Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
America’s culture is a constant source of discussion here on Ricochet. Whether it’s homosexual marriage or marijuana decriminalization/legalization, culture permeates our discussions. I just finished reading Mona Charen’s piece over at NRO, “The Price of Feminism,” this morning and it coincided with me finishing Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart last week.
The reason I mention all three pieces in regard to American culture is that they all point to decline or change in the culture. Levin’s book focuses predominantly on the decline of civil society in America and its replacement by the federal government through the process of what he calls “bifurcated-consolidation.” Murray’s book looks to the physical results of 60 years of cultural change that has seen the founding virtues (Murray’s words, not mine) of marriage, honesty, religion, and industriousness falter in the lower classes and stay strong in the upper classes.
Charen’s piece this morning focuses on the changes to women over the past 60 years as it relates to feminism, although not with the scope and detail of the books by Murray and Levin. Using social survey data, Mona observes that even though women have gained in the workforce their happiness has declined. More women work today than ever before and yet women’s suicide rate continues to climb (at a higher rate than men’s) along with higher rates of anti-depressant use. Even more telling is that social surveys indicate that super-majorities of women do not desire full-time work. If work was what gave women purpose and flourishing, Eudaimonia, then these trends would not be observed.
Charen’s answer to this problem is that for women, work, while important, is not the highest priority for women in gaining Eudaimonia. Marriage and motherhood are the identities that most satiate this need.
This relates very well to Levin’s and Murray’s books I mentioned earlier. Levin most succinctly captures this trend in the Fractured Republic by noting that current cultural inertia in the nation is towards the federal government (and that is is a result of successful progressive moves to “nationalize” Americans in the first half of the 20th century). Americans for the past 100 years have come to identify more and more with the federal government and less and less with their immediate surroundings. Local and regional identities, whether family, church, fraternal organizations, or the market, have dwindled.
No one talks about what their local Methodist Church or Rotary Club can do to stop declining marriage or rising poverty. People, whether news anchors or even some Ricochetti, focus on how local events, like a school shooting or an NFL protest, are endemic of the entire nation and need a national response.
It’s somewhat paradoxical that this is what happens given that, practically speaking, our local identities, like one’s job or being a spouse or parent, is what defines our day-to-day interactions. I doubt many Americans spend more time thinking about how to lower unemployment than they do focusing on their job or their spouse’s and children’s happiness. What we actually do (create), what is tangible and irreplaceable, has the greatest impact on our self-esteem. Complaining about national issues, whether on Twitter or with your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving does nothing towards that.
This strengthening of the national identity at the expense of more local and regional identities not only changes our lenses of issues but also our priorities. National priorities take precedence over local ones, which means that a President’s Press Secretary gets kicked out of a restaurant for not doing anything (putting the national cultural issues over the local issues of reputation and income). It also creates polarization because “everything is a national crisis” and thus a question of national identity (which almost always presents only two sides).
Levin’s solution to this trend, unfortunately, is that local and regional institutions (identities) need to see a self-started revival. Murray’s active solution is more nationalist and requires elites preaching the founding virtues to the lower classes. Social conservatives need to change their paradigm from that of a defensive majority, which does not exist, to an offensive minority. Only by building and sustaining successful subcultures (of social conservatives) will civil society see a real return and a reduction in the federal government’s role in society. Such will not only rebuild American culture, in a more diverse and rich way, but will also lower the tension of polarization as local and regional identities regain their lost strength.
These two routes both implicitly assume a change in the federal government’s direction, though. Since the success of the Progressives in the early 20th century, the federal government has grown in its size and mission in interfering with society, whether its perverse incentives towards cohabitation and not marriage or unemployment benefits eliminating the impetus to work. Reducing and eliminating said programs would go a long way to allowing for natural rehabilitation of our society, akin to the drug addict being weaned off of their drug of choice.
But what do the Ricochetti believe? Is Charen right that the identity of motherhood and being a wife is more important than being a worker? Is Levin right that social conservatives need to rebuild new subcultures until, over time, they can regain majority support? Or should the elites preach away the value of virtues to the lower classes as Murray claims they should? Is it even possible to see a reclamation of civil society in the lower classes of America?