America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism

The U.S. leads the free world in its helplessness
before the dissolution of its most cherished values.

Walter Lippmann worried that the promise of private wealth-creation was a weak moral basis for a national community.

For many midcentury thinkers, nihilism, a catastrophic breakdown of faith in national ideology and institutions that had occurred in Europe, was also a possibility in America.

.. The 1960s and 1970s did turn out to reveal a country sharply divided along generational, racial, religious, gender and political lines. White and black, gay and straight, men and women, religious and secular, antiwar protesters and hard-hatted patriots all faced off. For a time, the founding principles of American society — the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — seemed like they would be unable to adjudicate between the competing, often clashing, interests.

.. It has been too easily forgotten that the calamitous failure of these “market Bolsheviks,” as the economist Joseph Stiglitz called them, helped spawn the first major demagogue of our time: Vladimir V. Putin.

.. In another self-protective move, these intellectuals have taken to blaming identity politics for Mr. Trump’s support among white male voters.

.. It could be argued that this frequently asserted and widely believed American creed of continuous and irreversible progress is what saved a diverse society not only from tragic social conflicts, but also from the mass manipulators who have periodically ruined other countries with their quack solutions. Today, however, more people seem to have seen through the constructed nature of this quasi-religious faith: It’s credible only if you believe in it.

.. They feel deceived by a class of politicians, experts, technocrats and journalists which had claimed to be in possession of the truth and offered a series of propositions that turned out to be misleading or wrong:

  • the rising tide of globalization will lift all boats,
  • the market is free and fair, shock therapy would bring capitalism to Russia,
  • shock-and-awe therapy would deliver democracy to Iraq.

Many of the aggrieved now see the elites, who offered to expedite progress while expanding their own power and wealth, as self-serving charlatans.

.. America has accelerated its most insidious tendency: nihilism.