Earlier in this Big Sort series we noted Bill Bishop’s observation that the first half of the 20th Century had been about economic specialization and the second half about social specialization. What drove this social specialization? Bishop calls it post-materialism. He writes:
While a high percentage of people identified with either of the two major political parties in the 1950s, there was such a bipartisan ethos that it really made little difference. (Both parties recruited Eisenhower to run for president.) Barely half of the electorate knew what “liberal” or “conservative” meant in the political arena. The era from 1948 to 1965 was the least partisan era of the modern Congress according to Bishop.
Beginning in 1965, people began disassociating from both major political parties; a trend that accelerated into the 1970s. This abandonment of politics was part of a larger disillusionment with social institutions including volunteer organizations and the church. There was a bipartisan anti-government feeling fomenting on the back of civil rights issues, the Vietnam War and corruption in politics. The old glue that had held the civic order together was crumbling.
Simultaneous to these events, Americans were becoming more affluent. As matters relating to basic material needs began to recede in importance, other concerns became more prominent. Using a Maslow Hierarchy of Needs framework, more attention shifted toward esteem and self-actualization at the top of pyramid.
A new ethos of political identification began emerging based more on self-expression and identity than on public policy. In the next post, we will see how Bishop characterizes this emergence, but now I want to make two observations.
First, Bishop’s analysis that 1948 to 1965 was a time minimal partisanship in terms of actual policy, sits well with other analyses of the era. However, it is important to reflect the means by which such an ethos was created. As Bishop points out, not everyone, including contemporaries of that era saw this state of affairs as healthy. Remember that this was the era of Joseph McCarthy, suppression of minority ethnic voices, and rigid gender roles. To be honest, this was the dark side of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” (born 1901-1924) who assumed the reins of power during this era. They had the ability to mobilize the masses toward big ideas (including big corporations, big government, big denominations, etc.) through rigid standardization of beliefs and behaviors, enforced by peer pressure and group solidarity. The inclination to think and act as one is a dual-edged sword. If you buy Strauss and Howe’s model of a repeating cycle of four generational archetypes, then the generation born about 1981-2001 (sometimes called the “Millennials” or “Gen Y”) will exhibit similar tendencies.
Second, I know that the idea of post-materialism is not without controversy. Yet the more I study the changes of the past fifty years, the more persuaded I become of this thesis. It has enormous implications for the life of the church. Most of recorded human history (and that includes the biblical context) has transpired in the context of societies where there was a tiny minority with great wealth and the masses living at, or barely above, subsistence. That context has shaped our values, traditions, and institutions in countless ways. How do we live in the midst of widespread affluence?
Nations that have achieved widespread affluence seem to follow a similar path toward the collapse of social institutions, fertility rates well below replacement rate, physical and health problems stemming from sedentary lives, and other maladies. Yes, there are always likely to be “the poor” in some relative sense, but poverty in terms of people living at subsistence is likely to become an increasingly small problem. Assuming that over the next century or two this affluence becomes a completely globalized phenomenon, what will it mean to Christian discipleship? I think we are in the early stages of wrestling with these questions.