I would like to thank Nathan Pinkoski, Nick Burns, and Micah Mattix for their thoughtful responses to my Lasch essay. I hope you receive my comments below in the same spirit of community service with which I received yours.
Nathan Pinkoski is absolutely right when I note a tension in my own thinking about the state of our liberal democracy. With Patrick Deneen I see the many failures of liberal democracy in our time, and like Professor Deneen I cannot see what could plausibly replace it. In my view, the loss of a shared commitment to Christianity, in whatever form, is the main cause of our collective doom.
As a religiously and socially conservative Christian who has become a minority in this formerly Christian nation, the best chance my people’s schools, institutions, careers, etc., to survive in a post-Christian America is to stand behind the First Shield of Change . I’m nowhere near as confident as David French that the Constitutional Shield will last, but what else is there? Pinkoski is right: this is an untenable place to stand, but giving up this territory, however competitive it may be, seems even less desirable to me.
I mean the following: Pinkoski accuses me of glossing over Lasch’s commitment to noble virtues as the basis for the establishment of a decent democratic political order. In Pinkoski’s characterization of Lasch’s view, “democracy deserves survival according to the standard it sets for human excellence. It stands or falls whether it can achieve that which is noble. “
It can? Where is the nobility in a contemporary iteration of American populism? Was there anything noble about the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6th? In contrast to cheap demagogy, did Donald Trump appeal to virtue or use it as an example? I still hope some form of “virtue populism” will emerge from the right, but I am sorry to say I lack confidence that America today has the resources to produce such a morally robust movement. Research by sociologist Christopher Smith of the University of Notre Dame on the spiritual life of Americans under 40 makes for a depressing read. Noble qualities such as disciplined self-sacrifice, commitment to the common good, defense of the family, respect for tradition – none of these things are of great importance to young people. As Smith wrote for most of the generation to come, “all that society appears to be is a collection of autonomous individuals who want to enjoy life.”
Philip Rieff saw it all in the mid-1960s. A discussion of the effects of the therapeutic, consumer capitalist society on American politics would go beyond the scope of my statements here. My point is simply that, for complex historical reasons, the sources of moral order on which Lasch would depend for an authentic populist renewal are scarce. We are a decadent and demoralized people.
I left the Republican Party in 2008 disgusted with the Iraq war and the party’s love affair with Wall Street. I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 because I thought he was a fraud, but I wasn’t a Never Trumper either. I was happy to see the GOP got their comeuppance, and pleased that the new president could actually turn the Republicans into a socially conservative, economically populist party. He might have done it if he hadn’t been crippled by his own character. The fact that Trump, despite his moral unworthiness and failure to achieve much for the people who elected him in office, continues to command the loyalty of the GOP base to this day, adds to my pessimism about the prospects for populism. I hope I’m wrong, but it seems to me that as long as the right is caught in its self-destructive embrace of Trump, no capable populist right-wing leaders can emerge. We need JD Vances, but we’re going to get Marjorie Taylor Greens.
Here, too, it is fair to criticize myself for recognizing the failure of liberal democracy but not willing to give up its institutions. You could say I am exercising a conservative’s prudential judgment by not wanting to tear something down without having a good idea of what to replace. Or, less charitable, it could be said that I was guilty of what the historian Livy said about the last days of the Republic: that Rome has reached a point where people could not endure their vices or the healing.
We have created a culture where you gain power by claiming weakness. We have even reached the point where personal industry appreciation and meritorious achievement are denounced as manifestations of “whiteness”.
Nick Burns’ remarks about Lasch’s criticism of American journalism resonate with me. Having spent most of my career in newsrooms – as part of a tiny conservative minority – I know the problems with the doctrine of “objectivity” all too well. But if you As I said in my essay, Lasch could not have foreseen what the Internet would do for political discourse. We all know the ramifications of narrative breakdown in the postmodern era, a phenomenon brought onto a rocket sled by the internet. I’m happy to have far more news and information sources on hand than previous generations, but is it really the case that access to more diverse information has made us more responsible? If a tour of the Ivy League campus and the New York Times and Washington Post newsroom turned you into a populist, marinating for a day or two on social media and blogging would get the most ardent Democrat a good word for aristocracy.
I should clarify my position on two points that Burns makes. First, I suggested that Poland and Hungary offer examples of conservative populism in power that we Americans could learn from, not because I expect American orbanism, but because the ruling right-wing parties in both countries have repeatedly won policies that the neoliberal economy rejects and globalist piety. Second, Burns seems to believe that my reference to St. Benedict (quoting Alasdair MacIntyre) is to wait for God to save us. What I meant by that was that we need a charismatic genius to establish cultural practices and communal institutions – like Benedictine monasticism in the early Middle Ages – that could lead to renewal over time. In other words, our biggest problems are cultural, not political.
Burns’ lines on how Lasch valued economic autonomy and the rejection of “paternalistic institutions” as the health of the American Republic bring me back to my main concern: The American people may have gone too far to restore the nation. Burns is right that the era of the Yeoman farmer is an ancient story, but we can still see the admirable traits of self-sufficiency and independence in our contemporary context. Can you imagine what Lasch would do with today’s victim culture? It was already well established in universities at the time of Lasch’s death and has since metastasized in body politics. We have created a culture where you gain power by claiming weakness. We have even reached the point where personal industry appreciation and meritorious achievement are denounced as manifestations of “whiteness”.
Most Americans believe this nonsense? I doubt it. But managerial elites are doing it and building a system that introduces the youth to the principles of victim culture and its related twin identity politics. I’d bet a robust populism that confidently opposed this poison could still win elections, but Trump’s vanity, constant self-pity, and peacock grievances made Trumpism little more than victimology for right-wing whites. Whatever type of populism Trump embodied, it is not populism of excellence. After a failed, disorganized government, Trump left office with massive support from the conservative base, more than half of whom (according to polls) want him to run again in 2024. American elites may fear that excellence is a code word for “white supremacy”. But the voters of the populist right don’t seem to care at all. Burns’ line about Lasch’s proposed solutions as “simply incoherent in the contemporary landscape” comes to mind.
Micah Mattix says that a healthy democracy needs art that shapes the moral imagination in a way that leads people to the excellence that self-government requires. The late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky expressed a similar sentiment in a very Russian way:
The assigned function of art is not, as is often assumed, to convey ideas, to spread thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plow and harrow his soul in order to enable it to turn to the good.
I fully agree with Mattix, but it’s hard to imagine these days that either fine art or popular art strives to shake our souls and enable them to turn to good – either to prepare to die or well prepare to live well. Novels don’t have the impact they once had. The stage is a boutique concern. Nobody cares about painting. Music is a consumed cultural force. The most famous films are superhero films, which are recognized for their box office mojo. Artistically we are stagnating, as befits a decadent society.
You cannot have decent politics without a decent culture, and you cannot have a culture without a cult. I claim we are still waiting for someone else– –undoubtedly very different– –St. Benedict.