The rise of discontent in American public life is continually before our eyes. The public sense of fracturing can be witnessed in a resurgence of calls for populism, whether it be from the left, or from the right. A certain commonality has struck a resounding cord across the political spectrum. As Yoni Appelbaum recently observed, our troubled and unsettling times indicate we have not only lost trust in our democratic institutions but seem to have given up the habit and practice of democracy itself.
It is certainly the case that something has gone awry in America. More often than not, much of the analysis regarding the “why” has been focused upon the particularities of the 2016 presidential election, the status of the economy, and immigration. These issues are of central importance, and there can be no true account of a healthy social and political order without addressing them.
At the same time, there is a more remote, and architectonic, feature of our present condition that is often neglected. In this essay, I want to pay closer attention to an overarching narrative, or story, that American citizens have been taught to believe, and which ultimately provides a better explanation for our current discontent. Liberalism does not simply entail a set of philosophical and political principles that can be drawn to their logical conclusions. More than this, liberalism involves a story, a narrative history that helps democratic citizens to understand themselves and their place in this world. For when we better grasp some of the essential features of this story, we can better understand what is happening today in American social and political life.
The narrative of the liberal order
The powerful influence and depiction of the narrative feature regarding modern liberal democracy is presented in the work of two recent story-tellers. The first is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker has argued in his newest book Enlightenment Now that the world has improved in almost every measurable area of human life for the past three centuries, and that the progress is only continuing. The central argument that Pinker presents is meant to push against a resurgent narrative in American social and political thought, spanning both the left (seen in Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal) and right (Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and D.C. Schindler’s Freedom From Reality: The Diabolical Nature of Modern Liberty), that the state of the world is not only in a condition of angst, but experiencing a serious existential and social crisis.
The progress that Pinker sees throughout the world (the astounding decline of poverty, war, disease, famine, and the vast increase of wealth and democracy across the globe) is said to owe its success to the ideas laid down by Enlightenment thinkers and the rise of equality. According to Pinker, “our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class, or faith toward universal human flourishing.”
Along with Pinker, former President Barrack Obama has offered an almost identical account of the story of modern liberal democracy. Last summer, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Obama made the following observation:
The countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle—the thing that holds people together—eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war.
What is striking about Pinker’s narrative, and Obama’s as well, is that it is one in which modern liberal democratic citizens are well-versed. This narrative component of liberalism is an echo of the 19th-century social theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville. According to Tocqueville, the social conditions of equality produces within democratic souls a new way of thinking that becomes the locus of modern liberal democracy’s story:
To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for one’s self, and in one’s self alone.
What is the heart of this story? As a result of modern liberal democracy, there is an overwhelming realization that who I am is no longer solely defined by familial ties and social status. In a certain sense, there seems to be an overlap between the Christian understanding of the person and the recognition of the individual in democracy. Additionally, truth is no longer accepted on the basis of someone else’s authority; truth can be sought and discovered by each person, no matter their social rank. This is the heart and origin of our universities, and it is the reason why non-Western nations and citizens are deeply drawn to the institution of the American university.
Likewise, a determinist fate is no longer the lot from which you can never escape. Great opportunities abound at the social, political, and economic level for one’s self and his future generations. Economic activity and social mobility certainly can make the threat of civil war subside, and a real decency and nobility can be had through its pursuits. The virtue of economic prosperity subsists, among other things, in fostering and cultivating a kind of social order that is conducive of freedom, especially with respect to the allocation of goods and resources. Such a claim draws further support from the geneticist Richard Lewontin, who has shown in his book Biology as Ideology that the improvement of social and economic conditions in America was a primary cause which led to the near-complete eradication of tuberculosis at the end of the 19th century.
Greater than kings and less than men
While more nuance is required to fill out this story, this basic outline helps us to see that there is something good and worth protecting in the above narrative. Yet there is also a stark and unsettling component, one in which we are currently immersed. There is something that strikes at the heart of this narrative that led the economist Francis Fukayama to posit “the end of history” as a rather “sad state of affairs.” How could such a narrative, recently expressed by Pinker and Obama, as experienced in modern democracies be considered sad?
The answer is to be understood at the social level, and refers to the penultimate description that characterizes the meaning of modern democracy. “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain,” observed Tocqueville in Democracy in America. “Democracy breaks the chain… Each man is thereby thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
Tocqueville, however, was not concerned with the rise of populist movements in America. The problem of liberalism’s story is that it fails to take into account the perennial dangers that reside in democratic habits and practices. The worry can be witnessed in Tocqueville’s prediction that democratic souls would come to understand themselves as “greater than kings and less than men.” The equality of social conditions, in fact, tends toward experiencing a profound sense of being “cut off.” As Americans, we seem increasingly distant from our neighbors, and the concrete connection to a natural world of essences and forms. Technology has habituated us ever more to seeing things and others in almost entirely mechanistic ways.
Separated from God, our local communities, nature, and even history itself, we may concede the temptation to “hide” inside ourselves. In such a condition, that of being “less than men”, we will increasingly allow ourselves to be managed by others, instead of ruling ourselves. We will celebrate our democratic freedoms, and wonder why we still need the oppression and prejudice of home, nations, and religion. This freedom and the release of social rank and familial ties makes us see ourselves as greater than kings, gladly triumphant over a bygone world.
Looking at the world with such a lens, metaphysical considerations and the presence of religion have a declining place at the table of political deliberation. Not only does philosophy and religious longing seem unintelligible, but they become increasingly understood as venues for racism and a plethora of “phobias”. Political activism will tend to become primary, wherein its quasi-religious language is the vehicle through which we can be “saved”.
Being “less than men” is not the inevitable fate of our way of life. However, in order to overcome democracies destructive tendencies, citizens will need to draw from a well-spring of resources such as religion, philosophy, history, and the habits of association. These fonts will keep us from seeing ourselves in degrading and inhumane ways. Through these resources, a truer account of human nature, and our place in this world becomes feasible. We can start to ponder not merely how to have a good economy, but consider the more fundamental question, namely, how we can build a good society.
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