dissatisfactions.
This correlation of greater freedom and greater dissatisfaction can be hard to process, which is one reason why our political culture has become so dysfunctional. For Americans, freedom has only good connotations. We’re not likely to see its downsides, especially if we came of age in an earlier era when the old train-ride assumptions about life still held sway. But upon reflection, the liabilities should be obvious. A self-directed “journey of life” may sound appealing, but the wind often shifts unexpectedly. We can find ourselves set back, or even capsized.
Millennials are well aware of these dangers. The 1960s and 1970s offered most college graduates tickets to white-collar jobs that were secure. As a young man, I didn’t know professionals and managers who had lost their jobs. The sexual revolution and easy divorce were gaining steam, true, but we didn’t yet know the implications. Career, neighborhood, home—mine was a world that still seemed anchored in a reassuring permanence. Young people today experience the opposite. Impermanence is everywhere. This explains much of the distemper of our politics. Even as we enjoy the greater freedoms our more fluid, open-ended society brings, we’re anxious, uncertain, and fearful.
To a certain extent, we’re aware of this problem, and we adopt therapeutic strategies of affirmation, which means non-judgmentalism and a strenuous rhetoric of inclusion. Everybody has the right to a life journey of his own choosing. Everyone’s personal choices are to be respected. The idea here is to forestall feelings of vulnerability by preventing harsh, hurtful encounters. It’s telling that the institutions with the most highly developed rhetoric of inclusion are the most elite, which is to say the most competitive. Again the paradox: The most successful kids with the greatest opportunities seem to be the ones most eager for protection.
The problem with these strategies of affirmation and inclusion is that they actually make us more dependent on what other people say about us, not less, which is why we must endure the heavy policing of political correctness. It’s needed to maintain a united front of non-judgmental affirmation. Furthermore, the more we’re affirmed, the weaker our psychological immune system becomes. I’m sure Allen Ginsberg was largely invulnerable to censure of his homosexuality, drug use, and rejection of bourgeois standards. Coming of age after World War II, he had to be able to steel himself to go his own way. By contrast, I’m almost as certain that if I told a young gay lawyer at a high-powered law firm that his lifestyle is immoral, he’d be deeply hurt and outraged. Like over-protective parents, our culture of non-judgmentalism increases vulnerability precisely insofar as it tries to eliminate external threats or setbacks. To my mind this explains, in part, the shrill pettiness of today’s culture of complaint. Fragile people feel the slightest slights, often acutely.
The other approach is one of critique. A great deal of what goes by the name of “critical thinking” seeks to “unmask” the powers that govern society. The leftist shows how consumer culture advances economic interests. The therapist shows how morality is really repressed sexuality. Postmodernism mixes and matches these and other critical strategies. The goal, however, is not truth-seeking but instead a therapy of disenchantment. We’re made less vulnerable insofar as the external threats to our self-chosen lives are shown to be small and base, not great and noble. Have things gone against you in your career? Well, that’s because of a patriarchal or racist culture—or if you’re conservative, it’s because of political correctness and reverse discrimination. Have you messed up your personal life? Again, there are critical tools ready at hand to disenchant and thus minimize the hurt.
The demotic form of this approach is cynicism, named after the school of ancient philosophy that sought invulnerability by discounting everything as pointless. Moral relativism ministers to this approach. We don’t need to worry about the journey of life, because there’s no place to get to. A scientific materialism also helps. Our bad feelings are just brain states. Unhappiness is no more real than happiness, so relax and don’t worry about it.
This kind of detachment works, up to a point. But over the long run, like politically correct affirmations, it can increase vulnerability. Without a transcendent meaning to life, things are up to me. I give my life meaning. Again, this sounds like a great gain for freedom. But it means that if I’m depressed, despairing, or in any way unhappy with my life, it’s my fault. I have failed—failed to live up to the heroic, postmodern vocation of giving my life its unique, individual meaning that depends only on . . . me. Once again, we’re back to a world in which we are unanchored and alone. Here, as well, the competitive ethos that dominates so much in our society invades. Whose life is more authentic, more original, more creative, more “meaningful”? In that competition, losers far outnumber winners.
