Saving the American Experiment

Rod Dreher asks in his excellent reevaluation of Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites if it is too late to save the American experiment. His answer is: barring a miracle, yes. “My re-reading of Revolt dismayed me,” he writes, “because it compelled me to face how very long this process has been going on . . . and how far beyond saving ourselves we have traveled over the last quarter century.” Are things this bad, and is populism (coupled with divine intervention) the only answer?

Dreher is right that Lasch put his finger on much of what ails American democracy. For Lasch, the unbounded pursuit of capital has led to the commodification of nearly all of life. The decline in American manufacturing has made it difficult for working-class families to live on a single salary. The result, often, is both parents work full-time and outsource child-rearing to “professionals.” Small stores and local hangouts, where people of different classes might interact, have been replaced by big box stores and impersonal chain restaurants in pursuit of greater margins. The result is that informal conversations between groups has ceased. The wealthy go to private cocktail parties and exclusive clubs while the plebs stare at TV screens in Chili’s. The “decline of participatory democracy,” Lasch writes, may be directly related to the disappearance of these “third places.” Education has abandoned moral formation in favor of creating efficient workers while, at the same time, nourishing a sense of entitlement though victimhood narratives that postpone adulthood. Math and science—the golden tools of the market—are funded while history and English are either cut or repurposed to teach “soft skills.” Doing right is replaced with feeling good in homes and churches. The list goes on.

But this has been going on for much longer than 25 years. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which was first published in 1952 and which can be read as a commentary on post-WW II life in the South. It’s set in the fictional Taulkinham—a town of shops and movie theaters. “No one was paying any attention to the sky,” O’Connor writes. “The stores . . .  stayed open on Thursday nights so that people could have an extra opportunity to see what was for sale.” In one scene, a man sets up “an altar” to sell a new kind of potato peeler. All everyone does in Taulkinham is shop and go to the movies. There are no two-parent families in the novel. Young men are either unemployed or work menial jobs. And the only religion that anyone shows any interest in is Hoover Shoat’s prosperity gospel, where, he tells the townsfolk “You don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of.” In another scene, a self-help columnist tells a character that “Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life. A religious experience can be a beautiful addition to living if you put it in the proper perspective and do not let it warf [sic.] you.” Consumerism, therapeutic religion, self-interest run amok—it’s all there.

Robert Penn Warren, who was a friend of O’Connor, argues in Democracy and Poetry (1975) that this atomization of society, which leads both to alienation and the unchecked pursuit of pleasure and comfort, has been around even longer. In a survey of American writers from Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, Warren shows that our great material success as a nation has become our greatest weakness. Melville writes that the “Founders’ dream shall flee” as men pursue “Dominion” over nature. Whitman complained in Democratic Vistas that the cities of the victorious North were “crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.”

Our technological advances and pursuit of wealth at the expense of everything else convert, Warren writes, “the human being into a machine.” You cannot have a democracy without moral citizens, which is Lasch’s argument, too, and machines aren’t moral. Democracy, Warren writes, “cannot exist in a society that is merely a mechanism for satisfying man’s physical needs and keeping order . . . Nor . . . can such a society foster a community of individual selves bound together by common feelings, ideals, and conceptions of responsibility.” To set things right, Warren argues, we just need to create “a new body of attitudes and values, a new assessment of our expanding technological capacities in relation to the context of nature and our basic human needs.” In short: a miracle.

Warren notes that the belief in a higher power that calls us to live a “higher,” more perfect life is essential to a democracy. As “the Christian’s will to change,” Warren writes, “springs from the love of God, so the will to change in our secular world implies the awareness of standards beyond the easy grasp—perfections that, through love, we may will to approach.” For Warren, one such standard, in addition to religious belief, is art.

Lasch believed that one might learn any number of virtues from literature—courage, self-discipline, charity. So does Warren, but Warren argues that even the form of literature has something to teach us about the beauty of a well-ordered life.

This is where Warren strikes a slightly different note than Lasch. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch highlights how art, when it is treated as a substitute for religion, leads to attitudes that are the opposite of those commonly associated with religious belief. “In place of self-denial and self-control,” Lasch writes, this view of art “offered the seductive vision of selfhood unconstrained by civic, familial, or religious obligations. It confirmed artists and intellectuals in their sense of superiority to the common herd. It sanctioned their revolt against convention, against bourgeois solemnity, against stupidity and ugliness.”

Warren would no doubt agree with this assessment, but he argues that it doesn’t have to be this way. Poetry is—or can be—a model of a rightly “organized self”:

This is not to claim that the poet who constructs this model is necessarily such an organized self. As a matter of fact, an appalling number of poets have been notoriously disorganized . . . It may be said, however, that even if the poet is disorganized, out of disorder may emerge the organized object: the image of the “ideal self,” the “regenerate self,” as it were, of the disorganized man.

Lasch believed that one might learn any number of virtues from literature—courage, self-discipline, charity. So does Warren, but Warren argues that even the form of literature has something to teach us about the beauty of a well-ordered life. “The form of a work represents, not only a manipulation of the world, but an adventure in selfhood. It embodies the experience of a self vis-à-vis the world, not merely as a subject matter, but as translated into the experience of form.” It is in its capacity to inspire us to become a work of art, a more perfect form of ourselves, that poetry is like religion in a positive way. It is in this sense that it can “fortify democracy.”

What of the charge that poetry is “antidemocratic and encourages elitism”? First, it isn’t elitist in the proper sense of the term because, like the sciences, those who practice and enjoy it come “from all sorts of groups, classes, and races.” Second, while only a minority are involved in it at a high level, its nevertheless offers secondary benefits (if it is marked by excellence) as the pure sciences do, whose seemingly useless experiments transform society ten, twenty, fifty years later.

I like most of Dreher’s proposals for “structural economic reform,” but the focus on religious and working-class concerns is too narrow and too short-term. Warren’s argument for role of poetry in a democracy reminds us not only of the importance of taking the long view but also of the centrality of excellence for a good society. This is Lasch’s concern, too, but it cannot be recovered through economic reforms alone.