The Great American Earthquake

Trump supporters and counter-demonstrators fight over a U.S. flag in Berkeley, Calif. in March. (Reuters photo: Stephen Lam)
Can the foundations of our society hold?

‘Who can deny that, in the United States today, as never before in its history, there is a vast unease about the prospects of the republic?”

So asked Irving Kristol in “Our Shaken Foundations,” a 1968 essay for Fortune magazine. Observing the student revolt, urban riots, increase in crime, and mass mobilizations against the war in Vietnam, Kristol acknowledged that Americans in the late 1960s were not the first people in history to worry about the instability of their society. Nor would they be the last. “The premonition of apocalypse springs eternal in the human breast.” Every civilization undergoes recurrent cycles of anxiety and dislocation that eventually subside. “Somehow, the human race endures, life continues to yield its modest satisfactions; the world doesn’t actually come to an end.”

Yet, Kristol added, Americans do not live in “the world.” They live in “a particular world; and history records many particular worlds that did indeed come to their ends — sometimes abruptly, more often slowly and insensibly, but always painfully for those who felt themselves part of what was being destroyed.” The revolutions of 1968, he went on, may have been the beginning of another such painful transition.

“We know the problems of American society — know them with an unparalleled scholarship and an incomparable attentiveness,” he wrote. “None of these problems, taken by itself, seems insoluble. But taken together, they constitute a condition and are creating habits of mind that threaten the civic-bourgeois culture bequeathed to us by Western civilization.”

I have thought a lot about Kristol’s essay in recent weeks, as one American institution after another has found itself beleaguered, besieged, crippled, and delegitimized. We may be richer and healthier and safer in the aggregate than our predecessors. But the parade of ugliness we face bears more than a passing resemblance to theirs.

Riots and the suppression of freedoms on campus, drug addiction, deadly clashes between white nationalists and left-wing radicals, increasing numbers of hate crimes, mass shootings, bitter arguments over the national anthem resulting in declining ratings and support for the National Football League, a cascading stream of allegations of sexual impropriety against figures in entertainment and in politics, the slow-motion disintegration of our major parties — it’s as if America itself has been thrown into the midst of a demolition derby, with every one of our prominent figures and major institutions targeted for destruction by Monster Truck.

Beginning with the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and carrying on through our ambiguous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, the roller-coaster ride of the Obama and Trump presidencies, the comeuppance of the elite media and political class in the 2016 election, and the racial and sexual and class-based chaos of today, the temporal and spiritual authorities to whom we once looked for guidance have been subverted, disestablished, exposed. And all the while the erosion continues of the civic-bourgeois culture to which Kristol referred.

The term “bourgeois” occurred frequently in his work. What did he mean by it?

It does refer to a social order and a way of life in which the adult population is presumed to be composed of rational, free, and responsible citizens — that very word is itself a kind of key, for the citizen is something different from the subject of a regime, or the member of a movement, or the adherent of a creed. And one gets the distinct impression, surveying the world around us, that citizens are, to an increasing degree, in short supply.

What Kristol was saying was that public-spiritedness had been replaced by self-seeking. “It is assumed,” he wrote in the preface to On the Democratic Idea in America (1972), “on the basis of various benign theories about human nature and human history, that the actions of self-serving men and women will coalesce into a common good, and that the emancipation of the individual from social restraints will result in a more perfect community.”

Such logic, he said, might apply to the marketplace, “where the specter of bankruptcy does impose a kind of self-discipline.” When applied to the “polity as a whole,” however, “the results are disastrous.” Why? Because the fate of a political community”is finally determined by the capacity of its citizenry to govern its passions and thereby rightly understand its enduring common interests.” Free up markets, in other words, and you get Adam Smith. Free up society, and you get Kevin Spacey.

The slightest glance at political, entertainment, and business headlines demonstrates that the bourgeois virtues of restraint, frugality, reticence, self-control, self-discipline, and fidelity are not only absent in our public life. They are denigrated. Nor is this a mere political phenomenon. The liberation of the sovereign self transcends race and creed, religion and party. It has bloated our waistlines along with our national deficits, tossed families into a spin cycle of disorientation and breakdown, and endangered and addled children. And though a great many families of schooling and wealth have been able to insulate themselves from the gale-force winds of instant gratification and narcissistic self-expression, those in the middle and lower ends of our society do not have the luxuries of loving two-parent families, good schools, safe neighborhoods, well-paying jobs, and welcoming churches.

