One day in the autumn of 1967, the Berkeley sociologist Nathan Glazer visited Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He was there to debate the community activist Saul Alinsky. The subject was the New Left. Glazer was a well-known critic of the radical politics then making its way through American social, cultural, and educational institutions. But he was no stranger to radicalism itself.
A 1944 graduate of the City College of New York, Glazer belonged to the coterie that had lunched in the campus dining hall’s Alcove No. 1, where non-Stalinist Marxists and other members of the left opposition argued over history, reform, class, and war. Many members of this circle, which included Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, Seymour Melman, and Philip Selznick, went on to perform distinguished work in the social sciences.
Glazer was not an exception. With David Riesman, he co-authored The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, a pathbreaking work that helped define the 1950s (somewhat unfairly) as an era of bland conformity. And with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Glazer co-wrote Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, a landmark 1963 study of ethnicity in New York City that demonstrated the enduring power of culture to shape group behavior.
Glazer did not think of himself as a man of the right. He supported the civil-rights movement, belonged to the pro-arms-control Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, opposed the Vietnam War for its duration, believed in the promise of the welfare state, and fought against urban renewal. He voted Democratic all his life.
It was his experience as a teacher at Berkeley, where he arrived in 1963, that forced Glazer to reconsider his self-identification as a “mild radical.” While agreeing with the principles of free speech and academic freedom, Glazer argued that students went too far in demanding the right to conduct on-campus political activity, fundraising, and organizing.
When students occupied buildings and heckled administrators, Glazer turned against the Free Speech Movement. He later said:
There was an aspect of—almost of a taunting, of seeing to what extent one could put this institution and its representatives off-balance, which was not a legitimate way to conduct the argument or discussion, unless one thought it was such a reprehensible institution that anything you did to show it up was correct.
In Glazer’s view, the situation of privileged youth in a university setting did not warrant tactics that had been justified to protest segregation in the South. The politicization of the university robbed the institution of its functions of free inquiry and the transmission of knowledge. And it threatened the academy’s independence.
By the time of his encounter with Alinsky at Swarthmore, Glazer’s skepticism toward the New Left had become pronounced. He rejected calls for personal liberation and social revolution. He said:
By the radical left I mean those who believe there is something fundamentally and irredeemably wrong with our society, and who think the chief way of righting it lies in mobilizing the power of all the disadvantaged groups among us behind a drive for radical change—change going to the roots.
Mild-mannered, temperate, humanitarian, and fair-minded, Glazer acknowledged that the New Left was a response to the undeniable ills of war, racism, and petty bureaucratic restrictions on college undergraduates. But he could not endorse its reduction of every social problem to a question of power. Nor could he accept its cavalier disavowal of institutions. “Most of the problems we face are not so simple and require continuous expert attention,” he said.
The New Left was wrong in thinking that then-current injustices had uncovered the poisoned roots of American society. It was wrong in believing that justice would prevail only when those roots were torn out. He concluded:
Ultimately, my disagreement with the radical left comes down to this: I see no Gordian knot to be cut at a single stroke, the cutting of which would justify the greatest efforts (as in the past it has seemed to justify great horrors).
In the years after his appearance at Swarthmore, the student rebellion spread to Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. It spilled out into the streets during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Glazer grew alarmed at this radical predilection to simplify and confront. He blanched at the increasing anti-Americanism of the New Left. He recoiled at its repudiation of America.
“When we saw this attack launched in the most extreme terms, we simply didn’t understand what they were arguing about or what they were fighting about,” he said. “The critique they launched of the United States was something we simply could not accept.” Violent protests, militants brandishing weapons on campus, and harassment of officials and non-radical students pushed Glazer to meditate on his own foundational principles.
In 1970, Glazer brought together a few of his writings on the New Left. In the concluding chapter he wrote:
I have made some commitments: that an orderly democracy is better than government by the expressive and violent outbursts of the most committed; that the university embodies values that transcend the given characteristics of a society or the specific disasters of an administration; that the faults of our society, grave as they are, do not require, indeed would in no way be advanced by, the destruction of those fragile institutions which have been developed over centuries to transmit and expand knowledge.
And these commitments, Glazer admitted in his introduction, put him “closer to those who call themselves conservative than to those who call themselves liberal in early 1970.”
