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Nearly 50 years after his death, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr remains a celebrated figure. His admirers include presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, as well as Cornel West, David Brooks, E. J. Dionne and Andrew J. Bacevich. Fans have been known to say, “Love thy Niebuhr as thyself.” He’s also the subject of the 2017 documentary “An American Conscience,” and for a time, his name served as James Comey’s nom de tweet. As a member of the Commission on Freedom of the Press in the 1940s, Niebuhr delivered a grim diagnosis of the media and the constitutional order. His newly unearthed analysis prefigures many of today’s debates about the role of media, old and new, in molding the fate of American democracy.
In his prolific writings—21 books, chapters in 126 other books, and more than 2,600 articles and reviews—Niebuhr warned against arrogance, self-deception, sentimentality and any more than a mustard seed of hope. History is not a tale of steady progress, he said, or even a tale of unsteady progress; often it’s a tale of catastrophe. In his view, many of the culture’s most harmful illusions stem from a faith that social progress is inevitable, human nature perfectible and utopia just around the bend. People cling to this faith even though, as he put it during World War II, modern history supplies “an almost perfect refutation.”
Time Inc. Editor in Chief Henry R. Luce considered Niebuhr one of the great minds of the age. In addition to a Time cover story, Luce helped finance Niebuhr’s journal Christianity and Crisis and published his articles in Fortune and Life. Luce’s admiration didn’t waver even after Niebuhr denounced his 1941 essay, “The American Century,” as an expression of “egotistic corruption” comparable to “the Messianic errors castigated by Christ.” In a private reflection on the critique, Luce conceded that at least the title had been a mistake. Nonetheless, he found Niebuhr’s pessimism excessive. When Time Inc. was planning a magazine of culture (it never got off the ground), he considered calling it “Progress” as a specific rebuke to Niebuhrian gloom.
In 1943, Luce recruited Niebuhr for the Commission on Freedom of the Press, a Time Inc.-sponsored committee to rethink media freedom and responsibility, chaired by then-University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Between 1943 and 1946, the Hutchins Commission assembled every few weeks, 17 times in all, usually for two or three days, with most meetings transcribed. It’s a little-known chapter in Niebuhr’s well-chronicled life. Most of his observations, boxed and buried in the Library of Congress and half a dozen university archives, have never been published.
Early on, Niebuhr told his Hutchins Commission colleagues that democracy “seems to be on the skids.” Internal weaknesses allowed fascism to spread, and victory by the Allies wouldn’t cure those weaknesses. He saw the media as part of the problem. First, the media can fray the connections that form a community. Sounding like a critic of scrolling alone, he said that a technological society “tends to supplant older, traditional and organic forms of cohesion with synthetic, mechanistic and artificial forms of togetherness.” Second, those who rely on partisan news media can occupy hermetically sealed worlds. According to the Chicago Tribune, a congressional investigation into the Pearl Harbor attack concluded that “Roosevelt had euchred us into this war,” Niebuhr said, whereas according to PM, the investigation found FDR blameless. Both accounts were mostly factual; they just emphasized different facts. Voters can’t make wise choices without a common understanding. Third, even well-meaning media managers can unwittingly clear a path for a demagogue. Operating outside the political sphere, the press can create a celebrity who turns fame to demagogic ends. Prefiguring those who castigate “The Apprentice,” Niebuhr said that if journalists hadn’t catapulted Charles Lindbergh to stardom in 1927, he wouldn’t have become so menacing as an isolationist leader in 1941. Fringe media, finally, can propagate hate-filled conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon precursor Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Niebuhr doubted the wisdom of outlawing such publications, but he considered them pernicious. “Is it sufficient to say that people are entitled to their prejudices?” he asked. “This leads to a society in which there is agreement on nothing but freedom—anarchy.”
Niebuhr’s pessimism provoked sharp words from Charles E. Merriam, a University of Chicago political scientist who had worked in the Roosevelt administration. In the 1930s, Merriam had wanted to sideline American voters so that social planners, including eugenicists, could take over and create a “fairyland of achievement.” He retreated from those views, but not from his fairyland belief in “the perfectibility of mankind.” Niebuhr reviewed three of Merriam’s books in The Nation, respectfully but skeptically. In a review published in 1940, as war raged in Europe, Niebuhr remarked that the world situation seemed to reflect “something more than a mere momentary backsliding” on the road to human perfection.
When the two met for the first time at a Hutchins Commission dinner in 1944, they argued over events, portents and, in Niebuhr’s words, “the drift of things.” Afterward, they exchanged apologies by letter. “I hope I did not frighten you by my emphatic utterances,” Merriam wrote, but “I was a little shocked by the shade of defeatism.” Niebuhr apologized for having shocked him, and added: “I hope you are right and I am wrong.” Later, in another letter to Niebuhr, Merriam said he found it helpful to temper rationality with faith in the future, “otherwise I might collapse into pessimism.” The implication was that the theologian was faith-deficient.
For Niebuhr, Merriam-style complacency is all too common in the United States. Americans like to ascribe their success to moral virtue rather than good luck. Thanksgiving, he once remarked, is a time for “congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves.” Americans smugly presume that they have the gold-standard democracy against which all others must be measured. The framers, they think, fashioned stable, incorruptible, self-correcting institutions. Whenever part of the system goes haywire, the other parts compensate, and constitutional homeostasis prevails.
Not so, according to Niebuhr. “There are no such natural harmonies and balances …[,]” he wrote in a Hutchins Commission memo. “Whatever harmony exists at a particular moment may be disturbed by the emergence of new factors and vitalities.” In his view, the price of liberty isn’t merely eternal vigilance; it’s also eternal trial and error. New solutions create new problems. Virtues in one situation become vices in another. Measures to suppress abuses of freedom can end up suppressing freedom. Reason advances justice in some circumstances and camouflages injustice in others. The expansion of knowledge sometimes fuels global understanding and other times fuels imperialism. A free society, Niebuhr believed, demands ceaseless recalibration of unity and diversity, freedom and order, mores and mandates, state power and corporate power. The challenge is “a perpetual one,” he told Luce, “for which no single solution is ever found but upon which each generation must work afresh.”
With due humility and tentativeness (the devil can cite Niebuhr for his purpose), one can imagine the 1944 dinner argument unfolding today. American democracy, Niebuhr says, is on the skids, owing to antisocial social media, partisan filter bubbles, venomous conspiracy theories and all the rest. Institutions alone won’t bring salvation. Political norms won’t snap back into place of their own accord. Merriam declares himself shocked. The American system may not be invincible, he says, but it’s robust and resilient. Niebuhr should have a little faith. Niebuhr says he hopes Merriam is right. But, privately, he doubts it. The United States faces more than a momentary backsliding. Averting disaster is going to take energy, ingenuity and luck.