Our sense of vulnerability also has cultural-political dimensions. Young people are deeply affected by the injustices of our society, especially those that were so prominent in the past—subjugation of Native Americans, slavery, and racism. This undermines the credibility of the past and deprives them of a cultural inheritance they feel they can trust. Without confidence that the past provides secure anchors and reliable patterns of life, they feel isolated. And rightly so, for without a cultural inheritance, we must navigate through life on our own. We’re on the sailboat, tacking this way and that, unable to trust inherited wisdom and patterns of life to guide us on our way.
In our own history, Abraham Lincoln offered a Job-like “solution” to the problem of a sin-tainted inheritance. In his Second Inaugural, he invoked the evils of slavery and the ordeals of war, all of which seemed to throw into question the moral health of the American Republic. His answer was to quote from Psalm 19: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Lincoln is saying that our society is riven with injustice, but it is under the providence of a trustworthy God. Such a conviction reduces our sense that our collective failures leave us adrift. We can trust our inherited ways of life to get us to a humane destination.
This trust need not be religious. Traditional patterns of life function as a “natural providence.” My college–work–marriage–children–retirement–death train seemed to me foreordained. As I matured, I became aware that many suffered, to one degree or another, in the inherited social system that set the scheduled stops, my mother among them. Yet I trusted its promises (as did my mother): Get on this train and you will live a decent and full human life. Mine was an implicit affirmation of Lincoln’s citation of Psalm 19, now in a more modest, social register. To assume that inherited ways of life are trustworthy is a natural human disposition, one that parallels the supernatural faith in God’s benevolent governance of human affairs.
Aristotle was a spokesman for “natural providence.” As social animals, we develop natural loyalties to inherited ways of life, allowing them to shape our expectations and guide our choices. If we’re lucky enough to live in a society with settled norms that accord with human nature—and if our souls are formed by those norms—we attain a kind of permanence and invulnerability through the reliable constancy of our virtues. We face challenges, yes, but from positions of strength.
The institution of marriage, for example, serves as a “natural providence,” and insofar as we allow ourselves to be formed by its expectation of fidelity, we can better endure many temptations, setbacks, and misfortunes. Every cultural inheritance has this and other settled norms. Taken together, they make a promise: Live this way and you will live well. Given the fallen character of all things human, the promises are never pure. Yet if we trust them, and live accordingly, we attain a degree of stability and invulnerability unattainable by way of freedom alone.
What are we to make of the unexpected earthquakes shaking our political culture? How could a vulgarian like Trump end up the Republican nominee? How could an outdated socialist like Bernie Sanders get so much traction with Democratic voters? Much is made of the worsening economic circumstances of the working class, as well as an increasingly anxious middle class. These are factors, but more fundamental, perhaps, is a feeling of vulnerability that’s deeper. What does it mean to be a good husband or good wife? Good father or good mother? The sexual revolution has made it hard for us to answer these questions.
The push for transgender rights has many dimensions, but the most important, to my mind, is the way it sets aside inherited assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman. Deprived of this “natural providence,” perhaps the most fundamental, I’m convinced the rising generation will be very unhappy indeed. When everything’s up to me, including my sex, I can only count on myself. This is not good news, for the most unreliable aspect of the human condition turns out to be the naked, denatured, and untutored self.
And this vulnerability is not just about sex. Our society is less and less certain about what it means to be an American. We’re not sure patriotism is a virtue to be cultivated. Here, again, we’re increasingly left to our own devices. All of this is connected to our economic anxieties, but by my reckoning, it’s our loss of a trustworthy cultural inheritance—our loss of a sense of natural providence over our lives, to say nothing of divine providence—that’s at the root of our political turmoil.
