The Century of the Common Man. That was the phrase Henry Wallace used to describe the world emerging out of the Second World War. Wars do have a way of leveling society into the great democracy of the dead and dying, and it is certainly the case that, in the two great wars of the 20th century, the light of aristocracy went out. If commonness is what you’re after, this is decidedly the right century.
If the foolish Vice President meant anything by his phrase, he had in mind something like “the progress of democracy,” in which the laboring classes would gradually assert control over their own destinies. Even by 1942, when Wallace made his famous speech on “The Price of Free World Victory,” it should have been apparent that the plutocracy, which had replaced aristocracy, was itself being replaced by another ruling class. (James Burnham had published The Managerial Revolution in the previous year.)
For all the economic advances and what Merle Haggard calls “so-called social security,” ordinary men and women have, by and large, not exerted any great influence either in Europe or the United States. In fact, the past hundred years has seen a nation of farmers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers gradually transform itself into a nation of hirelings who work for other men. The family farm has turned to agribusiness, the local hardware and restaurant are now franchise operations, and—more important—half the country seems to be working, directly or indirectly, for the government. By the end of the century, we can all put our feet up on the desk like so many Mexican bankers. (A few years ago, employees in Mexican banks celebrated the government takeover: “We’ll never have to work again,” one remarked to CBS News.)
Not all of the plain people of America are celebrating their life of easeful servitude. By now, more than a few are prepared to generalize Georges Sorel’s observation that “All of the revolutionary disturbances in the 19th century ended by reinforcing state power.” Revolutions are always done in the name of the workers, but they are almost always led by ambitious propagandists and politicians whose vision of human life just happens to exclude all the ways in which most of us prefer to live, In fact, every campaign for the rights of man has as its real object the enslavement of ordinary men to some revolutionary ideal.
The great American social revolution of the 20th century has been, on the whole, a remarkably peaceful affair. There were no barricades in the streets, no stirring songs. There is still a large number of people who are not even aware of the changes. But somewhere between 1900 and 19 50 we grew to accept the idea that the Federal government had “first dibs” on our earnings; that families were no longer the primary unit of society; that art and poetry were arcane matters reserved for an elite; that the purpose of education was some mixture of job training and liberation from the false values in which most American parents just happened to believe. The script was written not by Marx and Lenin but by Antonio Gramsci, who insisted that political revolution was by itself futile, if the cultural institutions-schools, churches, the stage, literature-were not taken over. The success of this revolution can be measured by comparing it with the old-fashioned political revolution in the Soviet Un.ion. Over there, they have to lock up and repress intellectual dissidents. Here, we simply ignore the few of them that exist or tum them into lovable cranks who debate with Gore Vidal and Sam Donaldson. John Dewey, I salute you.
If the takeover has been a question of what Noam Chomsky called “the long march through the institutions,” then we ought to expect to and the most skeptics among those least affected by university life, the Presbyterian Church, and The New Republic. As evidence, I offer the success stories of country music and Evangelical churches.
People who don’t like country music would argue with David Allen Coe that every country song has to include something on—trains, pickup trucks, prison, mama, and getting drunk (although “cheating” remains the number one subject). If you him off the all-hits country stations and buy a few albums, older themes begin to emerge, especially a vague but strangely felt resentment against the affluent, college-educated urbanites of the Northeast Charlie Daniels puts the case succinctly:
The rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work.
The poor girl wants to marry, the rich girl wants to flirt.
Despite all the songs about cheating and tomcatting, some country songs continue to emphasize the virtues of the poor. The “Satin Pillows to Cry On” motif still turns up, even in the Eagles “Lying Eyes,” a superb imitation of a country song. But John Conlee recently gave it a surprising twist in “The Old School,” in which the truck driver tells his high-school sweetheart (now a rich divorcee) at the class reunion that he will not cheat on his wife, “cause I’m from the old school.” There is more in these songs than resentment of degenerate wealth.
There is, for one thing, nostalgia fur the old, gentler times of life in the country—a chord struck repeatedly in country music. In one of the best of them, “The Way I Am” (written by Sonny Throckmorton), Merle Haggard sings sadly:
Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
a bamboo cane in my hand.
