The Crumbling Cultural Foundations of American Democracy

Democracy rests on a complex set of values—and many of those values are fading.

Some might counter that American democracy has extremely deep roots, that we’ve proven ourselves remarkably resilient against prior malaises like fascism, Communism and (going way back) Jacobinism. Conservative thought on social decay has a strain that suggests societies can rebound. People return to old cultural touchstones when new ways cause suffering. There’s certainly some truth in this. The death of God, for example, gets proclaimed about every eighty years or so, only for religion to come surging back. Yet a closer look reveals that things weren’t quite the same. In the Middle East, secular Ataturks and Nassers were indeed replaced by more religious leaders. But these leaders have been mere corruptions of the old form—Erdogan a thief, Morsi an incompetent, Khamenei a sham. They aren’t exactly the true heirs of the Golden Age of Islam. It’s a similar story in the West: the religious resurgence was hardly a restoration of the glory of old. They’re putting churches in strip malls now.

Cultural structures, then, don’t always snap back, good as new, when bent. Something is lost. People forget the intricacies when rebuilding from memory. And the singular degree of intergenerational alienation we see today would suggest that the next American cultural restoration will be even more vulgar than the last. We can only hope that those taking the long view are right—that the roots of a diverse and robust American democracy are deep enough to survive the current drought.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Wikipedia/Elcajonfarms. CC BY-SA 3.0.