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In Place of the American Restlessness That Tocqueville Noted, Complacency

Let me call your attention to a long and endlessly astute interview with Yuval Levin on his new Modern Age article.

He faces up to the truth that Trump’s election revealed the emptiness of conservatism defined as tax cuts and deregulation to empower job creators and liberate the sovereign individual to make his or her choices. He didn’t use the mean and so telling brand invented by our Peter Spiliakos, “degenenate Kempism.”

The conservative differs from both the libertarian and the progressive by being especially concerned with the indispensable relational realities between the individual and the state. Yuval calls this way of thinking conservative liberalism, but I’m inclined to think of it as liberal conservatism. Liberal means, such as representative government and the free economy, are for conservative ends. What makes life worth living, and what gives the individual genuinely personal significance, is families, friends, worthwhile work, civic life, the church, social and educational institutions, and so forth. So the conservative has to be concerned with whether or not we have a sustainable social ecology. One reason is that a society full of isolated and insecure individuals willingly surrenders its freedom to a providential government because freedom has become another word for nothing left to lose. Thinking of human reality as individualism vs. collectivism leads to the victory of collectivism. Yuval cites the great social theorist Robert Nisbet as an authoritative guide for us conservatives today, and greater still than Nisbet, of course, is Alexis de Tocqueville (from whom Nisbet learned so much).

The interviewer brings up Tyler Cowen’s new book The Complacent Class, which has quite a debt to Tocqueville, too (or, as Tyler acknowledges in a note, to my interpretation of Democracy in America). What astonished Tocqueville was seeing the Americans, who were in their freedom, prosperity, and literacy the luckiest people ever, so sadly and rather resolutely on the move or constantly in flight. He anticipated the National Lampoon, Chevy Chase vacation movies in describing how Americans are unable to be at leisure on the front porch when they have some time off from work. Tocqueville saw more than a bit of insanity in this constant preference for the pursuit of enjoyment or happiness to just enjoying or being happy in the moment. He also saw this restlessness as a big part of the American entrepreneurial drive and egalitarian political energy. He also suggested, through his sampling of some of the language of Pascal, that the truth is that Americans, despite their official religiosity, are miserable in the absence of God, so their restlessness is, most deeply, ways of diverting themselves from what they really know about the contingent and ephemeral existence about each particular person. Tyler is a bit weak on this metaphysical or existential dimension of American restlessness. Well, in a previous book he sort of sees it in the “nerd religion” of the transhumanists, and he just advises them to get a life or focus on what is really possible.

Tyler is right to think that Americans these days suffer from a lack of productive restlessness. For one thing, we have a complacent class. There is among our cognitive elite a kind of flatness that has diverted its focus from real technological innovation and toward being satisfied with honing the quality of the diversions we all see on our screens. And that elite is too much about complacently securing its meritocratic status rather being restlessly dissatisfied with who they are and what’s been done so far. American society as a whole is less than ever about mobility. Nobody much is leaving home or hia oe her comfortable, class-based bubble any more.

Yuval adds that our lack of restlessness rightly understood might be called alienation, which is caused by the excessive displacement that is the collateral damage of too much of the wrong kind of disruptive innovation. At the root of alienation for most people might be excessive insecurity. Trump prevailed, in part, because he tapped into a pervasive sense of loss among members of the middle class: The various safety nets that cushioned their lives from unmediated market forces are collapsing, from government entitlements to job security based on employer and employee loyalty to defined benefits to stable families to common citizenship to church homes. And you might add that the complacent class also seems rather insecure, with its focus on identity politics and all that. Liberal conservatism has to address those causes of insecurity without relying much at all on the false remedy of big government. That doesn’t mean, however, that conservatives can really expect ordinary people to be for both tax cuts for the rich and cutting entitlements right now. And we can’t forget the deepest kind of insecurity that the Pascalian Tocqueville noticed.

 

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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