Frontpage Interview's guest today is Brian Anderson, the editor of the Manhattan Institute's flagship magazine, City Journal. He is the author of Raymond Aron: the Recovery of the Political, the controversial 2005 book South Park Conservatives: the Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias, and now, a new book of political theory, Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents, just out from ISI.
FP: Brian Anderson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Anderson: Thanks Jamie-very glad to be back. I'm a regular reader of Frontpage.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Anderson: Puzzlement over an undisputed historical fact: what is it about our prosperous, free-market democracies-by far the freest and most comfortable in human history-that makes them dissatisfying to so many, primarily on the left but also to some extent on the right, too. A series of essays that I'd written for various magazines circled around this theme, and they became the book's starting point.
The book defends democratic capitalism from its ideological opponents but also tries to be open-eyed about what existential weaknesses erode free societies from within. I take as my guides a number of very profound thinkers-historian François Furet, social theorists Francis Fukuyama, Irving Kristol, and Michael Novak, the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, French political thinkers Raymond Aron, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Pierre Manent, and the skeptical conservative John Kekes, among other broadly contemporary writers, and, looming in the background, that giant of Western political thought, Alexis de Tocqueville.
But the book also takes aim at such haters of free societies as the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Sartre, the one-time terrorist and anti-globalization prophet Antonio Negri, and-particularly influential in our universities and legal culture-the philosopher of justice as "fairness," John Rawls.
FP: What are some of the challenges that democratic capitalism faces in the new millennium?
Anderson: The late Furet provides a historical gateway into problems seemingly inseparable from our free societies. His magisterial The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, published in French in 1995, argues that Communism's blend of wild revolutionary will and murky pseudo-science proved so attractive to so many because it exploited two primal weaknesses of the bourgeois regime.
The first, says Furet-and I discuss this at length in my opening chapter, "Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture"-is the egalitarianism unleashed by liberal democracy. The idea of man's universal equality, claimed by liberal democracy as its foundation, is inherently unstable-and subject to a kind of radical overbidding. The very freedoms that liberal societies secure-to pursue wealth, to better one's condition, to create, to strive for success-unceasingly generate new inequalities, since not everybody has the same talent, the same background, the same luck, the same propensity to work. Equality becomes a kind of imaginary horizon, forever retreating as our societies seek to approach it. Communism said it would achieve this equality, once and for all; it just had to break a few eggs, get rid of some political obstacles, accelerate history. Rawls promises something similar, in a calmer, more prosaic way, though not without its own totalitarian implications: achieving a more equal society, muses Rawls, may require genetic engineering, to overcome natural differences.
The second primal weakness of the "bourgeois city," as Furet calls it, is moral indeterminacy. Basing itself on the individual, liberal democracy rebels against, or at least downplays, any extra-human dimension that might provide "hard" answers to the ultimate questions. For all the wondrous liberations of the bourgeois city-its freedom from political tyranny and the dictatorship of material poverty-it privatizes these existential questions, frustrating a natural human impulse to see our highest ideals reflected in our political institutions. Communism, usurping the role of religion, said it would answer these questions politically; the fanatics of Islam seek to politicize human ends as well.
My book is basically saying: live with these two bourgeois dissatisfactions, and keep them in check. Certainly don't try to get rid of them politically. The alternatives are much, much worse-indeed have led to horrible suffering.
FP: What exactly is a suicidal culture? Can you name a few cultures that are suicidal? Do we have suicidal impulses in our own culture?
Anderson: I borrow the notion of the suicide of culture from Buttiglione, and it refers to the threatened triumph of nihilism over what one might call our soul- or character-forming institutions. And yes, we face these impulses. Our elite institutions, our schools in particular, have grown contemptuous of the great humanistic riches of the West, too rarely seeking the true, the good, the beautiful, however plural and difficult to attain these ends might be, and instead celebrating a vapid multiculturalism, hatred of the West, and moral relativism.
There are countervailing tendencies, happily. The Internet has helped mobilize new forms of anti-nihilist culture, as I argued in my previous book South Park Conservatism. And you have many magazines, educators, artists, and even television programs doing truly meaningful work these days-go out and buy the three seasons of David Milch's Deadwood, if you don't think so. America's religiosity is in my view a mostly salutary thing, if occasionally it takes ugly forms, and we still have a genius for association. But it is an ongoing project.
FP: How does the United States differ from other liberal democracies?
Anderson: In my book, I look at the three ways America stands out as a society-our robust religiosity; a vigorous civil society; and our constitutional tradition.
In the chapter "Religious America, Secular Europe," I note that 80 percent of Americans believe in God, and for 60 percent, religion plays an important role in their lives-religion saturates our culture; in Europe, by contrast, these numbers are comparatively miniscule, as one sees reflected in the empty pews. Only Europe's Muslim population exhibits religious energy.
That's a troubling dynamic, as Mark Steyn and others have argued, in part because the triumph of religious indifference in Europe has been accompanied by a growing moral relativism (as shown in the long-term European Values Study) and a demographic implosion, the consequences of which could be far-reaching indeed.
I speculate over some of the reasons for this growing divergence between Europe and America, but at least part of our energetic religious life has to do with the genius of the Founders, who created a system that, by refusing the establishment of a national church, allowed religions to flourish and compete for believers-and such competition, research shows, is healthy for religion.
America's civil society-including its innumerable religious bodies-is far healthier than one finds in many other democracies. Tocqueville already noticed the American capacity for association back in the nineteenth century, and holds true today. A thriving civil society keeps the Nanny State at bay and-as Arthur Brooks recently argued in his excellent book on American philanthropy, Who Really Cares?-it helps build the virtues of citizenship that help invigorate free societies.
Finally, our constitution has provided the framework for Americans to pursue their varied and rivalrous ideals of the good life in relative peace.
FP: What role does the American Left play in threatening the future of American democracy?
Anderson: The radical Left tries to push egalitarianism to a destructive extreme and moral indeterminacy into out-and-out nihilism. It opposes American religiosity with an angry secularism. It tries to regulate civil society out of existence, replacing it with overweening government. And it seeks to transform constitutionalism into another form of politics through judicial activism. All of these things, I argue, will weaken our democracy and also make it harder to confront the existential threat of our time: radical Islam.
This is not, however, to embrace a conservative politics that believes there might be a too-easy political fix to our cultural discontents.
FP: Brian Anderson, thank you for joining us.
Anderson: It has been a great pleasure to be back on Frontpage -- thanks for the opportunity.