Researchers report significantly increased rates of suicide among U.S. military personnel, college students, and baby boomers. Until now, suicide was most prevalent among teenagers and elderly persons. Journalists have suggested a number of explanations for the phenomenon, among the more plausible of them the structural collapse of the American family in which troubled, lonely, and unhappy people traditionally found affection and support of both a moral and a material sort. The widespread failure of the basic social unit in Western societies is only one among many signs of a growing and pervasive discontent with personal and institutional realities—in this instance, the fundamentally unromantic and unsentimental nature of the spousal relationship and its extended familial ones. Discontent, a structural element of democratic systems, becomes an aggravated condition in mass democracies such as the United States, where popular politics and consumerist commerce both compete and combine in encouraging fantastic material expectations, a pernicious sense of rights and entitlements, and a false and ultimately diabolical metaphysic that is really no metaphysic at all.
Since World War II, Americans have been a progressively dissatisfied, restless, and perpetually demanding people. When one considers the unprecedented extent of American affluence, individual freedom, economic opportunity, geographic mobility, and access to a range of pleasures, diversions, and elaborate baubles made available by technological ingenuity and easy credit, Americans’ dissatisfaction seems like monumental ingratitude to history as well as to the God Who, according to American mythology, chose this country as His own more than two centuries ago. Political, economic, and cultural critics will naturally object that what government statisticians call affluence is actually a fraud, that personal freedom in America (including freedom of speech and of worship) is rapidly diminishing, and that economic opportunity is restricted increasingly to the One Percent and their lieutenants, the 95-99 percent. These sophisticates, however, in their separation from the common run of the American people, neither perceive nor experience American society in the way their social and intellectual inferiors do. The best life in the best of all possible worlds must necessarily fail to meet the elevated standards of the little magazine editor in lower Manhattan, the popular television host in Chicago, the college professor in New Haven, the activist lawyer in Cincinnati, or the publisher of the local newspaper in Fort Collins, Colorado. These will always feel the pea under the mattress that less sensitive skins will never notice. And yet their dissatisfaction, unlike that of the man on the street, hardly reflects an honest democrat’s sense of betrayal in respect of the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear). Instead, it indicates exactly the opposite: a conviction that these things need to be redefined to the point of reinvention, to be pummeled and stretched into agreement with the precepts of advanced liberalism. Where the middle American majority and the intellectual American minority meet is on the shared assumption that life in America always falls short, that too much is never enough, that things need to “change,” and that the proper and constitutional role of government is to produce that change.
But “change” means almost diametrically opposite things for these two basic divisions of American society. The first wants what Herbert Croly, at the turn of the last century, called the promise of American life: more money, more possessions, more leisure, and more freedom, including freedom below the belt and a greater opportunity to exercise it without consequences and responsibility. The second wishes to make a dialectical-historical awareness of the need for transformative moral, social, and political change the moral center of every American citizen’s life, and its realization the end of activist government, whose field of action in achieving it would be total and, if need be, ruthless. The majority has no enthusiasm for this project, and resists it in those instances when the minority pushes too hard and shows its hand. However, it is inevitably influenced by the culture of relentless and perpetual critique stationed above it, and it is susceptible to bullying by its unacknowledged betters who, in the age of mass communications and social media, determine appropriate standards of thought, speech, and social behavior in a liberally advanced democracy, as Emily Post once did for an earlier and less “developed” democratic society.
