Some of Us Were Worried About America Before the Election (part 4)

Some of Us Were Worried About America Before the Election (part 4) March 17, 2017

Christopher Lasch, a gifted intellectual historian, perhaps best remembered for supplying President Jimmy Carter with advice on his “national malaise” speech, way back in 1990 seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the average Americans who by 2016 would vote for Donald Trump. Lasch’s article for one of the first issues of First Things by no means prophesied J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. But it identified a basic antagonism between folks who believe in government solving things and conservatives who don’t think government can (even if it gets all the power officials want):

Lower-middle-class culture, now as in the past, is organized around the family, church, and neighborhood. It values the community’s continuity more highly than individual advancement, solidarity more highly than social mobility. Conventional ideals of success play a less important part in lower-middle-class life than the maintenance of existing ways. Parents want their children to get ahead, but they also want them to be good: to respect their elders, resist the temptation to lie and cheat, willingly shoulder the responsibilities that fall to their lot, and bear adversity with fortitude. The desire “to preserve their way of life,” as E. E. LeMasters writes in a study of construction workers, takes precedence over the desire to climb the social ladder. “If my boy wants to wear a goddamn necktie all his life and bow and scrape to some boss, that’s his right, but by God he should also have the right to earn an honest living with his hands if that is what he likes.”

Sociologists have observed, usually with a suggestion of disapproval, that working people seem to have no ambition. According to Lloyd Warner, working-class housewives set the dominant tone of cultural conservatism. They adhere to a “rigid” and “conventional” code of morality and seldom dare to “attempt anything new.” Proposals that seem to represent “departures from the conventional way of doing things” meet with their automatic condemnation. These housewives clearly have a “strong determination to do their tasks well” and derive “deep satisfaction from discharging their responsibilities to their families and to their friends,” but they take no interest in long-range goals. “Their hopes are basically centered around carrying on [and] take the form of not wanting their present routine disturbed-they want to continue as they are, but, while doing so, better their circumstances and gain more freedom.”…

Upper-middle-class observers cannot conceal their contempt for what they see as petit-bourgeois fatalism. An essay attempting to explain “Underutilization of Medical-Care Services by Blue-Collarites” notes that social classes in America are divided by contrasting conceptions of the body. “It is as though the white-collar class thinks of the body as a machine to be preserved and kept in perfect functioning condition, whether through prosthetic devices, rehabilitation, cosmetic surgery, or perpetual treatment, whereas blue- collar groups think of the body as having a limited span of utility: to he enjoyed in youth and then to suffer with and to endure stoically with age and decrepitude.” One might suppose that working-class realism should be morally preferable to the upper-middle-class conception of the body as a machine requiring “perpetual treatment.” The authors of this article, however, draw the opposite conclusion. A stoic acceptance of bodily decline, they argue, reflects a “damaged self-image.”

An analysis of recent cultural conflicts reinforces the conclusion prompted by exposure to conservative traditions of political and social thought, that the essence of cultural conservatism is a certain respect for limits. The central conservative insight is that human freedom is constrained by the natural conditions of human life, by the weight of history, by the fallibility of human judgment, and by the perversity of the human will. Conservatives are often accused of an exaggerated esteem for the past, but it is not the moral superiority of the past so much as its inescapability that impresses them. What we are is largely inherited, in the form of gender, genetic endowment, institutions, predispositions—including the universal predisposition to resent these constraints on our freedom and to dream of abolishing them. What was called original sin, in a bygone age, referred to the most troubling aspect of our natural inheritance—our natural incapacity for graceful submission to our subordinate position in the larger scheme of things.

Imagine that. People who believe in the fall (evangelicals?) voting for a candidate who thinks government no longer knows limits.


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