Ross Douthat really does routinely show how thoughtful, and thought-provoking, a conservative columnist who, in part owing to his generational status, doesn’t see the world from the shopworn ideological point of view that’s too common on the contemporary right. Today, he writes about how the only ism that excites the Millennials is Individualism — this, according to new Pew polling data. Yes, they’re more liberal on the surface, but, well, it’s more complicated than you might think. Douthat:
So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.
One can answer “yes” to this question cheerfully or pessimistically — with the optimism of a libertarian who sees such individualism as a liberation from every form of oppression and control, or the pessimism of a communitarian who sees social isolation, atomization and unhappiness trailing in its wake.
But one can also answer “no,” and argue that the human desire for community and authority cannot be permanently buried — in which case the most important question in an era of individualism might be what form of submission it presages.
This was the point raised in 1953 by Robert Nisbet’s “Quest for Community,” arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology. (I wrote the introduction when it was reissued.) Trying to explain modern totalitarianism’s dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.
In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.
Read the whole thing. It’s a classic social conservative point: the idea that mediating institutions — family, church, and other associations — are what guarantee our liberties, and protect us from totalitarian control. T.S. Eliot’s gloss on this truth:
So long…as we consider finance, industry, trade, agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “education” as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organization of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike––it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.
Hey folks, I’ll be flying to Grand Rapids today (speaking Monday night at 7pm at Cornerstone University — come say hi!), so approving comments is going to be hit-and-miss. You’ll next hear from me Sunday night. Over and out.