ALAN WOLFE HAS had a long interest in American democracy and in Americans’ attitudes toward it and toward issues related to religion and morality. But the longtime sociology professor at Boston College is a restless inquirer, having also authored books on topics as diverse as gambling, school choice, political evil, and, most recently, the Jewish diaspora.
An abiding interest of Wolfe’s, however, has been the general health of the American polity. Are we are a deeply fractured society, or a place of healthy pluralism, where there is much more, in the end, that unites us than divides us? That was the focus of one of his most well-known books, One Nation, After All, published nearly 20 years ago, in 1998.
In it, Wolfe set out to explore the idea of America as a place riven by all sorts of fault lines—on race, religion, family life, immigration, and more. He sought to test that idea through in-depth interviews with 200 Americans of various backgrounds living in four representative regions across the country. The conclusion he came away with—as telegraphed by the book’s title—was that the great divide supposedly separating Americans was not nearly as great as many were saying.
Americans are, he wrote, “above all moderate in their outlook on the world, they believe in the importance of leading a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists.”
If there are tensions between different beliefs, he said, these are often a push and pull that each person wrestles with him or herself, balancing interest in the ballast of traditional faith, for example, with a wish for the freedom to fashion one’s own sense of morality and of right and wrong. “The two sides presumed to be fighting the culture war do not so much represent a divide between one group of Americans and another as a divide between two sets of values important to everyone,” Wolfe wrote.
In this season of political upheaval, it seemed like a good time to check in with him on the state of American cohesion. While he argued two decades ago that we were much more united than many believed, Wolfe is not nearly as sanguine today. Indeed, the current degree of political polarization causes him to worry about the basic health and functioning of our democracy.
Wolfe is not only a productive scholar who has authored two dozen books, he also manages to weigh into public debate more regularly as a frequent essayist in The New Republic and other publications—including, on a couple of occasions over the years, in CommonWealth. A man of the political left in his younger years, Wolfe’s views have evolved considerably, but did not land him, as was the case with some of his contemporaries, on the right. He migrated to the middle—“center left,” he says. His take on many issues today is measured—though that does not extend to Donald Trump, whose rise he recoils at.
For the last 18 years, Wolfe served as founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. That would seem an unlikely perch for him—a non-believing Jew running a center examining religion and public issues at a Jesuit university. But Wolfe—who retired this spring—became fascinated with religion and public issues four decades ago, and his time at BC served as a perfect capstone to a long career as one the country’s leading public intellectuals.
With his new spare time, the 74-year-old Wolfe says he plans to try his hand at golf. While his backswing may need work, it’s hard to keep someone this prolific from doing what seems to come naturally to him. Only weeks into formal retirement, Wolfe already has a proposal in the works for a book taking on some longstanding sacred cows in higher education.
Campus life these days was one topic I raised when we sat down in mid-June in his airy Cambridge apartment overlooking the Charles River. But I was interested first in what he thought of the crazy election season we’re in, and the turbulent times it seems to have sprung from. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
— MICHAEL JONAS
COMMONWEALTH: You’ve spent several decades studying what Americans think, asking them about it, and trying to put it all in some context. What do you make of the moment we’re in and this election?
ALAN WOLFE: I wrote a book called One Nation, After All, which essentially argued that we were much more a united people than you’d think if you listened to all the talk about the culture war. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I actually think it was right for the time—the late 1980s. I think the country’s really changed since then. I’m sure if I did the book today I would come up with very different findings and I would find that we have a real division in the country. I think there’s been really big changes in the last 20 years in terms of increased partisanship, increased polarization.
CW: At the time that you wrote it you were pushing back at the idea that there was this division. You were arguing it was more apparent than real.
WOLFE: Right. The American people themselves were less divided than the party elites and the journalists. There’s still an element of truth to that today. You turn on any station and they immediately want to find two different groups and give voice to it—the he said/she said form of journalism is just embedded in the way the conventional media operate. But I think the country definitely has become more divided since then. I didn’t account at that time for something like Fox News, which I think has had a major impact on American public opinion with the daily reinforcement of a particular point of view.
CW: So how do you characterize the division today?
