Why is there so much division in America, and how is our society breaking down?

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things and author of “Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West,” joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the obligations of the elites, marijuana, and the future of religion in the United States. Read a lightly edited transcript, pasted below, or listen to the podcast:

Kate Trinko: Joining us at the National Conservatism Conference is R. R. Reno, editor of First Things and author of several books, most recently of “Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West.” Rusty, thanks for joining us.

R. R. Reno: Pleasure to be with you.

Trinko: So, in your talk at the National Conservatism Conference, you spoke about the social contract breaking down in the United States. What did you mean by that?

Reno: The social contract, the aspect of it that I was focusing on, is the trust that the general population has in the elites who lead our country. That the elites are serving the broad interests of the country, which, of course, includes the led, and they’re not just serving their own interest.

And I see that as that trust, obviously, populism as a phenomenon, political phenomenon is a sign of no confidence, a kind of vote of no confidence in the populace against the people running things. Populism can be, in that sense, purely negative. It’s people expressing their frustration, that they feel that the people around the country aren’t concerned about their interests, or in some way are hostile in many ways to their view of the world.

So it’s a pretty clear sign that we’ve got a breakdown in the social contract in the country.

Trinko: So now the harder question, how do we fix it? Is there any way forward?

Reno: Yeah, it’s a secular trend, this alienation or the chasm that’s opened up between the leaders and the led.

Charles Murray’s 2012 book “Coming Apart” documents the extreme chasm separating the bottom third of society from the top 20%. But I would submit that even in that middle ground, people that are in the 50th percentile, 60th percentile, even 70th percentile in terms of income and social status, they’re increasingly remote and removed from people at the top 10%, who are in positions of responsibility, as they should be.

You have to have, people have to run things, they don’t run themselves. So you have a hierarchy in society, and in a healthy society, that hierarchy is accepted and acknowledged as being beneficial. Not just for the people on top, obviously, but it actually is beneficial for people who are not elite.

So how do we try to move forward? Well, part of it, as I’ve thought about it, is to try to remedy some of the trends that have caused elite Americans to become detached from everyday Americans.

And again, Charles Murray has really been a very influential figure for me because he’s done really fine-grained research into residential patterns for elite Americans, what he calls super ZIPS, ZIP codes with really high concentrations of high-income, high-status people. And he documents the way in which our country has become extraordinarily segregated by social class.

I see it in New York, Upper East Side of Manhattan. Kids go to private schools all the way through, and they’re off to the Ivy League. Also, young people these days don’t have summer jobs. You got to do your internships and all that sort of stuff. Prepare your resume for your college applications.

So, it’s really where we now have a rising generation of young people in positions of responsibility, are in their 30s, who have really never interacted with Americans who are only high school educated, in any kind of significant way.

So we need to think about how to push those talented young people. We need their talent. I’m not an anti-elitist. We need their talents for our country to flourish. How can we push them into closer contact with the people that they have to actually lead?

Trinko: Absolutely agree. I actually worked summers in high school at Burger King and it was a great experience and it led me to realize, even though I was from a middle-class family, that I had certain assumptions—people would go to college, people would go far away for college—which weren’t shared by a lot of people. And that was really helpful and eye-opening to be like, “Oh.” And I think everyone should do a customer service job at least once. It’ll make you a better person.

Reno: I worked in a kitchen at an Italian restaurant in high school and yes, my father was, thought it was very good for me to work. When Mrs. Schiaparelli, the mother of the owner, she did the folding pasta on Saturday mornings when I would come in to do my chores. And she said, “Oh, Rusty, you really need to go to college.” “Don’t worry, Mrs. Schiaparelli, I’m planning to go to college.”

But it was an environment where she felt she had encouraged the people in the kitchen to—and I probably was the only person in that kitchen that wound up going to college.

Trinko: She sounds like a great boss. So you mentioned, I think perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, that one way to maybe have the elite mingle more with regular middle-class and lower-income Americans would be to force kids whose parents made more than, I think it was $250,000 a year, to join the military. One, were you serious at all? And two, are there proposals like that that would actually make sense perhaps?

