America Has Gone Wobbly

The American experiment has always been a rickety thing, a wobbly stool balanced on the three legs of its politics, its economics, and its public morals. From its founding, the United States had a political impulse toward greater equality, while the nation’s economics sought free markets, and the American cultural ethics generally expressed the country’s broadly shared Protestantism.

Through much of our history, each of these three legs both accommodated and strained against the other two. Democracy, for example, grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and shortsightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.

Sometimes, the nation would find a balance in it all, achieving stability out of the push and shove, the messiness, of the American experiment. And sometimes, an old balance would fail, forcing the nation through a contentious battle to find a new arrangement for the three-legged stool of its politics, economics, and public religion. It’s these moments of failure that fascinate James Piereson, and in his new book, Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order, he turns again and again to the times when an old arrangement collapsed and a new balance emerged.

Piereson is a thoughtful scholar and an important figure on the Right. Formerly head of the Olin Foundation (which he spent down to zero and dissolved, faithfully following the wishes of the its founder), he currently leads the William E. Simon Foundation and is the author of the unexpected and fascinating 2013 book on the fragmenting effect of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution.

In Shattered Consensus he returns to the moments of breakage, gathering a range of his essays to argue that America, since its Founding, has been shaped by “three far-reaching political revolutions”: Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800, the Civil War, and the New Deal. Each was a rebellion against the last, and each successfully created “lasting institutional and cultural adjustments” that allowed “new phases of political and economic development.” And we are, Piereson argues, about to experience yet another revolution, for the New Deal consensus is being shattered all around us.

Naming the third revolution after the New Deal is standard enough, but Piereson means by it the entire “regulatory and entitlement state” that continued developing through subsequent decades—turning from the semi-Keynesian, semi-socialist state Franklin Roosevelt had tried to develop during the 1930s into the complacent reign of a high-liberal consensus in the 1950s. He argues that this general national agreement was bruised by the Kennedy assassination, muted by the Leftists’ radical turn, lamed by the emergence of the conservatives after the 1964 presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), and bankrupted by the cruel arithmetic of government spending.

The result is our current situation: the old world obscure and unintelligible in the fog of its departure, but the new world just as murky in the fog of its arrival. “We do not know precisely what this new synthesis will look like,” Piereson admits. But “it is hard to see how any new government programs can be paid for; indeed, it is hard to see how those already in place will be paid for,” he says. “In this light, the Obama presidency may represent the end of an era rather than the beginning of a new one.”

Peering into the fog, Piereson guesses the new era could be a dynamic one, focusing on growth as “an alternative to the emphasis on redistribution, public spending, and regulation” that has reached a kind of late brilliance, the phosphorescence of the dying, in the era of Obama. As the federal government proves unable to finance its grand schemes, federalism will gain strength. State and federal government workers will become depoliticized through the outlawing of public sector unions.

And Democrats will, as we might have guessed, be forced to change to accommodate the coming revolution, given that their party has a weaker representation now in the states’ legislative and executive branches than it’s had since before the Depression. It was, in fact, the economic crisis that struck in 1929 that created the opportunity for the emergence of the New Deal consensus—in successful rebellion against the older cultural agreement created by the crisis of the Civil War. And just as the post-Civil War consensus ended, so now the consensus that sustained the New Deal arrangement is gone and “cannot be resurrected.”

Only at the beginning and the end of Shattered Consensus does Piereson draw out his views of our current situation and his speculations about what comes next. The middle chapters are gathered from essays he published in the Weekly Standard, the New Criterion, and other outlets—essays that look mostly at the moments over the last 80 years in which, Piereson believes, the curtain slipped and granted us a glimpse backstage. He revisits, for example, the systematic attempt to create an American myth around Kennedy and the inadvertent damage done by that myth in the ensuing years. He examines the unexpected arrival of conservative intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, the complete capture of the universities by the Left, and what he characterizes as the attempt to “punish the nation for its past crimes” by using such intrusive measures as busing to combat racism.

