Modern vs. Western Thought: Power vs Achievement

William H. Young

Reactions by the academic left to a recent op-ed by NAS members Amy Wax and Larry Alexander on the need for Americans to return to bourgeois values demonstrate the relevance of the sociological conclusions of late NAS co-founder and former board chairman Stanley Rothman as well as the findings of my current series on Modern thought.

Rothman concluded that our intellectual elites and professional upper middle class have become driven by power to control and influence others rather than driven for achievement based on a standard of excellence set for oneself that had been the basis for American thought and effort since the founding.

The applications of power by the academic left against Wax and Alexander focused on white supremacy in addition to racism, an emerging aspect of identitarianism within Modern thought.

The Protestant or Bourgeois Ethic

“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). “They willed to their descendants,” he explains, “the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”[1]

The Protestant (Puritan) work ethic of Western civilization, esteeming literacy, thrift, self-reliance, and diligent personal effort, became a key element of the individual’s path to economic mobility and independence in America, leading to membership in the middle class and above. The Protestant ethic included self-mastery over hedonism and self-indulgence and a strong work ethic. It venerated knowledge and the dignity of human labor, giving life meaningful structure. This also became known as bourgeois values, virtues, character, or culture, including marriage.

A Sociological Analysis

In The End of The Experiment: The Rise of Cultural Elites and the Decline of America’s Civic Culture (2016), Rothman reached the conclusion about the bourgeois character and culture that was the basis for our founding:

The dissolution of that culture among metro-Americans is creating a new American personality type among members of the professional middle class. As the justification for achievement (i.e., competing with a standard of excellence set for oneself) declines, it is being replaced by a drive for power to control or influence others. The need for power…is part and parcel of the attempt to maintain one’s self-esteem, weakened not only by newer patterns of child rearing, but also by a loss of faith in a rational, ordered universe that provides a sense of ongoing meaning for one’s life. For those to whom life now lacks such meaning, power is seen as promising immortality. Further, since everyone is viewed as seeking power, one must also seek power for oneself to avoid being dominated by others….[2]

In the American academy of the 1960s, the Protestant ethic became a specific target for assault. Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School—cultural Marxism—dismissed the “patriarchal compulsion to work” as serving the interests of class society, and led the turn to sexual liberation and expressive individualism. Epicurean self-regard replaced Emersonian self-reliance in the academy and eventually in society.

Joseph Schumpeter foresaw, in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), that the academy would fill the heads of our bourgeoisie progeny with “almost universal hostility”[3] to capitalism, indulging in a sense of moral superiority over the materialistic culture that nurtured them.

In another chapter of End of the Experiment based on political psychology, Rothman and Althea Nagai link social structure with modal personality types and conclude:

The findings show the displacement of the archetypal “Protestant Ethic” American with its replacement, the new postmodern expressive individual, which is incompatible with America as a free, self-governing democracy.[4]

The Wax and Alexander Op-Ed

On August 9, 2017, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling for a revival of the bourgeois values that characterized mid-century American life, including child-rearing within marriage, hard work, self-discipline on and off the job, and respect for authority. Heather Mac Donald goes on to argue in National Review Online:

The late 1960s took aim at the bourgeois ethic, they say, encouraging an “antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment, ideal [of] sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.”

Today the consequences of that cultural revolution are all around us: lagging education levels, the lowest male work-force participation rate since the Great Depression, opioid abuse, and high illegitimacy rates. Wax and Alexander catalogue the self-defeating behaviors that leave too many Americans idle, addicted, or in prison: “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites, the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas growing among some Hispanic immigrants.”

Throwing caution to the winds, they challenge the core tenet of multiculturalism: “All cultures are not equal,” they write. “Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Unless America’s elites again promote personal responsibility and other bourgeois virtues, the country’s economic and social problems will only worsen, they conclude.[5]

Peter Wood supported Wax and Alexander and observed the following:

They did voice a straightforward judgment: American culture of the 1950s was better than American culture now. They instance the huge increase in single-parent families, the waning work ethic, lack of patriotism, casual vulgarity, addiction, and disrespect for authority. And they say Americans ought to adopt those older bourgeois habits—and abandon the multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden” that encourages our modern dysfunctional anti-bourgeois culture.

Wax and Alexander added caveats. They don’t want a return to mid-century modern discrimination on grounds of race and sex. But too late: The PC patrol had spotted them and released the dogs of Outrage.[6]

That Outrage consisted of accusations against Wax and Alexander of “racism” and “white supremacy” rather than objective engagement with their points. Reaction to the op-ed immediately focused on ideology and charges based on group identity and uses of group power rather than consideration of individuals or their means to achievement or paths to betterment of their lives.

Mac Donald also describes an interview with Wax by the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, in which she stuck by her thesis. “I don’t shrink from the word, ‘superior’” with regard to Anglo-Protestant cultural norms, she told the paper. Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” these values. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by White Europeans.” Western governments have undoubtedly committed crimes, she said, but it would be a mistake to reject what is good in those countries because of their historical flaws.[7]

Identity and Power

My series has contended that Modern thought rejects the core ideas of the Protestant or bourgeois ethic. Modern thought has replaced individual intellect, common sense, reason, and moral virtue with feeling and trivia—subjectivism. It has displaced objective reality with the culturally constructed reality of the identity group.

