Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews

Awaiting a New Prophetic Dispensation

Framing the problem of American identity.

Ian Marcus Corbin

Abandoned buildings, Washtunca, Washington; B. O’Kane/Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1975, eight years before the birth of the Internet, the late sociologist Robert Bellah wrote that “only a new, imaginative, religious, moral, and social context for science and technology will make it possible to weather the storms that seem to be closing in on us.” Bellah assumed that any “coherent and viable society” requires a shared set of moral judgments, and a shared picture of the cosmos wherein those judgments make sense, attributes he considered sorely lacking in the America of 1975. He feared that in the absence of such a shared vision, the continued dominance of capitalism, scientism, and utilitarianism would “rapidly lead to the destruction of American society, or possibly in an effort to stave off destruction, to a technical tyranny of the ‘brave new world’ variety.”

Almost a half century later, we have no new civil religion. We are left with a handful of unifying enemies (communism, Islamism) shrinking in the rearview mirror and a growing sense that the American center, whatever it ever was, cannot hold. This is the big context of After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, Samuel Goldman’s smart, serious, admirably compact new book. Goldman’s is largely a demythologizing mission; in a crisp 125 pages, he cruises through various historical attempts to set a synoptic vision of who we Americans are, what we believe and love together, and what we must do. He has chapters on the Covenant model, which captures the self-understanding of early Anglo colonists; the melting pot model; various solidarities of the trenches; and attempts to reinterpret American history in ways that might furnish a sense of communal lineage and mission. In each case, Goldman’s main work is to show how these ostensible Edens of cohesion and belonging were actually far more fraught, fragile, and partial than their respective hymners like to admit.

Goldman, a political science professor at George Washington University, makes his case through extensive use of historical documents. In the example of the Covenant model, he quotes Benjamin Franklin’s pre-revolutionary worries that English-founded Pennsylvania was already being overrun by German immigrants, making it a “colony of Aliens” who would never adopt proper English “Language or Customs.” Some contemporary observers of the Revolutionary War surveyed the American scene and concluded, as did the Welsh economist Josiah Tucker, that “the Americans will have no Center of Union among them, and Common Interest to pursue, when the Power and Government of England are finally removed.” Even at our most homogenous and united, that is to say, we weren’t really that homogenous or united.

Later on, Goldman shows, the societal crucible that was meant to melt a much less homogenous America into one big pot always contained hypocritical exclusions, and not infrequent upswells of targeted anti-immigrant sentiment and policy. Perhaps most damningly, he shows that those periods when the melting pot seemed to be working most effectively were partially characterized by the active, intentional, explicit repression of minority cultures (see, e.g., laws enacted during World War I against the use of the German language). The halcyon days of mid-twentieth-century America were, Goldman explains, “characterized by the most intense assimilative pressure of any in American history.” This is especially troubling because while few of us imagine a return to the relative homogeneity of the Covenant model, we may imagine it still possible to dissolve our sharpest divisions in some stew of Americanness.

Goldman gives us little reason for optimism, taking it as a given that the prospects for a shared “imaginative, religious, moral, and social” settlement are even dimmer now than in many of the eras he surveys. He agrees with Francis Fukuyama that (in Goldman’s words) “we cannot reverse the cultural, social, and political revolutions of the last half century.” Thus, our best hope is to develop a version of patriotism that “revolves around a way of governing” rather than “the endorsement of specific moral doctrines and historical interpretations.” What plurality has pushed asunder, perhaps “constitutionalism, the rule of law, and civic equality” can hold in some tenable coexistence. Perhaps we can tuck our disagreements about fundamental things away into our private lives, and let the public sphere be a place for adjudicating public things. John Rawls and a dominant plurality of liberal political theorists certainly believe and hope we can.

As for those very large things we should be tucking away, I suspect that Goldman agrees that of course we very literally, nonnegotiably need such doctrines and interpretations that now seem inaccessible to us as a whole nation. There is no human form of being in the world that does not rely on some philosophical or religious vision, explicit or implicit. What’s more, no person makes or maintains a vision of the world alone. Whether you view them through a philosophical, social-scientific, or medical lens, it is clear that worldviews are social artifacts that we assemble and cultivate together. Again, I doubt that Goldman would gainsay any of this. Perhaps we could all agree that were a vision matching Bellah’s description to drop from the sky on our good nation and grip the hearts and minds of all Americans, without any need for coercion, this would be both a miracle and a very great blessing. In the meantime, Goldman suggests that we look homeward to our subnational communities—churches, temples, schools, firms, community groups—to help us develop the worldviews and virtues we all so urgently need: “These smaller, more coherent groups, rather than the abstractions of loyalty and solidarity, are the appropriate setting for cultivating particular virtues that we cannot reasonably expect more than three hundred million people spread over much of a continent to share.”

