American Civilization and Its Discontents

Column: Civil unrest and the birth of a new progressive morality

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June 5, 2020

In 1969, Irving Kristol was appointed Henry R. Luce professor of urban values at New York University's Stern School of Business. He delivered his inaugural lecture the following spring. Its title, "Urban Civilization and Its Discontents," a play off of Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, guaranteed the audience a typically wide-ranging presentation from a New York intellectual in the middle of a journey from anti-Communist liberal to neoconservative godfather.

Kristol's theme was the degradation of the American experiment from the Founding to the social unrest of the 1960s. "If it is proper to say that we experience the crisis of our cities, it is equally proper to say that we are the urban crisis," he began. "And what I want to suggest further is that one of the main reasons we are so problematic to ourselves is the fact that we are creating a democratic, urban civilization while stubbornly refusing to think clearly about the relation of urbanity to democracy."

The images of mass protests, of vandalism, arson, theft, and violence that have fixated the world since the killing of George Floyd in late May sent me back to Kristol's talk. As analogies to 1968 have filled the air, I thought it worthwhile to revisit how the foremost spokesman of the emerging neoconservative point of view interpreted his historical situation. The ethnic, racial, ideological, political, educational, and generational cleavages of Kristol's time seem to have been transposed on our own. And, like the generation of '68, the Millennial and Z generations contest not just the failure of America to live up to its ideals but, increasingly, the ideals themselves. Kristol's ideas help to explain why.

American democracy, Kristol told his audience in April 1970, is based on two pillars. The first is the "new science of politics" described by Publius in The Federalist. It consists of a complex and delicate constitutional architecture of separate and enumerated powers, checks and balances, and other devices of representative government in an extended republic. The second pillar is more elusive. It has been called many things—republican morality, civic virtue, republican virtue—but in essence, the Founders believed that a "spiritual order" was a necessary precondition for their government to work. "What they had constantly in mind," Kristol said, "was the willingness of the good democratic citizen, on critical occasions, to transcend the habitual pursuit of self-interest and devote himself directly and disinterestedly to the common good."

Over time, Kristol argued, the agrarian ethos the Founders believed to be more conducive to republican virtue and to self-government gave way to an urban spirit of flux, experimentation, ambition, self-invention, self-interest, and, ultimately, self-seeking. The government that the Founders had intended to act as an instrument of restraint for the purpose of securing natural rights became a mechanism for the satisfaction of appetitive special interests. The "middle class" took its place as the largest special interest of all.

By the middle of the 20th century, Kristol said, in words that echo in the present, the American people were "behaving in a way that would have alarmed the founding fathers even as it would have astonished them. To put it bluntly, they are more and more behaving like a collection of mobs."

How did this happen? The neoconservative analysis goes like this: Beginning in the 19th century, writers, artists, philosophers, and intellectuals adopted an adversarial stance toward the dominant "bourgeois" ethos of orthodox religiosity, marital fidelity, conventional morality, and traditional manners. With the advent of mass media and the rise of higher education in the 20th century, the adversarial impulse permeated the institutions of culture. It gained more adherents in each rising generation.

What Roger Scruton described as a "culture of repudiation" revised inherited understandings of history, politics, economics, society, art, psychology, and behavior. The philosophy of Darwin, Marx, and Freud deprived individuals of agency. It reduced them to mere products of the environment. The will of "the people," no matter its direction, was considered a good in itself. "What we may call the transcendental-populist religion of democracy," Kristol said, "superseded an original political philosophy of democracy."

The population fought over the dispensation of entitlements. But it shared a state of mind. "It is, to be precise, that state of mind," Kristol went on, "which lacks all those qualities that, in the opinion of the founding fathers, added up to republican morality: steadiness of character, deliberativeness of mind, and a mild predisposition to subordinate one's own special interests to the public interest."

The most important question, Kristol liked to say, was, "Why not?" Why not do drugs, consume porn, abandon your children, break into and steal from a Target store? The institutions that once supplied the answers to such questions—the family, the church, the community—receded in importance and withered in strength against the power of an adversary culture that embedded itself in media and government and the liberation of desires that accompanied conditions of security and affluence.

It became difficult to justify submission of the will to external moral authority. That those authorities were often bigoted or unjust gave rise to the additional demand of justice as a precondition of civil peace and order. But this was a non sequitur. Order is the basis of justice, not the other way around. "To demand 'justice' as a precondition for political or social stability," Kristol wrote in 1979, "is to make a demand on this world which the world has ever refused to concede."

In his NYU lecture, Kristol ascribed the discontents of America's urban civilization to an absence of values that functioned as the equivalent of republican virtue. No one was willing to restrain themselves for the public interest, to sacrifice in the present so others may benefit in the future. "The radicals of the 1960s," he wrote later in the decade, "were what they were because American society and American culture—which means we, the adults, permitted them (sometimes encouraged them) to grow up to be what they were."