Reno: Well, I think I proposed, if your parents make more than a quarter million, you have to serve your two-year tour of duty in the Army, or in whatever service. Or if you graduate from one of the 50 wealthiest universities in America, you have to put in military service. I’m not sure that’s all together wise, but we do need to think. I mean the details, I meant to be provocative, but we do have a real problem.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, who I really admire, is a wonderful historian, wrote about Kingman Brewster, president of Yale in the ’60s and ’70s, and his generation of WASP elites. And every single one of them enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor. So they were from the wealthiest, most powerful families in America and they served.

And all of them testified later in life, that was really a defining experience when they realized that some Joe Schmo from Brooklyn, who didn’t have anywhere near his social status, actually might be better than them at certain things. So it gave them a better sense of their shared destiny as Americans.

And we look back at the ’50s as kind of peak social solidarity in America, not an accident, that we had a unified country coming out of war that the elite served in, as well as middle-class and working-class Americans.

So we need to figure out a way to recover that in our society, that the most powerful and wealthiest people and their children are involved in the core function of citizenship, which is defending our country.

Trinko: Right. And I think, I don’t personally have any military experience or immediate family members who did, and knowing others who have served, it’s been interesting to learn about the culture of the military, the symbolism. But if the elites are going to be the ones deciding foreign policy, it’s good to have some skin in the game, frankly.

Reno: Yes, yes. I’ve proposed another, for that those who, you have to have children to be able to hold public office. You have to have some investment in the future, beyond your own death. And then again, that was tongue in cheek, but it was, what I’m trying to do with these proposals is really dramatize the problem that we have.

The fact that so few Harvard, and Yale, and Princeton graduates serve in the United States military, yet they see themselves as the future leaders of our country, that needs to be addressed and that needs to be thought through. How can we change that unfortunate tendency?

Trinko: So, you briefly mentioned in your remarks that it’s a bit surprising, given how many overdose deaths we’re dealing with right now with fentanyl, etc., that the country is racing toward marijuana legalization. And this is probably not the most popular topic among Gen Z righties, but why does that concern you?

Reno: Just seems an absolutely insane approach. I mean, you have a million people have died of drug overdose death. If you’re between 18 and 40 years old and a white male, that’s the most likely way you’re going to die. And that we would further liberalize the drug culture in America, and in the face of this human tragedy, is, it’s a sign of how irresponsible our leadership class has become.

And why is this happening? And part of it’s a lot of money that flows into lobbying for legalization. There’s a lot of libertarian dreams you have on the Left, kind of, if you normalize it, then you can control it and do harm reduction, and so on so forth.

But it’s just part of a general pattern in our society of cultural deregulation. And when you take the guardrails off the roads and you own a Ferrari, you’re going to be pretty safe. But if you’re driving in a jalopy, and you get a flat tire and you careen off the road, it’s pretty bad news. And that’s what we’ve done in our society.

So, the well-to-do have the resources to navigate this deregulated culture. But those who are weak and have less social capital, they pay the price. So, it’s drug utilization is a luxury good. It’s like gay marriage. These are luxury goods that are paid for by the poor.

Trinko: Could you speak a little bit more about how gay marriage affects the poor?

Reno: Because it desacralizes marriage. It just puts an exclamation point on the sexual revolution. And so, it’s not surprising that over the last decade, as we’ve normalized, but we’ve really embraced the rainbow flag as an elite—our elite culture’s embraced the rainbow flag, corporate America’s embraced the rainbow flag—that we’ve seen a real collapse in marriage rates among high school-educated Americans.

Trinko: So, one of the things that stands out, to me at least, about the National Conservatism Conference is hearing the term “common good” a lot, which I, frankly, have not probably heard this much since college classes.

Reno: It’s everybody. It’s the “in” word right now or “in” two words.

Trinko: Yes, it’s very in.

Reno: The “in” phrase.

