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?
The 1990s were a decade to make you believe there was no such thing as an intractable problem. We had defeated the Soviets. We won in the Persian Gulf War in a matter of weeks and quieted ancient ethnic furies in the Balkans. At home, we beat back crime. Welfare reform was a success. We seemed to have the business cycle figured out. It wasn’t really until the financial crisis of 2008 that we were reminded of what it means for things to be utterly out of control. It was a calamity for which no remedy presented itself; and, even if we made the best decisions, it might still have ended in catastrophe. Everything since—the spiraling debt, the persistent unemployment, the sense we might be on the precipice of another collapse—has been a great humbling.
I still tend to be an optimist about most of what dominates our public debate. Over time, the economy will recover. One way or another, we’ll bring the deficit under control. We’ll reform entitlements, inadequately and clumsily, but reform them nevertheless. Our international power will diminish, yet we’ll still be far ahead of any competitor. The American public has shown an admirable resistance to the vast designs of the Obama administration, and I expect President Obama to be either defeated or even more hemmed in during a second term than he is now.
What makes me pessimistic about our future is what nearly no one talks about: the breakdown of marriage and associated bourgeois institutions and virtues in what sociologist Brad Wilcox calls “the solid middle”—those Americans, representing 58 percent of the adult population, who have graduated from high school but don’t have a four-year college degree. Illegitimacy started its corrosive march from the bottom decades ago, but it has steadily crept up the income scale. Among those without a high school degree, the rate is 54 percent; among the solid middle, it’s 44 percent. Marriage and traditional sexual mores have made their last stand among the highly educated (people with a four-year degree or more), reversing everything we thought we knew about the supposed decadence of the elite. Their illegitimacy rate is only 6 percent, and they are less likely to divorce or commit adultery. The solid middle is becoming de-institutionalized. Its members are less likely to go to church or get involved in civic institutions than they were 30 years ago. The middle is thus losing crucial stores of social capital just as—in an interrelated trend—the economy offers fewer ready opportunities, especially for its men. We are witnessing a slow-moving social catastrophe that is mostly ignored, especially on the right.
It has become a mantra among conservatives—echoing a point originally made by Charles Krauthammer—that decline is a choice. But this social decline is not. Even those sounding the alarm about these trends offer few plausible answers for how to check them. How do you recover a culture of marriage once it’s been lost? How do you counteract the baleful side effects of globalization and automation? We seem to be heading inexorably in a direction that threatens our identity as a mass middle-class society. We’ll become more stratified and less mobile, with long-term political consequences that are impossible to predict, except that they can’t be good. William Dean Howells said that Americans love a tragedy so long as it has a happy ending. This is a tragedy that won’t end well.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.