David Brooks has a long new think piece at The Atlantic in which he tries to explain the social breakdown that we are witnessing:
“American history is driven by periodic moments of moral convulsion. The late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington noticed that these convulsions seem to hit the United States every 60 years or so: the Revolutionary period of the 1760s and ’70s; the Jacksonian uprising of the 1820s and ’30s; the Progressive Era, which began in the 1890s; and the social-protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s.
These moments share certain features. People feel disgusted by the state of society. Trust in institutions plummets. Moral indignation is widespread. Contempt for established power is intense. …
This is an account of how, over the past few decades, America became a more untrustworthy society. It is an account of how, under the stresses of 2020, American institutions and the American social order crumbled and were revealed as more untrustworthy still. We had a chance, in crisis, to pull together as a nation and build trust. We did not. That has left us a broken, alienated society caught in a distrust doom loop. …
We can already glimpse pieces of the world after the current cataclysm. The most important changes are moral and cultural. The Baby Boomers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, an era of family stability, widespread prosperity, and cultural cohesion. The mindset they embraced in the late ’60s and have embodied ever since was all about rebelling against authority, unshackling from institutions, and celebrating freedom, individualism, and liberation. …
We think of the 1960s as the classic Boomer decade, but the false summer of the 1990s was the high-water mark of that ethos. The first great theme of that era was convergence. Walls were coming down. Everybody was coming together. The second theme was the triumph of classical liberalism. Liberalism was not just a philosophy—it was a spirit and a zeitgeist, a faith that individual freedom would blossom in a loosely networked democratic capitalist world. Enterprise and creativity would be unleashed. America was the great embodiment and champion of this liberation. The third theme was individualism. Society flourished when individuals were liberated from the shackles of society and the state, when they had the freedom to be true to themselves. …
For his 2001 book, Moral Freedom, the political scientist Alan Wolfe interviewed a wide array of Americans. The moral culture he described was no longer based on mainline Protestantism, as it had been for generations. Instead, Americans, from urban bobos to suburban evangelicals, were living in a state of what he called moral freedom: the belief that life is best when each individual finds his or her own morality—inevitable in a society that insists on individual freedom.
When you look back on it from the vantage of 2020, moral freedom, like the other dominant values of the time, contained within it a core assumption: If everybody does their own thing, then everything will work out for everybody. If everybody pursues their own economic self-interest, then the economy will thrive for all. If everybody chooses their own family style, then children will prosper. If each individual chooses his or her own moral code, then people will still feel solidarity with one another and be decent to one another. This was an ideology of maximum freedom and minimum sacrifice. …”
He gets some things right.
I think he gets other things wrong. It isn’t a bad article.
I will try to summarize my position which I see as one of the great arcs of Western history that has been playing itself out and building up to this moment for over 100 years.
In America, the roots of this crisis can be traced back to the arrival of Modernism in the United States in the 1910s, which began in bohemian enclaves in Chicago and New York City before World War I and was embraced more broadly by American youth when the Lost Generation rebelled against the Victorian values and beliefs of their parents after the disaster that was World War I.
In the year 1912, America had a settled national identity and a common culture and moral consensus. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican values. The Victorian credo was moralism, progress and culture. By moralism, Americans universally believed in the central importance of traditional moral values. Morality was seen as religious observance and the ensemble of virtues that was reflected in a man or woman’s character. By progress, Americans believed that America was becoming and ought to become more moral and celebrate the advance of science and technology and the growth of material abundance that was lifting millions of people out of poverty. By culture, Americans believed in and cherished the values of traditional British and Anglo-American literary culture.
This common American national identity, culture and moral consensus, which was broadly shared by even the opposing sides in the War Between the States, began its long term decline in the 1920s. The Union and Confederacy were only fighting over relatively minor issues like slavery, secession and agrarianism vs. industrialism. Otherwise, the two sides were both Anglos with a shared history, a shared English language and culture, evangelical Protestantism which was a common religion, the same Constitution, the same heroes and holidays, a shared Romantic outlook and a shared belief in republicanism that tilted at one pole toward liberal republicanism and at the other pole toward classical republicanism. Northern and Southern Anglos went on being Victorians after Reconstruction until well into the 20th century. The difference was that power within the Union shifted from the South to the East after the war.
By the 1920s, this broad national consensus had come under assault by a variety of different groups for host of reasons. There was the angry black minority which felt like it was excluded from the nation and treated as second class citizens. There were tiny minorities of American Indians, Hispanics (mestizos, not White Hispanics) and Asians who at that time were not then numerous enough to mount a challenge to this consensus, but who are worth mentioning for being outside of it. Most importantly, there were the millions of Jews and European Catholics who had immigrated to the United States in the Great Wave, which was a major ethnic and religious cleavage in the social fabric in the Northern states. Finally, there were young Anglos who for a variety of reasons were alienated from the dominant culture.