Instead, he is an assembly-line worker who wishes he did his work “with a willing hand”:
I could run, but that ain’t like me.
Instead I’ll keep on being the way I am.
There is more to this nostalgia, even, than the revived Southern. nationalism celebrated in songs like “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie, I Don’t Wanna Go” or the more explicit “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” Sometimes the gentle irony of Merle Haggard, the Okie from Muskogee, turns militant, but the most forceful declarations come from Hank Williams Jr., the most interesting (not always the best) songwriter in the business.
On his first important album, Family Tradition, Hank Jr. included the strongest statement on the criminal justice system. In “I Got Rights,” a man sees the murderer of his wife and son get off on a technicality. By the end of the song he has the killer begging for mercy in front of his Smith and Wesson .44. (Oddly enough, the song has never been rereleased on a greatest hits album.) To show his serious ness, Mr. Williams sang an even more powerful protest, “Country Foiles Can Survive,” on the David Letterman show. More recently, he has turned elegiac, and in “Mr. Lincoln” he laments what has happened to the old America.
Unlike most country stars, Hank Jr. rarely includes a gospel song on his album, but from the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry, country singers have been declaring their faith in the old-time religion. Some country music continues to appeal to the only Christian groups that are on the rise in America: the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. In recent years, Evangelical Christians have seemed to tum their backs on the degenerate mainstream and have created the most-powerful counterculture in our history. They have their own pop music stars like Amy Grant, their own TV stars like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, their own universities like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or Bob Jones, and their own fiction writers. There are Christian nightclubs, Christian publishing houses (the best-kept secret in the industry), Christian advertising companies. I even used to buy gas at a place called The Christian Exxon.
Most Americans come to learn about the Evangelical subculture by way of the television shows. I can’t say I’ve seen them very often. Mr. Swaggart, for my money, is among the best of them. There is no mistaking his sincerity when he thunders against Christian rock music, and he is clearly intelligent—even intellectual—without possessing much more learning than his cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley. And Jimmy Lee does not have voluptuous women cradling a microphone erotically, cooing and moaning like Liza Minnelli at Caesar’s Palace.
The vulgarity and cheapness that affects some of this counterculture should not come as a surprise. All commercial culture in the U.S. is cheap and vulgar, and the Evangelicals run the gamut from the late Francis Schaeffer, a serious and dignified writer and lecturer, and the very gentlemanly Pat Robertson, all the way to the antics of certain traveling evangelists who cure spinal meningitis and raise the dead (don’t tell me they don’t: I’ve seen it). What gives food for thought is the perception, shared by many Christians, that they are an embattled saving remnant,. the children of Israel in Egypt, or the Puritans in the wilderness of Massachusetts. After all, self-described Christians have always constituted a majority in this country. Why do some of them regard themselves as a persecuted minority?
The standard answer is some form of modernization theory. Evangelical Protestantism was mainstream in America down to the end of the last century, when the pressures of capitalism, scientific and critical thought, and liberal politics began to erode the faith. In the cities and suburbs, main-line Protestants began to liberalize, while their country cousins withdrew into their hard shells. In fact, Evangelicals are strongest in the South (weakest in New England) and in rural areas, small towns, and medium-sized cities but scarcer than hens’ teeth in cities of over a million. They are also found mainly in the lower and middle levels of income and education (demographics from American Evangelicalism by James D. Hunter). In the context of modernization theory, Evangelicals ought to be, in the long run, a doomed species and even in the short run a group unable to have an impact on the cultural leader ship. What this approach does not explain is their astound ing success at creating their own institutions, their own leaders, their own culture. The affluent and educated left tried to create a counterculture in the 60’s—based on drugs, rock music, and poor hygiene—but it was a dismal failure. What has Jerry Falwell got that Torn Hayden doesn’t—apart from brains, moral sense, and followers?
The mistake is to view the Christian counterculture as a strictly religious movement For one thing, most Evangelicals refuse to limit their religion to the church; it pervade s their whole life. Besides, there is a broader social and political backdrop to consider. When sociologists and editorialists say that Fundamentalists “discovered” politics in the 1970’s, they are offering half a truth. As Christians, these people had pretty much stayed out of politics. But as farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers, they have more than once charged onto the political landscape.