Glazer drew the title for the collection from an aside in his friend Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It. Recounting his own concerns with the New Left, and with “a certain tone or emphasis in these more and more coalescent movements which seemed to me to be turning them away from the necessary impulse to reexamine the clichés of the fifties and toward a disastrous surrender to the equally vicious clichés of the thirties,” Podhoretz drew parallels between the radicals of his time and the Stalinists from three decades before.
Vituperation of America for its supposed endemic racism and imperialism was a feature of both tendencies. Podhoretz recounted how William Phillips, one of the founders of the left-wing but anti-Stalinist Partisan Review, “once told the New Left-minded English critic Kenneth Tynan that he could not argue with him about politics, because Tynan’s arguments were so old that he, Phillips, could no longer remember the answers.” The name of Glazer’s book was Remembering the Answers: Essays on the American Student Revolt.
Glazer placed on his fellow professors a lot of the responsibility for the New Left’s success.
When I say we were wrong, I mean that we never dreamed that a radical critique of American society and government could develop such enormous power, to the point where it becomes simply the new convention, and where even in the fraternities and sororities conservative opinion has gone underground.
This failure of imagination left defenseless the guardians of institutions such as the university. “When the questions came up again—imperialism, capitalism, exploitation, alienation—those of us who believed that Marxist and anarchist critiques of contemporary society were fundamentally wrong could not, it seems, find the answers—at least the ones that worked.”
Other members of the faculty had no such hesitation. “The students who sat in, threw out the deans, and fought with the police have after all been taught by American academics, among others—by C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, and many, many others,” Glazer wrote. “All these explained how the world operated, and we failed to answer effectively. Or we had forgotten the answers. We have to start remembering and start answering.”
THREE WAVES OF RADICALISM
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to read Glazer in 2020 without feeling a pang of recognition. Although the campuses themselves may be shadows of their former selves because of the coronavirus, the doctrines propounded within them for decades animate crusades to eliminate structural racism, defund the police, abolish immigration and customs enforcement, and “decolonize” museums, classrooms, and curricula. It is an agenda of negation.
The draft is gone. America is not engaged in a major war. But mass demonstrations became routine this year. In late May, the gruesome video of the police killing of George Floyd inspired nationwide protests that in some cases ended in violence, vandalism, arson, and the toppling of statues of not only Confederate generals but also Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, and even Frederick Douglass.
The incidence of violent crime in America’s cities is rising. Social media fuels a “cancel culture” in which individuals lose jobs, privacy, and reputations for violating fluid norms of political correctness. The country’s most prominent newspaper devotes itself to revising American history into nothing more than a litany of unending racism and oppression. Anarchists target federal property and wage street battles against law enforcement. The incumbent president calls for “law and order” as both he and his opponents claim the mantle of the “silent majority.” The chaos and upheaval of the late 1960s have returned. Only this time, they are accompanied by plague and recession.
The current unrest is the third wave of radicalism to wash over America in the past century. The first was the upsurge in socialism and Communism to which Glazer belonged during the Great Depression. The second was the New Left’s anti-war and black-power movement that shocked Glazer and others into becoming neoconservatives (a label with which Glazer was never entirely comfortable). On one hand, today’s radicalism has its origins in academic theories of white privilege, disparate impact, and intersectionality, and, on the other, in a series of high-profile police or vigilante killings of black men and women, beginning with the murder of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Glazer, who died in 2019, is not here to respond to it. But he left us some clues to his thinking. In one of his last interviews, Glazer observed that this cohort of radicals shares with its New Left predecessors a “discomfort at discussion that looks seriously” at issues of race and ethnicity.
There are other similarities. As happened before, today’s radicalism starts by identifying a real social problem—the complex, tangled, and fraught relationship between African Americans and the police—but ends up condemning the whole of American society. As happened before, today’s radicalism seeks to achieve a noble end—racial equality—but by any means, sometimes including violence.
And it flirts with revolution. “I said if this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it,” Hawk Newsome, president of the Greater New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, told the Fox News Channel anchor Martha MacCallum on June 24. “And I could be speaking figuratively. I could be speaking literally. It’s a matter of interpretation.”
It is also a matter of pressing importance for Joe Biden. For today’s radicalism is not exactly identical to that of the previous two waves. It has several distinct advantages. First, the earlier movements lived on the fringes of American politics. Today’s radicalism is at the center. Second, 1930s socialists and 1960s leftists relied on print materials and analog communications for coordination and planning. Today’s radicals benefit from digital, electronic, and social media that allow them to network, organize, deploy, and disrupt with incredible speed. Third, today’s radicalism draws from a deep well of generational disaffection from American ideals and institutions.
