David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s NYTimes entitled “The Spiritual Recession.” In it he bemoans a loss of American idealism regarding democracy. He points out that socialism never much penetrated the American psyche, even during the Great Depression, because we had an alternative faith. We believed that the American political system was, as Lincoln put it, the last best hope of the earth.
“Americans have lost faith in their own gospel.” Brooks says. “This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.
“Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. …Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with.”
I was struck by Brooks’ column, not so much by its analysis as by its diagnosis of a mood. Things are sour, and lacking in hopefulness about what can be done.
It reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. I guess if you are under 50 you probably have no idea what I am talking about. In July, 1979, in the middle of an energy crisis, Carter gave a speech–famous or infamous in its time–in which he talked about a “crisis of confidence” afflicting America. I remember being powerfully struck by his identifying a sense of hopelessness and loss of idealism. It seemed to me at the time that he put his finger exactly on the deepest issue. Without a will to sacrifice and work for solutions, we could go nowhere as a nation.
The speech was well received at first, but in a short time sentiment turned against Carter. It seemed that he was blaming Americans for their problems, rather than fixing them.
Which is, I think, precisely where we are today. Obama’s standing is very low, but so is everybody else’s. We want our leaders to fix things, and we don’t like to hear reasons why they can’t. Citizens of America would much rather rail against Washington than examine the impossible things they demand from Washington. They certainly don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They want to hold their leaders at fault.
Brooks is right that we need faith in democracy–that we are better people and a better nation when we keep that faith. However, that faith has not been maintained over the years through pep talks. It has been maintained by democracy’s effectiveness. There have been many times when America has been stuck with intractable problems, as we are today. But we have muddled through, sometimes blind and stumbling, to find our way. Democracy is tough.
Yes, we are in a spiritual recession. But somehow, through our ranting and our complaining and our posturing –and through our voting–we will get through. That is my faith in democracy.