The Lonely Crowd III: American Moral Progress 1950-1969

In the year 1969, David Riesman wrote a preface for the third edition of The Lonely Crowd. Within this preface, he raised the question of American moral progress and asked if the United States was advancing or regressing in its moral character. Specifically, he wanted to know if the United States had been “improving” or “worsening” in a moral context since the year 1950, when the first edition of The Lonely Crowd was published.

We are still asking ourselves this question today, several decades after Riesman first posed it, and several years after Riesman and his work, including The Lonely Crowd, passed into obscurity. Not only is this question still active, but, within the last few years, it has come to dominate the forefront of our political consciousness. We are constantly debating and arguing over whether America has “improved” in its moral function—not just since the year 1950, but in the five hundred years since the New World was discovered.

Obviously, this question generated renewed attention, and obtained a newfound sense of urgency, after the election of 2016. In the aftermath of that notorious presidential contest, the United States commenced an arduous and often traumatizing process of attempted self-examination. There was, and continues to be, an almost obsessive effort to evaluate ourselves, and the country in which we live, and to determine whether we are living in a time of moral decline or moral growth. Basically, we are attempting to measure our own moral progress, and to find out if we are “on the right track”.

For some reason, this question became extremely important to us after Trump defeated Hillary. It even seems to have become the quintessential question of our current political epoch: liberals and conservatives are defined today, not so much by their political positions, but rather by their answers to this question of American moral progress. In short, liberals appear to believe we are moving in the “proper” moral direction, whereas conservatives appear to believe the “proper” moral code can be found in the recent past.

Then again, it could be that this has always been the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives, and that this difference became clear only after the election of 2016. In any event, it is obvious that the election of 2016 made this question so much more fascinating to the masses, most of whom had never taken any serious interest in politics before; and because they knew very little of politics before the election of 2016, many of them have come to believe that this question of American moral progress is a new question, a question that emerged only recently.

However, our reading of The Lonely Crowd proves that this question is neither new nor recent. As we can see, Americans were asking themselves this question at least as far back as 1969, and often enough for David Riesman to note it. In fact, there are many similarities between the political culture of the 1960s and the political culture of today, with both being characterized by turbulent polarization and factional conflict. The potential for sectarian conflict, and the deterioration of our social fabric, probably felt just as pertinent in the 1960s as it does today—and we must remember that, in the immediate present, we are not contending with a situation comparable to the Vietnam War.

With that being said, here is what David Riesman wrote in response to this question of American moral progress, as he understood it in the year 1969:

“In my opinion American society is not basically more evil and brutal than heretofore. In spite of war and preparation for war, and in the face of heightening racial tension, the lessening of bigotries described in The Lonely Crowd has continued; improved education and the more liberal mass media have had an impact on traditional xenophobia. The fact that progressive measures, men, and attitudes have not brought peace at home or abroad keeps Americans polarized between our generous impulses and our fears.”

Before we say anything more, we should make it absolutely clear that we are not required to accept Mr. Riesman’s answer as our own. As we continue our analysis of The Lonely Crowd, we will find many instances in which Mr. Riesman was mistaken, both as a contemporary critic and as a futurist visionary. We are not quoting Mr. Riesman in order to present his opinion as fact, but we may find his commentary helpful in expanding our own political and historical perspective. I have modified many of my own views after reading The Lonely Crowd, even though I often disagreed with Mr. Riesman.

In this specific case, I am not entirely sure whether I agree or disagree with him. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate our moral condition against any kind of definitive standard, let alone by such arbitrary descriptions of “better” or “worse”. Let us consider the Vietnam War: although it seems to be rather obvious to me that the Vietnam War was “immoral”, I am not sure that it was any more “immoral” than any number of wars that preceded it. Even if we were to declare that the Vietnam War was nothing more than an imperialist conquest undertaken in the cynical pursuit of power and wealth, couldn’t we say the same of the Spanish-American War? Couldn’t we say the same about the Korean War? Couldn’t we say the same about the First World War? Certainly, we can make a persuasive case for the “immorality” of the Vietnam War, but it is much more difficult to suggest this particular conflict somehow signified a decisive shift, positively or negatively, for our American moral character.

On the other hand, it would be downright ridiculous to suggest that there was no relevant change in our moral character in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. To my understanding, the change lay within our evaluation of our moral character, which became markedly critical as the corpses piled up in the Far East. It seems as though the grotesquery and tragedy of the Vietnam War inspired a sense of disgust and indignation in many Americans, who came to look upon their country with a feeling of heartbroken bitterness. They accused the United States of betraying itself, and betraying its own moral cause, by pursuing its unbecoming objectives in Vietnam, which, they believed, was much more “immoral” than anything it had done thitherto.

In my opinion, this question of “relative immorality” usually inhibits contemplation, as it demands a comparative judgement before we have even made an initial judgement. Riesman, however, was more concerned about inhibiting action, as he feared the destructive consequences of widespread political pessimism. Let us read a second quote of his, taken from the same preface of 1969:

“The sense of profound malaise many of us have about our society today reflects our nearly insuperable problems, but it also reflects our heightened expectation as to the society we should be and the contribution we should be making to the world … Measured despair of our society, expressed publicly, can serve to warn us against catastrophe and to arouse us from somnolence; extravagant despair, however, can lead some to withdraw from political and cultural action while others feel justified in acts of destructiveness and fail to grasp the potentials for nonviolent change that do exist.”

At this point, we might allow ourselves to apply Mr. Riesman’s analysis, written more than fifty years ago, to the political culture of our own time. Our political culture offers a limitless abundance of cause for “extravagant despair”, and because our political culture has effectively merged with our popular culture, this dispiriting material is now reaching the widest possible audience. There is a relentless, endless challenge to resist the temptation of “extravagant despair”, and many of us have given up—with good reason. I myself have frequently entertained the idea of shutting myself off to the political culture completely, as if this were somehow possible. Presumably, this is what Riesman means when he observes how some people “withdraw from political and cultural action”.

Certainly, he is right when he says, “Others feel justified in acts of destructiveness and fail to grasp the potentials for nonviolent change that do exist.” As we mentioned earlier, the election of 2016 gave rise to a widespread political reawakening, which, obviously, necessitated a recalibration of our political-moral code. This process is still ongoing, but it is rather obvious that, throughout this process, we are losing patience for our political opponents, and we are probably coming to a point where we can no longer tolerate them. Accordingly, many people have pursued the “destruction” of their political opponents—although destruction can mean different things in different situations.

In the aftermath of 2016, there have been efforts not only to destroy, but to rationalize destruction as a necessary measure in the campaign against our political opponents. We have been told, again and again, that our political opponents are jeopardizing our moral progress, leaving us to conclude that they must be stopped “by any means necessary”. This message is intended for the masses, the masses who, we will recall, began only recently to contemplate politics, history, and morality, and who therefore cannot see through the moralistic sophistry required to deliver this argument—an argument that is really a call to arms.

However, we cannot pursue this train of thought much further before we succumb to our own form of “extravagant despair”. In contemplating this, we can envision all too easily a foreboding future in which there is no longer any hope left for anyone at all. Perhaps this future will come to fruition, but we cannot surrender to it prematurely, and thereby facilitate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of losing ourselves in our arbitrary vision for the future, and instead of arguing over whether the United States is “going to be” either “better” or “worse”, we would do well first to try to understand our moral development hitherto, and then, based on this, attempt to determine the direction in which we may be moving.

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