In his posthumously published The End of the Experiment, the great social scientist Stanley Rothman makes a pessimistic– and cogent– argument that our recent history is building up to the end of the American experiment in self-government. Rothman sees our national nadir as reflecting long-term, likely terminal elite dysfunction stemming from the impact of the New Left in the 1960s. For Rothman, based on surveys and his analysis, the thinking of the new left has replaced classical liberalism among America’s young, including Herbert Marcuse’s dictum that the silencing of the opposition is necessary for the triumph of progressive ideas.
A Nation Based on Values
American greatness came out of a set of ideas from the Founders and 19th-century intellectuals building a national identity, ideas not based on the static ethnic European loyalties America broke free of, but rather on shared principles celebrating an individual rather than a collective agency. As Ben Wattenberg put it in 1991, the Founders’ vision eventually created the first universal nation, one based on values rather than blood.
Our ultimately successful battles against slavery at home and fascism and communism abroad depended on shared American values and identity rather than the subnational tribal loyalties of Europe, or for that matter the Old South. Those shared values enabled individual Americans to take risks for our nation, including standing up to fascist and Communist adversaries.
The Founders understood the fragility of the American republic, based as it was on values. America’s legitimacy rests on elite and mass acceptance of Calvinist values, success through work, love of God more than self, American nationalism trumping tribalism, integrity in public and private interactions, and restraining individual passions. These accorded with institutions the Founders fashioned, chief among them a limited, constitutional government accountable to citizens.
Teaching the Constitution
Those institutions, in turn, depend on secondary institutions like schools and universities. As Frederick M. Hess documents in The Same Thing Over and Over, after the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and others pushed for widespread schooling to teach national heritage and support for the Constitution, a unique document restraining government. Though early American “public” schools were often associated with and located in churches, they taught support for the Republic in ways transcending sectarian boundaries. This mission was also supported by our colleges and universities, which had deep religious and patriotic roots emphasizing self-sacrifice at the service of God and nation, as shown by such works as C. John Sommerville’s The Decline of the Secular University, and James Piereson’s “The American University: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” within my co-edited book, The Politically Correct University.
Relatedly, in The End of Equality neoliberal Mickey Kaus points out that for men, compulsory military service in the first half of the 20th century privileged national over ethnic, regional, and class loyalties. Elitists such as Prescott Bush and Joseph P. Kennedy pulled strings to get their sons in combat. Elite universities had a substantial military presence. No matter one’s station, military service created an American identity.
Support for Founding Values Faded
Transcending tribal boundaries is essential to good governance in electoral democracies, forcing politicians to base appeals on their achievements for all citizens rather than narrow group affinities as “one of us.” This narrative fits the political model of influential political scientist V.O. Key. In The Responsible Electorate, published posthumously in 1966, Key declared “voters are not fools”: significant numbers of “switchers” change their votes from election to election to hold incumbent politicians accountable for their performance in office.
Sadly, as Rothman shows, through the 20th century, support for the founding values fell away, first among university intellectuals. Progressive intellectuals embraced “expressive individualism and collectivist liberalism,” having suffered “a loss of faith in the efficacy and legitimacy of the political system, as well as…in the values of Western culture.” They sought to replace the American Republic with rule by unelected and unaccountable technocrats of their tribe. Intellectuals embraced values antithetical to personal responsibility, privileging identities based not on achievement, but on ethnicity and eventually gender identity.
Initially, these ideological and cultural movements remained largely within the confines of the Ivory Tower. By the late 1960s, however, New Left elites began to work their way from academia through cultural, media, and educational institutions, seeking and gradually attaining power. As Rothman shows, these “these radical adults had a greater need for power and a greater fear of power. They were also more narcissistic.” Accordingly, they sought and obtained power, over the long term taking over the leading educational, media, and cultural institutions.
As Rothman shows systematically, by the late 20th Century both high-school civics texts and Hollywood films moved from (perhaps overly) positive views of American institutions, to accentuate the negative, with ever more disparaging views on the military, patriotism, the traditional family, organized religion and America’s performance on the world stage. From 1975 on, America and its leaders were the conventional villains in movies and on TV. The colleges and universities led the way on these cultural and ideological changes. While the campus furor of the 1960s faded, a cultural anti-Americanism is now hardwired into the ivory tower and subsidiary institutions.
Over time, journalists, entertainers and educators took their cues from intellectuals in a thousand ways great and small, from skewering conservative institutions like the military, marriage, and organized religion to avoiding mention of the horrendous failures of central planning during the entire 2016 election involving a prominent socialist. Also, leading professional academic organizations continue to conduct conferences on income inequality without including a single presentation exploring the greatest statistical correlate of income inequality– the rise in single-parent families. Indeed, anyone making such a presentation would have difficulty earning tenure, as the experience of Daniel Patrick Moynihan indicates.
Expressive individualism and an end of patriotism meant that post-1960s elites did not see the American republic as worthy of individual sacrifice. Over the past half century, American elites have avoided military service, with its dangers and distasteful contact across class lines. As Frank Bruni writes in The New York Times, only four veterans now attend Yale: One studies at Princeton, and Harvard refused to provide data. Along with Ivy League pedigrees and a penchant for crony capitalism, a key Clinton/Trump commonality is having no family in the military. In the various wars on terror, American elites have no skin in the game nor empathy for those they send to fight, and thus no penchant for success rather than the appearance of success.
Generally, American politics now models itself on university politics. Elites fail to address obvious causal relationships. Instead, they stress group identity, judging others by whether they belong to our tribes, not whether they do their jobs. Nor do they embrace American exceptionalism in any way shape or form; thus when President Trump, like President Obama before him, fails to find a difference between traditional American foreign policy and the murderous records of Vladimir Putin and his more openly Soviet predecessors, America’s media and academia are unable to point out the silliness. This is indeed a post-truth word.
The demise of truth, and with it accountability, may well mark the end of the American experiment, leading us to ponder what comes next.