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Respect. Dignity. Recognition. Non-domination. These words pepper the writings of Americans on the Left when they identify what our nation needs. Disrespect, disgrace, invisibility, and subordination have marked the experience of far too many Americans for far too long. Only dramatic systemic change will enable us to move toward liberty and justice for all. Women, African Americans, recent immigrants from America’s southern borders, and members of the LGBTQ community have mobilized to fight oppression by white men. The surprise, at least to many Americans on the Left, is that many white men now hold an equally firm conviction that it is they who are now disrespected, disgraced, invisible, and subordinated. In a nation they once dominated so completely that their power went uncontested, many white men now insist they have been robbed of their freedom.
Understanding the lines of combat today requires confronting both sides of that divide. Those of us committed to what we consider social justice too seldom acknowledge the anger and resentment felt by those opposed to our efforts, for reasons they consider legitimate, or those left behind economically. Corporate offshoring of jobs and deskilling due to technology have undermined the self-respect of those who suffer from such developments. Our own self-righteousness can blind us to the perspectives of those who have dug in their heels to protect values they cherish. Their grievances, unintelligible to many on the Left, shape our contemporary political landscape. Only if we understand their perspective and its sources can we do anything about the bitterness that marks our moment. Much of the white working class, once central to the New Deal coalition, now enthusiastically, even angrily, identifies with Republicans. What happened?
Political polarization in the United States did not begin in recent decades. Struggles over how to understand American history date from the birth of our nation. Disagreements over slavery were so fierce that Georgia’s and South Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention threatened to bolt if the issue even came to the floor. Although the founders deprecated political parties as factions sapping commitment to the common good, hyperbolic attacks on domestic enemies nevertheless began soon after the Constitution was ratified. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson produced some of the most influential documents of the American Revolution and served together in George Washington’s administration, yet as early as 1793 they were at each other’s throats. The parties that formed around them were as bitterly critical of each other as Republicans and Democrats are today. Familiar images of dignified and bewigged American statesmen blur reality: fisticuffs sometimes broke out on the floor of Congress in the nation’s early years. Newspapers were openly and viciously partisan. New Englanders and Southerners routinely derided each other as threats to the nation and pawns of foreign powers. Some doubted the new United States could survive.
Timothy Shenk, in his wide-ranging Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 464 pp.), locates the origins of the American party system in two rival strategies for maintaining white supremacy. As the Slave Power Conspiracy maneuvered to extend the reign of bondage across the nation, countless Black lives were sacrificed to perpetuate the power of pitiless Southern planters and their Northern merchant accomplices. As Michael Kazin makes clear in his outstanding book What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, 416 pp.), defending the privileges of Americans “whose roots lay in European soil” became Democrats’ principal concern decades before the new Republican Party named Abraham Lincoln its standard bearer. Excising the malignant cancer of slavery cost more than 600,000 lives before the nation could be reconstructed on what anti-slavery activists envisioned as a new foundation established by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Charles Sumner, among the few Northern politicians consistently committed to comprehensive civil-rights legislation and the focus of Shenk’s chapter on anti-slavery activists, struggled heroically and lost repeatedly.
Even before the Civil War amendments could take effect, anti-racist “abolition democracy,” to use the apt phrase of W.E.B. Du Bois, was stymied by terror. Black Codes, enforced by the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs, circumscribed the freedom of freedmen. Eventually, legalized forms of white supremacy almost as vicious and unrelenting as chattel slavery reappeared throughout the former Confederacy. Reuniting the nation on the backs of formally freed yet effectively subjugated Black people was a project shared by Northerners and Southerners of both parties. White Americans invented a “magnolia myth” of paternalist slave owners and their supposedly contented slaves, a fiction consecrated by professional historians who portrayed the Civil War as unnecessary, Reconstruction as ill-conceived, and strict racial segregation as a necessary accommodation for what they deemed Black inferiority. Not until the late 1950s and the 1960s did many whites join Blacks’ century-long struggle to challenge laws enshrining institutionalized racism. It is a fantasy to think those efforts have succeeded in eradicating the assumptions that undergird practices of white supremacy.
The strident polarization of our own moment, then, is nothing new. Ever since the first Europeans dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land and called it God’s will, conflicts over race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and the distribution of wealth and power—not calm consensus or decorous debate—have marked American history. The exercise of white men’s American freedom has meant murder, enslavement, theft, and the destruction of the natural environment, measures deemed necessary to fulfill our sacred destiny.
