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Two law professors, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, recently stirred up some excitement when they published an op-ed arguing that America should return to bourgeois values. The position they presented was thoroughly conventional on the right, having been reiterated over the decades by Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Murray, R.R. Reno, and many more. Naturally then, the liberal legal establishment went nuts, denouncing Wax and Alexander as racist xenophobes. A movement was started to take away Wax’s 1L course (because it’s really not fair to force entry-level law students to take classes from a racist xenophobe). It was exactly the sort of silliness we’ve come to expect from liberal academia.
Very little of substance was said by either side in the ensuing debate, with the left mostly repeating, “This is all very offensive,” and the right mostly repeating, “You are emotional and intolerant.” I don’t think the op-ed was offensive, and I agree that the left is emotional and intolerant. Nonetheless, I’m beginning to think that this particular piece of conventional (conservative) wisdom may have passed its sell-by date. It was good advice for someone, somewhere, but it may not apply to our particular time and place, for reasons that this incident itself helps to illustrate.
Whether it’s “protect the guardrails” or “preach what you practice” or “restore bourgeois values,” there is an underlying premise to this argument that may just be incorrect. We are presuming that most Americans (but particularly the prosperous and influential liberals whose behavior we most hope to influence) still share a substantive moral outlook of a sort that could ground healthy cultural mores. Here is what Wax and Alexander’s description of the sort of “guardrails” they would like to see rebuilt:
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
That all sounds very nice, but what sort of moral outlook grounded those norms in the period they remember so fondly? First and most important, there was widespread deference to a broadly Judeo-Christian and traditional morality. That supplied the basis for all kinds of derivative social and moral precepts, spelling out the obligations one had as a spouse and a worker and a citizen. Second, the hardships of the earlier 20th century (the Great Depression and the World Wars) instilled a sobriety and discipline in American culture, which helped bolster all those good, Franklin-esque bourgeois values. Prudent advice about working hard and saving money is much easier to sell when a society has fresh, painful memories of experienced hardship. Third, there was still a pretty strong sense of ethno-cultural solidarity among Americans … but especially white Americans.
The importance of this third item (historically) is hard to evaluate. Both the alt-right and the left are inclined to think it very important, while I am sure Alexander and Wax would dismiss it as trivial and very much dispensable. I used to agree with them, but of late I am more uncertain. That is, I very definitely do not wish to help forge an ethno-national sub-culture (and neither do Alexander and Wax!), but I worry that it may have been a more important factor than I previously believed in the rosily-remembered mid-century, and that there may actually be a non-trivial connection between collapse of a common bourgeois culture and the decline in racism. In any event, it would be interesting to see more liberals argue that case intelligently, instead of flinging accusations.
However we rank these three “sources of solidarity,” it’s clear that they’ve all declined dramatically since the mid-20th century. Liberals are offended (perhaps rightly) by the ethno-nationalism, but they’re scarcely less offended by traditional morals, and the foundation of shared hardship is simply a thing of the past. It’s fine to rhapsodize about a common culture with shared bourgeois values, but what if we just don’t have the necessary components anymore? We can’t expect liberals to preach things that they just don’t believe.
A defender of the bourgeois-values camp might object: Are we really sure that affluent liberals don’t have the appropriate beliefs? After all, their on-the-ground lifestyles look pretty bourgeois. What Robert Putnam calls “neo-traditional” marriage (contracted among affluent professionals who establish themselves professionally before marrying, then devote enormous energies to their offspring), is nearly as stable as the “Ozzie and Harriet” model of the 1950s. Affluent liberals love safety, security, and decency in their “safe space” neighborhoods and campuses and workplaces. Why can’t they preach the relevant values to the masses? In the eyes of someone like Charles Murray, affluent liberals just look like hypocrites, nominally holding to a more libertine and subversive moral outlook even as they hoard the goods of bourgeois living for themselves.
I think this view fundamentally misunderstands the ethos of America’s prosperous classes. It’s not really right to call their lifestyles “neo-traditional.” It would be nearer the mark to describe them as “neo-Epicurean.” They don’t really believe in virtue per se; instead they find meaning in a widely distributed range of experiences. Highly-valued commodities include education, fulfilling careers, diverse cultural experiences, intimate relationships, and sex. These are not the highest priorities for tradition-minded Christians or Jews. Our upper classes have left that behind, and are now centering themselves around a kind of neo-pagan good-life philosophy.
Epicureanism has its attractive points, but it’s not great at ennobling the common man. In any given society, there will be relatively few people who have the wherewithal to live the good life, and to those who don’t or can’t, the neo-Epicurean doesn’t have much to say. It’s inherently an elitist perspective. Since the American ethos contains significant anti-elitist currents, that creates certain problems. Liberals also retain some neo-Marxist commitments that mix rather badly with their breezy affluence. That partly explains why they’re in such a tangle of moral angst, sweating bullets (and throwing temper-tantrums) over every variety of “privilege” and howling over every “microaggression.” They can’t really reconcile their personal philosophy with their broader social commitments.
Nevertheless, the neo-Epicurean ideal isn’t going away. It’s too important for giving meaning to the lives of upper-middle-class Americans. In light of that, urging liberals to “preach what they practice” just isn’t going to help anything. They are preaching what they practice, when they tell everyone to stay in school, do what they love, and explore their sexual identity. That advice just doesn’t work out nearly so well for people with fewer material and social resources. It certainly isn’t a promising foundation for a new bourgeois culture.
Affluent liberals have plenty to answer for, and working through the tensions in their current commitments will be a daunting task. Still, the charge of cultural hypocrisy may actually be ill-founded. They aren’t closet traditionalists who refuse to let the less-fortunate in on the secret. They’re silver-spooned bohemians who honestly don’t have any answers to the question of why non-elite life is still worth living.
I’m not sure how we’re going to navigate this deep cultural divide, but it might help to start with a better diagnosis. We may also need to accept that a common bourgeois culture probably isn’t in the cards for American society, at least not in the near future. Conservatives may still be hanging onto the bricks, but the mortar is just gone.