The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. 1But the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing their case becomes.
I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history. Political programs, especially conservative political programs, ground themselves in a historical account of decline. The flaws, follies, errors, and evils that bedevil the body politic have their origins in some point in the past. Before this origin point society was happier, healthier, stronger, more functional, more virtuous, more beautiful, or filled with greater glory than is currently so; it is to this moment in the past that the conservative looks for inspiration and guidance for the future. It is not just conservatives who do this—see the general liberal fascination with the economic order before the deregulation spree that began in the ‘70s—but no conservative can avoid it. A theory of the fall is the keystone of any coherent conservative social philosophy.
For example, I disagree with nothing in Adrian Vermeule, “The Party of Nature,” Post Liberal Order (7 December 2021).
The enemy of America’s social conservatives, both the self-declared “post liberals” and the more standard vanilla variety ushered into the core of Republican politics in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is what sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism.”2The ethic of the expressive individualist is captured by justice Anthony Kennedy’s declaration that the Supreme Court must recognize that “at the heart of liberty” was a new sort of human right, a “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.“ 3 In a recent book Carl Trueman contrasts this inward, therapeutic vision of human purpose with the healthier ethics of earlier eras:
Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 32.
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (91-744), 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
In the worlds of political, religious, and economic man, commitment was [once] outwardly directed to those communal beliefs, practices, and institutions that were bigger than the individual and in which the individual, to the degree that he or she conformed to or cooperated with them, found meaning. The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth-century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club. All of them found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something outside themselves. In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being.
In fact, I might press this point further: institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals via their schooling in the various practices and disciplines that allow them to take. their place in society. Instead, they become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are “inside.” …For such selves in such a world, institutions such as schools and churches are places where one goes to perform, not to be formed -or, perhaps better, where one goes to be formed by Performing.… This could also be described as the triumph of expressive individualism.
…If education is to allow the individual simply to be himself, unhindered by outward pressure to conform to any greater reality, then the individual is king. He can be whoever he wants to be. And rejecting the notion of any external authority or meaning to which education is to conform, the individual simply makes himself the creator of any meaning that there might be. So-called “external” or “objective” truths are then simply constructs designed by the powerful to intimidate and to harm the weak. overthrowing them-and thus overthrowing the notion that there is a great reality to which we are all accountable, whether that of the polis, of some religion, or of the economy-becomes the central purpose of educational institutions. They are not to be places to form or to transform but rather places where students can perform. The triumph of the therapeutic represents the advent of the expressive individual as the normative type of human being and of the relativizing of all meaning and truth to personal taste. 4
Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), ch. 1.
The ethic of expressive individualism, continues Trumean in an essay published by the Heritage Foundation, is thus responsible for all manner of current controversies in the cultural war, “including abortion, pornography, the ethics of life and death, radical racial politics, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.”5
Carl Trueman, “How Expressive Individualism Threatens Civil Society,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3615, (Washington DC: Heritage Foundation), 27 May 2021.
None of this is particularly novel, though the exact terminology used has shifted somewhat over the last few decades. Trueman articulates the essence of the rightward critique of modern American culture since the ascendance of the cultural conservatives in the ‘70s. The standard narrative finds the origin of these horrors in the social revolutions of the ‘60s. Postmodernism, the sexual revolution, and the intellectual rebellion of the “New Left” mark America’s fall from Eden; both the learned tomes and the political agitation authored by social conservatives since then have been one long, failed attempt to roll back the cultural developments of that decade.
In the face of this narrative, the post liberals are innovative: they place cherubim and flaming sword far further back in the Western past. For them, the malaise of late 20th century and early 21st century life is the logical endpoint of innovations in theory and faith that occurred centuries earlier. All post liberals treat Enlightenment liberalism as the original sin of the American project. The Catholic post-liberals tend to go further still, finding the origin of all our ills in the Reformation assault on Church authority; some of the secularists go even further afield, condemning, as Nietzsche did before them, late antiquity’s choice to elevate the private religion of the weak and meek over the classical urge to glorify excellence and strength in the public domain.
