September 06, 2005

Nihilistic Mediocrity For Us

Smack on the cover of the New Republic this week, Lawrence Kaplan worries that the United States still isn't moving toward "national greatness," despite 9/11 and all that. Our country, it seems, still has no grand purpose. Americans aren't mobilizing towards some larger national goal, and instead are mired about in the same libertine selfishness as ever. But what would Kaplan have us do? Well:
For young Americans, meeting this condition could have meant at least entertaining the option of military service, a stint in law enforcement, or any number of philanthropic vocations. For others, it could have been expressed through activities as basic as volunteerism, attendance at public meetings, or membership in local organizations.
For some of this, he blames George W. Bush, who declined to ask Americans to sacrifice anything after 9/11, although this seems somewhat beside Kaplan's main point. True, in the name of the "war on terror" or some other noble calling, the Bush administration might have asked Americans, say, to pay more in taxes in order to finance his expensive Middle East adventures, although instead we got the deficit, which is essentially the same thing (the only difference is that the inevitable tax burden will fall more on the middle and lower-classes). Anyway, that's not greatness per se, that's just more tax revenue. Alternatively, Bush could have asked young Americans to consider a military career, although I doubt this would have had much of an effect—as Kaplan himself notes, the number of entry-level Army recruits shrank in the year after 9/11. So you can (maybe) sound rousing themes about "national greatness" as a policy tool, but I suspect that's not what Kaplan had in mind.

The question, then, is what "national greatness" is actually for. Kaplan, like Tocqueville, is afraid we'll fall into "nihilistic mediocrity" without some larger purpose in tow, which means we better start joining more voluntary associations for the good of our moral fiber. Falling, I see, into the trap of forgetting that Democracy in America was, however brilliant, essentially a polemic against state centralization in France. But seriously, if we're just devoting ourselves to some larger simply in orderto satisfy some romantic conception of America held by people like, um, David Brooks, then who cares?

Alternatively, we could think of this in practical political terms. The much-documented decline of traditional civic organizations in America has presumably hurt the Democratic Party. Whereas conservatives have churches to do their grassroots mobilization, liberals have only their ever-shrinking unions, along with all those young urban professionals who, one would assume, don't really join community-type things and hence have a hard time getting politically mobilized. Politically, that's bad, and one hopes the internet will someday foster some sort of mass liberal community to bring about a resurgence of Democratic politics. But in itself, so what if civic organizations are flagging? Insofar as you want more people, say, doing community service, as Kaplan seems to, there are all sorts of policy options to get them to do so, especially at the college level. Insofar as you want more domestic support for wars abroad, as Kaplan seems to, don't fight incompetent wars based on lies and deception. We could play this game all night. Whatever good things Kaplan hopes to reap from "national greatness" can be accomplished fairly easily.

But whatever. On the topic of civic engagement, meanwhile, one might look to structural factors to explain its decline among Americans, rather than some loss of purpose or outburst of selfishness or other moral failing. Many voluntary associations nowadays operate as staff-led mailing-list associations, headquartered in Washington D.C., without much in the way of local or state affiliates. In part that's simply because organizations find this method a more efficient way of conducting business. The process of government has become more intricate, lobbying more important, and groups can get more done by agitating in D.C. than by building grassroots networks. Politicians, meanwhile, depend increasingly on media consultants and pollsters and large donors rather than the Rotary Club or whatever other local organizations used to play a large part in political life. (Exceptions abound, of course: the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the NRA are all very active at the grassroots level. On the left, you have the Sierra Club and teacher's associations. But those are exceptions.)

Or take the demographic approach: One might imagine the fact that educated women now have actual career options has shrunk the ranks of civic organizations. In the old days, scores of (white) women would go off to school, get married, stay at home, raise kids, and then join voluntary associations of various sorts. Nowadays, people have careers to keep them busy and just send off checks to the AARP or whatever to stay involved. Or perhaps the expansion of government has throttled the need for voluntary associations. I'm just guessing now. Nevertheless, these structural factors are the sorts of things people should be looking at, I think, rather than sitting around lamenting the fact that Americans just don't have that soaring spirit of "national greatness" within them anymore.
-- Brad Plumer 3:41 AM || ||