Friday, December 30, 2016

At last, the 1950s come to life

Over the years I have been very critical here of recent attempts to dramatize the 1950s, such as Masters of Sex (which I discussed in detail), Mad Men, and the film Carol.  The new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt, while set somewhat later (1969), has also failed to impress me.  The writers and directors do not understand, it seems to me, that while today we reject many of the customs of that era--especially as regards relations between the sexes--almost no one living through that era did.  Too often, the protagonists of these shows look like 21st-century characters who have time-traveled back at least half a century and chafe under the social controls they find there.  Now, however, a new team has managed to do what all the others could not.  And ironically, they have done so in a production that does not claim to paint a true picture of that period (actually, in this case, the early 1960s), but which instead presents an alternative vision of history.  That is the Amazon production, The Man in the High Castle, based on a 1962 novel by Philip K Dick.  The premise of the novel, as you probably know, is that the Germans and Japanese won the Second World War, and the action of the series is divided between the New York area (the capital of the Nazi-ruled eastern half of the country) and San Francisco, which along with the whole Pacific coastal region is ruled by the Japanese.  The Rockies, which the first season visited briefly, are a neutral zone. The series uses superb Japanese and German actors to great effect.  I will do my best to say what I have to say about the series without giving any critical plot points away, and I highly recommend that readers watch it.

By 1962, the war has had very different effects on the two coasts.  The Pacific States remain occupied territory, partly because of the strict racial views of the Japanese.  The entire American population is terrorized and sullen, and remains at the mercy of the occupiers' whims.  The situation in the eastern states is entirely different--they are part of the greater Reich.  They have evidently been thoroughly ethnically cleansed of both Jews and black people, and the population has been screened for proper racial characteristics--but the citizenry appears to be generally loyal, despite the presence of a small resistance movement, and, critically, quite happy.  Large, clean suburbs have evidently sprung up, just as they did under Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK.  Procreation has become a duty to the Reich, and women are fulfilling it enthusiastically--just as most of them did in real life without any official exhortation to do so.  Families evidently see themselves as part of a team, and the husband is the coach.  Nearly every adult chain-smokes cigarettes.  This was virtually the only point that suggested to me that the writers might not have done all their research.  While Americans and Europeans did smoke very heavily in the early 1960s, they might not have had Hitler won the war.  He intended to ban smoking when the war was over, and while that might have been utopian, he might certainly have curtailed it.  Another slip involved cars: the streets are filled with genuine American monstrosities from that period, and nary a single Volkswagen is to be seen.  In fact, Beetles had become a familiar site in 1962 America even though the Germans had lost the war, and would surely have been more common had they won.

The inhabitants of the Reich, essentially, take their society's values for granted, largely because their regime won the greatest war in history.  And that was the situation in real life in 1962 as well--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Western Europe absorbed many of the values (and products) of the United States because the US had emerged from the war as the unquestioned leader of western civilization.  And indeed, I came away from watching the second season (which spends far more time in the eastern states) wondering whether the experience of going through the Second World War, in which tens of millions were mobilized and millions died, was more important than whether or not one wound up on the winning side.   Whoever won that epic conflict enjoyed national and international prestige which is unimaginable today, and commanded the respect of virtually everyone within its sphere of influence. The same thing, of course, also happened in the USSR and much of the Communist world, even though the atmosphere in Eastern Europe was far more similar to that of the Pacific states in The Man in the High Castle.