We don’t need a society of rigid conformity or mindless obedience. But a healthy society that helps people lead happy, meaningful lives needs a living cultural inheritance, which means trains that run on set schedules. Our present political distemper concerns more than economic dislocation. It stems from the breakdown of that inheritance and the derailment of those trains. Voters want to find something stable in which to ground their lives. They seem ready to support candidates who offer them something other than more freedom.
Our challenge is to meet that need without undermining what remains of our healthy culture of freedom. That will mean adopting economic policies that offer some hope of restoring the stable foundations for working- and middle-class life, to be sure. But it’s also going to require the renewal of marriage. Lifelong marriage constitutes the most immediate and powerful experience of permanence for most people. Marriage, even in our fragile culture of marriage that sees many break-ups, brings stability to family life, especially for children. This stability provides an indispensable sense of security that allows young people to enjoy the freedoms our society offers rather than experiencing them as alluring, yes, but dangerous.
Religious communities also promise permanence, perhaps the most important of all because the most powerful. What could be more trustworthy than God’s promises? This requires faith, of course, and revival cannot be a goal of social policy. But we’re naive to imagine that there’s no link between the rise of Nones—those who have no religious affiliation—especially among the young, and a rise in vulnerability and greater demands for protection. Without a trustworthy Father in heaven (and often without a father in the home), the rising generation is more and more likely to ask big government (and a culture of political correctness) to provide security and comfort.
A Realistic Hope
A renewal of marriage and revival of faith—isn’t that a pipe dream? My interlocutors haven’t put it quite so bluntly, but since the publication of my new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, many have expressed the sentiment. In that book I develop some of the lines of argument I’ve laid out in these pages over the last few years, diagnosing our present problems and putting forward a vision of a faith-leavened future. The final chapter is titled “The Possibility of a Christian Society.” That raises eyebrows.
The response is understandable. There is an increasingly widespread hostility toward Christianity’s public influence. It is best explained by the de-Christianization of the once powerful mainline Protestant culture. As Matthew Rose put it so provocatively in “Death of God Fifty Years On” (August 2016), “The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant.” A this-worldly moralism revolving around a gospel of therapeutic affirmation and an ideology of multicultural “inclusion” now animates our ruling class. I call this our post-Protestant WASP culture, a uniquely American form of twenty-first-century progressivism.
This culture is different in many ways from the old, ethnocentric WASP culture of my youth. But the smug certitude remains very much in place, as does its serene confidence and presumption that they, the Great and the Good, have the right to set the moral tone for the nation. Thus the pressure we feel to get out of the way—out of the way of sexual liberation, of doctor-assisted suicide, of abortion on demand, of drug legalization, of utopian dreams of a world in which male and female are plastic constructions available to each of us to mold and remold as we see fit.
The pressure comes in the form of social censure, or even through the force of law, as the Little Sisters of the Poor and others on the shifting skirmish lines of religious liberty have discovered. Let’s take that pressure seriously. But let’s make sure we don’t overlook the fragility of our present regime, a regime dominated by post-Protestant WASPs and their brand of moralistic progressivism.
Our universities are dominated by post-Protestant WASPs, so much so that they’ve become far more ideologically and culturally homogeneous than they were a generation ago, and in all but a few denominational institutions, Christianity has been driven to the margins of academic life. The most prominent universities are awash with money and attract the best students and faculty from around the world. Yet they are increasingly unhappy places. Student protests suggest that the multicultural ideology of “inclusion” doesn’t work very well. Big Science rolls on, but as a cultural institution, the post-Protestant WASP university is in crisis. The humanities are in decline, and universities are now prized as career factories rather than places young people go to be formed as participants in an ongoing cultural conversation. If this is what the post-Protestant WASP rule produces—and universities are surely the purest product—I’m not sure we have so much to worry about over the long haul.
