The Old Days.

            Among the thoughtful members of America’s elite[1] the predominant mood seems to be nostalgia.  Leslie Lenkowski, a professor emeritus of Public Policy at Indiana University, used a book review to describe and add to some of the recent thought on the decline over time of social solidarity in the United States.[2]  The stakes in this game are high.  Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, that social solidarity has been seen as the foundation of democracy. 

            The one-time “nation of joiners” has become a “nation of spectators.”[3]  All sorts of political, social, and economic changes wrought this transformation.  Some of the changes were divisive in themselves.  Income inequality has grown and people have moved toward socio-economically homogenous communities, with intellectual homogeneity as an effect.  Some of the changes reversed the instilling of a civic religion.  Common, though far from universal, military service ended after Vietnam.  Movies and other forms of mass entertainment have moved from celebrating American democracy to portraying it a device serving powerful occult interests.[4] 

Haass and Lenkowski both assign a primary role in this American crisis to the elites.  For Haass, it is up to them to encourage their constituencies in all the major institutions and areas of national life to “embrace obligations,” not just rights.  For Lenkowski, the problem lies, first and foremost, with the critics “from across the political spectrum, that bring into question American history and ideals, the fairness of American society and institutions, and the ability of individuals to make a difference in the face of supposedly hidden forces.”  Elites must act differently if America is to be restored. 

            But maybe the rot isn’t in the elites, or not only in the elites.  Maybe it is in the common man as well.  In a democracy, politicians try to give both the “interests” and the “public” what they want.  As Haass says: “We get the government and the country we deserve.  Getting the one we want is up to us.”  What have we wanted?  Low taxes, high spending, big deficits; one percent of Americans willing to do military service; low voter turnout and difficulty filling jury pools; and Not In My Back Yard coupled with a sense of grievance-as-identity. 

We’ve been here before.  At the start of the New Deal, opinion high and low turned against the culture of the Twenties.  Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke for many when he dismissed the before-time as “a decade of debauch.”[5]  The Thirties were to be a decade of collective, practical action for the common good.  The desires of the individual would come a distant second.  They ended in an un-wanted war that demanded national solidarity.  A year after Pearl Harbor, a line from “Casablanca” (1942) summed-up the change: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” 

Is it going to take some national economic or military disaster to change our minds? 

[1] It says something about our country that a person can get into the elite without being thoughtful. 

[2] Leslie Lenkowski, “We’re All In This Together,” WSJ, 2 March 2023.  He reviewed Richard Haass, The Bill of Obligations: The Habits of Good Citizens (2023).   On Richard Haass, see: Richard N. Haass – Wikipedia 

[3] While Lenkowski cites earlier assessments of this shift, his argument is supported by the work of Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). 

[4] See, for a few examples among many: “The Pelican Brief,” (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1993); “Enemy of the State” (dir. Tony Scott, 1998); “Shooter” (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2007). 

[5] Quoted in William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963), p. 343.