John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, which explains how
humans are formed by relationships early in life, and are given the
tools to go out and lead their lives. The most famous Bowlby sentence
is this one: “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life
is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure
base provided by our attachment figures.”
Attachment theory nicely distinguishes between the attachments that
form you and the things you then do for yourself. The relationships
that form you are mostly things you didn’t choose: your family,
hometown, ethnic group, religion, nation and genes. The things you do
with your life are mostly chosen: your job, spouse and hobbies.
Through most of American history, our society was built on this same
sort of unchosen/chosen distinction. At our foundation, we were a
society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community,
creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism
that celebrated liberty and individual rights.
The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their
freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.
This delicate balance — liberal institutions built atop illiberal ones
— is now giving way. The big social movements of the past half century
were about maximizing freedom of choice. Right-wingers wanted to
maximize economic choice and left-wingers lifestyle choice. Anything
that smacked of restraint came to seem like a bad thing to be
We’ll call this worldview — which is all freedom and no covenant —
naked liberalism (liberalism in the classic Lockean sense, not the
modern progressive sense). The problem with naked liberalism is that it
relies on individuals it cannot create.
This is the point Yuval Levin made in a brilliant essay published in
First Things back in 2014. Naked liberals of right and left assume that
if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their
neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after
examining the evidence. But if you weaken family, faith, community and
any sense of national obligation, where is that social, emotional and
moral formation supposed to come from? How will the virtuous habits
Naked liberalism has made our society an unsteady tree. The branches of
individual rights are sprawling, but the roots of common obligation are
Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at
the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom
without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the
bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate
addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes
distrust, polarization and permanent political war.
People can endure a lot if they have a secure base, but if you take
away covenantal attachments they become fragile. Moreover, if you rob
people of their good covenantal attachments, they will grab bad ones.
First, they will identify themselves according to race. They will
become the racial essentialists you see on left and right: The only
people who can really know me are in my race. Life is a zero-sum
contest between my race and your race, so get out.
Then they resort to tribalism. This is what Donald Trump provides. As
Mark S. Weiner writes on the Niskanen Center’s blog, Trump is
constantly making friend/enemy distinctions, exploiting liberalism’s
thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on
Trump offers people cultural solutions to their alienation problem. As
history clearly demonstrates, people will prefer fascism to isolation,
authoritarianism to moral anarchy.
If we are going to have a decent society we’re going to have to save
liberalism from itself. We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant
the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole
deal. The crucial battleground is cultural and prepolitical.