Cultural determinism rules through the action—the power—of the identity group. The identity group demands social justice for oppressed marginalized groups—through power. In ideological racism, everyone is considered racist because of unconscious bias, and everything is considered racist because of systemic bias. Therefore, perpetual conflict and struggle over power is the only outcome.

White Supremacy

Charges of “white supremacy” against Wax and Alexander added a new twist to the vocabulary of racist accusations in identity politics.  Elliot Kaufman and Adam Rubenstein explain “white supremacy” and the academic left in a recent article, “America the White?” in National Review Online:

The real root of our evil reaches back into the history of Western civilization itself. It is whiteness, instantiated in America as “white supremacy,” the Left found our Original Sin….All brutality, all corruption, and all of it white….

Consider Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which likely to the end of our days, we must inevitably return.[8]

On this reading, racism and whiteness come alive, acting through Western and American history as transcendent, irrepressible forces with wills of their own. Like God, whiteness can be found in everything, all the time, though often only the elect can see it.

These elect formed departments of African-American studies to detail their findings. Their discipline, however, was not like the others, which represent branches of knowledge….Race…offers a therapeutic education, marshalling students into racial silos where no claim of grievance is too fantastic to level, so long as the target is whiteness….the consummate cause of every evil…Instead of understanding the common humanity that binds us all, students now devote their college years to understanding what divides us: contrived opinions.

Whiteness is made into a power unto itself, leaving its victims—blacks, and whites too—utterly helpless and frustrated. All that we are left to do, it seems is despise our American regime. That has been the effect of the Left’s revisionism, which presents the Founders as racists and the great Western philosophers as stooges of white supremacy.[9]

Ta-Nahesi Coates comments further about white supremacy in a lead article in The Atlantic of October 2017, “The First White President,” which charges that President Trump was elected by whites—not just the beleaguered white working class, but whites as a whole--to negate President Obama’s legacy. Coates also makes a cogent point relevant to this article in a critique of Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay “The End of Identity Liberalism,” which denounced the perversion of liberalism into “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identify.” Coates writes:

“Identity politics…is largely expressive, not persuasive, Lilla claims. “Which is why it never wins elections—but can lose them.” That Trump ran and won on identity politics is beyond Lilla’s powers of conception. What appeals to the white working class is ennoble. What appeals to black workers and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics—except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.[10]

If Coates’ criteria for identity were to be adopted widely, white supremacy would be not just about small neo-Nazi groups marching at Charlottesville, but about whites as a whole in future conflicts over identity group power. The academy’s and Modern thought’s animus toward, and rejection of, the ideas and products of Western civilization would be extended to those also attributed to whites, to the further detriment of American society.


Amy Wax and Larry Alexander followed Alexis de Tocqueville in recognizing and making the wise observation that the Western Protestant ethic or the bourgeois culture was key to the success of the American republic and the prosperity of its individuals. Stanley Rothman called that bourgeois culture a drive for achievement based on a standard of excellence. The values and virtues of a bourgeois culture are not race based and have a demonstrated record of success that merit their adoption and application by all cultures.

Yet the only reply to Wax and Alexander by our academic elite was to apply identity-group power to seek control of speech based on charges of racism and white supremacy rather than to address arguments objectively. Individual achievement based on a standard of excellence that results from bourgeois values was not even considered or mentioned by our academic elite. The subjectivism and cultural determinism of Modern thought prevailed over intellect and reason. Rothman’s profound insight was demonstrated.

Rationally, marginalized groups would benefit far more from adopting the bourgeois values that have been the basis for success of Americans since the founding rather than depending on identity power to advance their circumstances. Ironically, the bourgeois values were undermined by the very Marxist theories that continue to promise a false future to the still marginalized.

The turn to white supremacy in addition to racism as the basis for future identity-group power arguments will make civil discourse even more contentious and should be discouraged within academia and society. Discourse should focus instead on individual inclusion and on using reason and common sense to establish objective realities and common virtues and values, which subjective feelings and group power will never identify or achieve.

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, eds., George Lawrence, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), 257.

[2] Stanley Rothman, Althea Nagai, Robert Maranto, Matthew C. Woessner, and David J. Rothman, ed. The End of the Experiment: The Rise of Cultural Elites and the Decline of America’s Civic Culture (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2016), 83.

[3] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper& Row Publishers, Third Edition, 1950).

[4] Stanley Rothman with Althea Nagai, “Personality, Occupation, and Social Change,” Rothman, et al., End of the Experiment, 151.

[5] Heather Mac Donald, “Scandal Erupts over the Promotion of ‘Bourgeois’ Behavior,” National Review Online, 29 August 2017.

[6] Peter Wood, “Penn Dean to Law Prof: We Favor Free Speech, but Not Yours, National Association of Scholars,, 15 August 2017.

[7] Mac Donald, “Scandal Erupts over the Promotion of ‘Bourgeois’ Behavior,” 29 August 2017.

[8] Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).

[9] Eliot Kaufman and Adam Rubenstein, “America the White? National Review Online, 7 September 2017.

[10] Ta-Nahisi Coates, “The First White President: The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy,” The Atlantic, October 2017. Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” The New York Times 20 November 2016.

Image: Success-failure street shield by geralt/ CC0 Creative Commons

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