The Twilight Of The American Enlightenment: The 1950s And The Crisis Of Liberal Belief, by George M. Marsden
As someone who has long appreciated the divide between left and right, I found this book fascinating in its look at mainstream liberal culture at the peak of its dominance in postwar society and where everything fell apart. Of particular interest, at least to me, was the fascinating mixture between the author’s obvious desire to reduce the state of conflict that our contemporary society has found itself in and his intellectual honesty in exploring the tensions and contradictions that eventually destroyed the ruling liberal consensus in the United States that was related to a crisis of worldview. A consensus worldview required a certain shared set of beliefs, and the liberals of the 1950s wanted to have a consensus that allowed them to ignore the demands for the voices of others to be heard that were outside of their own elite coterie, and in the absence of a firm commitment to the foundation of the principles of the founding, it was impossible for liberals to maintain their exclusivity while also maintaining their cultural power. And so the liberal consensus was crushed in the turmoil that followed the 1950’s, as we are the witnesses of.
The author has divided this particular examination of the 50’s into six essays along with other material to frame it in a bit less than 200 pages. After an introduction where the author loosely defines what he means the 50’s, the author moves into a prologue where he examines the consensus answers to an exercise called “The National Purpose” that examined consensus liberals (including, intriguingly, Billy Graham) discussing the well-recognized problems that they saw in contemporary America. After that the author discusses the relationship between mass media and the national character (1), with fears among an intellectual elite that they were not sufficiently able to encourage elevated culture for the ordinary American. The author then explores the question of freedom in the lonely crowd (2) as well as the problem of enlightenment being without firm foundations and a commitment to lasting principles (3). Then the problem of authority, the masters of church and state, rears its ugly head within liberal Christianity (4). The author then looks at the latter days of the Protestant establishment and how it thought about itself and its own role in the days before it was wrecked on the shoals of history (5) and the problem of consensus becoming a fighting word rather than a reality (6), ending with the author’s eloquent plea for a more inclusive pluralism.
Why did the liberal pluralism of the 1950’s fail? For one, it was not nearly pluralistic enough. The thoughts of women as separate from men, of conservative Jews and Christians as opposed to liberals, of Southerners as opposed to Northerners, of blacks as opposed to whites, were not generally included within this consensus. The shattering of the consensus when enough people were unwilling to accept social marginalization was almost inevitable, especially because the liberal consensus had hacked off its connection with a traditional morality and a defense of eternal principles that would have made their consensus worth defending. The author’ in describing the breakup of a uniform political legitimacy shows a desire for a more inclusive and broader pluralism to be built, but it is unclear on what grounds that can be built, or whether there is any political will on the part of people or institutions within this country to construct a pluralism that can contain democratic socialists and committed Christian reactionaries, between MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters and complacent readers of the Washington Post and New York Times, between Muslims and Jews, between self-righteous Yankees and resentful Southrons. I do not know if such a pluralism can be made, nor do I know if anyone is willing to attempt it.