Nor is this all.  The role of the younger generation is also very cleverly handled.  We see a harbinger of things to come, not in New York, but in the upper reaches of Berlin society, where the plot takes one of the main characters late in season 2.  There we meet young Berliners comparable, in a way, to the undergraduates at UC Berkeley just two years later.  They have everything they could possibly want, but they are not content simply to carry on the roles their parents have laid out for them.  Deprived of any real initiative of their own, they take refuge in casual sex and pharmaceutical recreation--specifically, LSD, originally devoted by German scientists in mind control experiments.  The Awakening of the 1960s had not yet begun when Dick wrote his novel, but the team of 11 screenwriters listed in the credits know what was around the corner and they foreshadow it brilliantly.  Once again, they suggest that the same dynamic would have transformed western society no matter who had won the war.  And perhaps these episodes help answer a question that has bothered me for years: why Berkeley undergrads in the fall of 1964 eagerly embraced Mario Savio's analogy between their status and that of disenfranchised black Americans in Mississippi.  Despite all their advantages, they felt they were living in a world that was not their own.  Of such generational dynamics is history made.

The real American society of 1962 differed critically, of course, from what we see in The Man in the High Castle.  The Reich is exclusive, ruling both despised racial groups and "unworthy" physical or mentally deficient people out of the national community, while the United States had become more inclusive as a result of the war, with eastern Europeans more assimilated, and black Americans gradually securing basic rights.  But the US showed the same pressure to conform, in dress, hairstyles, diet and drinking habits.  That was where western civilization had been going at that time, and the experience of the war, when all men wore uniforms, had accelerated the trend.  But a contrary trend was about to erupt.  The two young protagonists of the series are also trying to move outside the simple black and white categories of their world--and more than once, their attempts to follow their own moral compass wind up alienating all sides.

Last but hardly least, the international situation in The Man in the High Castle mirrors the actual situation of 1962.  There, as in real life, the two victorious nations--Germany and Japan, instead of the US and the USSR--are experiencing a falling out that threatens a new great war.  There are explicit and implicit echoes of the Cuban missile crisis in the drama that plays out.  As in real life, the critical conflicts divide those who see history as an endless struggle, and those who believe that the world now needs a period of peace.

The series, in short, is great history--which is why, I predict, it does not foreshadow new events on the horizon right now.  The first half of the twentieth century was a great age of authority and huge common enterprises.  Ours is the reverse.  While President-elect Trump can talk like an authoritarian, I suspect that state authority will continue to get weaker, not stronger, under him--and that the same trend will continue around the world.  The mid-1960s remain one of the great turning points of history because they changed the individual's relationship to his family and the broader society in which he lives.  Since then, individualism has gained steadily in every realm of life.  The question before us is how far individualism can go before it becomes impossible for modern society to function, and the answer to that question is not yet clear.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Trump Administration and the Republican Revolution

Donald Trump selected nearly all his cabinet while I was away on a long vacation.  It is both a blend of several elements of the Republican Party, and a team with a purpose, one that will clearly move quickly to make great changes in Washington.  It represents a blend of different political cultures, while completely excluding the bi-coastal cultural elite.  And while it is not entirely clear what it promises on the foreign front, its domestic direction is clear. It will try to undo virtually all that is left of the New Deal and the Great Society, fulfilling the fantasies of Newt Gingrich--Trump's most distinguished early supporter--and Grover Norquist, who has been relatively quiet of late, but who stands on the verge of the realization of his dream of shrinking the federal government until it can be drowned in a bathtub.  While press attention focuses on Trump's personality, what we are really seeing is the culmination of more than three decades of disciplined Republican work, driving the Republican party and the country steadily to the right.

