People have been speaking of the decline of the West for centuries (it’s actually the centenary of Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes), but by the time David Brooks has noticed, you know something has become obvious to the meanest capacity.
…[Will Durant’s histories] encapsulated the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
Mercifully, Brooks doesn’t begin his article with one of his typically grating tropes (… “as moral researchers are discovering…”–though “cultural transmission belt” is pretty bad–is he going to talk about “the carburetor of our social fabric” next? the “all wheel drive of our genius for associations”? the “sparkplugs of our pantheism”?) But that’s only a testament to the obviousness of what he’s saying: that the crisis of the West is no longer something for academics to argue about; it’s a name for what we’re living.
That’s a recent change. Not that long ago Americans typically reacted with puzzlement to European talk of the “crisis of the West.” What crisis? Even recently, it wasn’t easy to get students to take seriously European talk about a spiritual and existential crisis of the West. It was a foreign language.
Today, everyone gets it. What began in the academy as abstruse Marxist critique of capitalism has contributed to bringing about the spiritual and intellectual malaise it once purported to describe.
That malaise centers around the goodness of the American project, meaning limited, constitutional government that understands its primary task to be the securing of inalienable natural and God-given rights, among them life, liberty, and property, as well as freedom of speech, religion, and association.
Progressives have never liked that understanding and today treat it as though it’s a kind of code for racism, sexism, and income inequality.
No surprises there. What is surprising is the rapid and near total implosion of constitutional conservatism as a viable political view. That is due in part to all those Supreme Court decisions which have ensured that we live in a country that looks nothing like what the Founders envisioned.
But that’s only a part of the picture. As the recent election made clear, the more fundamental shift is that we no longer understand ourselves to be a people united by shared beliefs. Like it or not, the new reality is tribalism.
It is, thus, no accident that Pat Buchanan‘s understanding of conservatism has taken on new life:
“The question is, what is it that holds us together? The neocons say we’re an ideological people bound together by what Lincoln said at Gettysburg and what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and that’s what makes us one nation. But my tradition of conservatism says it’s not; it’s the idea of culture and faith and belief and history and heroes and holidays.”
He takes a long pause. “Can you have a nation that consists of all the people in the world—and be one people?”
I am surprised to learn that I am a neocon–since as far as I’m aware there’s no meaningful sense in which my views overlap with theirs. Is it only they, I wonder, who think the Declaration and Lincoln’s interpretation of if were formative of a people?
Still, it’s hard to deny the visceral power of Buchanan’s understanding of nationhood: culture, faith, belief, history, heroes and holidays are powerful community-constituting forces. But they are rooted in the particularity of a people–and as Buchanan himself acknowledges, America is no longer, if it ever was, a people in that sense. Indeed, if Buchanan is right about what necessarily constitutes the identity of a community, then it seems that Americans no longer have even the possibility of a common good.
Once upon a time, that common ground was forged by the declaration and constitution which laid out a universal understanding of government’s role as being to secure the inalienable rights of its people–an understanding which applied to human beings qua human, not Frenchmen, Germans, or Englishmen by blood. Now, both left and right seem to have abandoned such an understanding in favor of identity politics. In attacking white privilege and systemic racism, progressives broke the unspoken truce and summoned into being the very race consciousness they deplore and live by.
What then? Is it time for those who once understood our conservatism to be grounded in the constitution to simply pack it in? to just admit that constitutionalism is at this point a kind of backward-looking political romanticism, as silly in the contemporary context as belief in the divine right of kings?
I’m not pessimistic; I just think we’ll know more after the war.