WOLFE: Well, until the exact current moment with the apparent nomination of Donald Trump, it was pretty much along the culture war lines. Back then the divide was between believers in some kind of traditional morality—the solid marriage, children, religious church-going or synagogue-going person—and the more urban, cosmopolitan, in some cases gay or sympathetic-to-gay lifestyle, sort of person. Trump has changed all that. He’s a thrice married guy. The evangelicals who are supporting him, I think, are proving to us that they care much more about politics than religion, that they are political people with faith rather than people of faith with politics, because they’re throwing all that to the wind.
CW: It strikes me that on gay rights issues—one area where even back then you were skeptical about how far we’d come—it seems today that, although the far right may not be that accepting, middle America, broadly speaking, is pretty accepting of gay marriage. If that’s not the nature of the fissure that you see now dividing us, then what is it?
WOLFE: It’s other things. And I don’t really think it’s religion that much.
CW: So what is the division?
WOLFE: That’s actually not so easy an answer. In a sense we’ve dispensed with some of the fringe culture war issues and started talking about the nature of America itself, and there are just radically different visions about what kind of country we should be, just as there were during the Civil War. I do wonder about our future as a democracy and what it means to be an American. When you’re disagreeing over that, it’s pretty deep. Trump has raised the whole issue of authoritarianism: Do you need democracy itself, or is our security more important? Is the survival of something called America more important than what America actually is? The fact that he got the nomination is a big deal, whatever happens in the election.
CW: What does it say that a guy like Trump could emerge at this time?
WOLFE: We’re not the only place where this has happened. There are comparisons made between Trump and Mussolini, but the appropriate Italian comparison is with Silvio Berlusconi, who’s a media figure and a seducer of women and was a corrupt prime minister. I think the best explanation is that white nationalism is becoming stronger and stronger, whether it’s Marine Le Pen in France, various people in Austria, or Donald Trump in the United States.
CW: In the New York Times yesterday, there was a piece that used the term “European-style ethnic nationalism” in discussing Trump. I think everybody’s trying to find a term or a way to describe the political bearings he is projecting. I also saw the term “proto-fascist” used in a recent piece referencing him. I know you take issue with those kinds of characterizations.
WOLFE: Well, I’ve always been reluctant to use them. I had a debate several years ago in print with [feminist and author] Naomi Wolf when she was calling [Dick] Cheney and those people fascists and Nazis. And I was saying no, no, no, those are very special words and they just cannot be applied to an American situation which is so different. Let’s say Trump comes awfully close. I would still be reluctant. But if [Hewlett Packard CEO] Meg Whitman can say things like that, God bless her.
CW: There’s also been some talk about Trump and Bernie Sanders as two sides of the same coin, or maybe different coins—that they both reflect a certain discontent from the left and the right.
WOLFE: I tend to resist those comparisons. I wouldn’t say that it’s a populism of the left and a populism of the right. There’s nothing populistic about Trump. He’s a wealthy man. It just makes no sense for me to use that language. But I wouldn’t even say that they’re both mobilizing discontent. What really strikes me unbelievably is how similar they are in personality. They’re both narcissists. Trump is a narcissist in extreme, but the way that Bernie Sanders just kept going and going and going, at one level it’s to get a better bargain. But I just felt that he got carried away and so did Trump. I think it’s pretty clear that Trump never thought he’d get this far. With Bernie Sanders, he never thought he would get this far. So it went to their heads, both of them.
CW: Is Trump a unique figure? There’s always a temptation to say we’ve never seen anything like that. Or is he part of a long cast of characters of a certain ilk?
WOLFE: I lean toward the latter. Because we’ve had our share of demagogues and some of them came pretty close to the presidency—Huey Long from Louisiana. The South, in particular, has given to our politics an extraordinary rich history of demagoguery and shenanigans. We’ve had our Northern cranks as well. I teach at a Catholic university, so Father Coughlin is very much a familiar figure to me. I see Trump as being in that line of demagogues. But it’s an unusual situation. The Huey Long types never got the nomination. Trump is a man who you would think could have turned out in a different world to be a patrician kind of politician, a John Lindsay type. Rather than appealing to the better angels of our nature as the patrician Republicans did, he’s appealing to the lowest. You’d have to be his psychotherapist to figure out why.
CW: Ten years ago you wrote a book called Does American Democracy Still Work? I wonder if that question is even more timely today.
WOLFE: I think it works even less so than it did 10 years ago. I really do worry about the procedural aspects of democracy.