It is not, as some think, that we failed to impose our adult beliefs upon our children. That would be an absurd enterprise. What we failed to do is to transmit adult values to them—values affirming the way one holds beliefs, which would have encouraged them to take their own and others' beliefs seriously, and to think coherently about them. And precisely because we adults encouraged our twenty-year-old children to be 'kids,' their rebellion so often resembled a bewildering and self-destructive tantrum.

These words never felt more relevant than in recent days, as I watched prominent figures in media and politics dismiss or justify the destruction of neighborhoods in which ethnic and racial minorities live and pray and work as legitimate expressions of anger and frustration.

And yet I also could not help thinking that there is a difference between Kristol's description of the student rebellion of the '60s and the current social unrest. It has to do with exactly this question of values. Kristol saw an absence of values then. I see them everywhere now.

What has been remarkable about the George Floyd protests is not so much the destruction and violence that accompanied some of them as their overall numbers, scope, and duration. The unjustifiable death of Floyd was a catalyst for demonstrations grounded not in spiritual torpor but in righteous conviction. This is a mass movement amplified by social and digital media and, in all probability, helped along by the joblessness and boredom that have accompanied months of coronavirus lockdowns. And it is a mass movement that most definitely stands for a set of values: what is known as "social justice" in its racial, sexual, economic, and environmental forms. The republican virtue of the Founders it is not. But, in its expansiveness, adaptability, and popularity, the ethos of social justice is as close as America gets to having a public philosophy.

It would be not only wrong but self-defeating to dismiss or pathologize the beliefs that inspire fellow citizens to march in the streets, post to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and vote for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries. The ideas that motivate such activities are not the product of a conspiracy. They do not exist in a vacuum. What they are instead is the leading edge of an earnest and egalitarian new progressive morality that, through the prism of antiracism, understands American democracy to be fundamentally corrupt and based on a lie.

True, the means by which this new progressivism seeks to achieve its ends of "bold structural change" are somewhat hazy and repel most people. But the new progressivism nonetheless commands the devoted allegiance of millions, has a disproportionate influence on the media that shape American culture and thought, and exerts considerable pressure on the Democratic Party. If the '60s were in Kristol's view nihilistic, the past decade has been nothing if not moralistic. But it has been a jumble of fractured and competing moralities, each seeking to impose itself on unwilling and hostile competitors.

After all, the very phrase "virtue signaling" presupposes the existence of a virtue to signal. In the case of the new progressivism, such virtue is identified with antiracism, diversity, affinity, authenticity, and environmental consciousness. What has been missing from the public square—on both left and right—are the practices associated with republican virtue: temperance, prudence, moderation, self-control. For the most part, of course, the new progressives are upstanding citizens whose personal lives are as prosaic as that of any bourgeois. But this part of their lives is just that—personal—and when they go into public the new progressives are more content to preach the gospel of diversity, equality, and #resistance.

Where did the new progressives come from? One clue is that the most vocal and radical members of the new progressivism are under the age of 35. Colin Kaepernick, for example, is 32; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is 30. If you are someone who has come of age during the last two decades, you have witnessed a fantastic disparity between the operations of the public sphere and the conventions of the private sphere. There has been little accountability for government officials who presided over terrorist attacks, unsuccessful wars, financial crises, bailouts of financial institutions, bureaucratic dictates, a flawed response to a global pandemic, Depression-era levels of unemployment, and egregious failures in policing.

The relationship between economic input and output has gone haywire. Young people find it hard to earn and save enough to escape debt, buy a home, and start a family. Voting with the majority does not guarantee majority rule. Racism persists despite Herculean efforts to suppress it. Global warming threatens the fate of the planet, but no one does much about it.

No rationalization that elites provide for the status quo is persuasive to you. And so you begin to look elsewhere for answers. In "'When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness'—Some Reflections on Capitalism and the 'Free Society,'" published in the fall 1970 issue of the Public Interest, the magazine he co-edited with, at that time, Daniel Bell, Kristol admonished classical liberal and libertarian thinkers for neglecting the inherent weaknesses of democratic capitalism. "For a system of liberal, representative government to work," Kristol wrote, "free elections are not enough. The results of the political process and of the exercise of individual freedom—the distribution of power, privilege, and property—must also be seen as in some profound sense expressive of the values that govern the lives of individuals."

In a stable society, people believe their conduct in private bears some relation to their behavior in public. People believe their effort is in some sort of harmony with their reward. People accept that the inequality endemic to a free society corresponds to some idea of distributive justice. "If it does not—if the principles that organize public life seem to have little relation to those that shape private lives—you have 'alienation,' and anomie, and a melting away of established principles of authority," Kristol wrote.

In the absence of institutions that cultivate republican virtue and leaders who model it, Americans, young ones in particular, have turned to the moral certitudes of the new progressivism. It is the failure of American elites to articulate a compelling justification for the state of our economy and society that has brought the nation to this perilous impasse. And until the defenders of the Founding are able to explain, in language persuasive to every American, why both constitutionalism and republican virtue are necessary for freedom and order and justice, they will continue to be on the defensive. If the advocates of a free society wish to shape the future in any way, they had better get started reaffirming and demonstrating the moral basis of American civilization. And soon.