The standard attack on these post-liberal sorts is to poke fun at the irony of young conservatives attempting to secede from a culture of expressive individualism by rebelliously expressing their individual devotion to trad subcultures. But all of that distracts from more serious problems with the post liberal pose. Post-liberalism faults the wrong fall. In this, the post liberals are not so different from the old fusionists they rebel against. Neither has found the actual origin point for the evils that ail us. Neither stripping our culture of the ideas of Ms. magazine or the ideas of James Madison could end the despair and anomie of American life. The problem is bigger than political philosophy.
These reflections were spurred by listening to an episode of Doug Metzger’s podcast, Literature and History. Literature and History, the most excellent narrative podcast I have yet encountered, proclaims itself a march through the entirety of “Anglophone literature and its roots.” Those roots run deep. The podcast begins with Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, while its most recent episode—the 96th—has only gotten to 5th century Rome. Episodes alternate between dramatic retellings of famous works like Oedipus Rex and wide-ranging historical lectures that provide the context needed to understand and appreciate them. This week I finished listening to an episode titled “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.”6 The parallels between the Hellenistic trends Metzger describes and the problems of the current moment are worth pondering.
Doug Metzer, “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self,” Literature and History, podcast episode (released fall 2019). Transcript here.
Metzger’s portrayal of the Hellenistic Era is compelling though conventional. Destroyed: a world of cohesive, tradition bound city states whose citizens were joined together by shared loyalty to a polity whose fate was set by these same citizens’ own sweat. In its place: a tangle of marauding empires whose political outcomes were decided by the machinations of the distant few in the despot’s court or the mercenary’s camp. Older religious traditions, which were grounded in communal, role-based performance of ritual acts intended to secure the favor of geographically or ethnically affiliated deities, fared little better. Their fall is understandable. The old covenants failed in this new era. Communal devotion protected no one from conquest. The conquered were forced, as slaves or conscripts, to dwell as strangers in strange lands.
The Hellenistic Era was an age of strangers. The polyglot cosmopolises of the era drew in merchants from faraway shores and mercenaries from the far reaches of empire. Left behind were the men who once had honored roles as first citizens and chief priests. Men who led small and bounded worlds now found themselves the playthings of inconstant forces operating on imperial scales.
The intellectual response to these developments was to turn inward. In place of religions focused on public performance and communal covenants rose cults focused narrowly on the personal relationship between individual believers and their deity of choice. These new faiths were focused less on public goods than private salvation—salvation expressed either as material blessings in this life, or eternal rewards in the next. Philosophy too underwent a gradual transformation. No longer did great thinkers squabble over the form of the ideal polity, or ask what political communities must do to foster good character in their citizens. Hellenistic philosophy was not focused on citizens. It was obsessed with individual ethics, not collective politics. The ethicists of these centuries sought rules of conduct that could be followed regardless of the seeker’s social station or the local political situation. Like the new religions, their focus was on the soul within a man, not the community of men outside him.
Thus the popularity of Stoicism and Epicureanism. Thus the worship of Isis, Dionysus, and Cybele. Thus the spread of the Pythagorean and Orphic Cults. Thus the transformations of Second Temple Judaism. To explain this all Metzger quotes historian Peter Green: “The record we have… speaks with some eloquence to the dilemmas that faced a thinking man in a world where, no longer master of his fate, he had to content himself with being, in one way or another, captain of his soul.”7
Peter Green, The Hellenistic Age (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2008). Kindle location 545 quoted in Metzer, “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.”
Masters of fate and captains of souls. That is the choice. Humans find meaning in agency. We wish to act, not only to be acted upon. Those denied all chance to meaningfully shape the form and fate of their community—we once referred to this as “self government”—will seek agency elsewhere. As Hellenes deprived of communal independence refocused their souls on individualist self-cultivation, so late 20th and early 21st century Americans, long denied a meaningful role in governing their society, instead seek meaning and esteem in the expression of their identities.
