R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, discussed the social disintegration resulting from the contemporary emphasis on rights, and the new insistence, particularly by the general populace, on social solidarity in American society, at a Faith and Law forum on Capitol Hill on January 17.
The idea of social solidarity has “roots in the Biblical vision,” Reno said. He believes that it is remarkable that the Left continues to attack defeated enemies in its ongoing controversies. For instance, “the further away from 1945” we get, the more intense the “anti-fascist polemic.” Similarly, the further we get from “Jim Crow,” the more intense the condemnation of racism and discrimination.
Reno noted that the post-World War II years have seen a focus on “openness” as a virtue. As a result of the struggle with the totalitarian right in World War II, an underlying assumption of the leadership classes was that “over consolidation” was a problem and society should move away from “a hard center that is not open to the peripheries.” This has led to an economic conservatism/social liberalism formula which has deregulation as a common theme. Economic deregulation and cultural deregulation are increasingly fused together.
The result of deregulation is “a crisis of solidarity.” One example is a “declining intergenerational solidarity.” Older generations appear to be living at the expense of younger ones. In particular, there is a “suffocating dominance of the baby boomer generation.”
Another manifestation of diminished solidarity is the demand for open borders and the questioning of the importance of citizenship. In this regard, noncitizen voting has been proposed in Great Britain, and, Reno believes, may become a reality in state elections in California.
Citing the comments of Mitt Romney (that a large part of the country are “loser takers”) in 2012 and Hillary Clinton (that the core of opposition she faced are “deplorables”) in 2016, Reno said it is indicative of a social pathology when “the people who aspire to rule the country denigrate almost half the country.” Patriotism seems lost on the younger generations, resulting in their “refusal to salute the flag.” As part of the post-Cold War neoliberalism, there is increasingly a “globalized oligarchy.” These are all signs that “the regime of openness is failing.”
Reno defined populism as “a loss of confidence between leaders and the led.” People sense that “something is amiss.” We “can’t just keep on keeping on.” There is a “declining middle class.” One is expected to succeed on one’s own in life, not following in a set way of life inherited from generations past. As part of this, the leadership classes have largely “capitulated” to multiculturalism. Because the dominant American culture has been markedly weakened, many people find they “cannot pass a way of life to their children.” Some parts of the population “have seen dramatic decline,” hit by economic and cultural deterioration, and a noticeably higher rate of suicide and lower life expectancy.
The difference in focus between the existing American political leaders and much of the population was illustrated, Reno maintained, at the 2016 Republican Convention. There Ted Cruz repeatedly mentioned freedom, while Donald Trump never did. This indicates that people today seem to want “solidarity, not freedom.”
Reno’s prediction is that in the future Republicans will advance an economic solidarity based on “productive work,” while the Democrats will advance a consumption-oriented solidarity. They will push for “universal basic income.” Billionaires will support the Democrats, because they will be happy to pay a percentage of their wealth to sustain the status quo.
Moving forward, Reno believes that the country needs to “chasten our elite,” because there is a “dysfunctional elite,” which doesn’t “know what ails the country.” Vast wealth being in the hands of a few is a problem. We must “bring oligarchy to heal.”
Among other things to accomplish this, “supersized university endowments” are now taxed; Reno thought that Pell grants to students going to university in their state of residence could be doubled. But “economic reform” should also involve “the high school educated worker.” The idea of “college for everybody” has been a disaster for the country. He said the great majority of federal expenditure for education supports higher education, and is “effectively subsidy for the rich.”
The country also needs to limit immigration to assimilate the enormous influx of immigrants. Here he said that work will help greatly with assimilation. In contrast, what he believes will be the Left’s favored instrument for solidarity, “universal basic income,” will be “a disaster,” because it will foster “isolated enclaves” of people. As an example, he pointed to the Muslim enclaves of Europe, which are reinforced by the fact that one can live in those countries without working. A future conservatism should be “pro-family and pro-nation.”
The country also needs to “re-engage the antidiscrimination regime.” If the Supreme Court says that sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) discrimination is included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it will result in a “winner take all” approach to politics. Indeed, this writer would say that if SOGI is included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by judicial decree, it will effectively set aside politics, enshrining ideology as supreme law from which there can be no change or dissent. Problems caused by differences in the commitments of different parts of society should instead be addressed by the “give and take” politics, Reno maintained. He said that the country needs a return to “the rhetoric of solidarity” in national life.
Reno concluded that the danger for the country is that it is becoming a “homeless society,” i.e., it lacks family and rootedness in a community, not that it will become a “closed society, or an intolerant society.” To restore solidarity, the nation’s political classes need to talk about citizens and what is good for the country. They need to avoid talking about “pre-political” classes, such as consumers, which have narrow interests possibly in conflict with the common good. “Post political” rhetoric (such as “global citizenship,” which is favored by college educators) should also be avoided, as it is beyond what the nation can address, and Reno would presumably say that it is impractical, at least at this time.
In regard to home and family, Reno said that they are being adversely affected by the demands of parents driven by the competitive neoliberal society to achieve, and to have their children achieve, and succeed at competition. He sees restoring national solidarity as the challenge of the next generation.
This writer certainly agrees with Reno that social solidarity has markedly diminished over the last two generations. What existed before to embrace the whole society was a civil religion which was a least common denominator Protestantism, which notably included a morality derived from the Bible. This was sustained in place by the real and lively religious commitment of people in Christian denominations with definite theologies. The loss of faith by many, and especially the nation’s leadership classes, in the “mere Christianity” of mid-twentieth century America is the real reason for the nation’s crisis of identity.
Restoring some sense of identity will not be easy. A constructive and stable social order really requires a morality of self-denial, which was attacked in the 1960s. A morality of productive work, will, as Reno suggests, aid in restoring an ethic of self-denial, but work in itself cannot supply a national spirit.
Also important in cultural collapse was the attack on sexual self-denial which was a large part of the 1960s social revolution. It is now very much entrenched in laws and court decisions. There remains a sense that the disloyalty to family and spouse involved in adultery, and the cheapening of sex in the world of pervasive pornography is bad, which could be some ground for social conservatives to build on. But to truly restore a spiritual unity to the nation, people must believe in a real and good spiritual reality. That will give the nation’s common commitment to love, work, and freedom, a sense of righteousness it does not now have.