I refer, of course, to the various populist uprisings in American history: the farmers who swept Jefferson and Jackson into office and campaigned for the Farmer’s Alliance in the 1880’s and the People’s Party in the 1890’s, the supporters of “isolationists” like Gerald Nye and, a little later, of Joseph McCarthy. For populists, the issues were always changing, and they were often wrong. Free coinage of silver was not the panacea imagined by William Jennings Bryan, and state ownership and regulation of railroads and industry—a favorite populist/progressive proposal—was no cure for the extortions and corruptions practiced by our “Captains of Industry.” State capitalism inevitably works like the post office: We pay higher and higher prices for deteriorating service, while the head of the system lives. in a penthouse furnished by taxpayers.
If the populists were often wrong on solutions, they were always right on the problem. From the days of Jefferson, they recognized that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a social elite was against the best interests and, indeed, the spirit of the United States. John Adams is usually regarded as the most conservative of the Founding Fathers because he feared the rising power of an irresponsible democracy. But it was Jefferson—the utopian dreamer and deist—who was the real conservative. He didn’t trust the rich any more than he trusted the poor. He was skeptical of human nature itself and recognized, better than anyone but Patrick Henry, the dangerous temptation posed by political power. Break it up, he insisted, into the smallest possible bits. Let the farmer take care of his farm, let the local landowners manage their township or ward, and let their representatives (ever more oligarchically) handle the affairs of county, state, and nation. Under no circumstances, he insisted, should politicians be given one jot more authority than was necessary.
Inevitably, a series of social and economic elites arose and presumed to govern the nation in their own interests: New England businessmen arranged tariffs, taxes, and freight rates to their exclusive benefit; rich Southern planters tied the interests of their region to the slavery question—even though only one Southerner in four actually owned slaves. After the Civil War came the decades of the Yellow Rich and the robber barons-sleek, pompous, amoral, and irreligious. Because their women slept around, America must have liberalized divorce laws; because their children went to Harvard, the churches had to turn their backs on the old-time religion; because they had extensive international contacts and loyalties, Americans saw themselves increasingly entangled in alliances, wars, and—after common men had given their blood to win the wars—there came the questionable treaties.
As Senator Nye said of the 1930’s, “To have been for America first came to be looked upon as treason by those who had foreign interests at heart.” Later on, McCarthy was to identify the problem with Communists and leftists, but they were only the newest avatars of the cosmopolitan anti-Americans who infested the American ruling class. There are still, it goes without saying, remnants of the responsible older aristocracy, but they are a dying breed.
Many conservatives are frankly worried by any manifestation of populism. As “elitists,” they are suspicious of excessive democracy. As John Lukacs writes in Outgrowing Democracy:
Critics of populism or of democracy . . . have feared or castigated “the common man,” believing that further democratization and popularization of any process, of any institution, would necessarily lead to anarchy and/or extremism.
As Lukacs himself points out, the common people, when they have been able to choose, typically showed better sense than their master. You don’t have in be a Democrat to agree with William Buckley’s preference for the first 100 names in the telephone book.
Throughout our history it has been populists who brought us back to earth, back to the realization that this is a plain country built by plain people who worked hard and put their trust in God. For 100 years these people have been mocked, abused, and high-hatted, first by speculators, now by the bureaucrats, journalists, and professors who comprise the managerial elite. We knew they couldn’t fight bade Jerkwater America didn’t have the education, the wealth, or the power to do battle with the great cultural institutions.
Instead, many of them have quietly walked away. They do not constitute “a movement.” They’re much too individualist for that Charlie Daniels is an Evangelical Christian who insists:
Jesus walked on the water
and I know that is hue.
But that profession of faith is made in an obnoxious song telling the Moral Majority to “leave this long-haired country boy alone.” Many Evangelicals won’t vote for Pat Robertson; some don’t want him to run. But his candidacy is living proof that the plain people have had about enough. I, for one, don’t blame them.