Trinko: And you were speaking about, I think, that marijuana goes to this, and again, this may not be the favorite thing among libertarians, but the duties we owe each other as a commonality. So this is a hard question and perhaps not entirely fair, but broadly speaking, what do you mean by the common good? And in a society that is maybe Judeo-Christian but certainly has a secular government, what does that look like?

Reno: Well, I mean, common good, common goods plural are things that we can only have together, or we can only have if we seek them together. The rule of law is a common good. We all benefit from the rule of law. Our economic system flourishes because we have strong property rights and things like that. So, we’re having a healthy political culture or having national parks. So the list is quite long of these things.

And a lot of game theory folks will point out the tragedy of the commons, that if we just leave it to individual choice, then there’s an incentive that our behavior will wind up degrading the things that we share in common and make us all worse off in the long run.

And I think we just went through a season of cultural liberalization and deregulation, and a season of economic liberalism and deregulation, and that we are kind of waking up as a society and realize that we need to restore the guardrails to culture and think long and hard about the rules of the road for our economy, so that we can all flourish as Americans.

And not just those who are fortunate like me to have been born and raised in an intact family or have talents and aptitudes that are very well compensated in our society. It shouldn’t just be a society of 20% are winners and 30% and 40% are losers and the middle is anxious.

Trinko: And what would you say for those at the top? I think you mentioned they’re not really necessarily doing a whole lot for the rest of society right now. Do they have a particular obligation? Is there something that Americans who are more financially or otherwise fortunate should be seeking to do?

Reno: Well, Jesus says that to whom much is given, much is expected.

Trinko: Not ominous words at all.

Reno: It’s the noblesse oblige ethic, that those who are fortunate—and I think one of the things that’s undermined the noblesse oblige ethic is paradoxically the meritocracy.

It was with good intentions that the generation or two ago, or three ago, the grandees of our society wanted to break down a kind of white WASP control and open up elite institutions to people of merit and high aptitude. That was a very wise thing. I would’ve supported it at the time. But the ironic effect of it has been that we now live in a society where the people on the top think that they’ve earned it, and that undermines their sense of responsibility.

So I think it’s important to try to recover that sense of noblesse oblige. A lot of tech billionaires wear their T-shirts. I always see that as their assertion of their freedom from any responsibility to society.

Trinko: Well, I have to slightly disagree with you there. I grew up in Silicon Valley with a dad who always … wore T-shirts. He was not trying to be free, he just felt that suits were really stuffy.

Reno: Yeah, suits are stuffy. And in other words, having to wear the suit and endure the neck tie, that’s the price of elite status. And the idea that you want all the benefits of elite status with none of the costs.

I remember being at an academic meeting with a Japanese sociologist and he said that the least free people in society are those who are at the top of the social heap. And it really, I just did a double take. And what he was saying is that in Japan, if you are at the top, you’re the most profoundly constrained by social expectations, that you act in a certain elite way.

And I grew up with this manners—what fork to use, which of the many glasses on the table, like, “Oh, my god, what this is all for?” And those kinds of demands, which can feel very burdensome if you’re not socialized into them, is, I think, part of what’s seen as maintaining standards. So I have a dress code in my office for my staff.

Trinko: Oh, gosh.

Reno: So I’m kind of, as usual, I’m a kind of extremist in my countercultural approach to this.

Trinko: To be fair, Heritage Foundation, which is our parent organization, has a dress code as well, so I can’t—

Reno: I don’t wear a bow tie, though. I do draw the line somewhere.

Trinko: Fair enough. So, First Things, which is an awesome magazine, it obviously looks at the role of religion and the public square. We’re in a time in America right now where it seems, well, data shows, at least from Pew, that more and more people are identifying as, well, nothing. They’re not affiliated, and there’s fewer Christians than there used to be. What do you see as the future of religion in, say, the next decade or so in the United States?

Reno: I was born in 1959. The big change in my lifetime has been the secularization of American elite education and culture.

So you can grow up in Westchester County in Bronxville, go to Bronxville High School—it’s a very, very fancy public school—and then go on to some fancy pants university and know nothing whatsoever about, and never having gone to church and not knowing anything.

