Win McCormack

                                Reflections On Fifty-Five Years of National Disintegration

                                                             Win McCormack


     In the spring of 1967, the final semester of our years at Harvard College, I took the Government Department’s upper-level course in political philosophy, which was being taught at the time by Michael Walzer. This being the end of our academic career at the college, I was not paying as much attention to my course work as I might have done previously, but one thing did stand out to me--glaringly--on Walzer’s syllabus: The course ended with the writings of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. I thought to myself: Really? Did Western political philosophy really end in the last decades of the 19th Century? That’s it?

     A quarter of a century passed after that, and then one day I woke up to a New York Times article about how a minor State Department functionary named Francis Fukuyama had written an article called “The End of History,” arguing that the triumph of Western liberal democracy over Soviet communism represented signified the final stage of human political and economic development. The article hadn’t even been published yet, and thought leaders were already arguing about it, pro and con, mostly con, though none of them could figure out a way to refute it.

     Perusing the various inconclusive attempts to do so, I thought to myself: This article isn’t really so radical. Fukuyama, I felt, was saying that the same thing that Michael Walzer was implying in his syllabus back in 1967, while updating it, while updating it to fit new cirumstancs: Mill vs. Marx was the last stage of politico-philosophical development, and now that the ideas of the classical liberal Mill had bested those of the radical socialist Marx, history—in the Hegelian sense of history as a succession of ideas interpreting the human condition—was over. And furthermore, since no one (Marx to the contrary) can actually foresee the future, most everyone (in America anyway) already thinks that liberal capitalism is a permanent condition.

      However, I was uneasy with the idea that there was nothing beyond liberalism (though I considered myself a card-carrying liberal) and I began seeking alternatives. I holed up in the New York Public Library for several days, ordering up books with the word “Liberalism” in it, until finally Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s anthology Liberalism and its Critics appeared.  The book contained a mix of articles defending and or critiquing liberalism, but those who critiqued it, such as Charles Taylor and Alastair Macintyre, had a strong case. The theory that the critics were promulgating, which Sandel himself endorsed and had been advocating for ever since, was republican theory, or as many call it, to ensure that people don’t confuse it with the American Republican Party, civic republicanism.

     What does republican theory call for, as opposed to liberalism? Liberalism concerns itself primarily (if not exclusively) with individual rights and liberty, while civic republicanism focuses on the interests of the community as a whole (a vantage point inherited by Ancient Greece and Rome). Advocates of republicanism think that, if left purely to its own devices, pure and unadulterated liberalism will eventually face serious problems. Jonathan Winthrop, addressing the flock of puritans he had brought to found what he called a “a city on hill,” expressed this idea thusly: “A private estate cannot survive in the ruin of the public.”

     So what exactly has happened to our country since we graduated in June 1967? What has occurred is a serious breakdown of community in America, at every almost level. When an eighteen-year-old walks into a grade-school with a semi-automatic weapon and shoots nineteen young children, and two adults staff members dead, that is as anti-communitarian an act as anyone could possibly perform. And when the right for an eighteen year-old (or anyone who had not been carefully scrutinized) to buy that particular type of gun is defended on the grounds of individual liberty, you can be sure that one of the philosophical foundations of the American nation, for a large section of the population, has rotted. The people who object to wearing masks and getting vaccinated for the protection not only of the community, but even of themselves, are implicated in this folly, this perverse vision of individual liberty and the Second Amendment.

     As an aside, the Second Amendment had its origin more (far more) in republican theory  than in libertarian theory. The purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that local militia had the armaments they needed to ward off an attacks on the community, not to protect themselves purely as individuals, as the American right-wing would have it. The real author of the Second Amendment was Machiavelli, who argued that the citizens of his native city of Florence should be the ones to defend it, and not hired mercenary troops. (And the Founders, except for Alexander Hamilton, did not want the nation to have a standing army).

     Sandel, in his first major work addressing the American political dilemma, showed how vital the republican tradition had been from colonial times through the Progressive Era (which may have been the highwater point of American republicanism) and into the New Deal, where in his view it was eventually snuffed out by the advent of Keynesian economics (which looked to the management of the economy as a whole and not its individual components or their interaction). But Sandel’s former colleague in the Government Department, Robert Putnam, now associated with the Kennedy School, has given more detailed and voluminous accounts of the disintegration of American society that has been in progress, in his view, since the mid-1960’s.