Trump's selections fall broadly into two camps.  Quite a few of them, including those in the most critical positions, come from the Republican political establishment and the bipartisan economic establishment.  Rex Tillerson, to begin with, is probably the most powerful business executive to assume a position in the cabinet since Eisenhower appointed "Engine Charlie" Wilson, the General Motors Chairman of the Board, as Secretary of Defense in 1953.  (Wilson is not to be confused with the Texas Congressman who three decades later became the hero of "Charlie Wilson's war.)  Ike's Wilson famously remarked during his confirmation hearings that he had always assumed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, and vice versa, and Tillerson presumably would say the same about Exxon.   Tillerson is not a conservative ideologue, but he has been converted to a a liver-and-let-live policy towards Putin's Russia, and his company has a huge stake in the lifting of the sanctions against that country.  It is entirely possible that he will work with all major governments to make the world safer for themselves and their corporate oligarchies--although at least one report claims that Trump plans to reverse Richard Nixon's policy and forge an anti-Chinese alliance with the Russians. A second key choice from the Establishment, broadly defined, is Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs executive and current hedge fund manager, as Secretary of the Treasury.  He seems very unlikely to push for a tougher regulatory environment, and indeed, quite likely to create a looser one, inviting a replay of the 2007 crash.  In a parallel appointment, current Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn will become the head of the White House National Economic Council in this "populist" administration.  Three other establishment selections are Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a long-time Republican operative, U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao,Senator McConnell's wife, whose policy plans are not clear.  Equally unclear is the future role of Interior Secretary  Ryan Zinke a freshman Congressman from Montana who has not, apparently, taken strong public positions on key environmental issues.  And another, surely, is General Mattis, the presumptive Secretary of Defense, who had a very high reputation within the military when I was working at the Naval War College.  Retired general John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, falls into the same category..

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it seems to me, occupies something of a middle position within the Trump team.  After several decades in Washington, he certainly ranks as an Establishment figure, but he has long been an opponent of abortion rights and embraced the evisceration of the Voting Rights act.  He can also be counted on to support extreme measures against immigration or against a presumed domestic terrorist threat.  All these positions are, of course, completely in line with mainstream Republican thinking nowadays.  Under Sessions the Justice Department will surely drop its aggressive advocacy of the rights of transgender Americans and will probably stand firmly behind law enforcement in any new controversies over police behavior--popular policies with the Administration's base. 

We now come to the second group of appointees, the ones who in my opinion will attempt to transform--or eliminate--the role of the federal government in various sectors of American life.  Several of them come from the Tea Party movement, which has never before had a direct role in national policy, and several have been chosen, clearly, because of their opposition to the essential functions that their departments were created to serve.

The Labor Department exists to protect the rights of American workers, but its new head, Andrew Puzder, is the CEO of a fast-food chain, an economic sector that pays low wages for very hard work and has successfully resisted attempts to organize.  No Republican of a century ago ever dared appoint a titan of non-unionized industry like Henry Ford to this post, but that is what Trump has done.  Puzder violently opposes any increase in the minimum wage.  Similarly, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who will become director of the EPA, has literally functioned as a mouthpiece for energy interests in controversies with the EPA, passing on their own draft protests as his own.  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has led campaigns designed to reduce the role of public education in American life and promote private alternatives including--but certainly not limited to--charter schools.  I suspect she will also scale back or eliminate the department's role as a campus watchdog on issues of sexual assault and inclusion.   Presumptive Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson seems to have no sympathy for his department's role, either.   The selection of Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (and thus responsible for the administration of the ACA), is parallel. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, violently opposes any government interference in the provision of health care and health insurance.  A parallel appointment in the foreign policy sphere is David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel--a vocal ally of the Netanyahu government who wants to promote, rather than restrict, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and who will apparently move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

And last, but hardly least, Mike Mulvaney, the South Carolina Congressman who has been seelcted to head the Office of Management nad budget, is a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, the most radical faction of the Tea Party, who was active in efforts to shut down the government to force more drastic reductions in federal spending.  Rather than oppose a Democratic Administration's budget, he will now draw up the budget upon which the Congress must act.  It will undoubtedly include huge cuts in discretionary spending.

On economic issues, Trump clearly will continue to promote the fortunes of our new economic oligarchy, led by the financial and energy sectors.  On foreign policy his course is very unclear, but the appointment of Michael Flynn, who seems to be as emotional and intellectually unstable as Trump himself, as National Security Adviser, is frightening.  Given that Trump's policies will do less than nothing for the bulk of the voters who elected him, I expect him to continue arousing hatred against presumed enemies foreign and domestic and to take harsh anti-immigration measures as a way to try to keep them behind him.  Meanwhile, his team, and the excited Republican Congress, will reap the fruits of their victory by cutting back the role of the federal government, leaving teh citizenry with no defense against corporate America.

