The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

R.R. Reno
George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. New York: Basic Books, 2014, pp. 264. $19.99/£14.99

After World War II, a consensus about truth gave way to a consensus about the importance of consensus. The result was a liberal politics without principle that required an arbitrary (because without principle) and sometimes ruthless suppression of dissent. This consensus approach eventually encouraged a committed and sometimes fierce politics of conviction. Thus the turbulent 1960's and the culture wars of recent decades. That's the thesis of George Marsden's readable and insightful history of American liberalism, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.

Arthur Schlesinger's 1949 book, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, articulated the new consensus liberalism. Capitalism and technology, he argued, lever modern man out of traditional forms of social solidarity. The resulting homelessness makes us vulnerable to collectivist ideologies such as communism and fascism. He proposed a politics of mediation between the new freedoms of modernity and the enduring human need for solidarity. It would be liberal because committed to constitutional freedoms, and at the same time "social" because committed to using state power to manage capitalism and directs its creative power toward the common good. With this combination Schlesinger promises to "restore the balance between individual and community."

What principles were to guide this restoration of balance? None, as it turns out. Schlesinger and others thought America had entered a new phase of politics and culture. In the past men fought over religious convictions and moral principles. Traditional public life was riven by a politics of conviction that, in twentieth century, took rigid ideological forms. Schlesinger and others thought providence had been kind to America, however. We were spared the worse excesses of ideological conflict. Moreover, they believed we were entering a new social and cultural phase, one in which pragmatism and empiricism was coming to the fore, not principles.

The title of Daniel Bell's collection of essays, published in 1960, captured this vision perfectly: The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. By his reckoning, sensible, responsible people of the sort who were running the country had discarded political ideologies, committing themselves to rational, non-ideological adjustments of the status quo. It was an entirely plausible supposition at the time. As Marsden points out, "science" was a hallelujah word in the 1950's, used to sell cars, cigarettes, and social policies. Urban planning and economic management were scientific, and therefore transcended ideology, or so its proponents believed. Although the term had yet to be invented, liberalism of the 1950's envisioned governance by technocrats, which meant reasonable people like themselves who could see the larger picture and rise above petty partisan interests.

Science also provided a purportedly objective definition of human flourishing. Marsden catalogues the many "scientific" experts cited by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique: Eric Fromm, David Riesman, Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney, Rollo May, and others. From them she distilled a supposed truth about human nature, which is our need "to grow." It is "man's will to be all that is in him to be." Or to recall Paul Tillich's exhortation, we must have "the courage to be." 

Again, as was the case in Schlesinger's restoration of balance, there are no clear principles or criteria. Just what we're to grow toward remains vague, leading to the strange combination of urgent moralism and open-ended gestures. This is true not just for Friedan but also for the social critics and psychologists she cites. In a great deal of the influential literature of the 1950's, criticism of conformism and consumerism had hard edges, but the alternatives tended toward platitudes. We're to grow toward greater meaning, toward autonomy and psychological freedom, toward authenticity and integral identity, toward fuller "being."

One would think that politics without principles and a vision of personal growth without limiting criteria would be open and capacious. Of course, consensus liberals complimented themselves for having those qualities (and some actually did). But, on the whole, the culture of consensus liberalism punished dissent. A higher intolerance followed from its transcendence of conviction, which was perhaps inevitable. Pragmatism in politics requires denying principled public arguments and policies. Authenticity in personal life means rejecting the final say of traditional moral norms over our personal decisions about how to "be all I can be." In a word: the end of ideology must be policed. 

Thus, the post-war liberal commitment to consensus gave rise to a new kind of intolerance that in later decades took the form of political correctness. In the old politics and culture of conviction, people used to be wrong and had to be corrected. Now they are deemed ideological, dogmatic, unscientific, inauthentic, and judgmental--all of which is to say unprogressive. These sorts of people should not be permitted to run the country!

To draw out the political correctness latent in 1950's liberalism, Marsden focuses on a telling episode. In 1955 Walter Lippmann published Essays in the Public Philosophy. It was conceived during the dark days just before the outbreak of World War II, when Lippmann feared for the future of the West's "traditions of civility." By his reading of history, these traditions--respect for private property, free speech, and constitutional government--had been advanced and defended by an often tacit, never fully elaborated, but influential and widely endorsed public philosophy based on natural law. It's this public philosophy that Lippmann wanted to restore.

