America’s unheeded prophet

Catholic, conservative, controversial — US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas seldom speaks but when he does journalists’ notebooks flip open. 

Recently he gave a rare interview in the course of which he diagnosed the malaise afflicting America.

He asked: ‘What binds us? What do we all have in common anymore? I think we have to think about that. When I was a kid, even as we had laws that held us apart, there were things that we held dear and that we all had in common. We always talk about E pluribus unum. What’s our unum now? We have the pluribus. What’s the unum?’

Justice Thomas continued: ‘I think it’s a great country. Some people have decided that the Constitution isn’t worth defending, that history isn’t worth defending, that the culture and principles aren’t worth defending. Certainly, if you are in my position, they have to be worth defending. That’s what keeps you going. That’s what energises you. I don’t know what it is that we have [that] we can say instinctively we have, as a country, in common.’

This brief soliloquy was striking for its gloominess but also for its originator. Here was a Supreme Court justice saying, in essence, that America had stopped working. Far from alarmism, Justice Thomas’s diagnosis of a culture dissipating before our eyes is a warning that may already be too late.

Donald Trump, divisive and demagogic, is nonetheless a product of the great unravelling rather than its source. He recognised before his opponents an emerging social eschatology among blue-collar Americans, the unshakable belief that the values and customs that had made America great were coming to an end. Trump offered redemption — to make America great again.

American déclinisme is an enduring superstition and reactionaries of Left and Right, from Father Coughlin to Pat Buchanan, have mined it well. The present moment differs in that there is substantial evidence of breakdown. Institutions, behaviours and living patterns that once conditioned unity have lost their grip. Income inequality is an unavoidable factor. Over the last four decades the post-tax average income of the middle 60% has risen 42% while the take-home pay of the top one percent has shot up 314%.

One knock-on effect is the homogenisation of neighbourhoods that were once accessible to a range of family budgets and the soft segregation of schools by parental income and geography. Technology, while removing virtual barriers, has reduced personal interactions in the workplace, retail, and the local community.

Economics supplies only a partial explanation. As an October study from Pew highlighted, political and cultural distances are the new markers of American anomie. Partisanship is now a more reliable predictor of political behaviour than income, age or background. The two main parties have not drifted but galloped apart. Ninety-five percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat and 97% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican. Fifty-five percent of Republicans have just a few or no friends who are Democrats and 65% of Democrats have few or no friends who are Republicans. ‘Negative partisanship’ — voting against rather than for a party — is the motivating factor for four-in-ten Democrats and Republicans.

Consensus is disappearing from policy debates. In 1994, there was a 13-point gap in how Democrats and Republicans viewed racial discrimination; in 2017 that gap stands at 50 points. A quarter century ago, liberals and conservatives were almost indistinguishable in their perspectives on immigration. Today, a 42-point chasm separates them.

Pew’s findings reinforce other disjunctions. Forty-nine percent of Americans rarely or never attend church but, as the Atlantic has pointed out, among the 51% who do half are going more often. The religious are becoming more religious and the secular more secular.

These trends are arguably more pronounced in the United States but they are replicated to some extent across the West. Identity politics, in their many forms, aim to replace troubled or outgrown institutions and traditions with new allegiances and social connections. Nationalism promises unity through tribalism and economic populism prosperity by means of protection and regulation. Multi-flavoured grievances over sex, race and preferences elevate the ego while subsuming individuality in a warm bath of bland conformity. None of these alternatives heal social or political fissures; if anything, they crack them open further.

Societies of disparate demographics, unmoored by shared assumptions and values, risk disharmony and worse. Clarence Thomas hints at part of the answer: Liberal principles of freedom, self-government, and the rule of law must be reasserted. But this only goes so far: Broken bonds have to be restored or replaced. That will require us to close income disparities, establish fresh points of unity, and foster a new sodality between those of different means, instincts, and attitudes. Above all, we have to learn to like each other again — or at least to live with one other.

Originally published in the Catholic Herald

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