My work on my new book--a concise political history of the US, based upon presidential addresses--has now reached the 1920s. The last two chapters, covering the years 1897-1921, have been very rich ones, marking a great turning point in American history. I am convinced that a comparable turning point occurred around 1981, after about 15 years of preparation, and that we have been living through its consequences ever since. Our response to the COVID pandemic showed how far things had gone.
In the years around the turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the US view of our domestic politics and of our place in the world changed. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to talk at length about the need for fairness in our new industrial economy, and so far in my researches I have found that every one of his successors--through Warren Harding at least--addressed that issue as well. He was also the first president to characterize the United States as a great world power among other world powers, one that was playing its role in the spread of western civilization around the globe, and that might have to defend its interests and values in a great war. It fell to Woodrow Wilson to put those ideas into practice for the first time, and although his handling of the First World War had decidedly mixed results, the same set of problems returned with a vengeance in the 1930s and led to the Second World War and the Cold War. And at least until the 1960s, the nation's leaders argued that we had to secure various kinds of justice at home--including civil rights for all--in order to make our values credible abroad. Wilson specifically asked Congress to pass the women's suffrage amendment to help the war effort in the fall of 1918, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson all argued that we had to pass civil rights legislation to play our role as world leaders. Meanwhile, the enormous military efforts of the two world wars and the cold war led to marginal tax rates as high as 90%, and a great increase in economic equality from the 1930s through the 1970s. With rare exceptions, Americans accepted the nation's new role, trusted their leadership, and willingly made sacrifices for the greater good. They also began removing traditional inequalities based on race and gender--although the nation remained quite socially conservative.
The great backlash against the mid-century world began in 1964, on both the right and the left. First, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, who entirely rejected the New Deal and the changes that it had wrought and much of the international order (such as the United Nations) that had grown out of the world wars. Goldwater went down to a crushing defeat, but as the journalist Theodore White suggested at the end of The Making of the President 1964, he turned out to be a prophet of a new era. And in that same fall, the most privileged young people on the planet--the students at the University of California at Berkeley--rebelled against the stifling authoritarianism, as they saw it, of their university, which was giving them a great education without any tuition at all. Their leader Mario Savio explicitly compared the predicament of Berkeley undergraduates to that of black citizens in segregated Mississippi--and that comparison apparently resonated. The Boomer undergraduates he was addressing did not remember the Depression or the Second World War and had had enough, apparently, of the discipline and social conservatism that had gotten us through them. By the fall of 1965, the Vietnam War was escalating, and more and more students around the country were rejecting mainstream values. By 1970 hundreds of campuses were revolting against imperialism, racism, and sexism, and university administrations were slowly beginning to adopt the students' values--notably by canceling exams in the spring of 1970 to allow students to protest against the invasion of Cambodia. Now, a half century later, much more extreme versions of those values have completely taken over higher education--enforced by bureaucracies that did not exist in mid-century.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan succeeded where Barry Goldwater had failed, winning the presidency in a landslide and moving actively to slash top tax rates, roll back the rights of labor, and demonize government. Then in 1989 came the end of the Cold War, which liberated the nation from its fear of a worldwide enemy--a fear which, while doing considerable harm, had also kept us together in a common enterprise for several critical decades. By the 1990s a new, much younger Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, felt free to demonize the entire Democratic Party, and Republicans did anything they could to delegitimize the very moderate Bill Clinton, just as they later did with Barack Obama. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush tried to revive a sense of great national purpose as he embarked upon a military crusade to bring democracy to the Arab world. He severely weakened that effort, however, by cutting taxes further instead of raising them--recreating the permanent deficit that Clinton had eliminated--and he discredited entirely by adopting impossible objectives like bringing western-allied democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East. His successor Barack Obama stuck to that broad objective despite further failures.
The election of Donald Trump, I have said many times, showed that about half of the American people had lost all faith in our political leadership. The response to the pandemic showed an even more extraordinary contempt for authority among a whole political party--not merely political authority, but medical and scientific authority. In fact, our most politically active citizens, on both sides, view each other, not any specific domestic problem or foreign rival, as their major enemy and the major problem that has to be overcome. While Republican activists and politicians regard the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump and enforce the supremacy of an intellectual elite, Democratic activists view Republicans as racist, sexist and homophobic oppressors. We are locked in a series of internal political civil wars for power between two sides largely defined by race, gender, and social attitudes. The situation is quite parallel to the civil era, but we can't have a civil war this time to resolve it.
President Biden's focus on infrastructure draws on an earlier tradition, the tradition of his youth that built the interstate highway system and thousands of new schools and universities. The Republican Party however is refusing to authorize even $1 more in taxes to pay for his proposals and will try to limit them as much as possible. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of both sides is fueling racial divisions and obscuring the common problems that Americans of all races and genders face. Our major media outlets have all lined up on one side or the other as well. I have seen in my researches (and in a lot of other reading as well) that earlier generations of Americans believed that democracy would only work if reason dominated over emotion and if citizens exercised their freedoms--including freedom of speech--with critical self-restraint. I am afraid we are discovering how right they were.