According to Kristol, personal indiscretions and obnoxious behavior, sexual or otherwise, are intimately related to ferment and strife within society and government. Human nature being the crooked thing it is, one would expect some degree of selfishness, greed, and immorality at all times and in all places. And so it has been. What made our civilization different, Kristol argued, was that it not only originated but also granted honor and pride to bourgeois norms and behavior, and so created a specific type of citizen proper to liberal democracy. Distort the norms, change the behavior, and you create a different sort of character befitting a different sort of government. One very unlike the constitutional republic the Founders envisioned.

Kristol wrote in the tradition of the great civic republicans. For them, the success or failure of a political community depended on private virtue. It is a very old line of thought, which is why his analysis is both timeless and eerily relevant.

For example: The “five major experiences” that Kristol argued “are mainly responsible for those shivers of foreboding now diffused throughout our body politic” can be translated easily into contemporary terms.

First, what he called the “technological imperative” continues to drive social and cultural and political upheaval. The screens we carry around in our pockets absorb our attention. Social media gives rise to selfies and revenge porn and Twitter mobs, and ends as many friendships as it creates. The Internet produces massive inequalities of wealth while collapsing barriers to information and trade (good) as well as making safe spaces for criminal networks (bad).

Second, “the revolution of rising expectations” still leads to a persistent and widespread sense of entitlement. We take the American dream as our birthright, we look enviously on the acquisitions of the wealthy, and we assume government will shoulder the burden of tasks it is not well equipped to perform. “Because the United States is so rich and productive,” Kristol wrote, “our society has so far been able, better than any other, to placate” the material demands of our population. “Nevertheless, there is a mounting irritability, impatience, distemper, and mistrust. Each individual and every organized group (racial, economic, professional, etc.), seeing no justification for self-discipline — indeed, holding the very idea of self-discipline in a kind of contempt — calls for ever-greater discipline to be exercised against the rest.”

Third, “the generation gap” may express itself differently in the 2010s than it did in the 1960s. But the gap is there. The millennial generation is more hostile to concepts of free speech and open debate, and more open to its idea of socialism, than other age cohorts. It is also far more racially, ethnically, religiously, and sexually diverse. The conflict between its ideals and ambitions and those of other generations is as inevitable as it is likely to be heated.

Fourth, popular culture is still an “adversary culture,” in which sensationalism, violence, and prurience are awarded with dollars and prizes. “Our world is being emptied of its ideal content, and the imposing institutional façade sways in the wind.” Actually, the fragmentation of the media has made it difficult to speak of a singular and monolithic popular culture. Instead we have a multitude of subcultures. Each is more bizarre than the last.

Finally, there is the ongoing decline of religion. Five decades ago, Kristol called this “the most profound change of all.” Today, the fastest growing religious affiliation in the country is Americans professing no religious affiliation. “All human societies have to respond to two fundamental questions. The first is: ‘Why?’ The second is: ‘Why not?’ . . . It is religion that, traditionally, has supplied the answers to these questions.” Increasing numbers of Americans, however, look elsewhere.

Add to technology, entitlement, intergenerational antagonism, popular culture, and secularization the changes that have eroded the bourgeois conception of the stable, married, two-parent family. “Among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low,” noted Amy Wax and Larry Alexander last August in the Philadelphia Inquirer. For her troubles, Wax was tarred as a racist and protested at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she teaches.

Yet the situation might not be as dire as it seems. There was a great protest over the shaking of the foundations that Kristol described. A few months after his essay appeared in Fortune, Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency. It took two decades, but social peace was restored. The culture achieved equilibrium. Negative trends improved.

The civic-bourgeois culture that precedes and shapes politics can also be shaped by politics. It is a matter of asserting the old values and traditions plainly, unabashedly, and forcefully. Of teaching young people, and reminding old ones, to sit on their hands and control themselves. Of recognizing we too may be living in the opening stages of a backlash against the degradation of bourgeois culture — and that the ultimate outcome of this counterrevolution is unknown.


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— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2017 All rights reserved

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