The alienated young Anglos who embraced Modernism, the disgruntled and hyper alienated European ethnics and the Jewish radicals were the key players who shattered this national consensus. The culture war began in the 1920s when Sinclair Lewis published novels like Main Street, Babbitt and Elmer Gantry which ridiculed the culture of the Heartland. Harold E. Stearns and his symposium of writers in Civilization in the United States reflected this shift as did the new social science in studies like Middletown: A Study in American Culture which also pathologized the Heartland. H.L. Mencken who hated the “puritanism” and “bigotry” of Anglos took turns ridiculing the mob and the boobosie and the Fundamentalist yokels of the Heartland in the Scopes Trial. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway popularized modernist values in their novels. In the 1920s, the American liberal intelligentsia became modernist, antiracist and cosmopolitan. It would take a century for these elite values to trickle down to the masses.
American liberalism was transformed by this shift from Victorian to Modern values. Previously, the American ruling class had been Victorian WASPs or Old Americans like Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson who shared the same ethnicity, culture, religion and moral outlook. In the 19th century, liberalism can be roughly summarized as the extension of political rights and laissez-faire in economics within the national consensus on identity, culture and morality described above. In the 20th century, however, this national consensus was jettisoned and liberalism splintered into conservative and progressive factions and came to be about state regulation of the economy and cultural liberation and egalitarianism. First and foremost, 20th century liberalism is primarily an aesthetic form of liberalism.
This would have struck Victorians as strange who did not believe in sexual liberation, atheism, the equality of cultures and races, cultural liberation, cosmopolitanism, the supremacy of the autonomous self over society, the autonomy of aesthetics from society, the elevation of the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles above religion and morality, elitist contempt for the masses or that their own identity and tradition was pathological. Unlike Moderns, Victorians were not interested in the “transformation of consciousness” by liberation from a variety of psychological repressions and did not associate these things with morality. Under the influence of Freudianism, critical theory and postmodernism, the American liberal intelligentsia abandoned religion and redefined the nature of morality in the 20th century.
In the 1920s, the full impact of critical theory and postmodernism was still in the future and Modernism had barely begun to trickle down to the masses. There was a fundamental shift though in the values of the American liberal intelligentsia. Then catastrophe struck. The Great Depression and World War II had the effect of solidifying the country. The practical need to overcome the hard times of the Great Depression and win World War II put the full implications of these new values on hold and this shared experience welded together the Missionary Generation, Lost Generation, the GI Generation and the Silent Generation. The good times and values of the 1920s were not forgotten though. The postwar consensus – liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism – was already in place when the first cohort of Baby Boomers were born and had been reinforced by the fight against fascism and communism.
During the Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975) of postwar prosperity, Losters and the GI Generation brought American institutions into line with the new values – liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism – while raising their children the Silents and the Boomers on the new values. Between 1945 and 1965, America became a “Nation of Immigrants” based on something called the “American Creed,” which was an abstraction conjured into existence by Gunnar Myrdal in his 1944 book An American Dilemma. “Racism” and “anti-Semitism” were established as taboos. The Civil Rights Movement was ushered to its triumph by the American liberal intelligentsia which dismantled segregation through executive orders and federal court decisions. As the “leader of the Free World” during the Cold War, America became a sort of miniature version of the United Nations, which had been flatly rejected by Victorians in the 1920s who killed the League of Nations and restricted immigration in the Immigration Act of 1924.
By this point, the Victorians were dead and Moderns had become more or less synonymous with America. The culture of 20th century America was fully in place. Jews had been fully absorbed into the political and cultural establishment. Traditional culture aka Victorian culture had been pushed back from the cities and suburbs to its rural strongholds. This had been accomplished before the first Baby Boomers were 5-years-old. The counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s which is identified with the Boomers was the second wave of Modernism. It was the crest of Modern culture and represents the tipping point when Modern values became a demographic majority in the United States. It was not something that the Boomers came up with themselves. They absorbed the values of their elders through television and on campus in the 1960s. The Boomers only adopted the most outré elements of Modernism – that is, sexual liberation, slovenly bohemian dress and experimentation in drugs, which had always been part of this cultural package – which had not been fully mainstreamed by their predecessors. Unlike their elders, the Boomers also had no memory of the hard times and sacrifice of the Great Depression and World War II.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Baby Boomers aged while the GI Generation and Silent Generation governed the country to victory in the Cold War. The ascendance of Modernism had opened up the cultural rift in America between the cities and the countryside which we call the “culture war” – the war between modernists and traditionalists that goes back to the Scopes Trial of 1925 when Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken went up against the Great Commoner William Jennings Bryan over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Modernists have always had contempt for the culture of the “backward” masses. Looking down on all those bigots and yokels like H.L. Mencken and scorn and neverending transgression against their cultural norms has animated the avant-garde since the late 19th century.
