A principal challenge of the 20th century was the threat of totalitarianism, from fascism to the imperial communism of the Soviet Union. A major challenge facing us now, in the early part of the 21st century, is that of integration. The theme of integration reaches across issues of cultural affairs, economics, and national security.
Integration can be defined as finding community, a particular challenge in a world transformed by broader global currents. We live in an era that celebrates “disruption,” but part of politics is knowing what to preserve. The era of globalization has led to the unleashing (sometimes coordinated, sometimes unintentional) of transnational trade, migration, terror, and technology. Some of this has been to the good — how much richer are we all for “Gangnam Style”! But some of it has been for the bad, and much of it has exacted a price in local and national cohesion.
Some have applauded these disintegrating trends, but others exhibit more wariness. Economist Tyler Cowen projects that “average is over,” foreseeing an America divided between a hyper-elite and vast underclass subsisting on beans and distracted by various psychotropic amusements. Demographer Joel Kotkin has warned about the rise of the “new feudalism,” as the United States and other nations fracture into rigid castes. Some of the powerful either support these trends or feel unable to counter them, but many Western populaces are restless. The rise of radical outsiders — from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump — has been fueled in part by this escalating anxiety about public disintegration. Understanding the stakes of this disintegration is crucial for grasping the underlying forces driving our public debates.
Across much of the industrialized world, political, economic, and cultural elites have attempted to divide the body politic into various siloed identity groups. Social scientists such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam have noted with alarm the rising social disengagement and alienation of American society, and the feedback loops of social media may encourage even further isolation; we cling to our own self-reinforcing tribal circles and cast aspersions on those who run afoul of our ideological views. Identity politics, anchored in tribalistic collectivism, in many ways stands opposed to the project of republican deliberation, which entails argument, heterogeneity, and respect for the individual.
Those who oppose free inquiry, from campus radicals to technocratic culture czars, do so in part because they lack moral imagination.
The so-called culture war is not limited to the decisions of private actors. The administrative state is also capable of using the vast powers of the law to pummel dissenters. The sexual revolution has become a culture-war flashpoint and a banner for those who wish to use the state to attack freedom of conscience. For instance, calls to tax churches that dissent from the mores of the sexual revolution are demands that the state use its power to crush alternative conceptions of human existence.
But these conflicts go far beyond the sexual revolution. They speak to a broader breakdown of the conventions necessary to maintain intellectual and cultural freedom: respect for the dignity of the individual, a belief in tolerance as a virtue, and an acceptance of dialogue and intellectual exploration as vehicles for enlightenment. Intellectual parochialism is a partial source of these attacks on intellectual liberty: Those who oppose free inquiry, from campus radicals to technocratic culture czars, do so in part because they lack moral imagination. Identity-politics collectivism plays a role, too. When you see your fellow citizens not as part of a common public square but as part of a collective, alien “other,” it’s easier to justify suppressing their ideas.
Economically, too, we face the challenge of integration. The rise of global trade compacts, combined with advances in technology, has slashed manufacturing jobs across the nation. Meanwhile, a shift toward a globalized labor force, with increases in both legal and illegal immigration, has disrupted much of the domestic job market. Many jobs that used to be a ticket to the middle class either pay diminished wages or no longer exist. Economic churn — the decline of some fields and the rise of others — can itself be a force for great good. However, not all churn is necessarily growth, and, for many people, the ladder of opportunity has broken down. Many workers without advanced training have seen their wages stagnate and decline. Recent immigrants especially face a hard economic road. In much of the 20th century, immigrants’ wages eventually caught up with those of the native-born, but, for a variety of reasons, they no longer do.
All these trends have taken a toll on the middle class. According to U.S. Census data, inflation-adjusted median household income peaked in 1999. The choice of policymakers to favor business interests at the expense of market principles and the middle class only exacerbates the divisions in our economy. Connected businesses get a supply of indentured servants through expanded guest-worker programs, and financial titans are protected from market risk by Too Big to Fail. This stagnation for the middle has accompanied a broader slowdown in economic growth. Adjusted for inflation, the economy has grown at only about 1.7 percent annually since 2000 — about half the 3.5 percent annual rate between 1947 and 2000.
