Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The decline of American traditionalism, and what might be done about it

This has been a tough stretch for American traditionalists of all stripes. From the preference cascade toppling Confederate iconography to a couple of Supreme Court decisions that overturned, according to some, the "rule of law," it feels as though American traditionalism, by which term I include "American-greatness" nationalism, secular and religious social conservatism, a romantic love of our history and its symbols, a "long-historical" view of the Constitution, a particular conception of the family and its role, and a longing for the apparent consensus in such things that prevailed in American life until the late 1960s, is on life support. It is, for any number of reasons discussed below. The ultimate question is, what are traditionalists going to do about it?

Trigger warning: Generalizations follow. Try not to miss the forest for the trees.

Traditionalism in the West began its long collapse 100 years ago with the exhaustion of the old European monarchies at the end of World War I, the defeat of fascism (which, in Italy and Spain, positioned itself on the side of the traditionalists, especially the Roman Church), and the rise of revolutionary Communism. Traditionalism (including such things as church-going) eroded in Europe rapidly during the 20th century. It persisted and even thrived in the American national consensus, however, until the mid-1960s for several reasons. Among them, the United States had shut down immigration in the 1920s, and therefore did not have to adjust itself to the different values and culture of new waves of immigrants as it had in the past, and would have to do again. Also, the country faced three truly monumental challenges in the Great Depression, World War II, and the dangerous early years of the Cold War. The national response to these crises drove a broad political and cultural unanimity, including explicitly by dint of propaganda and implicitly by necessity -- one cannot alienate large parts of the population and contend with a wave of national emergencies. Mid-century American traditionalism was therefore built on a foundation of homogeneity and national crisis.

Traditionalism in the United States probably reached its modern high water mark in the mid-1950s, cresting on the shoals of Brown v. Board of Education, the political defeat of McCarthyism, the rise of new voices in American culture who strained against the stultifying pressure to conform, the stabilization of the Cold War after Korea, and the surging prosperity of the middle class in the Post-War boom. To pick one measure of the crest of the wave, and only one, consider this graph of religiosity in American life:

Religiosity-Graph1 Source.

Then the 1960s happened. This is not the place to rehash the causes and consequences of the titanic upheaval in American life from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Suffice it to say that some combination of the national shock of the civil rights movement and the response thereto, the collapse in trust in American institutions following Vietnam and Watergate, the resulting rehabilitation of Marxism and Marxism-lite in academic and cultural circles, the birth control pill, the reopening of our borders, the growing cultural, political, and social influence of groups other than male WASPs, the proliferation of media voices and related technological changes, the rise of the trial lawyers and the "safety" culture, and the huge expansion of big American universities fueled in no small measure by Vietnam-era draft deferment rules, tremendously accelerated the erosion of American traditionalism. With bumps along the way, the traditionalist values from the very malign (white supremacy) to the very important (opposition to out-of-wedlock childbirth) fell away among the chattering classes, and retained respectability among only the "great unwashed," as Mencken might have said, or a few iconoclasts.

Like them or not, the social solvent of the 1960 abraded and even destroyed one traditional American value after another. These include, in no particular order of goodness or badness, white supremacy, the importance of durable marriage as a precondition to pregnancy or at least children, an understanding of the history of the United States as both exceptional and superior and widespread acceptance of our defining stories, the idea that our national heroes were worthy of emulation and adulation, love of country as an inherent virtue, the importance of risk-taking, the chance to recover from failure, self-reliance as a matter of personal honor, the profound belief that the foreign policy of the United States goes beyond our direct national interest to make the world a freer place, enterprise as an inherent good, the church as an important center of public life (especially outside of big cities), the relevance of religious teaching in the shaping of individual character, a widely-held ideal division of labor within families, the wisdom of ordinary folk and skepticism of the elites, modesty in matters of dress and sex and decorum in speech, fidelity in sexual relations, conventionality in sexual practices and orientation, and baseball. There are no doubt others that elude me on a beer-sodden weekend afternoon.

Even today's most reactionary social conservatives would agree that some of these values were deplorable from the start -- apart from a tiny number of extremists, essentially nobody actually defends white supremacy -- and that some have out-lived their usefulness. As well, certain traditional values retain enough support, in the abstract, at least, that politicians who have little good to say about traditionalism nevertheless pander to them (so far, all national politicians have to appear to like church and believe in God). But in the main, all of the traditional values above have been in substantial retreat for more than 40 years. Which is a long time.

The question is, what are traditionalists going to do to turn the tide of public opinion?

Let's get one obvious point out of the way: Courts and a few politicians from red jurisdictions and districts are not going to help over the long term. Indeed, a massive conservative landslide (and we've had two since 2010) has not been terribly useful for traditionalists.

