A month ago, on April 27, I reviewed Liah Greenfeld's book, Mind, Modernity, Madness. More reflection has developed some of the thoughts that it inspired me about where the United States is today, and where our discontents come from. This relates in particular to the growth of tribalism based upon race and gender, and how it is changing how millions of Americans see the world. It's time for me to share some of these thoughts.
The Constitution and our state and national laws were only one part of the intellectual foundation of the United States in roughly its first two centuries of history. Another key aspect was the belief that any man in America could make almost anything he wanted out of his life, limited only by his own capabilities. I used the word "man" advisedly in that sentence. Most women customarily spent their lives as wives and mothers, although some careers, including teaching, were always open to them, as the story of one of my great-grandmother's lives showed. Most of the population was agricultural and formal education did not correlate nearly as strongly with success in life as it does today. While it is true that our first ten presidents owned plantations or had made careers as professional men, plenty of early politicians came from genuinely modest backgrounds, and Americans like Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormack, whose inventions transformed the nation, became legends early in our history. In the second half of the century our industrial barons included Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, and John D. Rockefeller, whose father was a con man, as well as J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who came from distinguished and wealthy families. Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland also had modest origins, and Lincoln and Cleveland numbered among the many lawyers who had never attended a law school. While most men and their families undoubtedly ended their lives more or less where they had begun them on the social scale, enough did not to fire the imagination of any ambitious young man. That helped hold society together. Immigrants also came to the United States believing that they could find a completely new life, as many did. Black slaves, of course, did not enjoy much opportunity under slavery and did not achieve full legal equality after emancipation, but by the twentieth century the black community had formed its own professional class of doctors, lawyers, teachers and undertakers, and were distinguishing themselves in various walks of life. The idea that any man could become anything could, of course, also be a terrible burden, leading to more than a few suicides when dreams did not work out. Yet it evidently had enough truth in it to sustain a rapidly growing society.
In the first half of the twentieth century Americans in much of the nation--especially in the midwest and the far west--enjoyed another extraordinary benefit: access to nearly free higher education at great state universities. That was how my own father, the son of immigrants who had prospered for a while in America as builders but lost everything in the housing bust that preceded the great depression, managed to attend the University of Wisconsin. That situation reached a climax in the wake of the Second World War, thanks to the GI bill that financed veterans' education. As late as the early 1960s, the great University of California system charged no tuition. And in the New Deal era, Franklin Roosevelt and his political allies around the country added a key corollary to the idea of the American dream: the provision of minimum subsistence levels and important economic rights for the Americans who did not manage to rise out of the working class. The federal government became an employer of last resort, social security made some provision for the elderly, the government recognized and protected the rights of labor, and even tried to build housing for the less well off. Thus was born the relatively equal America of the 1950s and 1960s within which the Boom generation grew up.
Changes during the last Awakening (1965-83) and subsequent economic changes have created a completely new America--and a new set of attitudes among various different sectors of our society.
The first big change, of course--which was wrought by the GI generation and its political leadership, and by Supreme Court justices from the Lost Generation--was the end of legal segregation and the grant of full political rights to black citizens. That both opened up every available opportunity, including Harvard Law School and the White House, to at least a few black Americans, and tended to destroy the segregated institutions that had already provided some upward mobility. Black Americans, however, were not starting from the same point as their white fellow citizens. Many decades of slavery, segregation, and few or no public services in the deep South had left them much poorer and less educated, as a group, than whites. A new generation of black activists blamed all this on racism and demanded immediate redress. By 1970, Republican politicians were complaining that the goal of equal opportunity had given way to the goal of instant equality. Affirmative action became a mainstream Democratic provision, even though, as referendums in California and Michigan on university admissions showed, it was not popular among the majority of the public.
The second change--a bigger one, because it involved so many more people--was the change in the attitudes of, and toward, women. No longer, in much of our society, were they encouraged to plan their lives around marriage, or to depend on a man for support. The explosion of the divorce rate made that strategy untenable anyway. Women, like men, would increasingly be defined by their occupation and their success in it. Certainly they have risen to the challenge, but that means that nearly all of us, now, are competing for the same range of occupations and salaries, with the same often frightening responsibility to define themselves and their relation to the rest of society largely on their own.
Two other unrelated changes have turned our society into an even more unforgiving jungle. First, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. Adjusted for inflation, Harvard College now costs three times as much as id did in the mid-1960s, and the increase at the top state schools is even greater than that. Thus, young people routinely graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, making it extremely difficult to buy a house or start a family. Secondly, the pool of good jobs for non-college graduates has drastically shrunk with the de-industrialization of the US. It is both more important, and much more difficult, to get into the upper ranks of our society, whether one is a man or woman, white, black, or Hispanic, native born or an immigrant. That might explain why Survivor is now, I believe, the longest-running series on television: it provides a good metaphor for what real life has become.
Now the distribution of income, wealth, and good jobs does show that white males make up a vastly disproportionate share of the top reaches of our society. That, I think--and here I know that I am risking offending some of my readers, but I can't remain silent about this--encourages people who are not white males and who are dissatisfied with their progress through life--or with their work environment, or with anything else that goes wrong for them--to blame their misfortune on their demographics. That tendency is especially common among the academics and journalists who claim to speak for nonwhitemale sectors of the population. And indeed, it seems to me, liberal orthodoxy has just about abandoned the idea of fair competition within society, designed to identify and reward the most capable individuals. It assumes that oppression has rewarded certain demographics (white males in particular) in the past and this must be corrected by redistributing the rewards now. I know that the economic chances of 1000 randomly sampled women or nonwhites are probably less than those of 1000 randomly sampled white men, but I also know that there are tens of millions of white people, men and women, anchored firmly in the lower half of the population who are also facing tremendous obstacles to upward mobility. And the tragedy of our current era is that while the nonwhite portion of that lower half votes almost entirely Democratic, the white part of it votes Republican, with women probably voting slightly more Democratic among them than men. That split stands in the way of a real egalitarian movement in this country that could reverse the growth of inequality and corporate power. And that in turn leaves more and more hardworking Americans struggling, locked out, and angry.
Last, but hardly least, our common institutions--our governments--are not giving us the sense of common purpose and identity that they did in decades past. When it was fighting the Depression, winning the Second World War, building the interstate highway system,outlawing legal segregation, or going to the moon, the federal government was making all its citizens part of great common enterprises, paid for with tax dollars collected according to a very progressive code. Only a relatively small number of Americans even remembers that kind of feeling now.
The combination of equal political rights on the one hand and a free economy on the other upon which the United States was founded has put great strain on every individual to succeed. The pressure is worse now that we provide less of a floor or a ceiling on income. The resulting divisions among us are playing out in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, with some candidates and pundits arguing that the party must regain ground among the white working class while others treat that suggestion almost with contempt. I think we need a way out of this mess to assure the future of the country. And no single group can find that way out on its own.