It cannot be an accident that the vanguard of today’s radicalism is populated with men and women from the Millennial generation who were born between 1981 and 1996. Two of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter are 36 years old. The third is 39 years old. The bestselling theorist of racism and anti-racism, Ibram X. Kendi, is 38. The movement’s celebrity icon, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is 32. And its most famous elected official, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is 30. These leaders are the medium between the intellectual traditions of black nationalism, postcolonialism, Afro-pessimism, and democratic socialism, and the diverse, progressive, college-bound, and online activists of Generation Z who fill the movement’s ranks.
Polling data show that the Millennials and Gen Z do not subscribe to conventional views of American history, American exceptionalism, and American free enterprise. A significant fraction of these two generational cohorts also finds itself estranged from the culture-forming institutions of family, voluntary association, and church. Suspicious of established authorities, and bereft of the guidance that religious belief provides its adherents, a growing number of young people look to critical theory for answers, and to identity politics for theology.
Two factors have broadened the appeal of radical politics on both the left and right. There is the blanket perception of betrayal, of promises undelivered, by political and financial elites. And there is the instant access to the wildest and most extreme ideologies and viewpoints on one’s smartphone. From Marxism to Catholic integralism, from black separatism to white nationalism, there are many candidates for what the essayist Wesley Yang has called the “successor ideology” to political liberalism. Each one is extreme.
Biden is facing the dual challenges of a resurgent radicalism and an emergent population that is disconnected from the core ideas and practices of the United States of America. Not only will he have to understand the contours of public opinion and address the institutional failures that lie behind it. He also will have to formulate convincing justifications for the individual and group inequalities that accompany the development of free societies. In short, he will have to remember the answers.
THE CULTURE OF REPUDIATION
THE EVIDENCE of generational alienation is stunning. Since 2001, the Gallup organization has asked Americans to describe how proud they are of their country. The percentage of adults who say they are “extremely proud” to be American reached a high of 70 percent in 2003. It declined and plateaued in the high fifties for about a decade. Then it began to fall precipitously starting in 2015. In 2020, the number that said it was “extremely proud” to be American fell to a new low of 42 percent.
Extreme pride in American identity has declined among all major subgroups since 2016. But the numbers are lowest among young people, nonwhites, women, and college graduates. These groups predominate among the politically active Millennials and Gen Zers. Just 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they are extremely proud to be American. A quarter of nonwhites, and 34 percent of college graduates and women, said the same.
In July 2020, YouGov released a survey on patriotism and politics. One question asked: “Which comes closest to your view of America?” The choices: “an exceptional country whose values, history, and political system are worthy of universal admiration” or “a country with its own unique strengths and weaknesses much like other countries.” Only a third of 18- to 29-year-olds said that America is exceptional. Among 30- to 44-year-olds, the number was just slightly higher, at 37 percent.
This disgust at America’s present is reflected back on America’s past. In a July Fox News Channel poll, 39 percent of registered voters under 30 years old said our country’s Founders are better described as “heroes.” That was the lowest number of any age cohort. It was also a mere 8 percentage points higher than the percentage of those under age 30 who said the Founders are better thought of as “villains.”
How do we account for this turn? Economics may bring us closer to the answer. Student debt, income inequality, and sluggish growth contribute to frustrated ambitions and diminished expectations. “The median net worth of households headed by Millennials (ages 20 to 35 in 2016) was about $12,500 in 2016, compared with $20,700 for households headed by Boomers the same age in 1983,” according to the Pew Research Center. Much of the difference is the result of indebtedness. And the pronounced wage gap between Millennials who have college degrees and those who do not exacerbates the problem of economic insecurity.
However, as Glazer would be among the first to point out, economics does not determine social actuality. It is one’s ideas about the world, and about one’s place in it, that matter more. Millennials and Gen Zers have been cut off from the institutions that supply instruction in America’s past, equip young people to enter adulthood, and provide consolation, meaning, connection, and direction in the face of adversity.
Americans are woefully ignorant of their national story. In 2019, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) surveyed college graduates’ historical and civic knowledge. It found that only 10 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution. Fewer than half knew that the Civil War began in 1861. Just 43 percent understood that Veterans Day commemorates the end of World War I.
Fewer than two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds grasped that July Fourth celebrates the Declaration of Independence. Fifty-five percent of 18- to 29-year-olds did not know the length of congressional terms. Forty percent believed that Brett Kavanaugh is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And 19 percent said Representative Ocasio-Cortez was the architect of the New Deal.