Now, when I went to college in the late ’70s, my classmates, many Jewish, some, most of us Christian, there are very few “believers,” in scare quotes. But everyone had been dragged to church or synagogue, had been to bar mitzvahs, had been to baptisms, church marriages. We all knew the vocabulary of the biblical tradition, even if we didn’t believe in any sense.

So, that’s gone. And I think that that has had a dramatic effect on the political and moral imagination of the country. In fact, I think that’s one reason that often elites are indifferent to the fate of people at the bottom of society, because the Bible is very, very clear about what our duties are to the poor. So, that’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, I think we’re seeing presently an upsurge in conservative religious practice. So I will predict that, I mean, polarization goes both ways. So polarization means the old Judeo-Christian kind of apathetic, I identify as, although I don’t go to church, that is collapsing. People erode toward kind of woke Left. But people also erode in the other direction, which is toward a much more intentional religiosity.

So my contacts and university chaplaincy report increases, post-pandemic, in Mass attendance. And so, I predict that we will see an increase in church attendance.

Typical, it’s been very constant in the United States for decades, about 25% of the country goes to church on Sunday. … And there’s secular, there are trends here. It’ll fluctuate between a little bit below 25% and a little bit above 25%. I predict, in the rest of this decade, we’ll see increases in church attendance, even as our mainstream culture secularizes.

So what’s that foretell? I think, sadly, heightened conflict over cultural issues. As I’ve told my liberal, secular, progressive friends, we tried to run the country with our boot on the neck of black Americans at 12% to 13% of the population and couldn’t do it. This cannot be done with 25% or 30% of the population has biblically-shaped moral and moral views. So the Rainbow Reich is an unsustainable project in a country like ours, where there is a very, very committed religious minority.

Trinko: So does that mean—I believe Catholic Vote tracks it, although I can’t remember the exact numbers off the top of my head. But we’ve seen attacks at various Catholic churches, statues beheaded, that kind of thing. So, it sounds like you’re thinking we might be seeing more of that in the near future.

Reno: Yes. There’s going to be heightened conflict. I mean, a lot of people on the Left think that young people inevitably are coming toward the progressive woke view. Some do, of course. I mean, they’re subjected to tremendous amount of ideological indoctrination. But some are actually being very radicalized to the Right.

I mean, I see this and worry about it, internet phenomena of really hardcore. I mean, you call people a racist long enough and eventually they say, “OK, fine, I am now,” or there are other manifestations of this.

And I think it’s part of our responsibility to offer, and I’d like to hope First Things plays this role, what I would think of as responsible social conservatism for the future of our country.

And because, if we don’t provide that kind of leadership—and if mainstream leaders, and many of them are speaking at this conference, people whom I admire, like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, they have to be very clear that they’re actually going to use their political office to try to promote social conservative ideas. And if that’s the case, then we can work this out as a country over a decade and figure out where to make peace.

Trinko: So lastly, you’ve been a big national conservative thinker, I’d say, since the beginning. What does national conservatism mean to you and how is it different, or in some ways the same, as the conservatism of past decades?

Reno: Nationalism as an -ism to me is, it’s agenda-setting. It’s a determination of priorities.

Our country went through, after the end of the Cold War, a 30-year period where we invested in globalism. And again, these were not kind stupid ideas in the 1990s. [World Trade Organization], bringing China to the WTO, these kinds of ideas. It turns out in retrospect that many of them have had negative consequences that our leadership didn’t foresee.

So we’re in a season where we need to rebalance in the other direction and emphasize the national interest of our country as we think about economic policy, cultural policy, and foreign policy.

So for me, national conservatism is a generation long project, re-consolidating the country, knitting together, restoring the trust between the leaders and the led, and rebalancing our economic systems so that high school-educated Americans can flourish. Rebalancing our global commitments so that we don’t squander the resources of our country unnecessarily. And then, for me as a social conservative, most importantly is restoring effectively sanity in our shared culture. My line is, “We got to make normal normal again.”

Trinko: All right. Thanks so much. Again, that was Rusty Reno, editor of First Things magazine.

Reno: All right, thank you.

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