      Some classmates may remember that Professor Putnam spoke to us at our 35th Reunion, when his book Bowling Alone was a bestseller. In that book, he chronicled and described the disintegration of American community institutions of various kinds, from fraternal service organizations such as the Elks to church congregations, to (as title of the book implies) bowling leagues. A very few of you may remember that he spent considerable time explaining that, while he was convinced that American were having many fewer picnics together than they formerly did, he couldn’t find a way to prove it, but then finally did (I have recollection of what it was!). He looked at picnics as a kind of community ritual.

     In any case, Putnam saw the crisis that we are now in approaching, though I don’t think he divined how dire it would turn out to be--perhaps even terminal, as far as the continued existence of the United States as a democracy might be. To extend and deepen his original trajectory of thought, he has written one last book (recently retired), The Upswing: How Americans Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, which lauds the communitarian accomplishments of the Progressive Era and summon younger generations to recreate in a new form. Those who want to appraise the full scope of his vision, but don’t want to deal with the book in toto, can read the cover story review I did of it in the October 2020 issue of The New Republic (dated online September 17 2010 because that’s when the October issue was posted in that venue) entitled “From I to We: Robert Putnam’s and Shaylyn Garret’s Vision For A New Community.”  

     And here’s where, I am sad to say, my fellow classmates, I bring disconcerting news: Professor Putnam thinks that it was our fault that America has fallen apart since we were in college. Our fault, in the sense of out generation as whole. He believes the starting point was 1965, right smack in the middle of the Class of 1967’s residence at the college. How did he pick the year 1965? That choice was in part based on the changes he saw in American popular music that began that year, especially in the lyrics of the two most influential sources of that music, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. With the Beatles, it was the transition from lyrics like All You Need Is Love to Eleanor Rigby. With Dylan, it was the leap from idealistic protest songs of the early Sixties to interior and self-concerned monologues, of which Lay Lady Lay might be one example. These transitions were harbingers, in his view, of the drastic social changes that the economically distressed 1970’s brought about, when the 60’s generation of which we were a part abandoned its youthful idealism (the kind of communitarian idealism articulated in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address) for a crass and self-involved materialism that set the stage for the advent of Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism. In Upswing, one commentator is quoted as saying that the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and World Warr II and into the suburbs decided to “pull up the drawbridge behind them.

     What exactly is neoliberalism? There is a myriad of analyses of its doctrines (Michael Sandel has an updated version of Democracy’s Discontent coming out this fall that traces its influence on America from the 1990’s, when that book was first published, to the present, with an emphasis on the adoption of the basics of the neoliberalism’s viewpoint by regular liberal leaders of the Democratic Party, most especially Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Neoliberalism, in my interpretation of it, is a theory of political economy which maintains that people’s basic relations in life are not principally to each other but to the market economy. Milton Freedman was its proselytizer in the United States. In neoliberal theory, there is no such thing as a holistic social order, let alone an organic community composed of individuals freely sharing a common life with each other. There are only, fundamentally, commercial relationships, which don’t often involve a great degree of fellow-feeling. Aristotle said that the basic model for relations between citizens of a Polis should be that of friendship. Margaret Thatcher, quintessential neoliberal, is famed for having supposedly said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only separate individuals.” It is a Margaret Thatcher situation we are in now, and not an Aristotelian one (or the one imagined by the civic republican cum liberal Founders of our nation).

     These are matters I’ve been pondering for quite a while now, and writing about since I took over The New Republic magazine in 2016. I write a monthly column in TNR called Res Publica, which has various translations, but the one I prefer is “The Public Interest,” and the words Res Publica constitute the root of the two terms “republic” and “republican.” In my column, I expiate on the kinds of matters discussed above—the concept of community, and the various threats to the American community we face now. I haven’t provided any answers to the question of how we can save the America from the internal threats it faces now, and I haven’t seen any convincing answers from anyone else either.

     I apologize for a perhaps overly academic presentation, but after all this is a reunion of people who attended Harvard College. And we can be proud of the fact, maybe, that it is two Harvard professors of great distinction, Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, who have lead the way in the field of political science in thinking about the matters that will be under discussion Thursday, even if one of them has blamed us for the Slough of Despond that the country has fallen into.