All this is, of course, catastrophic--but it is also, bizarrely, the way democracy is supposed to work.  Beginning in the 1970s, conservative Republicans (led by Gingrich, who now looks like perhaps the most influential political figure of our era) embarked on a long-term campaign to undo the last 40 years of American history.  They perfected their strategies in the 1990s--strategies I have described in earlier posts under the heading of dau tranh, a Vietnamese Communist term for struggle   (A quick search will help new readers find those posts.)  I have tracked the progress of that campaign here for a dozen years. Their response ot President Obama was to hunker down, block him at any turn, escalate their rhetoric, and mobilize their troops. Meanwhile, they have utterly destroyed the Democratic Party in much of the nation.  In 2016 they came across a new candidate with unusual appeal who managed to win a solid electoral college victory despite losing the popular vote..   They will now proceed to do the work they had been planning for years. President Obama failed for many reasons to transform the US, but the biggest reasons was that he did not want to do so.  The system had been very good to him, and he believed in it.  Too many of the American people no longer did.  The Democrats left a vacuum.  They can't blame the Republicans for filling it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What Happened to the Democratic Elite

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.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Germany (1933) and the United States (2016)

The comparison between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump is unavoidable not because they want the same things or will probably have similar effects--neither of which I believe--but because they both have been chosen to lead their nations without any governmental experience and from outside the political establishments of their countries.  Both, too, have been chosen in the midst of the crises that afflict modern nations every 80 years or so, and both certainly do want to change the course their countries are on significantly.  Few historical issues have been investigated more thoroughly than how Hitler managed to take power in Germany.  I was intensively exposed to that debate as a graduate student, and I thought I knew some of the answers.  Now that the United States has experienced something similar under entirely different circumstances, however, I am not so sure.

Although Hitler had been a fringe political figure in Germany beginning in the early 1920s, not until 1930 did  the Nazis score their first big electoral success, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag or German Parliament.  By that time, the German nation had experienced at least three catastrophic events during the preivous 15 years.  The First World War, which the Imperial German government did so much to unleash in 1914, cost the Germans an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million lives, reduced the value of Germany's currency by at least 2/3, and ended in defeat, revolution, and partial occupation.  The nation viewed the Versailles Treaty as a humiliation, and owed a huge reparations bill.  In 1922, the government's inability to pay the reparations led to a new Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and the government responded with hyperinflation, totally wiping out the savings of nearly every German.  The economy stabilized and improved somewhat in the mid-1920s, but in 1929, the impact of the stock market crash hit Germany very hard.  That enabled the Nazis to make their breakthrough in 1930, and by the time of the next election in 1932, unemployment was nearing 25%.  That allowed them to do even better, although they won only 37% of the votes and 230 out of 608 seats in their best showing.They slipped a bit in the second election that year, but Hitler was nonetheless able to form a coalition government with the more traditional German National Peopls' Party.

What helped bring Hitler to power was the complete collapse of most of the established middle class parties and a split within the Left.  When the Nazis won 230 seats in July 1932, the Social Democrats--the largest workers' party--won 133, and the Communists 89.  While the Catholic Center Party maintained  agood deal of strength with 37, the established center- and left-wing middle class parties had been wiped out.  The Communists, acting on orders from Moscow--which foresaw the complete collapse of the Weimar Republic and a Communist victory--refused to cooperate with any other party, which meant that it was impossible to put together a non-Nazi majority in the Reichstag.  Indeed, that situation had prevailed since the 1930 elections, and as a result, German Chancellors had ruled with the help of emergency decrees. They alone enabled them to pass budgets.