Fair enough. Prominent scientist Robin Dunbar has argued that our kind of hominid brain developed to live in communities of approximately 150 people. Perhaps scale is its own problem, another reason we should give up on the modern dream of limitless surveillance and unanimity, look away from our screens, and go back to our church halls and town centers. This is sensible advice, even if we are a massive cultural revolution away from being likely to follow it. But we have more problems still. The large neutral frame not only reminds us moment by moment that our small frame is just one among many (probably wrong, almost certainly incomplete); it also does not stay outside our small communities. Indeed, the tendencies it affirmatively requires end up shaping our institutions, our communities, and our very selves.

This is because neutrality as a governing principle is, prima facie, unworkable. You can’t run a business, much less a country, without agreed-upon desiderata. So what will be the principle of our action? We clearly have one—we are currently operating the most dynamic economy in history. The engine of this undirected dynamism is competition. But competition for what? If we can’t agree on much that matters, why do we work so frantically, with increasing, sometimes crippling anxiety? You can observe in widespread feelings of precarity, spread across all classes and occupations, the sense that the things we need are scarce, and that others are rushing to get them before we do. Scarcity frames our comings and goings, here in the richest land humankind has ever seen.

This frantic chase fits with the neutral frame because the things we’re racing for—power and status, and their sacrament, money—are not things in and of themselves. They are mere, neutral, infinitely flexible optionality: the ability to do whatever it is we might decide to do, whether that be feed our families, purchase an Audi, endow a children’s cancer ward, or buy a half-billion-dollar yacht. The precarity that defines much of public life is the fear that our optionality, our freedom to act, will be taken from us by one of our compatriots. This is a compelling incentive to get in line, be a team player, and not leave our desks before the boss leaves his.

This is an aspect of neutrality culture that leaks into our ostensibly non-neutral institutions. Most classes in the elite Roman Catholic business school where I often teach business ethics have strict grading curves—only a small minority of students are permitted to earn As, regardless of how many master the material. This practice turns academic success into something it is naturally not—the prize in a zero-sum game. The students complain constantly of the hypercompetitive shark tank they swim in, but not one of them dares stop swimming, even for a moment. At the far end of the tank, they see blurry images of money, status, and options to be used for who knows what. Outside the tank, they see low-wage work and social discredit—something like death.

If we as teachers had something deep and beautiful to invite them to, we would not need to motivate them with the stick of loss and exclusion. We could dangle the carrot—the carrot—of a human life lived well and happily. You don’t need to do so much probing, however, before it becomes clear that the culture of competition and neutrality has not taken hold of the deepest parts of students’ hearts. It can motivate frenetic activity in certain individuals, for certain periods of time, but most will burn out eventually, and many will never be moved at all. Many will see that fighting like an animal for mere blank optionality is a fool’s fight.

Analyzing a new crop of data about American society, the political analyst Yuval Levin recently wrote of “a rising generation acutely averse to risk, and so to every form of dynamism.” Other writers, like op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel, have been arguing for years that we are in a state of deep cultural stagnation. Boys have been dropping out of education and work in truly alarming numbers. The writer and photographer Chris Arnade has written about the “meaning gap” afflicting working-class and other lower-income Americans, who never felt themselves able to climb into the gladiatorial ring of competition, much less win there. Perhaps there are hard limits to what a society can accomplish via competition. Perhaps competition will consume any society that aims to use it as the main engine for growth. Perhaps, to hearken back to Robert Bellah, it will “lead to the destruction of American society, or possibly in an effort to stave off destruction, to a technical tyranny of the ‘brave new world’ variety.”

This way of framing the problem of American identity presents it as a problem of the highest possible import, and almost vertiginous complexity and ubiquity. We truly await a new prophetic dispensation. In the meantime, is it possible to fix a business school without fixing an economy? To fix an economy without fixing a culture? Perhaps we can answer yes to at least some questions of this kind: In brave little pockets, under the guidance of defiant, bold, visionary leaders, perhaps we can change a thing without having to change everything. May the number of such leaders increase, and soon. But what about the big public frame? Is there work to be done there, as we await the prophet? For instance, can we make a morally neutral economy without terrifying precarity? Can we rebuild the middle class? Can the richest country in history guarantee that its citizens will have health care and enough to eat even if they lose in the arena of meritocratic competition? The answer to such questions surely seems to be yes, in fleshly terms. Whether the American spirit is adequately willing: That is another question.