To create a less polarized, more integrated economy, we could do a few things. We could work to improve access to education and training, but training and skills are not a panacea. Many of the jobs that are expected to be most in demand over the next decade (such as personal-care aides) have experienced a decline in wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. By reforming immigration flows to ensure a tighter labor market for jobs of various skill levels, we can improve the wages of these jobs and thereby strengthen consumer spending, the American worker, and economic growth.
Terrorism both feeds upon and exacerbates civic breakdown. The terrorist threat facing the United States has two sides: terrorism directed and supported by major national and international actors (such as the attacks of 9/11), and more decentralized terrorist actors, many of whom have been nurtured in the United States (such as the Boston Marathon bombers). Geopolitical actions — targeting ISIS’s home base, for instance — can be part of the strategy of coping with this terrorist threat, but they alone are not likely to solve the deeper challenge of radicalization, which is in part a cultural question. What has caused a small minority (a portion of which consists of immigrants and their children) to radicalize in Europe and the United States and turn against the societies that have welcomed and raised them?
Sociopolitical disintegration poses a threat to our communities, our economic vitality, and our exercise of liberties.
It doesn’t seem to be the absence of government funding. The Boston bombers, many of the Paris attackers, and other domestic terrorists have enjoyed the riches of the welfare state. But a lack of economic success may be part of the answer. In France, for instance, unemployment remains much higher for immigrants than for the native born; a Brookings report finds that unemployment “remains the biggest obstacle to integration and the biggest impediment to advancement for immigrants and their children and grandchildren.” However, a job alone will not keep someone from being a terrorist, as San Bernardino demonstrates. A network of alienation reaches across our communities. This network relies upon communal atomization, which makes it easier to view those who live around oneself as enemies. By strengthening our communities and by targeting the infrastructure of this network, we can complement geopolitical efforts against terrorism.
Sociopolitical disintegration poses a threat to our communities, our economic vitality, and our exercise of liberties. Restoring integration would strengthen both the republic and our ideals of liberty. An economy that provides economic growth for all would create more economic energy and fortify the nation’s finances. A reinvigorated public square would allow for the free expression of ideas. Terrorists and their enablers rely upon the fissures of our societies, so integration can combat the ideology of alienated terror and give the practitioners of this ideology fewer places to hide.
Ideally, a key part of this task of integration would include restoring faith in governing institutions. According to polls, over two-thirds of Americans believe that the nation is heading in the wrong direction. They see around them broken neighborhoods, increased economic uncertainty, and a political class often unable or unwilling to respond to real problems. Across much of the Western world, we are witnessing the rise of disruptive political movements, which scramble conventional political alliances and are a symptom of an alienated public. Some fear that this disruption will degenerate into demagoguery, but if statesmen will not step forward to address real concerns, demagogues will do it for them. By addressing these concerns about integration, we can help ensure that the United States remains a responsible global actor and faces the challenges of the future with a spirit of optimism and openness.
The GOP has much to gain by taking the lead on integration. Not only would an integrative vision appeal to many of the core elements of the Republican electoral coalition, but it would also help the party reach out to new voters. Integration would be an economic message of hope for struggling voters in the working and middle classes. In the face of intolerance, Republicans could rally for an open public square, which recognizes free consciences and applauds moral seriousness. By advancing a message of all Americans being in this together, Republicans could counter the unfair narrative that the GOP is the party of narrow-minded selfishness.
It’s always somewhat risky to reduce the complexity of political challenges to a single concept, but key terms can afford a valuable lens for organizing current problems. The cracking of the idea of the commonwealth poses a threat to the hopes of ordered liberty. Rich Lowry, among others, has warned about a post-constitutional moment in our republic. A faith in the law — not a belief in the perfection of current laws, but a conviction that law in general serves a valuable purpose — is necessary for sustaining a republican order that will defend our essential rights.
Defending integration would not mean placing all Americans under the crushing yoke of enforced homogeneity. Instead, it would entail creating a society where individual difference is respected and recognized. In the project of integration, diverse people from varied walks of life would view themselves as coming together to create the great experiment that is our republic.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.