The problem of contemporary American political culture

In his third lecture in The Real American Dream: Meditations on Hope, Andrew Delbanco writes that as the Christian narrative had been eclispsed by a national narrative in American culture, so a narrative of self had become dominant since the 1960s:

Something died, or at least fell dormant, between the later 1960s, when the reform impulse subsided into solipsism, and the 1980s–two phases of our history that may seem far apart in political tone and personal style, but that finally cooperated and installing instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life, and in repudiating the interventionist state as a source of hope. What was lost in the unholy alliance between and insouciant New Left and an insufferably smug New Right was any conception of a common destiny worth tears, sacrifice, and maybe even death. Patriotism, some say, persists in the “heartland” (whatever that mythic region may now be), but among people of “advanced” views it has lost respectability as surely as did traditional religion in Emerson’s day. Once one gets past the gestural difference between flag waving and nose thumbing, it is hard to find, on the right or the left, anything resembling genuine engagement with the life of the polity.

Such engagement is rare because it requires a collective vision of a better future, which is become even rarer. What passes today for such a vision from intellectuals on the right is the specter of a Clockwork Orange megalopolis interrupted here and there by gated communities of the rich, while from the left–chastened by the collapse of Marxism abroad and the retrenchment of the welfare state at home–we get mainly silence, or a lot of theoretical talk about hegemony of bourgeois culture. In science fiction, where one would expect the futuristic imagination to be on full display, the community-minded robots of Isaac Asimov have been replaced by the cyberpunks of William Gibson. Even the Disney “imagineers” cannot seem to figure out what to do with that part of the park called Tomorrowland; built in the 1950s as a model technological utopia, it has become a hokey replica of a stage set for the Jetsons, and no one seems able to conceive a new edition. (96-98)

Yes, there are many generalizations here, but I think that this description offers a lot as a description. Delbanco’s liberal nationalism is not the narrative I subscribe to, but it seems clear that the cultural fracturing of the last 50 years leaves little common foundation to build on. That’s why I think that one of the critical books of the moment is Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, which proposes that we recognize these fractures and pursue solutions at subnational levels.



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