What is astonishing is that Donald Trump has been elected President despite the lack of any comparable misfortunes in the United States.  While we have been "at war" with Al Queda and ISIS for 15 years, our total casualties are not even close to the losses that any of the First World War combatants suffered in a couple of days of hard fighting in that war and total less than 1% of German casualties in that whole war.  The Great Recession did have an impact similar, although not nearly as great, as the inflation in Germany: it wiped out the net worth of a substantial number of Americans, but by no means all.  But our unemployment rate did not reach even half what the Germans (and the United States!) had experienced by 1932.  We have been in recovery for seven years and our official unemployment rate, at any rate, is quite low.

The mid-twentieth century was the climax of an age of rationalism, and my teachers and I assumed that 37% of German voters would not vote for Hitler without some good reason--chiefly, economic misery--for doing so.  Yet we have just seen a substantially larger 47% of American voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, strategically distributed so as to give him the election.  What happened?

Well, to begin with, since Trump secured the Republican nomination, he really managed to graft himself onto our existing political structure in a way that Hitler never did.  He, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and even, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, is a product of the system of direct democracy that both parties put in place 40 years ago.  And although many of his positions are somewhat extreme, all of them have been taken by various Republicans over the last 20 years.  The Republican establishment resented him because he was not one of them, but he built on the propaganda work they had done.  Some readers will remember my posts on dau tranh (if you do not, a search of the blog will turn them up.)  Trump run on the premise that government is not working.  The Republicans had not only been saying that for several decades, they did their best to prevent it from working for the last eight years.   A Republican propaganda campaign lasting several decades has taken over the vast majority of our state governments and convinced well over 40% of the population that Washington is evil.  Trump was the beneficiary. 

Now the American center has not collapsed the way the German one did, and has a comfortable home in the party of the Clintons and Barack Obama.  The American left is however somewhat splintered--and we, unlike the Germans, have no Communist party.  The American left includes younger progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, some of whom clearly did not go to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton.  But it also should include lots of families in declining industrial towns, and it does not.  Such families voted for Trump.  He did what Hitler never managed to do--he won the votes of a substantial portion of the working class, even though he claims to be a billionaire and is bearing the standard of the party of the rich.

I have thus arrived at the finding that has been discussed by many Democrats and even affirmed by one of the architechts of modern Democratic strategy, James Carville.  The Democratic Party has abandoned the working class in favor of the suburban middle class--with the exception of minority voters who base their votes on race, rather than class.  Hitter's party, of course, was named the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but it never won a substantial working class vote before taking power.  Trump's support evidently came from two sources: the bedrock Republican vote in the red states, and a major portion of the white working class vote in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which hadn't voted Republican since the 1980s.

This, then is the reason Trump won 475 of the American electorate, while Hitler never got above 37% of the Germans in a really free election.  He was not, in fact, as much of an outsider as he claimed to be--he took many common Republican positions and easily won the normal Republican vote.  And somehow--and I still do not understand how--he convinced a great many voters whose economic interests would have put them on the Left that he was on their side.  He had an easier paty to power than Hitler. We are beginning to get glimpses of what he might do in power, and I will survey that situation once again after January 1.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tocqueville on Race

Tocqueville divided Democracy in America into two parts.  The first was essentially a survey of American political institutions and how they worked and has been the subject of my earlier posts about him; the second deals with American thinking, mores, and customs.  But near the end of part I, he wrote the longest and most prophetic chapter of the whole work, entitled, "Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States."  With our race relations still in flux, the chapter makes extraordinary reading today.  While Tocqueville did not foresee what would happen over the next few decades, our struggle to overcome his pessimistic view has not been by any means entirely successful.