In a 2016 report, ACTA examined the course requirements and offerings of 76 colleges and universities. The report concluded that “the overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government.” Many of the schools that do not require majors to take a course in American history nevertheless insist that they pass courses in non-American or non-Western history.
ACTA surveys in 2012, 2014, and 2015 found that fewer than 20 percent of college graduates “could accurately identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Forty-two percent were able to situate the Battle of the Bulge in the chronology of World War II. A generation that does not know American history cannot be expected to revere it.
No society can function for long when large swathes of its population believe that its foundations are corrupt and its hierarchies of power and wealth are wicked. No society can function for long when the men and women who are expected to inherit it do not enjoy the benefits of family, association, and faith. But this is exactly the type of society that is coming into being in the United States of America.
Millennials have not established their own households at the same rate as previous generations. A May 2016 Gallup analysis found that 59 percent of Millennials were single and had never married. Four years later, the Pew Research Center announced that Millennials “are less likely to live with a family of their own than previous generations were at the same stage of life.” More than half of Millennials remained unmarried; 44 percent are neither married nor cohabiting. When Millennials form families, they are smaller than those that came before. Millennial women delay childbirth and have fewer children than their forebears did.
In October 2019, Pew found that rates of religious affiliation and attendance continued to fall: “Furthermore, the data shows a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation and attendance.” Forty-nine percent of Millennials said they are Christian. Forty percent said they have no religious affiliation. Ten percent identified with a non-Christian religion. Around a third of Millennials attend religious services at least once a month. “Indeed,” the report stated, “there are as many Millennials who say they ‘never’ attend religious services (22%) as there are who say they go at least once a week (22%).”
Not only do young adults decline to affiliate with and practice a religion; they also look unfavorably on religion itself. In November 2019, the American Perspectives Survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute looked at the religious practices of 18- to 29-year-olds. That age span includes Gen Zers and Millennials. Fifty-five percent said religion causes more problems than it solves. Fifty-nine percent said religious people are less tolerant than others are. These attitudes are pretty much the opposite of those held by the general population. And they herald future antagonism among nonbelievers, the unaffiliated, and the faithful.
It may be that Millennials and Gen Zers devote the same energy to politics and social and online activism that their ancestors gave to religious practice. The Georgetown political philosopher Joshua Mitchell has noted the similarities and differences between the contemporary student revolt and historical episodes of religious fervor. “Identity politics is an American Awakening without God and without forgiveness,” he wrote not long after George Floyd’s death. “Like Christianity, it seeks to overcome the curse of death. Like Christianity, it seeks to overcome sin. Like Christianity, it recognizes that the problem of sin is deeper than the problem of death, and has precedence over it.” Unlike Christianity, however, identity politics looks for redemption in this world rather than in the world to come.
Glazer devoted a 1967 lecture at Brandeis University to the relationship between the weakness of religion and the strength of political commitment. He asked: “Does social action meet the same needs as religion?”
Are the two today in a complementary relationship? Certainly this would fit in with those extreme religious thinkers who see even in militant Communism the fulfilment of deep and sound and fundamentally religious instincts—the search for social justice, the urge to transcend the individual and his interests with something higher, the attempt to create a true community, bound together with more than material and contractual ties, here on earth.
Glazer spent the bulk of his speech reviewing the New Left’s politics, art, and lifestyle. “There are elements in the contemporary movement of social action that are akin to religion,” he concluded, “but to what religion?” He had no clear answer. Glazer admired the New Left’s sense of ethics and social justice, but he also feared its utopian inclinations. “The convictions that man is limited, that inevitably his social effort is limited, that no society can ever achieve Nirvana, seem to me healthy and good ones for man,” he said.
What frightens me in the new student movement—I have already described a good deal that exhilarates me—just as what frightens me in the single-minded utopia-seeking of militant Communism, different as the two movements are, is that these necessary convictions as to man’s human limitations have been set aside.
Glazer’s fears were justified. And remain so.
THE POLITICS OF LEGITIMACY
THESE TECHNOLOGICAL, political, economic, pedagogical, and institutional distortions have done more than contribute to Millennial and Gen Z anomie. They also have produced a crisis of legitimacy in the United States. For many Americans, the federal government neither functions according to expectations nor conforms to accepted ideas of democratic accountability. The loser of the popular vote has been elected president twice in the past 20 years. Congress has not passed a budget including all appropriations bills since 1996. The Supreme Court has introduced sweeping changes into marriage and employment law.