Lippmann was a journalist, not a philosopher, and Essays in the Public Philosophy features more exhortation than analysis. But anyone who has read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue will recognize the gist of Lippmann's argument. The "public interest"--a term much favored by post-war consensus liberals--is a moral concept. We can't know what's best for the common good unless we have a measure, which requires principles of justice and a concept of human flourishing. Pragmatism can only take us so far. We can't sustain a genuinely liberal society with a consensus about the importance of consensus. We need convictions about moral truth.

Consensus liberals attacked Lippmann. The New Republic described the book as that of a "badly frightened man." Archibald MacLeish accused him of tacitly supporting McCarthyism. Although none of the reviewers said so, the root of their objections concerned moral truth. Lippmann thought it essential. They implicitly regarded it as a threat: a threat to governance by consensus, a threat to the calm application of scientific principles to social problems, and, most of all, a threat to human freedom and authenticity. We're to be true to ourselves, not true to truth. 

By Marsden's reading, the 1960's should be understood as both an outgrowth of 1950's themes of autonomy and authenticity and, more widely, a reaction against the combination of unprincipled mushiness and clubby exclusivity that characterized consensus liberalism. The supposed end of ideology brought its opposite: a passionate decade of politics characterized by various and sometimes contradictory convictions. First came a rebellion on the Right that ranged from William F. Buckley to the John Birch Society and culminated in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Then came the SDS, New Left, anti-war movement, Black Panthers, and street demonstrations outside the Democratic convention in 1968.

This dynamic has been ongoing. Marsden interprets the rise of the religious right in the 1970's and 1980's as a reaction against the moral relativism implicit in consensus liberalism. In his 1970 book, Dare to Discipline, James Dobson put forward a view of principled parenting, as it were, and he did so in self-conscious opposition to the open-ended, flexible, pragmatic liberal style. Francis Schaeffer made the political dimension explicit. In A Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, he issued a rallying call for Christians to fight against relativistic secular humanism and to restore America as a Christian nation.

Little has changed. As an undergraduate I remember futile arguments about racial diversity and affirmative action. For the sake of equality we were to give preferences on the basis of race. Ok, I'd ask, how much preference? For how long? How would we know when we had a truly "diverse" student body? No answers were forthcoming, or rather lots of answers, some contradictory. Beneath, behind, and above these discussions was the conviction that, justifiable or not, diversity and affirmative action were necessities. Progressive policies had to move forward one way or another, and we could and should trust the well-meaning liberals in positions of responsibility to make good, fair judgments--even though nobody could define what "fair" meant in these circumstances. Moreover, dissent was severely punished. Just as Lippmann had been accused of McCarthyism, to oppose affirmative action on any grounds in those days was to risk being labeled a racist.

Today, some of the issues are different, but the same consensus liberalism endures as a mushy but ruthlessly enforced consensus. Why same-sex marriage but not polygamy? Why a capacious commitment to free speech that permits pornography and at the same time endorses punitive speech codes that treat the N-word as cause for firing someone? How can we say that women aren't different from men but at the same time need empowerment? Why heap shame on smokers but remain scrupulously non-judgmental about sex? These aren't questions most liberals can answer, but that doesn't alter their infuriating confidence that their sensibilities are meet and right. 

Moreover, as was the case with Lippmann, dissent from consensus liberal opinions continues to be analyzed as a psychological pathology rather than a philosophical disagreement. Opposition to gay marriage is explained as homophobia. Those who question feminist ideologies are in the grips of patriarchal ideology. And, in general, the failure to be a liberal signals a deep seated "fear of change."

Marsden ends The Twilight of the American Enlightenment with reflections on the dead-end to which we have come. Consensus liberalism suffers from a fatal dishonesty. Because it claims to serve the common good and at the same time sustain authenticity with what it regards as exemplary non-judgmentalism, liberalism cannot recognize itself as merely one view among others. It must see itself as transcending the worldviews competing for control over American society (and, increasingly, over world culture). It is this conceit that supports the tyrannies of liberalism, which range from full blown political correctness and the politics of denunciation (accusations of homophobia, bigotry, and sexism) to various forms of social exclusion of the kind so blatantly expressed by Richard Rorty ("that's not the way we talk about things").

