September 20, 2021
Another factor in our decline
I’ve speculated on the contributions of the people, leaders and institutions to the condition of the nation. It would be easy to focus on the people, as there are so many examples of irrational behavior, resistance to vaccination being the most recent. I’ve mentioned the culture in passing, but it occurs to me now that it is a separate, fourth, factor. In this context, I’m referring to the aspect of culture dealing with standards of behavior and restraints on antisocial actions. If people are not individually responsible — many Americans today clearly are not — and therefore unable to exercise appropriate self-control, there should be commonly accepted rules which will discourage misconduct and reenforce positive behavior. Laws and prosecution are blunt instruments, useful only in extreme cases. There must be ethical and moral restraints. However, those must be accepted, at least in general outline, by a majority of people, or by enough influential people to bring the rest along. (I’ve just invoked the leadership factor).
It could be argued that culture is not separate category, merely another institution. or that it is simply an aspect of the people. However, I’ve used “institution” to mean something formally organized, such as the Supreme Court, the electoral system or political parties; culture, as I’m using the concept, is a set of standards and controls, not an organizational structure. At least functionally it is distinct from the people as well, as it describes principles, not behavior.
However, culture, in the sense of anything binding all of us, virtually has evaporated; standards have been repudiated and social control has been weakened. Individualism has triumphed. True, there are tribal loyalties, and one could posit a tribal culture, but so many of those tribal impulses stem from rejection of controls that the tribes fundamentally are collections of rebellious individuals. The movement toward individualism began in the Enlightenment and it is to some degree enshrined in the Constitution. However, in recent decades it has moved to the point that it threatens democratic government. This development is by no means peculiar to the right; liberals have made a major contribution to the abandonment of social standards. However, the present assault comes from the right.
An interesting irony is the reaction, years ago, among conservatives to perceived excesses of behavior by liberals. The Death of Outrage, William J. Bennett’s 1998 attack on President Clinton, exemplifies that righteous indignation: “What we need in our president is one who stands against destructive cultural norms, not one who embodies, manipulates, and exploits them.” Where is the outrage at Trumpish behavior, which is far more destructive? He concluded: “Our commitment to long-standing American ideals has been enervated. We desperately need to recover them, and soon.” We could start by supporting and accepting fair elections.
Another conservative critic, Robert Bork, offered these pronouncements in 1996, in a book subtitled Modern Liberalism and American Decline: “What liberalism has constantly moved away from are the constraints on personal liberty imposed by religion, morality, law, family, and community. Liberalism moves, therefore, toward radical individualism and the corruption of standards that movement entails.”
Also: “Modern liberals employ the rhetoric of ‘rights’ incessantly not only to deligitimize the idea of restraints on individuals by communities but to prevent discussion of the topic.” What a perfect appraisal of those who refuse to wear masks or be vaccinated because it interferes with their freedom, who assert their right to carry guns. “The idea that men are naturally rational, moral creatures without the need for strong external restraints has been exploded by experience,” Indeed.
I return to the conclusion to which these ramblings has led me: faced by ignorant and irresponsible people, flawed institutions, and a culture in decline, the way out is dependent on leadership, but that is a complicated issue. Not only must my hypothetical leaders show the right path, they must denounce and destroy the credibility of many of those now in positions of influence: Trump, McCarthy, DeSantis, Abbott, et al. Leaders, in other words, are both the solution and part of the problem. Still, it might take only a relatively few prominent Republicans to turn the tide.
<b>1. My comments are in these posts: 1/14/19, 3/15/19, 1/17/20, 9/11/20, 9/22/20, 11/1/20, 1/25/21.
<b>2. The Death of Outrage, p. 42 (emphasis in the original)
<b>3. Id., at 129
<b>4. Slouching Towards Gomorrah pp. 61-62
<b>5. Id., at 150-51
<b>6. Id., at 139