The most significant change in the last forty years is the decline of the American civic religion, or ideology. Often violated and surrounded by hypocrisy, it nonetheless prevailed and benefited the country for much of this century. It was based on two factors: widely accepted moral restraint and widely practiced social and political accommodation.
The first has been badly eroded. Of the many, disparate symptoms, no less indicative because they are so familiar, I would cite the seemingly irresistible rise of crime, the dramatic increase of out-of-wedlock births (by no means only in the “underclass”), and—on a different level—the suffocating flood of money in political life. Despite much apocalyptic scolding in some quarters, society meets these situations with a shrug of resignation. (What could be a more vivid instance of giving up than
the distribution of condoms to school-children?)
Ironically, all this has been accompanied by obsessive bureaucratic inquisitions into ethics in public life, which, however, usually deal only with relatively minor offenses. A further irony is the success of vigorous reform crusades. However laudable, such crusades have had the cumulative effect of undermining that other aspect of our civic creed—the belief in accommodation and compromise. The Founders’ idea, long prevalent, was that the sum of individual self-interests, properly understood and guided, would add up to the general good; this has given way to often blindly pursued causes and rights claimed by many factions. The result has been a disregard of what benefits society as a whole. Thus we are faced with a new tribalism—social, political, and intellectual—that threatens the existence of the multicultural community.