To understand this point, consider the situation faced by the median 19th century American man in a state like Minnesota or California.8 He lived in a social, economic, and political world that was largely fashioned by his own hands. Be he rich or poor, he lived as his own master, independent from the domination of the boss or the meddling of the manager. If he had settled near the frontier, he would had been involved in creating and manning the government bodies that regulated aspects of communal life—the school board, the township, the sheriff’s department, and so forth. Even if he was not a frontiersman, he was a regular attendee at the town, city, county and even state government meetings most relevant to his family’s concerns. Between his wife and he, his family participated in a half dozen committees, chapters, societies, associations, councils, and congregations; these associations were created to solve problems as wide ranging as the coordination of the local irrigation system to the intellectual edification of the township. To these formal institutions we may add dozens of less formal, task-based gatherings, when Americans rallied together to raise barns, throw sociables, and everything in between. “In the United States,” one astounded foreigner observed, “there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined power of individuals.” 9
The next three paragraphs draws on numerous books, but the best comprehensive account of the transition I describe remains Robert Wiehbe, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Christopher Lasch commits to a similar narrative in his essay “Opportunity in the Promised Land”, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993), pp. 50-80.
For more books on this topic, see my reading list “Pining For Democracy.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin, 2003), 220.
This would change between the 1880s and the 1940s. Over those decades the median American transitioned from a life of autonomy and self-government to a life of dependence or domination. Now gainful employment meant working for a wage under the eye of an overseer. Eventually, the commands of the foreman were augmented by the gentler web of routines, rules and procedures decided in faraway boardrooms. Specialists and executives—specialists and executives our median American had never met, and never would—were now deciding the patterns of daily life for millions of their countrymen. Working in this corporate world, an unusually honest executive admits, means “shuffling from one day to the next in a low grade depression governed by an immense body of obscure rules. There [are] rules about everything, but most [are] invisible until you collide with them.”10
As went the working world, so went the political. A political culture once focused on affairs close to home—where interventions by individual citizens might matter—was superseded by a vast federal apparatus. Its regulations were baroque and confusing; its regulators lived at imperial distance from lives they regulated. With each passing decade another domain of knowledge—law, industry, science, commerce, and even culture—would be taken out of the hands of the every man and walled off as the preserve of credentialed expertise. By the time the ‘50s rolled around, ours was a nation of managers and managed. Americans were masters of their fate no more.
G.J. Meyers, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (New York: Random House, 1996), 190.
It is no accident that the culture wars exploded only after the first generation born under bureaucracy came of age. The New Left was a rebellion against life under management. But the rebels had no experience with practical problem solving, strategy, or other skills of self government. The fathers had not passed the American patrimony on to their children. 11 The new leftists (and their counterculture foils, the boomer generation of touchy feely evangelicals) 12 sunk their quest for meaning into the only place left open to them: the existential exploration of identity and the loud expression of their individual values. Thus the selfish egoism of the boomers was less a result of wayward heresies whispered in the 1970s—much less the 1670s—than it was the obvious end game of bureaucratized life.
Younger conservatives are three generations removed from an America whose citizens felt like they were masters of their fate. We, our parents, and our parents’ parents, have never lived outside the Kafkaesque. It is not surprising for the young conservative men that fill the post-liberal ranks to feel that this environment is degrading and emasculating. It is! It denies them—and almost all of us—any meaningful role shaping or leading their own communities.
But if we recognizes this as the true sickness that ails us… well, the post liberal narrative rings lackluster. It is not Locke or Jefferson that has robbed our lives of significance. The post liberals could drive the Woke out of public life, annul the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the public memory, and re-Christianize the entire public sphere, but the essential problem would remain. As long as America is divided between managers and the managed; as long as her culture honors distinctions between experts and the average; and as long as her citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away, then the malaise, atomization, and enervation that the post liberals mourn will continue apace.
For a parallel account of the ’60s counterculture and a surprisingly similar diagnoses of the central problems facing American men, see Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York: William and Morrow, 1999); for more analysis on the strategic incoherence of the New Left Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 366-391.
See Brink Lindsey, Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed American Politics and Society (2007) for more on this comparison.