A recent commentary noted that a spate of books written by blue-state journalists and academics about red state folks had recently appeared, but added that there were unfortunately no complementary books by red staters about blue staters. What follows is my own very blue-stater attempt to sketch out what has happened on my side of the social and political fence in the past half century. Both sides, in my opinion bear a lot of responsibility for the political collapse that has led to the election of Donald Trump. Like my fellow historians Luigi Albertini, Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides, I have always been the kind of patriot who believes in being hardest on his own country--and the kind of partisan who believes in being harder on his own side. Our crisis demands no less.
Fifty years ago my generation's revolt against our parents was slowly moving into high gear. It had begun two years earlier at the University of California at Berkeley. In a famous speech in the fall of 1964, Mario Savio, a student leader and veteran of the Mississippi Summer Project, had addressed his fellow students, who were enjoying an almost free education--and a much better one than they would find there today--in the midst of one of the most attractive climates and surroundings on earth. He specifically compared the plight of Berkeley undergraduates to that of segregated, terrorized Mississippi black citizens--and he was applauded for doing so. I have wondered for many years how he could possibly have elicited that reaction, and I can only conclude now that it was a natural, if unfortunate, reaction to being given so much by our parents' generation. Those students' parents had provided them with a secure environment (if an emotionally sterile one), good schools, and now, a great, nearly free university. But what is given can be taken away, and the recipient thus easily comes to resent those who have given too much. So it was then.
Meanwhile, my parents' generation was about to make the tragic mistake that escalated our rebellion by at least two orders of magnitude: the beginning, in the first half of 1965, of the Vietnam War. I wrote at length about how that mistake came about in American Tragedy [see link at right], and I have often written that it gave my own generation license to disregard not only what our parents told us about the necessity of that war, but just about everything else they said, too. Meanwhile, larger historical forces, I know believe, were at work. Western civilization in the 1960s had reached a peak, in many ways, thanks to generations of self-discipline and self-restraint, which had allowed most people to accept their roles in their families and society. Such self-restraint had become, it seems, literally iinhuman, and my generation renounced it. That opened up many opportunities for women and gays (legal opportunities for black citizens had already been opened up by 1975), which was necessary and could have strengthened our society. But we were not content to extend those opportunities within the context of society as it then existed. Instead, the previous lack of those opportunities became the pretext for a broader rejection of western civilization. This began in my own profession of academia, and college professors have now spread new ideas through two whole new generations.
The emphasis on the need to redress grievances against minorities, women and gays has led to a general indictment of white males, both in history and in society today. They are no longer celebrated for having done the most to create a civilization based upon reason and equality, and having written a Constitution that spoke the language of equal rights even to those who did not yet enjoy them. Instead, we have gone so far that a recent book on the American Revolution by the historian Alan Taylor refuses to regard the revolution as a step forward because it maintained slavery in the South and did not help Indian tribes. The intellectual elite now takes it for granted--almost without realizing it--that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the most significant feature of our society and institutions, and presumes that anything that helps those groups--from a cabinet appointment to an Oscar nomination to a presidential candidacy--must be a good thing. They see our society as a zero-sum game, whose only real problem is that straight white males have too much and everyone else has too little.
Although neither one of the last two Democratic Presidents was born into the economic and intellectual elite, they both moved smoothly into it thanks to their considerable abilities and our educational system. Both of them also had personal characteristics that gave them a leg up at the ballot box: Bill Clinton's southern roots, which twice allowed him to carry a number of southern states, and Barack Obama's race and personal appeal, which led to an unprecedented turnout of younger and minority voters. Meanwhile, Democratic strategists talked gleefully about the gradual eclipse of the white male portion of the electorate, counting on women and minorities to elect one Democrat after another. Much (though hardly all) of the Democratic party was so captivated by the idea of the first female President succeeding the first black one that they could not even stop to ask whether the country was ready for a woman in general, or from a very controversial former first lady in particular. But they had lost sight of something bigger in the meantime.
Hillary Clinton, like most Democrats, presented herself as the champion of "working families." She retained a remarkable hold on the allegiance of black voters--although we may eventually find that a failure of younger black voters to turn out, and the failure of Hispanics to support her to the extent she expected, cost her the election. But neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama had been able to halt, much less reverse, the decline of the white and black working class in this country. Given the nature of our economy and the changes that it has been going through, it is impossible to help the nonwhite working class without helping the white working class as well. That in turn can only happen through major changes in our economic structure and our tax code--the kind of changes that Bernie Sanders (sincerely) and Donald Trump (insincerely and inconsistently) have proposed. Very few people believed that Hillary Clinton would ever undertake such changes, and I don't either.
Almost two centuries ago Tocqueville noted that the United States had a small intellectual elite, but that it wisely kept mostly to itself and had a very liimited role in politics. The Progressive Era and the New Deal, and Presidents like the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, and Kennedy changed that picture a good deal--but the politicians of that era understood that intellectuals were only one constituency and that they had to respect the values of the heartland. Today's Democrats do not understand that, and their supporters in academia understand it even less. And that, I am convinced, as a very big reason why Donald Trump will take office on January 20.
In the recent seminar of campaign managers from both sides at Harvard's Institute of Politics, one of the Clinton campaign managers said she would rather have lost the election than have made the kinds of appeals the Trump camp made. I do not think that Clinton should have taken any of Trump's provisions, but I do think Democratic politicians have to realize that there is nothing noble or beneficial about losing on behalf of intellectual elite values that too many voters in swing states do not share. We remain a democracy that includes people of very different types and very different beliefs and the task of political leadership is to bring enough of them together on the same side to make government function effectively. This both parties have failed to do. That is the challenge we now face, and both sides will have to change to meet it.