CW: Meaning what?
WOLFE: Well, I was struck when the Republican Party moved pretty far to the right that people I viewed as basically very centrist were much more freaked out than people who were very leftist. It was like the left-wing people said, that’s capitalism, that’s the Republicans, what do you expect? Whereas my view of the Brookings Institution centrist person—E.J. Dionne, or Bill Galston, or Norm Ornstein—they’re the ones who totally freaked out because they had a real understanding of the informal agreements that make politics possible. And that’s just been totally lost. I mean, are you a democracy when a president duly elected twice cannot appoint a judge to the US Supreme Court? You’re not really. This is very dangerous stuff. Some people, when they talk about the right-wing and the Republicans, they focus on their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. No, that’s what a party is supposed to do. The real issue is these procedural things that get much less attention.
CW: Is part of what’s happened then, in your view, that the Republican Party has just lost its bearings?
WOLFE: Put Trump aside for the moment. If you look back at the history of conservatism in America—and the Republican Party is now the conservative party—they disagreed furiously. The anti-communists vs. the isolationists. The libertarians versus the statists. William Buckley, I think, played a big role in what one of the earlier conservatives, Frank Meyer, called fusionism—that these various elements were fused together. And it worked for 20, 30 years, maybe. But the fusionism was never solid, because what it was was hatred of liberalism. Everyone had their reasons for hating liberalism, but you can’t keep it together that long by strictly being negative. Even without Trump appearing on the scene I think the Republican Party would have been in crisis right now. Would Ted Cruz have unified the party and run a successful campaign for the majority? I really doubt it. When all the members of this so-called strong bench are weak there must be a structural reason for that and I think it is that Republicans really have nothing on which to sound coherent.
CW: So you think Trump is more a reflection of it than a cause of the thing that is cleaving the party?
WOLFE: Yes. Exactly.
CW: With all the attention Trump is getting, it seems we’ve almost lost sight of this historic first of a woman as a major party nominee. Does that have to do with Hillary Clinton—that she is already so well-known, or that people have such mixed feelings about her, or that it would have been more of a thing 15 years ago? For some younger women, they are almost blasé about it. They seem to have taken for granted that of course a woman could be nominated.
WOLFE: We have a country where the men lean toward pretty significant sexism. We have never had—like France, like Chile, like Israel—a woman leader. I think it’s a big, big thing and I think some of the hostility toward Hillary really comes down to just a generalized hostility to that idea.
CW: When you wrote One Nation, After All you said that you were trying to find out what it means to be middle class in America and you wrote that it’s more important to find out how many people there are in this country who hold certain opinions than it is to find out how many have annual incomes within a certain range. Yet, especially since the economic crash in 2008 and 2009, the issue of the middle class has a lot to with income and with all the issues around inequality.
WOLFE: I would never write about it that way today. It just seemed that middle-class aspirations were incredibly strong then and people don’t feel that way now. I’m not an economist, but many people have documented the growing inequality of wealth and income. I think if you combine that with the structural problems facing democracy, it is really a very tough time for this country.
CW: After One Nation After All, your next book, Moral Freedom, picked up on and continued exploring some of the same themes about what Americans believe. You wrote, “the 21st century will be the century of moral freedom.” A decade and a half later do you still feel that that’s true?
WOLFE: Absolutely. Yes. Maybe it was [neoconservative historian] Gertrude Himmelfarb who said that the left won the culture war and the Republicans won on economics. Look at the gay marriage thing. I continue to be astonished. I thought it was the one big exception to the idea that we were not in a culture war. I described—and this was 20 years ago—talking to people in Oklahoma and they seemed like very reasonable, tolerant people and then they would denounce gays using words like abomination and disgusting. That has really gone away.
CW: What exactly did you mean by “moral freedom?”
WOLFE: What I meant was that you, yourself, were in charge of your own morality. And that if you were gay, rather than say I’m going to adopt the morality of the majority, you created your own life. I used this example sometimes: I interviewed gay people and I would hear people say things like, I was living a totally false life. I wasn’t honest with myself. I felt alienated from everyone. And then I discovered I was gay and it was like a flash of light and I saw how I should live. And then I’d interview a conservative in the South and they’d say, you know, I felt I wasn’t living a real authentic life, but Jesus entered my life and a light went on. If you listen to them, it’s identical language. That’s what I meant by moral freedom.
