How does a great nation, having just three decades ago triumphed over communism in the seminal struggle of the Cold War, fall to its current state? How did we become a society so deeply fractured along group identities and mutual mistrust that we can no longer assume the reciprocity of obligation to each other—the very glue that makes representative democracy possible? How did our elected leaders, corporate business elite and policy and media community allow America to become deindustrialized to the degree that the middle class—once a mainstay of the country—is now a minority class, while we continue to rely on an adversary communist state to provide us with medicines and critical supplies? How did we get to the point where our media is hesitant, and at times proudly unwilling, to draw sharp lines between legitimate protests over police brutality and mobs of masked thugs robbing stores, burning cars, and defacing our most cherished national monuments with impunity?
What is unfolding before our eyes is a profound crisis of America’s leadership class, the result of elites becoming unmoored from the fundamentals of this nation’s founding and its traditional commitment to building a decent society. For too many in a position of authority, leadership is not understood to entail the ultimate responsibility for those entrusted to one’s care, but rather as a perpetual entitlement to rule over what is left of our once self-constituting communities. The prevailing elite method of governance today rests on stoking group grievance and then appeasing the mob when group identity politics break yet another national bond that it took generations of Americans to build. The goal is increasingly to claim credit for “progress” that is inevitably merely a waystation to the next crisis after which, at some unspecified point in the future, we will build a “truly just society.” The past three decades have seen our elites beat a relentless drumbeat of this narrative, and it seems poised to reach yet another, higher, pitch.
The American nation is approaching a terminal point down the glide path to its own deconstruction. Unless we grasp what is happening, our self-regulating mechanism of representative democracy, whereby we are ruled by laws of man and dedicated to the law of God, threatens to give way to demands for a direct democracy fueled by the untamable passions of identity politics. Today, our political discourse is light-years away from the founding American ideal of political equality implicitly granted to each and every one of us by the Constitution and by the privilege of American citizenship. This quintessentially American bargain has endured for generations because it stipulated that from such a foundational equality there would emerge characters of quality tempered by lives well-lived. One’s standing in the community, and the nation more broadly, would be earned by hard work, adherence to the rules, and most importantly, by an unyielding commitment to the ideal of liberty and the rule of law.
A number of the young people setting fire to America’s streets today appear to be graduates of our colleges and universities. They are the product of an educational system that no longer teaches the fundamentals of the American national tradition and instead produces packs of credentialled men and women all but bereft of the core moral boundaries that can only come from a deeply felt sense of mutuality of obligation to the other. Several generations now have been processed and molded by school and college curricula that inculcate an indifference bordering on contempt for the republican tradition of this country. With each successive cohort, our college students are ever-more entitled and ever-less capable of reasoning and framing arguments in which coherently mustered evidence proves a point. Instead, emotional outbursts laced with expletives clear the field. No institution in America bears greater responsibility for the deterioration of the American leadership class than our schools, colleges, and universities, and until those among us who still believe in the inherent value of the patriotic ethos that American nationalism has engendered for centuries can find an alternative way to educate our young, no amount of legal tinkering, lecturing on television screens, and political planning will reverse our Republic’s decline.
Three months ago, even the most pessimistic among us could not have envisioned a more perfect storm than the one that has hit the United States. The Wuhan virus pandemic was followed by the decision to “shelter in place,” which amounted to a massive suppression of the nation’s economic activity that has already driven unemployment to depression-like levels. Still fewer could have foreseen that this would be followed almost immediately by the eruption of nation-wide unrest, after protests triggered by a loathsome act of police brutality in Minneapolis metastasized overnight into mob violence. In both cases, the quality of our national and local responses to an emergency has been sorely lacking.
Although the responsibility of the communist Chinese government for enabling the eruption of the coronavirus is today beyond dispute, we have not been able to come together as a nation to demand accountability for the death and devastation wrought across the globe. To this day, months into the pandemic, we continue to allow Chinese money and influence all but free access to our political, educational, and cultural agora, with efforts to subject them to limits consistently met with howls of media condemnation. Likewise, calls for decoupling our economy from China’s and for a root-and-branch rethinking of globalization, which has gutted our manufacturing and facilitated the massive transfer of our scientific know-how to the Chinese, are either dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic,” or even branded racist. Meanwhile, many in our business community lobby to keep our critical supply chains planted in China, in effect insisting in all but name that maximum efficiency of business operations and short-term profit margins rather than national security concerns should remain the principal drivers of our national policy.
In the case of the “sheltering in place” imperative as the preferred response to the pandemic, the advice of public health professionals has unequivocally trampled all other considerations in the public debate, with incessant admonitions that we are merely “following science” used as a cudgel to beat down dissenting voices. Rather than weighing economic, military security, and other trade-offs before we plunged headlong into the current policy, the decision-making process on how to deal with the pandemic was stripped of any semblance of reasoned debate. This inevitably yielded to panic-mongering instead, with the false dichotomy of “human life vs. economic activity” repeated ad nauseam in virtually every mainstream media outlet as though the complexity of modern society and the nature of the human condition could be reduced to such a facile binary.
As for the civil unrest facing our nation, our elites have thus far not acquitted themselves admirably either. Since the 1960s cultural revolution, we have witnessed the disappearance of a culture of service that historically has been the sine qua non of any viable democratic system. This process has been enabled by an unrelenting attack on the very idea of American exceptionalism, with our schools and colleges raising generation after generation of young men and women not only bereft of the most foundational knowledge of the nation’s history, but also, and perhaps as a consequence, unable to come together as a people and weather the crisis at hand. The unrelenting mistaking of equality as the fundamental condition of American democracy for the kind of quality that the republican form of government was uniquely adept at generating has been buried under mountains of grievance politics. We are nowhere near the end of this episode as I write, but America’s failure thus far to come together in this latest crisis bodes ill for the future.
These crises have put up a mirror to our face as a nation, and if we do not see how ugly the picture has become, we will fail to draw lessons and course-correct in time. The question now facing us all is whether the United States will be able to bounce back from the current cascading crises, or if the slingshot has been pulled so far that it will simply break, snapping the ties that once bound Americans as a people.