The Great American Freak-Out and How to Address It

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.

This has been especially true lately on the political right in America, where “destruction” is a familiar trope. For instance, in his January 6 speech to eventual Capitol vandals, President Trump said that if the election results were not overturned, “our country will be destroyed.” Rudy Giuliani wondered last fall how many secret plans Biden has “to destroy our country,” Sean Hannity declared that “America as you know it, we know it, will be destroyed” if Biden were to win, and former Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle declared at the Republican National Convention that the Democrats “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.” After Joe Biden’s Visigothic coalition overtook Washington, the warning cry of imminent destruction has continued among grassroots Republicans.

Activist progressives have a history of apocalypticism on several issues—most notably climate change—but their relatively small share of the Democratic Party has limited their political impact, even as they dominate academic and media discourse. This is why, during the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and others repeatedly claimed America was at an “inflection point”—kind of ominous, but not quite Armageddon.

A number of commentators have noted that political leaders on the right prefer fighting in the culture wars instead of fighting back on progressive policies—exemplified by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reading Dr. Seuss books instead of arguing against the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. This shows how pervasive cultural anxiety has become in a party whose most loyal base of voters are currently the most likely to believe popular conspiracies.  

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.   

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.

The anxieties of last century were met with much more than the apocalypticism of Mordecai Ham or Irving Babbitt. It is not an accident that within a generation, in the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War, there was a flowering of various types of literary, cultural, and economic recovery in the 1940s and 50s. The Mont Pelerin Society was created in 1947 with the express purpose of resisting collectivism. Its founding charter declared that “human dignity and freedom” were “under constant menace” and that free inquiry was threatened by “the spread of creeds” that sought only power and the obliteration of opposing views. Instead of reacting apocalyptically, the Society declared that “what is essentially an ideological movement must be met by intellectual argument and the reassertion of valid ideals.” Likewise, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago led seminars in 1940s based on classic texts with an eye to restoring a truly liberal education in the face of higher education’s fragmentation due to utilitarian and illiberal ideas. The texts became the Great Books, published in 1952, which have inspired countless curricular efforts to recover the basics of civilization in primary and secondary education.   

William F. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951 in an effort to expose the illiberal and secular drift of one of the country’s most elite institutions and reassert the importance of the individual and religion in American public life. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (submitted to the publisher as The Conservatives’ Rout since Kirk figured conservatism was all but finished) in 1953 recovered the intellectual sources of ordered liberty against the ascendant collectivism of the day. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) were both first conceived in the late 1930s as self-conscious attempts to recover the virtues of humanity, courage, love, and hope amidst the domineering forces of collectivism and inhumanity. These are but several of numerous examples of how principled, imaginative thought leaders grappled with a bleak and seismic shift in the values and beliefs on which civilization as they knew it had depended.

In every case the act of recovery—which is often achieved through the competition of ideas, as in the foregoing examples—was rooted in a realistic view of what holds society together and promotes flourishing at the individual level: the institutions, habits, values, and beliefs that support freedom, opportunity, fairness, and the integrity of family and community.

It was not the alarmists in the mid-20th century who led the way out of the darkness but rather the “recoverists”—those who took stock of the good things we can build on even as the alarmists at America’s Manichean poles continue to dominate so much of social and conventional media.

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.

Americans also want to believe in the future, that getting ahead and opportunity are still fundamental to being American. More people consistently value the economy over the hot-button that elites tell us are more important, such as climate change or inequality, and most Americans are satisfied with the opportunity to get ahead. Belief not only in the American Dream but that people are actually living it is rather widespread in the country, even if people don’t fare as well by objective mobility measures. Claiming the American Dream is dead has served useful purposes on both the left and the right in recent years, but most Americans don’t actually believe it, including the working class. In September of 2020, 42 percent of the country believed they were on their way to achieving the American Dream. Perhaps surprising to the pundit class, that jumps to 45 percent of the overall working class, and even higher to 55 percent of the Hispanic working class. Economists and pundits have been decrying stagnation in the middle and the bottom of socioeconomic America for years, yet people living in the middle and the bottom have surprisingly high levels of confidence in the American Dream.

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.  

The fevered cancel culture in academia and newsrooms that rightly generates much concern has begun to show signs of vulnerability as more high-profile figures on the left join free-speech advocates on the right in denouncing it. This gives recoverists an opening to follow the example of those who beat back the political correctness movement of the 1990s. An opportunity exists in part because many professors and students, regardless of their politics, never really got on board with cancel culture activism in the first place. Fewer than 10 percent of incoming college students expect to participate in protests and demonstrations, and seven out of ten professors want to create an open environment even if some are offended. It appears that student-facing administrators fan the flames of cancel culture much more than faculty do, and more so on elite campuses, which suggests a lot of academic America could get on board with pushing back—and they already are. More than 80 academic institutions have adopted or endorsed the University of Chicago statement of free expression, and efforts by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Academic Freedom Alliance, and Heterodox Academy have shown a widespread willingness among university faculty to publicly oppose the cancel culture movement.

And when it comes to the always-politicized educational establishment, the appetite for good schools and the innovations that support them are more baked into the American psyche than they were a generation ago. In 1990, there were exactly zero charter schools in America. Today, there more than 7,500 public charter schools, serving over 3 million students, primarily low-income students of color. Eighteen states have voucher programs, and given the pandemic’s forced national experiment with homeschooling, new forms of schooling such as hybrid models, are abounding. As partisan as K-12 fights can be, the embrace of charter schools and other educational innovations at the grassroots is not.

On issues of values and faith, the fact that young adults have moved in an anti-abortion direction for a while has to be among the least-expected developments among boomers and the media class. Poll after poll finds that millennials are trending considerably more pro-life than their parents, and the abortion rate has never been lower. And despite the decline in religious observance that has received a lot of warranted coverage lately, it is worth noting that faith is still a much more central part of American life than in other developed countries. More than half of American adults say they pray daily, compared with just 25 percent in Canada, and six percent of adults in Great Britain. Viewed historically, America today is likely more religious than it was at any point between its founding and about 1930. Congregational membership has been in decline since its post-WWII peak, but it is still not as steep a decline as the American colonies experienced post-1700 leading up to American independence. The point here is that religiosity in America has experienced rises and falls throughout the nation’s history, so another era of growth seems as likely as its opposite.

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.