When David Riesman died this past May at the age of ninety- two, it was something of a surprise to learn that he had still been alive. For an earlier generation of sociologists, such obscurity would have seemed inconceivable. The Lonely Crowd, the book for which Riesman is best known, has sold more copies in the United States (1.4 million since its publication in 1950) than any other book by a sociologist. In the 1950s, his sociology provided a moody contrast to the cold war’s flag-waving, arguing that the return of material prosperity led not to social peace but inner desolation. For Riesman, the country’s confident and patriotic unity after the Second World War only hid—indeed, in some ways it reflected—a sad attempt to stave off cultural despair. Riesman’s critical take on American culture fundamentally shaped the thinking of the postwar generation. It helped to inspire the New Left’s quest for “participatory democracy.” It gave flower children and hippies the courage to live differently. Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism echoed Riesman’s themes, with a touch more Freud. Even today, when The Lonely Crowd is more cited than read, a period piece rather than a contemporary text, Michael Lerner’s pleas for the “politics of meaning” are Riesman Lite.
Despite Riesman’s bitter skepticism, The Lonely Crowd is a book whose arguments and approach seem to come back into vogue in conservative times. By arguing that the cultural perils of prosperity—more than union-busting, McCarthyism, or racial segregation—were the greatest threats to American democracy, Riesman helped shift political debate away from the open conflicts of the New Deal era, creating the myth of the quiet 1950s. Politics, for Riesman, was essentially therapy for the country’s flawed culture. It was an existential necessity, a way of bringing meaning and connection to an alienated people, more than it was a means to achieve a just society. It is this dark view of American culture almost irredeemably flawed, and the accompanying view of politics as remedy, that accounts for the lasting appeal and influence of The Lonely Crowd in times when political transformation seems impossible. The cultural approach to politics has an enduring attraction for thinkers in moments of flight from radicalism, for it offers a way to criticize American society without addressing the deep problems of economic and political inequality that might require a struggle or a fight.
David Riesman’s early life was characterized by indirection. His parents were professionals, German-Jewish in origin, with a blueblood streak. His father was a physician, his mother a former graduate student who relinquished academe for art. Their Philadelphia household was a study in erudition. As a child, Riesman lived under the shadow of his parents̵...
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