The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives issued warnings about the decline of American culture and American values. We learned in the ensuing years about the danger of these sorts of sweeping prognoses. Far from sliding to Gomorrah, America experienced a cultural renewal—lower crime rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less domestic violence, more community service, and on and on and on.
Many of those positive trends still hold. After the disruption of the 1960s, we are living in a period of social repair. But there is one problem, which emerged in those years, that is still with us, worse than ever.
It has to do with the enlargement of the self. The generation reared in the 1930s had a relatively small definition of self. They saw how great historic events could sweep up mere individuals. (“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”) They were raised with the vestiges of the Augustinian warnings about the sin of pride.
But then came the psychologizing movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The big danger was not pride, but lack of self-love. That was amplified by the individualizing effects of the political and cultural shifts of the 1960s (morally) and the 1980s (economically). These narcissistic tendencies have been amplified further by Facebook and reality television—the rise of the instant fame culture.
The consequences are grim. They include a rising level of consumption (as people spend on themselves in a matter that befits their station); a rising tolerance of debt (which goes along with a greater confidence in people’s perceived ability to handle it); a greater level of political intolerance (as people lose the sense that they need their political opponents to correct the errors in their own thinking).
And so we wind up with a more consumption-oriented, short-term-oriented, and polarized nation. You can think that the overall culture is strong, but in this one way it is weak.
The question is whether this one tragic flaw undermines all the good things that are going on. I believe in the short term it will. We remain the crossroads of the world, the place where people from around the globe want to come to best magnify their talents. China will never match this. But in the medium term we are headed for a fiscal crackup that is the economic manifestation of a deeper moral shortcoming.
We will endure it, thanks to all the underlying strengths. But it will not be pretty.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Social Animal (Random House).