Twilight of the American Enlightenment (Reno’s Review)

19 Mar

From R.R. Reno at First Things:

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

Article by   March 2014
marsdentwilightenlightenment93.jpgGeorge Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. New York: Basic Books, 2014, pp. 264. $19.99/£14.99
After World War II, a consensus about truth gave way to a consensus about the importance of consensus. The result was a liberal politics without principle that required an arbitrary (because without principle) and sometimes ruthless suppression of dissent. This consensus approach eventually encouraged a committed and sometimes fierce politics of conviction. Thus the turbulent 1960’s and the culture wars of recent decades. That’s the thesis of George Marsden’s readable and insightful history of American liberalism, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.
Arthur Schlesinger’s 1949 book, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, articulated the new consensus liberalism. Capitalism and technology, he argued, lever modern man out of traditional forms of social solidarity. The resulting homelessness makes us vulnerable to collectivist ideologies such as communism and fascism. He proposed a politics of mediation between the new freedoms of modernity and the enduring human need for solidarity. It would be liberal because committed to constitutional freedoms, and at the same time “social” because committed to using state power to manage capitalism and directs its creative power toward the common good. With this combination Schlesinger promises to “restore the balance between individual and community.”
What principles were to guide this restoration of balance? None, as it turns out. Schlesinger and others thought America had entered a new phase of politics and culture. In the past men fought over religious convictions and moral principles. Traditional public life was riven by a politics of conviction that, in twentieth century, took rigid ideological forms. Schlesinger and others thought providence had been kind to America, however. We were spared the worse excesses of ideological conflict. Moreover, they believed we were entering a new social and cultural phase, one in which pragmatism and empiricism was coming to the fore, not principles.
The title of Daniel Bell’s collection of essays, published in 1960, captured this vision perfectly: The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. By his reckoning, sensible, responsible people of the sort who were running the country had discarded political ideologies, committing themselves to rational, non-ideological adjustments of the status quo. It was an entirely plausible supposition at the time. As Marsden points out, “science” was a hallelujah word in the 1950’s, used to sell cars, cigarettes, and social policies. Urban planning and economic management were scientific, and therefore transcended ideology, or so its proponents believed. Although the term had yet to be invented, liberalism of the 1950’s envisioned governance by technocrats, which meant reasonable people like themselves who could see the larger picture and rise above petty partisan interests.
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