CW: I was also going to ask you to take stock of your years in the academic world and at universities. I wondered what you make of the whole current debate around speech on campus and trigger warnings and all those things. You’ve done a lot of survey research and interviews with people, but this is one topic where you don’t have to leave the ivory tower; this is a fight taking place within it.
WOLFE: I have very strong views. I’m one of those people who would sound like a conservative if I talked at length about these things. I’m an old civil libertarian, free speech kind of person.
CW: Is it strange that that now casts you as a conservative? Doesn’t that tell us something in and of itself?
WOLFE: It does tell us something. I’ve changed some of my views about the academic world. I was never comfortable with affirmative action when it came in. I come from a Jewish background. For a lot of Jewish intellectuals, affirmative action reminded them of quotas and an attack on merit. And I felt all of those discomforts. There was a period when some people were even calling me a neoconservative. But from actual experience I’ve come to appreciate the need for diversity in higher education and I’ve changed positions [on affirmative action]. But not on the trigger warnings, political correctness thing. I just find that enormously disturbing.
CW: You were the founding director of the Boisi Center at BC. I’ve always been struck that it’s called the Center for Religion and American Public Life, it’s at a Jesuit institution, yet you are not particularly religious. I wonder how you came to that interest.
WOLFE: I’m not religious at all. I actually got started in this business when Jimmy Carter got elected president, and I had no idea what this man was talking about. What’s a born-again Christian? At that point in time it looked like I was going to learn about Democrats if I learned about evangelicals.
CW: So it was Jimmy Carter who piqued your interest in religion and public life?
WOLFE: Yes. But I would also credit one other person, and that is the very distinguished sociologist Peter Berger, who actually taught at BC before going over to BU. When I wrote Whose Keeper [in 1989], he reviewed the book in the New York Times. He actually wrote a nice review, but he said, how can this guy Wolfe write a book about morality and never mention religion? I read that and said, my God, this guy is right, he’s absolutely right. I need to know more about this thing called religion. So there was at the time a lot of money being spent on religious scholarship by the Eli Lilly Foundation and they included me in this three-year project with all of the leading historians and sociologists of religion in the country and the president of the Fuller Seminary in California, which is the largest evangelical seminary in the country, and some people from Notre Dame and so on. I got very, very interested in this world, so when I came to BC [in 1999] I started talking about an institute on values. They said, why not call it a center on religion? I said, why not? So that’s what I did. I learned that in scholarship on religion you get a lot of advocacy. Jews write about Jews. Catholics write about Catholics. But it’s even worse than that. Orthodox Jews write about Orthodox Jews. Liberal Catholics write about liberal Catholics. I didn’t really have a stake, and I felt that I could be relatively open-minded.
CW: There was a review of another one of your books, The Future of Liberalism, by Kwame Appiah, a well-known philosophy professor. He said that if there was a Wolfe coat of arms, the motto on it would be, “On the one hand, on the other.” He was saying there is a certain measuredness to your way of seeing things. Is that fair?
WOLFE: I think it is. I would like to say of myself that I can see both sides. It doesn’t mean that I agree with both sides, but I think you should at least try to understand, in my case, why conservatives feel the way they do.
CW: You get put in this group of people known as public intellectuals. I read somewhere where you described what that is by saying writing short pieces for Time magazine doesn’t quite let you unspool ideas enough, but only talking to fellow academics through professional journals wasn’t completely satisfying, either. It was that place in the middle where you could expound at some length and in depth on issues, whether in The New Republic or elsewhere, but have it be part of the broader public conversation that has been very appealing to you along with your academic work.
WOLFE: It has been. I just see public intellectual as kind of a descriptive term. I’m glad we still have space in our society for this kind of way of thinking.
CW: Do we? Or is it becoming a little bit endangered?
WOLFE: There was a forum once at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, and it was a showing of that movie called Arguing the World, which is about Irving Howe and Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer and these people who were indisputably public intellectuals of their time. In the panel discussion afterwards, Dan Bell, who I loved, said, oh, there are no more, we were the last ones. And I said to myself that whenever I got to this age I would never say that I was part of the golden age. I think it’s a great time to be a public intellectual, and I think there are lots of younger people that are writing terrific stuff.