Tocqueville was one of the founders of modern social science, even if that discipline did not yet have a name.  He was well versed in the whole history of civilization and keenly aware that he was living through a turning point in world history.  And he discussed great and terrible developments with an almost shocking clarity, accepting what he saw before his eyes rather than trying to shade it to fit his own moral judgments.  The white, black and Indian races, he wrote, were not only "naturally distinct," but "hostile."  He saw the whites as a superior civilization--a judgment validated, it still seems to me, by their supremacy on the continent--while the other two races  had only their "misfortunes" in common.  "Both occupy an equally inferior position in the land whee they dwell; both suffer the effects of tyranny, and thought their afflictions are different, they have the same people to blame for them."  While he obviously felt the injustice of this situation keenly, he saw very little that could be done about it.

I shall not spend much time on Tocqueville's discussion of the fate of the Indians, except to mention one fascinating argument that I found there for the first time.  It was not, he reported based on what he had learned, the hostility of the white settlers that drove the Indians further and further into the interior.  The problem was that the Indians lived by hunting animals, and that the wild animals that fed them invariably fled into the interior when whites settled nearby, thus forcing the Indians to follow them.  He did describe the process by which the advancing whites forced or induced tribes to admit them to their neighborhood by treaty, but it was the impact of their settlements on the Indian hunting grounds that pushed the tribes relentlessly inland. Tocqueville, to repeat, was writing in the early 1830s, just before the decision to expel the tribes of the Southeast and force them to migrate to Oklahoma.  Yet he very nearly predicted something of the kind, noting that those tribes, in contrast to others, had now been encircled with white settlement, sandwiched between the advancing settlers from the Atlantic coast and those that were settling the lower Mississippi Valley.

Tocqueville also took a moment to put the Indian tribes in a world-historical perspective.  A true child of the Enlightenment--the tradition in which I would also prefer to put myself--he believed that civilization had flourished under the Greeks and Romans, fallen before the barbarian invasions and retreated during the Middle Ages, and revived in the Renaissance and the early modern period.  "When I perceive the resemblance between the political institutions of our German ancestors and the wandering tribes of North America, between customs described by Tacitus and those I have witnessed myself," he wrote, "I cannot avoid the conclusion that in both hemispheres the same cause has produced the same effects and that amid the apparent diversity of human affairs it ia possible to discover a few pregnant facts from which all others derive.  In all that we call Germanic institutions I am tempted to see nothing but barbaric habits and to regard what we call feudal ideas as the opinions of savages."

Turning to the condition of black Americans, Tocqueville wrote some of his most chilling words.  (I should comment here upon nomenclature and translation.  Tocqueville in the original French used the word "noirs"--literally, blacks--to describe that population, but George Lawrence, whose translation dates from the early 1960s, used what was then the polite English word Negroes.  I am using blacks, both because it is a literal translation and because it is still the term I prefer to use despite further changes of fashion in more recent times.)  While he clearly did not believe in slavery himself, recognized that it had been abolished in much of the United States, and clearly felt that it might not endure in the South, he did not believe that they could become equal citizens because he felt the white population would never accept this.  The white people, he argued, were an aristocracy defined by natural differences.  Given that it had proven so hard to remove the privileges of European aristocrats that were defined only by law, he argued, it seemed impossible that equality could be established among those divided by the color of their skin.  "I plainly see," he wrote, "that in some parts of the country the legal barrier between the two races is tending to come down, but not that of mores.  I see that slavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable . . .race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in states where slavery was never known."  Even in the northern states where black citizens theoretically enjoyed equal rights, he reported, they were too afraid to assert them.  Those states that had abolished slavery had done so not to help the black man, but to help the white, both by leaving free labor without the competition of slaves and by eliminating the corrupting influence of owning slaves upon the whites.   Tocqueville wrote at length on how slavery in the South had taught white people to scorn work, and to cultivate the traditional vices of aristocracy.

