The Summer of Our Discontent

This is the summer of our discontent. All the polls appear to have Donald Trump on track for a loss against a somnambulant and increasingly inept Democrat. The United States Supreme Court, supposedly dominated by conservatives, keeps pumping out decisions that could have been rendered by believers in a “living constitution,” our state and local governments keep requiring us to wear soul-crushing facial coverings in public, our favorite restaurants and bars remain shuttered or with diminished capacity, and our great urban centers are convulsed by rioters and looters.

If this is American Greatness, then American Greatness isn’t what it was when we were young.

How did it come to this? The presidential election of 2020  likely will decide whether or not this country will descend into socialism. It is imperative that we understand where we went wrong. 

The errors seem to have permeated much of our chattering classes, and the precise nature of what has failed was made inadvertently clear at a symposium held at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in February, with the provocative title, “Is Meritocracy an Idea Worth Saving?” That high-powered educators and journalists could even debate this question might tell us most of what we need to know, but it is still informative to consider observations made at that gathering, particularly an assessment of America offered by Ross Douthat, purportedly the in-house conservative pundit at the New York Times. 

Douthat observed that the “elites” in America were “all going to Silicon Valley or Wall Street,” though some “do go to Washington, just not in the spirit of service.” Douthat, a Harvard graduate, elaborated: “There’s a sense that opportunity in America exists in the entanglement of Harvard, Silicon Valley, D.C., and Wall Street.” 

With exquisite solipsism, Douthat concluded, “That is opportunity in America today.” He then asked, “What are the power centers that aren’t connected to that world?” And gave his extraordinary answer: “Labor unions? No, they’re gone. Religion? No, it’s in decline. Regional elites and power brokers? No, they don’t matter anymore.”

For those of us who live outside of the urban coastal corridors, and who still enthusiastically carry on meaningful professional lives or vocations in our own communities, or who participate in local governments and regional educational institutions, indeed, for any of us who still find meaning in the military, labor or fraternal organizations, or our parish churches, businesses, and charities, Douthat’s remarks are stunning. He is either indifferent about or contemptuous of what lends meaning to the lives led by most of his fellow Americans. 

Indeed, his thoughts are not all that different from Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of the “basket of deplorables” or Barack Obama’s excoriation of Americans who cling to their God and their guns. That this should come from someone who is taken to be a voice of conservatives is alarming and infuriating. The “reality” that Douthat perceives is doubtless the one he believes he is experiencing, but it is simply not the world in which most of us, even in this country, live.

Douthat went on to suggest that the situation he described “can’t be addressed with the discourse internal to meritocracy. It has to be addressed with political action that involves people who are traitors to their class. It also has to come from below.” This seemed to be a call for something imitating the French or Russian Revolution, and was an eerily accurate forecast of the Black Lives Matter and Antifa activities we have recently witnessed. 

The widespread media encouragement of the disturbances in the wake of the George Floyd killing, including the do-it-yourself reparations of the looting mobs, and the coronavirus shutdowns that may have helped spark them, share a disregard for private property and the freedom of contract. When our government shuts down virtually all social and economic activity and that shutdown is driven by “expert” models now proven to be in spectacular error, one has to wonder whether perhaps we are seeing the same kind of narrowness of focus that Ross Douthat demonstrates.

There was a time when our leaders were given a wide education in the liberal arts, and an earlier time when it was understood that those whose social standing carried with it the burdens of government would take a “grand tour” to broaden their focus and deepen their wisdom. Those days are gone, and, instead, we are beginning to understand that the leaders of the Obama administration, at least, were so narrowly focused, and so convinced that only they possessed the wisdom to govern, that they hatched a plot to undermine and subvert the presidency of Donald Trump. 

One of those involved in this attempted “soft coup,” apparently, was Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. If Biden is rewarded with the presidency, and if Trump’s vaunted effort to “drain the swamp” of the self-perpetuating Washington bureaucracy is repudiated, popular sovereignty in this country will have been dealt what may be a fatal blow. 

If the Democrats recapture the presidency and the Senate, and if the blinkered and narrowly technocratic ideology they currently encourage of repudiating the past, and tearing down its monuments triumphs, what many of us believed made America great will end. If the Democrats win in 2020, the insidious beliefs now dominant in the academy that there are no timeless truths, and the repudiation of the central features of Western Civilization that the Left now champions will have won. This will mean that the basis of our constitutional system—the idea that we are all equal before the law and our Creator, and that the preservation of individual freedom and the encouragement of individual excellence is best for the well-being of the whole society—will have been grievously undermined. 

This is what is at stake when one throws away the principle of “meritocracy,” and the fact that Douthat’s (and my) alma mater, and most of the Ivy League have now jettisoned standardized tests as a part of college admissions, does not augur well. 

In his remarkable 1943 Abolition of Man, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis warned against modern reformers who, even in his time, thought they could move beyond tradition, and that the old notions were unbearably stultifying and needed to be replaced with more modern and enlightened attitudes. 

Such reformers, Lewis wrote, claimed “to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge[,]” but that in reality, they were removing what made life meaningful and good. Sadly, Ross Douthat displays the attitude Lewis warned against, as does the modern Left. Only Donald Trump, our unlikely tribune, stands a chance of restoring an American life that is once again meaningful and good.

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

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