In the 1990s, the Baby Boomers ascended into power in America and pushed their modernist values even deeper into American institutions. The result was the culmination of Modernism – total cultural and economic deregulation – the emancipation of the individual self to pursue almost any end including hardcore pornography which became available to the masses on the internet. The only thing that was prohibited under the new order for Whites were ascriptive qualities that were once associated with Victorianism – racism, nationalism, “white supremacy,” sexual repression – the old, bad, repressive Victorian America that had been supplanted by all the various “liberations” of Modern America. Seen from this perspective, “whiteness” is oppressive of minorities and is therefore bad whereas “black trans” people who are marginalized by white supremacy and who are “finding their true selves” is a topic of the utmost interest and worthy of public praise for being the latest in a series of liberations.
What are the consequences of having a liberal intelligentsia that has embraced Modern values?
First, Moderns have embraced naturalism and secularism, so a common religion is no longer there to shape the values and beliefs of the public and unite elites with the masses – the “character” so prized by Victorian elites. Instead, religion is a flashpoint in the neverending culture war due to the transgressive impulse of Modern elites. Christianity has become a lifestyle preference for the rural and suburban masses and is held in contempt by the American liberal intelligentsia which demands deference.
Second, Moderns have embraced antiracism which has delegitimized the entire American past from the establishment of the colonies through Martin Luther King, Jr. In the latest version of antiracism inspired by critical race theory, White America is illegitimate on purely racial grounds. The American liberal intelligentsia holds that White America is an oppressor race that benefits from white privilege and systemic racism which must be disrupted and dismantled to achieve racial equality. In exchange for the contempt of a hostile elite, they demand the customary deference of the White masses.
Third, Moderns have discarded traditional morality for being an obstacle to the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyle preferences. Each individual is now free to define his or her own morality provided it stays within the boundaries of the ever expanding list of prohibited -isms and -phobias. The definition of “racism” is inflated to encompass an ever expanding list of grievances. Whiteness itself has become offensive. Modern elites and the White masses no longer share the same morality.
Fourth, Moderns have embraced cosmopolitanism, which has further alienated and estranged them from their own country. They reflexively value other “outsiders” while railing against the bigotry and nativism and xenophobia and racism, and so on, of “insiders.” They prefer almost anyone on earth to the people whose ancestors built this country and who have the most invested in its survival. Modern elites and the White masses no longer share a common identity, religion, culture or morals. They do not have a sense of having the same origins or interests and have become mutually antagonistic.
Fifth, Moderns value self-expression, cultural liberation and cultural egalitarianism above all else, which is a recipe for an ungovernable country, political gridlock and endless strife due to the inevitable loss of cultural cohesion which is the result of prioritizing these values. We recite the mantra “diversity is our strength” which must be puzzling to foreigners observing America’s rapid decline.
Finally, Moderns mix and match these values to create important corollaries to them. Multiculturalism is a corollary of liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism. Feminism is a corollary of liberalism and modernism applied to sex. Political correctness is a combination of critical theory and postmodernism filling in the moral void left by the obliteration of religion and traditional morality by modernism. In short, there is nothing left that tethers the Modern elite to the White masses. Not race, ethnicity, culture, religion, morality, a common history or memory, common heroes, interests and certainly not shared values.
Just as Victorianism was discredited by the catastrophe that was World War I, we can safely predict that the reign of Modernism will end in America in an even greater national catastrophe. American culture will continue to melt like an ice cube as it is egged on by the fanaticism of Boomers and Millennials who are the Modern counterpart of the Blundering Generation. The country will gradually dissolve into an acrimonious, ungovernable, hyper polarized mess until it inevitably explodes into violence and loses its relative position at the apex of the world order. Only then in the aftermath of this catastrophe will American elites finally shed their illusions and be wise enough to look with some objectivity on the flaws of their own ideology. More likely, the old fools who led us to this debacle will just be repudiated and replaced in office once it becomes clear where their values and beliefs ultimately led to.
After the crisis has passed, 20th century America will be behind us and 21st century America will have begun to take its place. The American Empire will be a relic of the past like the British Empire. The country will have to be rebuilt into something that is capable of culturally, politically and economically functioning again which will mean repudiating modernism, postmodernism, neoliberalism and world hegemony and restoring the cultural foundation that was lost in the 20th century. The epoch of American history which began around the time of World War I and is largely the story of the rise and fall of the American Empire from the Lost Generation to the Millennials will be over. Modern America from the Roaring Twenties to the Turbulent Twenties or from when roughly the boots of the first American soldier landed on European soil to “make the world safe for democracy” and when Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting American president to visit Europe to when the last American soldier departed Europe due to American democracy’s unraveling will be complete and bookended by World War I and whatever lies is ahead of us.
Granted, I could be totally wrong about this. Maybe Joe Biden will be elected president, tensions will subside and the polarization will vanish and this country will miraculously heal its racial and cultural divisions after it learns how to function on the basis of critical race theory, but I doubt it. I see the outlines of a story with a beginning (the Lost Generation), a middle (the Boomers) and an imminent conclusion (the Millennials). I’ve decided to go ahead and start working on it before everything falls apart.