Popular discontent in America in the 21st century combines the disappointed aspirations, desires, and demands of the old American republicans with those characteristic of the post-historical American ideologues and social engineers. For the “conservative” majority, “contentment” means the abject willingness to abandon the intrinsically American assumption that life for each successive generation of American individuals will be bigger, fuller, wider, and richer, and its corollary, that every successive generation has the God-given right to have that expectation fulfilled. What the majority demands for itself is, qualitatively speaking, what it has historically worked and hoped for. It refuses to give up on Croly’s promise of America, or surrender what James Truslow Adams a few years later called “the American Dream.” For the majority of Americans, “contentment” would be the pusillanimous refusal to press one’s constitutional right to More, by intelligence and hard work preferably, otherwise at the expense of the rich and better off. The American revolutionary minority, on the other hand, has an infinitely more sophisticated project in hand, one not reducible (in theory, anyway) to materialist terms. This minority descends from the millennialist experimental communities early in the 19th century, a social experiment that was restricted almost exclusively to a handful of states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where it never succeeded in establishing itself as the orthodoxy of the educated classes. The successor to this brief and abortive American tradition was Progressivism, a less radical and more realistic program than the newly imported socialist doctrine—the Trier Dream—that never succeeded in making headway against it but in the last decades of the 20th century was partially displaced, but also powerfully reinvigorated, by advanced multicultural liberalism, or the Frankfurt Dream, admitted in the baggage of Adorno, Marcuse, et al. through the golden gates of Ellis Island in the 1930’s. Despite recent attempts to update and socialize it, the American Dream has been historically an individualistic and practical vision centered on a narrowly commercial form of activity entirely at odds with the Trier and Frankfurt Dreams of a collectivist utopia where all distinctions among individuals and groups have been abolished and Marx’s abhorred commodity, money, has withered away; a spiritually autonomous secular world and strictly human artifact. For the revolutionary minority, “contentment” is mere moral apathy, the refusal to cooperate in the noble project of the perfection of man and society in this world, the only world there is. Majority and minority alike, however, work from the assumption that the logic of democratic society implies that life should be a process of endless material betterment and expanded freedom achieved by ceaseless change.
Visitors from Europe to the United States in the 19th century were nearly unanimous in observing that Americans never stand still, that they are always in motion, never in repose. Indeed, standing still has always been the supreme American heresy: an unmistakable sign of sloth, but also of an unwarranted and inexcusable contentment, a refusal to “make” of oneself all that one can make. Thus, discontent seemed a virtue, rather than the condition of radical ingratitude it is. Historians, preferring to perceive instead a healthy “restlessness” and “adventurousness of spirit,” have traditionally presented this quintessentially American characteristic as an admirable one that made possible the settlement of a continent and the subjugation of its aborigines, the creation of a new civilization. Yet general historians and men of letters, unlike modern academic specialists, ought to have a broad view of history. There is a time for everything, in the lives of nations as in those of men. Youth is a time for action, maturity for examination, age for reflection. Modern historians—American historians, at any rate—seem blind to this ancient wisdom. One expects from an historical writer an exuberant enthusiasm for the active and extroverted America of Fenimore Cooper’s day. Strangely, no 21st-century historian appears to consider that what were national virtues in the era of American expansion might not be national virtues today; or that the “strenuous life” proposed for the United States by Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 might no longer be appropriate either to American society or to American government in 2013.
The largest of the many influences responsible for America’s prolonged adolescence and the restlessness and dissatisfaction that accompany that unhappy time of life is surely the political and business classes’ commitment to perpetuating mass immigration into the indefinite future, as far as the eye can see. The arrival of two-and-a-half-million legal, and countless numbers of illegal, immigrants per year in the United States does far more than assure endless demographic, cultural, and political change. It prolongs the reality, and the perception, of America as a raw and unfinished nation populated by single-minded individualistic strivers and aggressively competing ethnic and cultural groups, a society in which no one can ever have enough of anything, although everybody is acknowledged to deserve everything; a society madly engaged in expansion and inflation rather than consolidation and appreciation, in action and activism rather than in contemplation and reflection. In these circumstances, the United States can never mature into a condition of civilization but is fated instead to remain a noisy engine of frantic commerce, destined to implode like a dying star trailing streams of bright ephemeralities, all of them forgettable and certain to be forgotten.
Lacking a precommercial past and unlikely to enjoy a postcommercial future, America is the first purely commercial nation in history. Marx, failing to see that private property is the indispensable basis, practically and morally, of civilization, was wrong about socialism. But he was entirely right about capitalism, which for too many people is the indispensable condition for property, though history—ancient history, especially—shows otherwise. According to the laws of capitalism, whatever ceases to grow, dies. What’s good (enough) for General Motors is good enough for the United States of America, too.