No matter what happens in November, the Trump and Sanders candidacies should give us a sober realization of where we are in the United States, and of where we are headed. Trump and Sanders are often considered together as unconventional political outsiders, and sometimes as refreshingly candid critics of ordinary party politics. But there is another way of viewing the two surprising candidacies in common—as two symptoms of a single underlying malaise. Despite their positions on opposite extremes of the political spectrum, Trump and Sanders could be seen as twin harbingers of a possible American apocalypse—signs of the beginning of the end for the American political tradition and way of life.
This statement may sound overly dramatic, but there are important reasons to carefully consider its plausibility. Trump and Sanders both focus predominantly on economic issues; both make no attempt to hide the fact that they see money as the root of all things good and evil. And both draw their support primarily from citizens who consider economic issues to be the single most important ones facing our country.
The Stunting Effects of Modern Commercial Society
To some extent, of course, economic issues have always played a prominent role in elections and national politics—not only throughout US history but also throughout human history in general. But usually—and certainly in earlier periods of our own history—these issues have been counterbalanced by others of a different nature. People and politicians always care about the economy, as they should, but they also care about what we should do as human beings living in society together, beyond toiling for our ongoing material comfort. The American founders, for example, cared deeply about economic issues, but not quite as deeply as the progressive historian Charles Beard claimed. They also cared about natural rights, republicanism, virtue, the common good, and other less narrowly material issues.
As I have explained in other essays at Public Discourse, however, Americans today no longer have a common framework within which to discuss and appreciate these non-material political goods. The “American mind” can no longer lift itself up, however briefly, to embrace political principles that transcend our mere animality. We have lost this ability—for various reasons with long and deeply rooted intellectual histories—and consigned ourselves to wandering around the bargaining tables of plural and relative “values.” The “American mind” is, in short, in the gutter, and Trump and Sanders are taking full advantage of this unfortunate fact.
Almost 200 years ago, Tocqueville very clearly foresaw this development in America. He was not opposed to economic pursuits and concerns, but he feared that too strong a focus on them would stunt human development and narrow horizons for citizens of modern democracies. Tocqueville called the “search for well-being” something “honest and legitimate,” but nevertheless worried that this search would ultimately cause its subject to “lose the use of his most sublime faculties.” “By wishing to improve everything around him,” according to Tocqueville’s prescient fear, “he will finally degrade himself.”
Finding a Counterbalance
Indeed, this seems to have happened in the United States to a startling extent. American culture has gradually become what its harshest critics have alleged and its closest friends feared: a society concerned above all else with individual material well-being. Genuine concern for the common or “public good” is remarkably absent among our politicians and fellow citizens, with even the rhetoric of the common good quickly dissipating. Insofar as a strong national economy is valued, for example, it is simply as a rising tide that will lift many individual boats, and especially mine.
The negative effects of modern philosophy and science have finally made their indelible mark on American society, making us disillusioned and individualistic comfort-seekers. We see little reason to look past our dinner plates or iPhones to a more profound meaning for our existence, and therefore care mostly about putting more food on those plates and getting the next iPhone. Altruism and idealism only seem to persist in stunted and perverted forms of themselves: as a detached and cosmopolitan faux-empathy, and as the propagation of crude versions of tired and well-worn political philosophies.
Bernard Mandeville, one of the best and most underappreciated writers in the history of economic theory, bluntly affirmed that a flourishing commercial society absolutely required “vices” for its sustenance. Selfishness, materialism, individualism, extravagance, and animalistic comfort-seeking motivate an economy and increase general prosperity. Mandeville also recognized, however—as Rousseau and Marx would later argue—that these vices inevitably lead to the downfall of the flourishing commercial societies to which they initially gave rise. If there is any hope for the long-term survival of such societies, Mandeville seemed to imply, it must come from a source entirely different from the “vicious” features that both give rise to and eventually destroy modern commercial societies.
For Tocqueville and many of the American founders—and, one might suspect, for Mandeville as well—this source was religion. Nothing provides a surer antidote to materialistic individualism than a reminder of the immortality of the soul and one’s duties to God. Such reminders, according to Tocqueville, also serve to elevate the mind in general—to cultivate our “most sublime faculties” that lead us to embrace more abstract realities and pursue more lasting and meaningful activities. It is only by finding some way to counterbalance the materialistic individualism that is endemic both to modern commercial society and, in some way, to human nature itself, that we might hope to forestall its destructive force.
This hope, however, now seems a remote one. It is difficult to imagine an American society drawn out of itself to embrace lofty principles and ideals. The founders’ careful balancing of economic realism with philosophical and religious idealism appears far beyond our reach today.
Trump draws considerable support from the perception that he will run the government like a business. Since he has made so much money himself from his private businesses, perhaps he will make money for all of us in our common public business. Trump is obviously and unabashedly unprincipled, and clearly expresses both in his words and in the example of his life that what really matters is making money. Voting for Trump is much like buying stock.
Sanders draws much of his support from the opposite perception—namely, that he won’t run the government like a private business—but on a broader view his source of support is identical. Sanders is equally unconcerned with elevated and inspiring principles, appealing instead to economic frustrations and anger—in other words, to the idea that what really matters is getting and having money. Voting for Sanders is also like buying stock, but in a different sort of company.
The fact that Trump and Sanders have each received such enthusiastic and widespread support suggests that a majority of the American people view the election of the president in this model of an economic calculation. It is an incontrovertible sign that materialistic individualism has attained a stranglehold on American political culture—one from which we may not find means of escape. Economic interests always have been and always will be a primary determinant of human behavior in general, and of political behavior in particular. But the long-term flourishing of modern commercial societies requires some counterbalance to such interests, some means of elevating our public consciousness beyond material concerns. Unless we can find or recover some such counterbalance—and soon—we should expect to be crushed beneath their weight.