The same dynamic is at work elsewhere. Public schools are growing more troubled, and in some cities have become largely dysfunctional. Evangelical pastors in Texas aren’t responsible. On the contrary, for decades, “educational professionals” have been catechized in the dogmas of secular progressivism. Surveys show plunging confidence in other establishment institutions such as government, the media, and large corporations. The recent season of primaries has brought to the surface widespread dissatisfaction with our political establishment. Again, it’s important to remember that our system of international finance, regime of free trade, and immigration policies—all flashpoints of dissatisfaction today—did not emerge under the supervision of Catholic bishops or Protestant missionaries.
I could go on, but it’s enough to say, as I did above, that our society is being shaken by earthquakes. No doubt the causes are many. But in a recent column, “How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen,” Peggy Noonan expressed thoughts I’ve been having for quite a while. She writes about a “kind of historic decoupling between the top and the bottom that did not, inmore moderate times, exist.” She’s right. This involves more than income inequality, something we’ve heard a lot about. It’s not just a problem of insufficient upward mobility. Globalization is transforming more than our economic system. The decoupling of the top from everyone else is cultural and political. Noonan again:
I don’t have it fully right in my mind but something big is happening here with this division between the leaders and the led. It is very much a feature of our age. But it is odd that our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect.
I’ve written about this phenomenon in the American context. On the right we hear about how nearly half of Americans are “takers.” The left consistently describes Trump voters as racists, anyone who favors limitations on immigration as xenophobes, and defenders of traditional marriage as “haters.” Ronald Reagan was a politician with strong ideological convictions, but he didn’t talk that way. Nor did Bill Clinton. The hard-core right and left have always ranted, but these tacit (and sometimes explicit) denunciations of whole swaths of the American population are newcomers to mainstream political conversations.
The standard explanation is that our politics are more polarized. I used to think that, but I’m not so sure anymore. Over the summer I read Branko Milanovic’s book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. The main insight to be gained is expressed in his “elephant graph.” This graph helps us see who benefits from the global system that emerged after the collapse of communism. The winners are the rising middle class in the developing world and elites in the developed, rich world. Both have seen dramatic increases in income. The losers are middle-class people in the rich world. They’re better off than the middle class in China, India, or Brazil, but they’ve seen no income growth in the last few decades.
I’m not an economic determinist, but Milanovic’s elephant graph strongly suggests that elites in the West now have global interests that are not shared by the vast majority of citizens in their own countries. There’s a strong incentive, therefore, for today’s leaders to find ways to disenfranchise the led. That can’t be done politically in our democracies (at least not yet). But it can be done morally and culturally. Calling those who voted for Great Britain to leave the European Union racists nicely discredits them and encourages elites to find ways to ignore or circumvent the outcome of the referendum. That multiculturalism is an ill-defined ideology is more a feature than a bug, for it makes multiculturalism all the more flexible in its main function, which is to degrade the patriotic loyalties that hold the powerful few accountable to the ordinary many. And then there’s the pervasive utilitarianism that transforms political questions into complex, wonkish calculations that only elites can perform.
Like Noonan, I don’t have things sorted out in my mind at this point. But my intuition is that many of the changes in culture and politics over the last generation—changes that are behind the hostility Christians are feeling—are generating significant problems for others as well, which is why we’re experiencing a rise in anti-establishment sentiment. The post-Protestant WASPs and their secular progressive ideals are deeply implicated in these problems. Should our society’s challenges become crises, it’s their rule and their ideals that will be discredited.
The failure of secular progressivism does not mean that people will return to Christianity to renew the moral and political imagination of the West. Cynicism and a resignation that subsists on small, private pleasures may prevail. That was the culture of imperial Rome, and it’s already aborning as we transition from the age of democracy to one of empire. (See Michael Hanby’s essay in this issue, “A More Perfect Absolutism.”) But maybe not. Communities that maintain faith’s confidence, hope’s ambition, and love’s warmth could become newly alluring. The future is in God’s hands, of course, but he assigns roles. Let’s be prepared to play ours.