The Declining Liberal Establishment

By Reno, R. R. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Declining Liberal Establishment


Reno, R. R., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


There's a parallel crisis on the social side of the social contract, one that also threatens to discredit the liberal establishment. The middleclass myth, an extraordinarily powerful vision of social solidarity, has been as important over the last sixty years as the economic prosperity made possible by the New Deal consensus. This myth emerged with the explosive growth of the suburbs, mixing groups once segregated into ethnic urban neighborhoods. It was reinforced by the common experience of television and the consumer culture made possible by widespread prosperity. By 1960, the children of parents born in Little Italy were living in Paramus, and they were listening to the same songs and watching the same shows as were teenagers in Southern California whose fathers had come from Arkansas to work in Lockheed factories.

The middle-class myth was never entirely true to social reality, but it was all the more powerful because it was imagined, creating a sense of common public culture. The invention of the term "upper middle class" for the elastic top end testifies to its grip. The civil rights movement exposed the myth's racial boundaries, and the new left held its bourgeois morals and manners in disdain, but by and large the consensus held firm. Both political parties promised to be the party of the middle class, each accusing the other of being something else: Republicans are the party of the rich; Democrats the party of welfare queens. Serving the common good meant sending people to Washington to tax, spend, and regulate to promote the interests of the middle class. That's why, for the most part, our politics differed in emphasis rather than substance.

Today, the middle-class myth is becoming less and less believable. In his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray describes the many ways in which the middle class is being eroded from both the top and the bottom. I wrote about Murray's book recently ("The One Percent," March 2012), and I won't review the details here. It's enough to report his conclusions. The top 20 percent of white Americans are increasingly drawn to (and from) the same communities, same elite universities, same interlocking professions, and same organic-food restaurants. Meanwhile, the bottom 30 percent live very different and increasingly dysfunctional lives.

What Murray shows in detail is intuitively felt by most Americans today. We've grown apart. In a way unimaginable during the height of the liberal establishment's dominance in the post-war decades, recent Ivy League graduates and other young elites often unconsciously express a cruel contempt for the social mores of middle America. For many, Walmart is a fundamental threat to civilization.

At its height, the liberal establishment had three features that helped it superintend and strengthen the middle-class myth: patriotic anti-communism, a bourgeois ethic roughly coordinated with the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and a vague but real connection to religious institutions. Its greatest accomplishment was to manage the civil rights movement with a deft combination of delay, moderation, and eventual wholehearted commitment. The result was a success. Against many odds, racial equality became a widely accepted part of the social consensus - and a modified middle-class myth - in America.

Today's liberal establishment is increasingly post-national, non-judgmental, and post-religious, and it would like to redefine our social consensus accordingly. Some efforts have been successful. One thinks of sexual liberation, aspects of which are now widely accepted. Others have been less so. Patriotism endures, as does religious faith. As a consequence, what used to be the "upper middle" is now often at odds with the "middle middle."

The general presumption that we're all pretty much the same has devolved into cultural mistrust. The remarkable rise of homeschooling in recent decades provides an example; even parents who send their children to public schools often do so with grave misgivings about our common culture. …

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