Tocqueville wrote a separate section on the possible breakup of the American union, but he did not specifically foresee a civil war based on slavery that might destroy it.  The second great wave of abolitionism was just beginning when he visited the United States, and the question of slavery in the territories was now in abeyance in the wake of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  And Tocqueville did not understand generational theory and the emerging 80-year cycle in western history.  He saw that the United States of the 1830s was a very different nation with a very different political class than the country of the revolutionary and constitutional period, whose leaders he recognized as giants, but he did not foresee that in his own lifetime a new crisis might call forth new great statesmen who would work a comparable transformation on their country. Born in 1805, Tocqueville might easily have lived to see the Civil War and the concurrent transformation of the western European states in the very direction that he had predicted, but he died in 1859 at the age of only 54.  But he did seem to think that somehow slavery would come to an end in the South--but he could see nothing ahead but further tragedy.

"If I absolutely had to make some guess about the future, I should say that in the probable course of things the abolition of slavery in the South would increase the repugnance felt by the white population toward the Negroes [sic]," he wrote.  He understood that the migration of freed slaves to Africa or elsewhere--the solution of many of the original abolitionists--was utterly impossible, if only because there were far too many slaves to transport.  Emancipation, he argued, would lead to grater fear on the part of the whites and greater jealousy on the part of the blacks.  He seemed to think that armed conflict would ensue, and he declined to predict the result.  As the chapter wore on, he became more and more indignant about the cruelty of American slavery, yet he seemed to accept the white southern view--also expressed at one point by Thomas Jefferson--that since it had been established it would be too dangerous to eliminate it.  Yet he saw that in the long run slavery was alien both to Christianity and to the spirit of the modern world and that it must therefore be doomed. He directed his indignation less against the contemporary slaveholders, whose predicament he appreciated, and more against their forbearerers. "all my hatred," he wrote, "is concentrated against those who, after a thousand years of equality, introduced slavery into the world again."

How well, or badly, have these predictions held up?

In one sense our ancestors proved themselves more moral, courageous, and heroic than Tocqueville had imagined.  The abolitionist and free soil movements gained ground rapidly in the North after the Mexican War while the slaveholders became more eager not only to maintain, but to extend, slavery.  The civil war resulted, and Abraham Lincoln turned it into a total war to end slavery.  The Republican Party in the wake of the war passed the Constitutional amendments that appeared to give the freed slaves full citizenship.  Meanwhile, the freed slaves did not, as Tocqueville had evidently feared, immediately turn to insurrection and the slaughter of their former masters, but seemed more than willing simply to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.  The white southerners, however, vindicated his prediction.  Terrified of the freed slaves, they terrorized them once again into submission as soon as they could and zealously deprived them of their rights for another 80 years.  Eventually many black southerners (as well as a great many white ones) began moving to the cities of the North the Midwest and the West, but they did not find genuine equality or acceptance there either.

In the wake of the Second World War--a war fought for human equality around the globe--the civil rights movement led to legislation that turned the 14th and 15th amendments into reality and finally eliminated the legal barriers to citizenship for black Americans.  Yet those victories a half a century ago, sadly, rapidly validated some of Tocqueville's predictions of 130 years earlier.  While better-off black people enjoyed more of the fruits of equality, many white citizens still shunned the black population and fled from contact from it.  Meanwhile, with their legal chains at last cast aside, a wave of resentment erupted among younger black generations.  Eliminated by law, segregation has largely persisted by custom.  It has also become political.  About 90% of black voters are Democrats, while more than half of white ones are now Republicans.  Black Americans are incarcerated at extraordinary rates, and still suffer disproportionately from poverty and poor education.

The election and re-election of Barack Obama confirmed that black Americans have been integrated into various sectors of the American elite with the full assent of more than half the American people.  Their views have also entered the mainstream of the intellectual community.  But the election of Donald Trump obviously drew on continuing resentment of the black community and of what much of its leadership now stands for.  The chasm that now divides the black and white poor of America--one that was much narrower in the middle of the twentieth century--is one of the tragedies of contemporary American politics.  Some of Tocqueville's predictions proved too pessimistic--but others did not.  Let us hope that some new common purpose may allow us to prove, once again, than we can be better than he thought we might.