The last champion of American decent pride, Yuval Levin, has a new essay I recommend, in which he formulates the American problem wonderfully:
Not long ago… social order in our free society [was] our capacity to restrain our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, & power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure & moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, & other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.
But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage & the desire for kids as endangered & in decline… The challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control & more like an absence of energy & drive leaving people languishing & enervated. These are very different kinds of social problems that call for different responses. We can all perceive the shift from one toward the other in this century, but our cultural & political thinking has been slow to catch up.
If you have followed his long career, attempting to speak moderately in defense of moderation, you will notice that he has recently come around to stating the shocking gravity of our predicament more openly, while never losing his characteristic calm. There is something truly noble in remaining calm in our crazy world. I can think of few things that do more justice to reason than being reasonable, that is, acting on the principle that alarm is never a spur to reflection, whatever its other powers. To speak like the philosophers, to identify moderation & reasonableness, is to assume that nature is not reducible to either necessity or chance. Neither the inevitable nor the urgent has dominion over our minds. So, to understand Levin, it is almost necessary to read him as though he were making the case for despair without ever despairing, or working his way through the worry that we don't know what we're doing to the knowledge of what we're doing. If this perspective attracts you, read his tracts. There is nothing quite like them in America.
As you can see from the long quote above, he has become willing to reveal that reasonableness is paradoxical. Allow me to present again his portrait of America in a way that will make it more plausible by making it unacceptable, or even infuriating: Up to now, we arrogantly feared that Americans were madmen in need of straitjackets, but now we happily can fear they are cowards, instead! We're all tempted to go mad at the injustices committed by cruel cowards. We all see that harshness has nothing to do with strength or toughness, that our self appointed humanitarians have nothing of gentleness in their manner or their minds. This causes much confusion… The most reassuring thing in our lives is that we can now be certain that caution is politically catastrophic. Now that people are going mad because they feel helpless, we can take hope that they don't know how to do anything. It's our paradox that we cannot easily say whether we are paralyzed by decadence or just perplexed at the beginning of our education.
I apologize for that wild outburst: Since Levin writes like a man it is impossible to disagree with, it is necessary to look at his argument as something impossible to agree with. The paradoxical character of reasonableness & of moderation is one reason it's considered the ugliest virtue, the most un-American or even un-Christian. If we can face this, we can begin to make the case for moderation. The reputation of moderation is for that reason then debased by association with lazy, comfortable, presumptuous thinking— so no one widely or deeply admired in America has even a suspicion of moderation about him. Above all, the widespread, but silently held opinion that moderation is a woman's virtue, unlike justice or courage, especially, but also unlike intelligence, led to the madness of feminism &, in the partisan strife, to the universal abandon of moderation. It's now considered not to be a virtue or to be the most useless one. Obviously, the path forward is to claim for moderation a place of high honor--to argue that reasonableness is the core of all thought while showing people that moderation is power. This alone can attract enough Americans.
Only if moderation can be shown to be the virtue can it even come to sight, since it would thus even include justice & set its limits, & prevent claims in justice from overwhelming any political disagreement with the most hysterical accusations. But until now, moderation has been talked about as either a cautious sophistication practically reducible to moral unseriousness or a tactical calculation intellectually reducible to deception. It's nothing but speaking softly or being reassuring. Obviously, this idea of moderation has achieved very little.
This is because it was a way of thinking built on two unsound political assumptions. First, that the madmen among us would discredit themselves given time, eventually losing credibility within elite institutions & the media alike. Secondly, that the society madmen stir to passion would desire a return to its habits, to the beliefs of the forefathers. The reality is the opposite, as Levin suggests: We cannot claim to conserve society where it doesn't exist. We cannot calm down people who have almost nothing of family & dunno how to change that fact. America is now a post-marriage society, a historical first, the most impressive proof of Progress: The loneliest Americans are also the most Progressive. The least touched, not to say bound by family are the most liberal. Welcome to the future, transhumanism which starts as post-human.
Finally, moderation can no longer mean incoherent compromises. What can it now mean?