There are plenty of reasons for voters to be angry. Government agencies failed to stop the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They mistakenly said Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 Iraq War. They could not prevent (and may have encouraged) the global financial crisis of 2008. And they collapsed in a heap of fecklessness and backbiting when the coronavirus arrived in America in 2020.
Among the harshest disappointments is the fact that the election of the first black president neither improved race relations nor reduced the disparities between African Americans and whites. The persistence of racial bias and inequality despite half a century of political activity, government effort, and gradual improvement remains a profound source of frustration and disillusionment, not only among blacks but also increasingly among whites. This perennial American dilemma is made all the more acute in circumstances of mass immigration and ethnic diversification.
The killing of George Floyd was the catalyst for a cultural and social reckoning with America’s racist past. It inspired renewed efforts to bridge the racial divide. Biden will preside over this national revaluation. He will have to respond to popular interest in matters of race and ethnicity and to all the possible disturbances such interest can bring. And he will have to find ways to convince the rising generation that they are not about to become the trustees of an irredeemable polity.
Fortunately, he and his people will have the memory and work of Glazer to assist him. Glazer’s empiricism and meliorism also made him an opponent of revolutionary upheaval and of policies that resulted in perverse outcomes. Throughout his writings, Glazer insisted on the importance of complexity, partiality, nuance, understanding, and limits. He understood that disparity does not necessarily imply discrimination. He taught that the American protection of freedom under law is a legacy to be cherished.
Glazer was open-minded. In his 1975 book Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy and his 1983 collection Ethnic Dilemmas, 1964–1982, he emphasized individual over group rights to reduce ethnic discrimination. This led him to oppose racial preferences in university admissions and government contracting. His goal was maintaining social stability while allowing African Americans to participate in the model of intergenerational mobility in which immigrant groups had prospered.
In 1982, he wrote:
Without endorsing the rigors of the Americanization programs of World War I and the succeeding decades, I can still see the virtue of forging a single society out of many stocks, and can still see that this process deserves some public guidance… When every group insists it must match every other group in economic resources, occupational status, and political representation, and that public power be used to attain these ends—and to maintain the existence of the group as a separate group, to boot—we have a sure recipe for conflict. We will have to do better, and one way of doing so is to explore whether the much maligned goal of assimilation does not still have much to teach us.
By 1997, when he published We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Glazer had come to believe that the persistence of racial disparities in educational attainment and income justified the continuation of affirmative action and the introduction of multicultural curricula in some schools. “The critics of multiculturalism have much wisdom on their side, and on many issues I join them,” he wrote.
But we now pay for our failure to realize ideals, and the payment cannot be to insist ever more forcefully on the ideals, while ignoring the realities that contradict them. For a while we will be devoting great attention to American diversity in our education and public policy, not without some distortion and distention of the larger picture in the process. Despite this, I believe the elements of the American system that hold us together, in particular the basic political rules that we have adhered to for so long, will permit us to escape the extremes of rancor and divisiveness that the critics of multiculturalism fear.
The extremes of rancor and divisiveness may seem awfully present today. Still, what Biden ought to take from Glazer is not necessarily any specific programmatic recommendation but an overarching cast of mind. Even as he recognized a place for a sort of multiculturalism, Glazer did not believe in totalistic solutions or major government undertakings.
“Government has been as ineffective in overcoming segregation at the elementary school level as it has been in overcoming prevailing residential segregation, though government programs have tried to do so,” he wrote.
Government action can never match, in scale and impact, the crescive effects of individual, voluntary decision. This is what has raised group after group in the past, this is what is breaking down the barriers of ethnicity and race today.
It is this focus on individuals, and on the mediating structures through which individuals participate in the larger society, that ought to shape the president’s approach to student protest and racial injustice. “The forces that will produce the changes we are looking for are individual and voluntaristic, rather than governmental and authoritative,” Glazer wrote in We Are All Multiculturalists Now. “To adapt the title of Glenn Loury’s book, it will have to be ‘one by one,’ individual by individual, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood. Slowly as these work, there is really no alternative.”
Nor is there any alternative for Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Soon he will be told by his people that he must heed the arguments of this generation of impassioned, idealistic but, in the end, misguided young radicals. And so much depends on how he responds. If he fails to remember the answers, the president will lose more than an argument. Biden will lose a country.
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