To understand the profound chasms within American life, drop Jonathan Haidt’s cosmopolitans and nationalists or David Goodhart’s typology of somewheres and anywheres. Forget the urban and rural divide or the clash of Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel. In Kurt Andersen’s Atlantic September cover story, there are indeed two Americas, but of a different kind. Between one-third and one-half of the populace are “solidly reality-based,” he writes.
Outside this haven of reason lies another nation of fantasy, where loyalty to Donald Trump, creationism, UFO sightings, opposition to vaccines, and belief in spiritual warfare and religious fundamentalism run amok. The latter segment of the nation has only grown since the 1960’s, the fault of a colorful range of culprits: the Fairness Doctrine, Sean Hannity, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the John Birch Society, and Ronald Reagan.
Much of Andersen’s Jeremiad is a statement of the true but exhaustively recounted, such as the revolt against expertise chronicled by Tom Nichols, new online echo chambers encouraged by internet search algorithms, or the legacy of the “conservative entertainment complex.” Too much of Andersen’s argument on the American descent into fantasy (birtherism, UFO sightings, creationism) rests on polling surveys. Certain passages betray profound smugness, such as the assumption that support for “legal abortion” marks one as an initiate into the “reality-based community.” But with enough patience, readers can find genuine insights to make Andersen’s Atlantic piece—and presumably his soon-to-be-released book—a worthy read.
Our National Fracture Is Cultural, Not Just Political
For one, as his title makes clear, Andersen savors sweeping criticism of an entire nation. Most laments for the decline of trust in expertise and institutions place final judgment on elites, squandering the trust of decent Americans through neoliberalism, hyper-globalization, and foreign military adventures. Andersen, however, is unambiguous: there is a severe cultural decay across the whole nation, independent of the obvious failures of the powerful.
One may denounce such a judgment as smug elitism, but it conveys a conservative insight. Faith in an innocent, ever virtuous “people” nefariously manipulated by elites is a populist assumption. Conservatism’s Augustinian inheritance makes one keenly aware that pride and self-absorption infect citizens of every station in life, and it is such vices that cause national decay.
Secondly, Andersen demonstrates a partial balance in his criticism. Claiming the inheritance of Richard Hofstadter, commentators like Susan Jacoby and Al Gore have mostly asserted the national flight from reason as rooted in the pathologies of the American Right. But Andersen is well aware of the deep hostility of the New Left in the 1960’s to established standards of knowledge and reasoning. In quotes Andersen unearths from Theodore Roszak, Michel Foucault, and Paul Feyerabend, one recalls again the New Left’s embrace of unrestrained subjectivity. Such an abdication of seriousness had deadly costs: “once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.”
Andersen parallels similar critiques in the postwar intellectual histories of Daniel T. Rodgers (“The Age of Fracture“) and Andrew Hartman (“A War for the Soul of America“), who fault both the New Left and an emboldened, libertarian American Right for hollowing out more collective understandings of society and knowledge. Presumably, Andersen is politely telling self-assured Atlantic subscribers that some of their most cherished philosophes, not Alex Jones alone, underwrite our present malaise.
Is Christianity Our Curse, Or Our Cure?
But Andersen’s thesis suffers from two core failures in premise. He first supposes a national exceptionalism behind our irrationalism, a proclivity towards fantasy seem “from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories.” This treats too generously our transatlantic neighbors. More Germans than Americans believe in UFOs; it is in Europe where Israel is regarded by a majority as the “top threat to world peace” and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are more regularly stated in respectable circles.
The United States’ rate of vaccination coverage is comparable to most European countries. In le vieux continent, one finds the most hysterical outbursts of opposition to GMOs and nuclear energy. Americans, not Europeans, resisted the siren calls of the most vicious modern fantasies: communism and fascism. It would be better to see the “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” or the explosion of “alternate realities” as features of modern mass societies than an American pathology.
The article’s second failure lies in Andersen’s berating of American Christianity as a source of our aversion to rational thought. How oppressive, Andersen muses, are the incessant assurances American presidents must make to voters of their faith in God. The “explicitly Christian” identity of the GOP and its memberships’ “extreme and extravagantly supernatural beliefs” made inevitable the rabbit hole slide into “make-believe in its politics.”
Here, Andersen could not be more wrong: it is the flight from orthodox Christianity as a credible faith and broader cultural backdrop that has prompted our descent into Fantasyland. As exhaustively recounted in Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion,” the collapse of the Protestant mainlines and the fratricidal disputes within post-Vatican II Catholicism led spiritually dry Americans not to the living waters of secular humanism. Instead, they built new golden calves in health (Oprah), wealth (Joel Olsteen), and the flag (Franklin Graham, et. al).
For all of Andersen’s shots at Karl Rove and George W. Bush, it was the compassionate conservatism of 2000—wherein modern evangelicalism reached a summit of intellectual and political influence—which spoke a language of solidarity and national unity Andersen finds so lacking in libertarianism and Trumpism. The failure of this project, and increasing secularism in much of white middle America, left a vacuum for a more Jacksonian Right, a point noted by Peter Beinart, Ross Douthat, and Shadi Hamid. Burkean prudence, not faith, should temper Andersen’s hopes for an irrelevant, withering conservative Christianity in the United States.
Conspiracy Theories Thrive Best In Secularism
Perhaps Andersen’s own partial nostalgia for the sane discourse of postwar America will help him eventually grasp this truth. It was not an era of the “700 Club” or the “Left Behind” series. But it was an age where theologians graced the cover of Time magazine, movements for social justice were infused by a Christian anthropology, and genuinely religious, culturally traditional voices had not yet faced the anathemas of fellow liberals.
Andersen would do well to consider how American secularism, alongside fundamentalism, has contributed to our present collapse of faith in established, shared facts. Ultimately, conspiracy theories and fantasy best thrive in a moment when genuine faith—with its paradoxical awareness of divine providence, the inescapable limitations of history, and the sinful frailty of every believer—recedes from a culture’s shores. In the end, Andersen ought to contemplate G.K. Chesterton’s prophecy: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”