Robin Smith / January 14, 2019

Morality, Populism, and Cultural Decay

John Adams once wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

Is the proverbial American Dream now only a tale of days past? Are Americans positioned to live as victims of both cultural decay and policy controlled by governing elites, or can we hope for a generation that will excel and lead? On that subject, Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently stirred strong debate with a populist monologue about American culture that proves the vast differences of what people hear with their mixed interpretations.

One writer viewed Carlson’s commentary as announcing the death of the American Dream, while others heard him frame Americans as victims. Some argued that conservatives should reject Carlson’s “victimhood populism” because societal maladies cannot be cured by public policy, but, instead, lie in the hands of the individual. Yet another writer lauded the virtues of intervening institutions, such as the church and civic organizations, as well as the extended family as important in addressing our nation’s problems.

Whether you subscribe to one of these opinions or another of your own, there are a few things that Carlson’s absolutely right about and that should serve as the fence posts of this debate:

  • The family unit has fallen victim to public policies that incentivize individuals to avoid nuptials.

  • Economies are systems that to varying degrees are structured through policies, laws, oversight, and regulations to permit generation of work, products, services, wealth, ownership, and the access to capital.

  • We do live in a day that personal responsibility, for a growing population, has been replaced by entitlement, dependency, and/or apathy.

  • Americans thrive when the family unit is intact; when the economy permits individuals to work, produce, own, accumulate, and spend wealth without excessive taxation, regulation, or reckless policy that threatens their earning capacity and ability to live in a self-reliant fashion; when the approach to work, play, study, and life in general is rooted in the discipline of personal responsibility and self-respect, which fosters mutual respect and hope.

It’s not that any one writer, essayist, columnist, or opinion commentator is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. It’s just that society seems to want to find a single culprit for the struggles of millions of people. Yet many times when an issue is critiqued, we discover that one simple problem is not the cause. Instead, as it seems is the case of much of our modern culture in America, many factors converged and have been multiplied by time until now we’re surrounded by the woes Tucker mentioned. That points to some common pathologies found in both urban and rural America.

These conditions that have deviated from a healthy, highly functioning society include rampant out-of-wedlock births, despite data showing children raised in an intact family not only perform better in school but their future opportunities tend to follow the best trajectory. In both rural and urban America, the unemployment rate of able-bodied men remains too high, which doesn’t bode well for those attempting to have and maintain an intact family — not when financial problems rank as the second most common contributing factor to divorce and are often cited when the desperation of suicidal ideation is reported. In both the rural and urban communities, drug abuse is ruinous in the lives of individuals, destroying families, consuming already stretched resources, and ending one’s ability to remain gainfully employed. It’s even ending life itself for tens of thousands every year.

The question remains unanswered. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does the decay of culture result in the change in policy and politics? Does policy and politics cause the decay in the culture? Or does there exist a feedback loop where cultural decay and policy failures fuel each other and grow with weakening restraint?

At America’s Founding, the care of the great minds who constructed our government had already faced similar issues of crumbling institutions, an overreaching government, and pursuit of an ideal for a life that was better. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His audience were readers from the First Bridge of the Third Division of the Massachusetts Militia. In other words, the second president of the United States was not penning some devotional or speaking to a crowd anticipating a religious sermon. Instead, Adams revealed the inextricable link between individual behavior and one’s ability to follow the direction of a moral compass and the number and scope of the laws needed to govern a society.

Adams’s premise was that for a limited government of a constitutional republic to function with restraint, its citizens must have the capacity to follow a moral code and a religious framework of decency. Conversely, as Adams warned in 1798, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”

The late Andrew Breitbart echoed Adams when he said that politics is downstream of culture. For those who misinterpret and pervert Liberty to mean license in their behavior and pursuits, the legal frameworks must be expanded, and jurisdictions enlarged. Humanity responds to conditioning. Thus, policies both effective and flawed impact behavior and culture.

Tucker Carlson has reminded us that our markets, institutions, communities, and governments function best when both the working and governing classes are directed by a moral compass — and when the latter is employing policies that empower not government but individuals for self-reliance.

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