This is a couple of weeks old, but I stumbled across it the other day and took a few days to digest it: The Great American Freak-Out And How To Address It. Excerpts, with my comments, follow.
Shortly before the 1928 presidential election between Herbert Hoover and New York Governor Al Smith, a well-known Baptist minister named Mordecai Ham wrote, “[I]f Smith is elected…it can be interpreted no other way except a fulfillment of prophecy of the latter-day perilous times.”
A sense of the apocalyptic a century ago was not limited to religious and populist agitators. Harvard humanist Irving Babbitt wrote in 1924 that self-indulgent materialism in America had likely surpassed that of ancient Rome, which “portends the end of our constitutional liberties and the rise of a decadent imperialism.”
This type of commentary abounded in the 1920s, and it echoes a century later. Now, as then, concerns about cultural decline often morph into a kind of apocalypticism.
No argument here. However, the article, as you’ll see, goes on to engage in a little “as it was, so shall it be,” but I think they are missing a few key things.
The problem with the apocalyptic style—or even its slightly less adrenalized cousin, the paranoid style—of politics is twofold. First, it corrupts public life by reducing the non-political complexity of life to political warfare. According to a 2018 survey by More in Common, the most ideologically extreme people on the right and the left are about twice as likely as the average American to list politics as a hobby. National surveys by the American Enterprise Institute have found that people whose only civic outlet is politics are lonelier than others and have a dimmer view of institutions of civil society outside of politics. Seeing life’s major challenges through the narrow lens of political power produces an anxious class of people with too much hope in what politics can achieve and too little hope in anything else.
This is certainly happening in the United States today, with the overwhelming influence of social media and the politicization of, well, everything. Not everyone has fallen into this trap, of course; one of my most valued friendships has only survived between me, a staunch minarchist libertarian and my friend, a deep-blue East Coast urban progressive, because we both feel there is much more to life and personalities than political opinions. But, yes, life has become increasingly politicized of late.
Second, the apocalyptic style blinds its adherents to all the things that are actually going well in the world, an understanding of which is necessary for progress. If your fears are extreme, you have a harder time seeing the world as it actually is. Most of our lives are not lived in the extreme. We live in the everyday, where the building blocks of forward progress are actually all around. Every generation needs to be engaged in an effort of recovery—of first principles, enduring practices and institutions, and the good things that we take for granted at our peril.
And, yes, things in general, at least in the Western nations, are overall going very well. No society in the history of mankind has produced the standard of living enjoyed by even the “poor” in the United States today. In most of the Western nations, we have eliminated – not reduced, eliminated abject poverty; only relative poverty exists now.
So what are the good things hiding in plain sight on which to build?
For starters, the value of a two-parent, married family is more widely recognized as the best environment for children than it was a generation ago. The divorce rate is down, having fallen by more than 30 percent since peaking around 1980, and the long upward trend of out-of-wedlock births has now begun to dip as well. Since 2014, the share of kids in intact families has thus begun to climb. This does not mean that declining marriage rates among young adults is not a cause of concern, but it does mean that a strong focus on healthy, intact families resonates with millions of Americans in ways recoverists can build on.
Next, Americans are patriots and localists at least as much, if not more, than they are ideological partisans. When asked in a large national AEI survey about where they derive a sense of community, a greater share of Americans named their American identity and local neighborhood than their political or ethnic identities. For instance, nearly a third (32 percent) of Americans say they get a “strong sense of community” from their American identity, compared to only 17 percent who feel the same about their race or ethnicity. Even amidst a slight drop in intense patriotism in 2020 amidst a pandemic and racial unrest, YouGov poll results showed robust levels of patriotism among a majority of Americans and even a slight uptick among young adults, Democrats, and Black Americans. You wouldn’t know this from the prevailing media narrative.
There is a lot more going well in America, from the balance of judges in our courts to an openness to more family-centric work environments and policies to drops in crime over the past 25 years that have made our streets safer to breakthroughs in medical technology that will diminish pain and suffering in ways formerly unknown.
It is important for recoverists within American political life to find each other and coalesce around common projects so that alarmism has less of an effect on policymakers. For recoverists hoping to make the future better by building on the past, it is worth pulling a page from the century-old playbook to find new ways to defend the first principles, practices, and institutions on which all of these good things depend. Neither the Mont Pelerin Society nor the Great Books nor C.S. Lewis was inventing entirely new ideas. All of them were recovering anew those things without which a healthy and flourishing society is not possible.
The problem is that these things aren’t happening.
We aren’t finding new ways to defend old principles. But more than that, the other side – the political Left – isn’t playing by the old rules. While Franklin Roosevelt proposed packing the Supreme Court, he failed to do so, but now Democrats are openly advocating that again – and failing that, proposing to add new states and imposing unconstitutional Imperial election rules to cement one-party rule. They did so successfully in California; now they want to take the show on the road.
Conditions have changed, as well. Folks in the time periods mentioned in this article weren’t drinking from the information fire hose represented by Derpbook, Twatter and so on. The 24/7 inundation of information, much of it political or cast in a political light, is unprecedented. Add to that the fact that the major providers are unabashedly biased; they aren’t putting their thumbs on the scale, they are piling cinder blocks on it.
Read the whole article. It strikes an optimistic tone, and I do try to strive towards optimism myself. But these days, it’s getting hard to maintain. Read it yourselves, though, and make up your own minds; the point that things aren’t all bad is a good one. Life can be pretty damn good these days, if you can just ignore politics and politicians for a while.