This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
A Way Forward: A Call to Restore the American Project is a significant initiative of the Pepperdine Public Policy School that roots American exceptionalism in our Constitution. The Constitution, the organizers write, provides the basis for “the energetic social and political institutions — from schools and houses of worship to workplaces and political parties — to supply moral order and speak to our deep human needs for virtue and belonging.”
The call of A Way Forward invites a recovery of relational human truths that have been lost in our ongoing emancipations from the real and exaggerated oppressions of the past. As the organizers well recognize, politics is key, but such an effort must involve more. We need to think broadly and engage the human person at the level of imagination, education, and culture. And part of that spirit will involve telling great stories that connect with our best sense of who we are. In what follows, I venture a brief undertaking in that regard.
Walker Percy’s apocalyptic novel “Love in the Ruins” is a crucial work of the imagination that can help us understand American malaise, angst, and internal divisions. Set in 1984, Percy’s novel sees its protagonist Tom More pondering American decline:
Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history…?
Decay, confusion, and violence mark the America described in the novel’s pages, replete with Marxist guerrilla fighters, a political Left and a political Right unable to compromise, imperial scientists, unapologetic racists, and a deteriorating civic and patriotic core of the country. “The chain” it describes is carrying America back toward its old hatreds and uncompromising tribalisms and into economic decline.
What Percy wanted to vindicate in the novel wasn’t exactly America itself; nor was it democracy or liberalism, at least not in the first instance. Rather, American decline, as Percy saw it, was caused by the fact that Americans kept missing themselves, their true nature as embodied and relational beings born to wonder and wander.
Percy’s imaginative anthropological diagnosis hinges on our in-between state as human persons, neither angels nor beasts. He wants us to begin the search again as beings of reason who want to know who we are, but must engage that search within our mortal frame aware of our limitations. We know that we are born to die. We alone among the creatures question what we should do, filled as we are with longings, many of them never fulfilled. We require mediations of various kinds — political, familial, religious, cultural, and economic — to help us make sense of who we are and to flourish in our imperfect state. Percy has Tom More try slowly to recover these dimensions of human nature while rejecting the false ideologies that have ripped him and his fellow citizens wide open.
One must walk the fault lines and probe the evidence to arrive at Percy’s disconcerting judgments. A recent essay by National Review writer Michael Brendan Dougherty offers some sobering assessments that parallel Percy’s. He observes that too many Americans are on their own, lost in the suck of self. Marriage has declined. Those never married almost outnumber the married. Family size has shrunk, leaving us with fewer people we can count on. Friendship itself has declined. Church attendance continues to fall and with that so goes a source of tremendous strength for us weak creatures, one that can bind families, communities, and strangers to one another.
Our law has placed great weight on the individual’s freedom to define things and to do so with increasing disregard for social and familial needs. Might this autonomy of the individual, catered to so solicitously, be a source of our discontent? Might it not also strangely support both the socialist appeals of Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders (VT) or Elizabeth Warren (MA) and the reductive nationalism President Trump sometimes puts forward?
The autonomous individual is deeply connected to the progressive project of turning us individuals into fodder for centralized government superintendence. The individual bereft of the relational contexts of religion, family, and local forms of community finds little authority upon which to resist public opinion and consolidating political power. In such circumstances, the individual might even find the latter a welcome release valve for the difficulties of existence. As the great Robert Nisbet argued, our relational natures go so deep that we are perpetually in search of community. If this quest is denied at the most obvious and immediate levels, then we will look to more distant, dangerous, and collectivist means of association. The modern democratic state, though capable of much good, is also capable of putting us directly in contention with one another in the worst kind of ways.
Americans, we are told with much evidence, are a deeply divided people on any number of fronts. This should be almost unbelievable given America’s success at providing freedom and prosperity for its people at levels unmatched by any other civilization. The sins and shortcomings of our nation remain with us in certain respects, but overcoming them has also been a source of heroic striving.
With regard to racism, a public commitment to remove race as a barrier to individual advancement is reflected in virtually every layer of government. The real challenge we face now is the progressives’ adoption of the racist principle that says race should factor in decisions made about individuals in almost every context.
Immigration, now as in the past, has emerged as a source of intense political debate. But does it even need to be said that America from the opening bell has been what G.K. Chesterton described as a “home for the homeless”? That story too has its own problems, but America’s overall record on immigration is one in which we can and should take pride. Immigration policy appears to be in transition now. It is difficult to see precisely how it will change, but I don’t think America will be turning its back on what it does every year: grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people.
We are flailing now, even amidst the welcome return of real economic growth, not because of any particular issue or set of issues but because we are like the denizens of “Love in the Ruins.” We’re staring angrily at one another, even engaged in a cold civil war, as some have called it, because our categories of thought about who we are and what we should do are confused.
The Democratic Party claims that government is the only thing we all do together, and the dominant culture echoes retired Justice Kennedy’s claim that each individual has the right to define the meaning of, well, everything. But there lurks something else, something in between. The relational person — as opposed to Kennedy’s absolutely free individual— is born of a woman, lives out a finite life in a particular place, is bestowed a particular heritage and culture and politics. It is inescapable that we build on what we’re given by the past.
Our converged elites have attempted to construct a country on the belief that what I have described can be shoved aside and endlessly mocked. The nature of our collective discontent suggests otherwise. Wise citizens who understand that discontent must begin putting things back in their proper place. We must do this together as befits creatures of language, reason, a mortal frame, and love.
Richard M. Reinsch II is the editor of Law and Liberty and the host of LibertyLawTalk. He is also the editor of “Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology” (CUA Press, 2016). You can follow him @Reinsch84.