The churches remain a great force for traditionalism in American life, but they are in perhaps permanent decline. The United States has regularly passed through spiritual "great awakenings," but I wonder if history will ever repeat itself in this regard. The sheer volume of the cultural pressure coming is so great that it is hard to see how at least Judeo-Christian religion can recover significant lost ground. And, in any case, "because God said so" is an especially discredited argument when its most visible adherents are murderous barbarians.

A top-down strategy might work at some level -- Glenn Reynolds' longstanding suggestion that conservatives buy or start a few women's magazines is an example. The various conservative outlets of News Corp is another. These certainly help, insofar as they create economic opportunity and a paying audience for traditionalist writers and producers. Unfortunately, that still leaves the real engines of cultural influence -- universities, which teach the next generation (and the teachers who teach them) and do the academic work necessary to change elite opinion, and artists, broadly defined to include the many creative types in American life who write the scripts and jokes, produce the television, sing the songs, design the clothing, and so forth -- as profoundly anti-traditionalist.

Of course, artists have been anti-traditionalist since they stopped having to depend on kings and rich people for their commissions. (The creative class types also often have gay friends if they are not gay themselves, which makes gay rights a personal matter.) Academia, not so much. The generations of professors who became adults carrying a rifle at Gettysburg, in the Argonne, on Omaha Beach or on the shores of Iwo Jima may have often been Democrats, but they weren't anti-traditionalist ideologues by any stretch of the imagination. After all, their experiences taught them that traditionalist America, shortcomings notwithstanding, could accomplish great and important things.

American academia began its profoundly anti-traditionalist march with the Vietnam War and its aftermath. A few trends conspired simultaneously. We allowed draft deferments for men who went to graduate school, and the Great Society massively expanded federal subsidies for universities to accommodate them. PhD programs ballooned, and the people who entered them hid a certain shame behind their righteous attacks on the alleged depredations of American foreign policy. Better to have undermined an evil war than to have shirked a just one, so this generation of academics was going to be damned certain our war in Vietnam never would be respectable. Do not underestimate the massive and continuing influence of the Vietnam academics and their intellectual progeny -- they have had a devastating impact on traditionalism in the United States.

Academics continue to be very left-wing compared even to similarly educated professionals, and the question is why. My strong suspicion is that it comes to money. From a post I wrote a few years ago:

[T]here are now wide disparities in compensation between professors and similarly trained and qualified people who went into business or an allied profession (such as law). This is a relatively new development. Forty years ago, the starting salaries for newly minted assistant professors and junior associates in New York law firms were almost identical. Now the new lawyers start with 2-3 times the salary of the professors and the disparity can quickly widen to 10-20 times. Obviously, the pay gap between top academics and top corporate executives is even wider. All of this means that any professor younger than about 45 today made a conscious decision to give up a massive amount of money. Since that is a sacrifice by any measure, it is natural that many professors need some reassurance that they made the right choice. Deciding that the business life is shallow and depraved is, for most of them, ample validation.
In short, many professors need to be left-wing in order to understand the choices that they have made. (Note that this seems far less true in the hard sciences, perhaps because so few physicists imagine that they should have gone to business school or law school.)

So is all lost? How will traditionalists turn, or at least stem, the cultural tide against them?

A national crisis -- a real one in which we are all actually in great jeopardy, not the weak shit we declare a "crisis" these days -- might do the job, at least with regard to those traditionalist values relating to love of country, national confidence, sense of community, faith in God, and so forth. Hoping for a national calamity that visits death and misery on millions does not seem like good politics, though, and in any case hope is not a strategy.

The question for traditionalists who have the potential to be artists and intellectuals is this: Are they are willing to do the hard work to enter academia and the arts in sufficient numbers to change the trajectory of American culture? To do this, traditionalists probably need to do several things. First, they need to want to do. This will be challenging for traditionalists, because most people do not want to immerse themselves in a hostile environment, and it is hard to move your career forward when you are seen as an iconoclast. This is why conservative academics, who are at least slightly more numerous than it seems, often hide their politics until they are well-established. Second, traditionalists probably need to refine their traditionalism to abandon those beliefs that if expressed will destroy their careers aborning. White supremacy, for example, is a big-time loser, to put it mildly. Love the United States overtly, but gain a new perspective, if you need one, on the CSA. Learn to see gay people as fully as moral as you are, if you haven't already. Third, traditionalists need to develop principled and even utilitarian arguments to support traditional values, because "God said so" probably will not fly again in the United States. This is not to say that traditionalists should not become ardent defenders of the First Amendment, including especially the free exercise clause, but that overt faith-based arguments (as opposed to covert ones) will not make much progress in the wider culture. Fourth, learn to spot your likely allies and co-opt them. Latinos are natural traditionalists, if only "Anglo" traditionalists would wake up and realize they are the new Irish.

Is any of this likely to happen? I don't know, but it would seem more satisfying to hope for a traditionalist infiltration in to our cultural institutions than a national cataclysm, or endless braying at the moon or on Twitter in bootless frustration.

Brief addendum: David Brooks has a proposal along different lines this morning.

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