Declining to gloat

Ross Douthat with the New York Times has an interesting editorial on the recent election and the larger political landscape. I don’t know much about Douthat or his leanings, but this IS the New York Times, so if he’s conservative he’s likely the affirmative action case. But that’s neither here nor there. Douthat does a pretty good job of summarizing how many conservatives view things, and why liberals should be careful they really understand the train they’ve boarded.

First a little off-topic commentary:

This is an inescapable aspect of democratic culture: no matter what reason tells us about the vagaries of politics, something in the American subconscious assumes that the voice of the people really is the voice of God, and that being part of a winning coalition must be a sign that you’re His chosen one as well.

This is not limited to politics, of course. I see a similar religious fervor over sports teams and American Idol contestants as well. I think it’s just part of human nature to ascribe far more importance to our victories-by-association.

Maybe it’s too soon to pierce this cloud of postelection smugness. But in the spirit of friendly correction — or, O.K., maybe curmudgeonly annoyance — let me point out some slightly more unpleasant truths about the future that liberalism seems to be winning.

Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values — reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it’s just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear.

Indeed. Though this particular wording of the issue is fresh, from conservative perspectives it can be easy to see liberals not so much as “enlightened in their pursuit of higher values,” but “singleminded in the pursuit of the individual at the expense of anyone else.” He goes on to defend his viewpoint with examples that are mostly inferential, but do make an interesting claim:

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.

This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.

But if conservatives don’t acknowledge the crisis’s economic component, liberalism often seems indifferent to its deeper social roots. The progressive bias toward the capital-F Future, the old left-wing suspicion of faith and domesticity, the fact that Democrats have benefited politically from these trends — all of this makes it easy for liberals to just celebrate the emerging America, to minimize the costs of disrupted families and hollowed-out communities, and to treat the places where Americans have traditionally found solidarity outside the state (like the churches threatened by the Obama White House’s contraceptive mandate) as irritants or threats.

To be sure, the civic, familial and religious associations of which he speaks are indeed largely failing. Some of this failure is self-inflicted, but some responsibility rests with those who would rather undermine and destroy these organizations rather then simply build up viable alternatives. It is ironic to me, for example, that liberals view themselves as champions of marriage rights for homosexuals when it wasn’t that long ago they were shunning marriage, denigrating it as an institution, and undermining it at every turn.

It’s the moral equivalent of “Eight-track players for EVERYBODY!” Marriage is stupid, outdated, and a tool of oppression, but hey! If gay people want it, then let’s jump in there and help them get it! They deserve their fair chance to be outdated and oppressed! Whether or not gays should be able to marry is irrelevant to this conversation; how can you champion something you used to oppose? Marriage only became important and relevant again when a potential ally wanted it. Living together was supposed to be “the new normal”, wasn’t it? Fish and bicycles, and all that?

Douthat finished up with this:

It’s not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for — the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom — was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.

No such renewal seems to be on the horizon. That isn’t a judgment on the Obama White House, necessarily. But it is a judgment on a certain kind of blithe liberal optimism, and the confidence with which many Democrats assume their newly emerged majority is a sign of progress rather than decline.

To be fair, I think both sides of the political aisle have lost track of what made America great. World War II brought us together as a nation in a way that nothing has since. September 11th came close, but didn’t last anywhere near long enough. Exactly what has gone wrong is open to debate. I have my opinions, and I’ll get to them in other posts. But it’s fairly obvious that “We The People” have, at the very least, become “Them, Them, Us, and *sigh*, even Them The People.”

I think Douthat is very much on target with his point that individual Americans are feeling increasingly disconnected from one another, from our communities, and even our families. The modern substitutes tend to pull us into new communities, certainly, but those communities tend to be either echo chambers of thought or built upon a common-denominator shallowness, built to offer a refuge from the immense complexity that is our world. It’s not difficult, when so removed from face-to-face humanity, to become self-centric. Our local world is to be avoided–drive right into our garage and close the door, lest we meet the neighbors and find that they are not us.

I’m fully aware I’m part of the problem. I have the perfect opportunity twice a day to meet people from other backgrounds, from other perspectives, and get a glimpse into their world. Do I do that? No, I screw my ear buds into my ears, crank up the audio, and stare blankly out the train window. Like everyone else on the train. Oops. Made eye contact with someone on the platform. Look away, quick!

For all our desire to build a better society, I don’t think we’re making progress. I believe our society is very much in decline. The question is where we’ve gone wrong. Is it the recipe or the ingredients? Or both? Can we make American Pie with a recipe off a cereal box and a basket of crab-apples?


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