This dishonesty is evident to any who observe institutions dominated by liberals.  The leaders of higher education firmly believe that academia doesn't discriminate against conservatives, even though statistical evidence strongly suggests the contrary. For them, the hiring committees are merely trying to avoid hiring the bad and stupid people, which has been the way liberals think of people who aren't liberals since Arthur Schlesinger's time. Or NGO's like Amnesty International or the Human Rights Campaign aren't imposing ideological views of gender, family, and sex; they're defending "human rights."

Yet, the counter-politics of conviction hasn't worked either. Francis Schaeffer's followers haven't succeeded in "taking back" their country. The politics of conviction runs up against the fact that so many people resist conversion. Intensity of conviction punches holes in consensus liberalism: truth matters! But it hasn't been able to govern our growing pluralism, because when insufficiently reflective (I almost wrote "Jesuitical") the politics of conviction tends to the view pluralism itself as illicit. Because truth matters, the proponents of conviction want to make sure it reigns tout court. And so we seem to be stuck. Our political culture is dominated, on the one hand, by a self-deceived secular liberalism that insists it transcends the pluralism it claims to manage, and on the other by a Religious Right often tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, hostile to pluralism.

Marsden proposes an alternative: a confessional or principled pluralism. The idea comes from Abraham Kuyper, the influential nineteenth-century Dutch theologian and politician who brought peace to a culture war in Holland among Protestants, Catholics, and Social Democrats. What Kuyper calls "common grace" (something analogous to natural law) provides the basis for a general but relatively thin national consensus. Meanwhile, the particular confessional commitments of different communities within the nation are given latitude and resources to shape their own churches, educational institutions, social service agencies, media, and so forth. He put this vision of two-tiered public life--a proper demand for conformity with respect to a few things and spheres of influence of confessional authority over the rest-- into effect through something called "pillarization," which meant a limited national government and self-consciously restrained public philosophy that allowed for significant communal control within the discrete social groups.

To some degree "pillarization" might work to mitigate our culture wars. Many European countries and Canada encourage principled pluralism in education, providing state funds to schools run by Jews as Jewish schools, by Catholics as Catholic schools, and so forth. Our constitutional regime in the United States works against such arrangements. Nevertheless, legislation allowing tax credits (deductions from taxes owed) for scholarship donations specifically targeted to religious (and other) private schools has been approved by the courts. If widely implemented it could stimulate the development of a more robust confessional "pillar" in education. 

I'm not sanguine about much beyond educational pluralism, however. As Marsden points out, our national myth is one of individualism, not collective identities, as was the case in nineteenth century Holland when Kuyper put his ideas into practice. This leads to the paradox of modern democratic society: the more individualistic our culture, the more powerful and all-pervasive government becomes. We want a very strong and robust state to guarantee our freedoms, which is why our political system grudgingly tolerates integral communities such as Hasidic Jews and the Amish rather than empowering them as Kuyper's approach would.

Moreover and perhaps more importantly, present-day liberals are very unlikely to convert to principled pluralism. Doing so would require them to admit that theirs is a worldview on a par with those of devout Catholics, ardent Protestants, and observant Jews. That's as galling a proposition for consensus liberals. It's not something Penn President Amy Guttmann is likely to affirm. The consensus of consensus liberalism is the consensus of the powerful, and so it's essential that liberalism should rule. That's why it so loudly announces itself as the arbiter and manager of pluralism without ever allowing itself to be a constituent of pluralism. In the multi-cultural system liberalism is never one of the culture. Thus, unlike Christianity or Judaism (or for that matter Platonism or Epicureanism), consensus liberalism won't and perhaps can't exist as a self-conscious minority, which is what Marsden's idea of principled pluralism requires.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that for consensus liberals the secular state (along with the university) is their church. They bitterly resent the inexplicable refusal of American voters to give them full control over elected office. This frustration reinforces their determined refusal to allow their sacred sanctuaries (university faculty, the public schools, the courts, government bureaucracies) to be defiled. Put in Kuyper's terms, they cannot distinguish between common grace and special grace. As liberal theorists from Locke through Rousseau and Rawls make explicit, liberals see themselves as achieving, for the first time in human history, the natural, universal outlook that everyone would acknowledge if they had but eyes to see. For this reason, liberal commitments always end up asserted as mandatory and universal. Which is why we're not going to get principled pluralism until we get rid of consensus liberalism. Which isn't going to happen any time soon.

R.R. Reno is the editor of First Things magazine. He has also written a commentary on Genesis in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Baker, 2010) and Fighting the Noonday Devil and Other Essays Personal and Theological (Eerdmans, 2011).