In an article ostensibly considering the literary legacy of science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, John Derbyshire veers off into an interesting discussion of the current American culture. Derbyshire’s conclusion is that a great separation of American society has taken place since the 1950s:
America has always had elites, of course, and we have always had an underclass of some kind. Both seem to be much bigger now than they were then, though. Furthermore, if you subtracted off the elites and the underclass in Heinlein’s time, what was left—the great middle—was far more homogenous then than it is now, its members much better acquainted with each other. The social distance between (say) a doctor and (say) a cop, was smaller then than it is now
I have said in the past that the great change in American society and culture actually began shortly after World War II, and that the 1950s were in fact the leading edge of this change (which commonly is erroneously attributed to the 1960s), but I agree that the broad outline of Derbyshire’s account is true.
After mentioning this Great Disruption, to use Francis Fukuyama’s term, Derbyshire quotes a note Derb wrote on NRO’s The Corner blog, to explain why this change occurred:
The main reason the 1950s looks so good to so many of us is that in moving from the old order to the new, we lost much of our civilizational confidence. You may say that that confidence was misplaced, or an illusion; you may even say that it was obnoxious, and good riddance to it; and you may be right on all points. There is something awfully attractive about civilizational confidence though. Like innocence, once gone, it can’t be recaptured. Those of us who recall it shouldn’t be blamed for missing it.
Derb traces this to a loss of connections among the "little platoons" of society:
the "social capital" Heinlein describes—the neighborliness and mutual assistance, the networks of clubs, associations, friendly societies, and volunteer organizations that hold communities together—was a key underpinning of that civilizational confidence.
With those ties greatly diminished, he says, the U.S. elites have been able to rush in an further divide the masses to conquer them more thoroughly.
Derbyshire does not say, however, what tore those ties asunder. I would say that government did so, from the Progressive incursions of the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, bolstered by the nationalization of many government functions during World War I, and then, after the brief respite of the 1920s, an increasingly aggressive takeover of all things by the national government during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.
It is this inexorable increase of government that destroyed the natural bonds among the American people.
Derb accurately describes the current situation:
Our political system is now run by the Big People for their own interests. If they ever deign to notice the Little People, it is with disdain and contempt. . . .
This indifference, this disdain and contempt, is mostly hidden behind smokescreens of bogus “compassion” and ostentatious, self-serving religiosity — especially around election time. Elites know that when their group protectiveness shows itself openly through the smoke, it is greeted with widespread public disgust.
He accurately identifies the model for this kind of government: the banana republics of Latin America:
As the separating-out of our society continues—as we get ever closer to the Latin American model—our rulers will no longer need to bother with smokescreens. They will be able to attend to their self-interest undisturbed, as the elites to our south do, bribing or outwitting the commoners if discontent rises to uncomfortable levels—or perhaps, like Mexico’s current elite, just exporting them.
Without identifying the basic cause of the problem, however, Derb cannot prescribe any remedy, and the entire piece evidences a powerful pessimism. He appears to believe that the whole process was simply inevitable and its continuation all but immutable.
It is not. We can turn this around by resisting further incursions of government into our lives and turning back those that have accumulated over the past century. That means a return to the classical liberal, English Whig values that the founders of this nation established as our natural political order.
This is entirely within our power, and if we fail to accomplish it, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Not the elites, not history, nothing. Just ourselves.