It’s commonplace for popular accounts of recent American history to treat the last six decades as being characterized by the devolution of a bland postwar conformist society into chaos in the 60s, followed by alternating swings of liberal or conservative “pendulums” leading up to the most recent period of cultural and political gridlock. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Baumann (editor of Commenweal) reviews a major work by historian George Marsden that treats this devolution as the inevitable product of a country that had long avoided conflict via the informal dominance of a Protestant culture that ensured consensus without the coercive power of state institutions. Once that culture lost its grip, says Marsden (and Baumann), the atomizing tendencies of economic and cultural individualism have made a system dependent on informal consensus increasingly less workable.
So, the book and its reviewer argue, Americans have no genuine tradition of “pluralism,” in the sense of endowing sub-communities of Americans the authority they need to self-regulate in the absence of any national belief-system.
Now it is clear that Marsden views radical individualism, in economics and in culture, as inherently corrosive of “the habits of communal solidarity and self-denial needed to loosen the straitjacket of what Christopher Lasch long ago called America’s culture of narcissism.” But the review is unclear as to how a constitutional and legal system based on a rejection of any formal power for “intermediating institutions” can be made to bend to Marsden’s communitarian instincts (surely there is no easy path to the establishment of the Dutch model Marsden so admires).
I’ve written in a more limited context about the past experience in this country of formal collective accommodations made by secular authorities with religious communities objecting to consensus institutions (like public education, military service, or even voting). But that’s not the same thing as a system based on encouraging pluralism as an end in itself. Count me as skeptical that Americans will ever embrace a form of pluralism that is not an extension of the ideology of individual choice. That may mean accepting the kind of chaos and conflict we have experienced when we (or more accurately, those with the power to set rules) stopped informally agreeing on everything that mattered—often at the expense of both liberty and justice.
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