Another myth probed in these pages is in economics. Piereson offers a fascinating examination of how it was that a cardboard cut-out labeled “John Maynard Keynes” came to replace the actual thought of the economist. “Keynes was not a ‘big spender’ or an advocate of expensive welfare programs,” he insists. In the second half of the 20th century, “Keynesianism” nonetheless became the enabling and ennobling banner under which seemingly any amount of government spending was justified.

He develops his notion of “punitive liberalism” to suggest that Keynesianism’s heedlessness with taxpayer dollars actually became a way to punish the recalcitrant and reward such client interest groups as activists, colleges, and unions. Thomas Piketty’s 2013 economics text, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is this Keynesianism written out as a manifesto; just as the Obama administration has attempted in practice, so Piketty attempts in theory to force economics to yield to the social politics of the Left.

Call it the triumph of political equality over economic liberty. In Piereson’s view, the New Deal balance of democracy’s three-legged stool has tilted into instability. It’s aimed now wholly at advancing equality, even if this means the undoing of liberty. And in the failure of its balance, the old liberal system has shattered into the mess of our current situation.

What Shattered Consensus lacks, I think, is enough attention paid to the role of what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “undivided current” of manners and morals that the broadly shared national Protestantism gave America. For all that Piereson traces the high-liberal consensus of the 1950s back to the New Deal of the 1930s, we need to remember that the old balance emerged not just from the crisis of the Depression but also the crisis of the Second World War—a crisis with the most unified response in the history of the country. Both economic liberty and political equality suffered in the sudden and enormous growth of shared national feeling during the war, and high liberalism positioned itself as the heir of that feeling: anti-communist, pro-stability, and pro-religion. It was a national consensus determined to show the world the pride of a big county shouldering big projects.

A nation founded on ideas, born in a rebellion with which it still identified, the United States cannot be logically derived from shared ethnicity or ancient history. As Tocqueville saw even back in the 1830s, the shared manners and morals of the country came instead from the country’s religious tone. And the 1950s saw what was, in many ways, the peak of what we might call an abstract American Protestantism—the Mainline extended to allow Catholics, Jews, and evangelical Blacks into its cultural embrace. In 1958, when the cornerstone was laid for the National Council of Churches’ new headquarters on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, President Eisenhower was in attendance. And why not? The institution seemed to represent the American consensus at its best: inclusive, morally directed, and defining of the deep roots of national shared feeling.

It was, I think, as broad and as deep a consensus as any nation founded on ideas could achieve. And it was probably too broad to survive, for the collapse of the Mainline churches over the last 50 years, and the consequent fading of those churches’ vocabulary from the national language, has helped create the current American political situation that Piereson notes in Shattered Consensus. The Mainline Protestantism establishment has crumbled to sawdust, and the stool of American democracy is awkwardly attempting to balance on only the legs of politics and economics. However much each tries to claim a kind of shared national identity for itself, real national unity—especially in its religious form—will not be cobbled up from just those two sources. The stool won’t balance on two legs.

Piereson sees the need for a social element in the new cultural balance, but Shattered Consensus still generally accepts what is, I think, a Leftist idea: that politics and economics are the real combatants, and whenever we find a new balance between them, a national social consensus will somehow automatically follow. In a way, that’s the same wishful thinking that communitarians of both the Left and Right indulged, imagining that communities would somehow emerge if only we convinced people that they ought to have communities.

The oddity of our currently political situation comes more from the fact that the Left and the Right too often behave as though their political views constituted a religion. Certainly too often they hold their positions with a religious fervor. As I’ve noted before, when we think our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken but actually evil, we have ceased to do politics and begun to do religion.

That means, I think, that, short of a Fourth Great Awakening, the transition into the new consensus of what Piereson calls the Fourth Revolution is likely to be bumpier and more violent than he thinks. “This forecast of a Fourth Revolution in the years ahead does not mean that Americans should be hoarding gold or stockpiling canned food,” he writes, and one prays that he’s right.

Regardless of the shape of things to come, however, it’s hard to imagine someone better than James Piereson at chronicling things as they are. The essays in this book reveal better than any other account we have the cracks in the old high-liberal consensus of America—and the ways in which they are widening every day.