Democracy means struggle. Yet we ask ourselves why compromise has become a dirty word, why elected officials resist bipartisanship, and why so many Americans now don’t want their children marrying a member of the wrong party. Explaining our condition requires looking at the multiple dimensions of American political, economic, social, and intellectual history since the mid-twentieth century, when partisanship was less pronounced. First, our parties have become more ideologically coherent. Second, our economy is more deeply enmeshed with global flows of capital and labor, which are accepted as inevitable according to the ideology known as neoliberalism. Third, the explosion of college education has blessed new winners and left out, both economically and culturally, many more. Fourth, our media landscape has been transformed by economic and technological changes. Fifth, our practices of active civic engagement, which have intrigued students of American culture since Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831, have withered into a craving for entertainment. Sixth and finally, our long-held national conviction that the future is brighter than the present has given way to anxiety, even dread, that our children will inherit environmental disasters and an economy that rewards only a lucky handful at the top.
In the mid-twentieth century, prominent commentators lamented the ideological incoherence of American politics. The Republican Party included cultural conservatives and innovative businessmen committed to free-market economics yet troubled by the oppression of Black people, immigrants, women, and the poor. Although the Democratic Party included New Dealers committed to using government authority and revenues to address inequality, its electoral base of white voters in the “solid South” kept Democratic presidential administrations from including Black people in programs designed to alleviate poverty. The party’s rhetoric was egalitarian, but its policies ignored race and gender.
Sam Rosenfeld, in his fine book The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (Chicago, $30, 336 pp.), traces the efforts of activists within both parties to address this incoherence as early as the end of World War II. In 1944, FDR wrote that “we should have two real parties—one liberal, and the other conservative.” In the same year, FDR proposed, and was reelected on, plans to create a comprehensive American welfare state. Because such universal programs threatened racial segregation in the South, however, neither FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” nor Truman’s “Fair Deal” became law. While European Social Democrats and Christian Democrats allied to establish programs of social provision that underlay the postwar economic boom, both U.S. parties remained hodgepodges. In 1950, the American Political Science Association issued a report urging greater ideological coherence within the parties. Yet pluralists praised what activists condemned: mixing within the parties reflected what Daniel Bell called “the end of ideology” and ensured the moderation that Daniel J. Boorstin called “the genius of American politics.” Americans from Robert F. Kennedy to Richard Nixon thought non-ideological parties inoculated the United States against the pathogens of fascism and communism that poisoned European politics. Pervasive fears of totalitarianism, as Dorothy Ross has shown, led influential liberal intellectuals to abandon FDR’s “mutualism” and celebrate “personal authenticity.” Activists such as Walter Reuther and Michael Harrington nevertheless worked tirelessly to transform the Democratic Party into a liberal-labor coalition.
The story of the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party is familiar. While 1948 Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey and President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the New Deal as a fait accompli, conservatives fumed and plotted. Barry Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency in 1964, but his partisans won the war to control the GOP. During the 1960s and ’70s, when the civil-rights movement finally propelled segregationist Democrats to leave the party, conservatives’ crusade to protect “freedom” from “collectivism” finally succeeded.
Movement conservatives rejected Nixon and Gerald Ford, moderates who sought bipartisan solutions. They pinned their hopes on a washed-up but charismatic actor, California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Embracing “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economics, donors including Joseph Coors and the Koch brothers worked quietly to create a Republican Party allying free-marketeers with Evangelicals and other social conservatives. Shrewdly declining to put all their eggs in the Reagan basket, they also poured money into state and local elections.
In Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (Penguin, $18, 368 pp.), Julian E. Zelizer shows how Gingrich, first elected to Congress in 1978, became the most transformative figure in congressional politics by demanding a no-holds-barred oppositional strategy and strict party discipline. Historians Rosenfeld, Zelizer, Bruce Schulman, and Kevin M. Kruse maintain that American politics changed in the 1970s, before the presidencies of Reagan and the two Bushes, when moderate Republicans were purged and naked partisanship embraced.
We still live with the long-term consequences of Ronald Reagan’s tax-cutting, anti-union, and anti-government ideology—the bundle of ideas that Gary Gerstle examines in his spirited book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (Oxford, $27.95, 432 pp.). FDR succeeded in consolidating support for the New Deal order so thoroughly that by the fifties it set the terms of debate. When that order collapsed in the late seventies, from causes including exhaustion from the multiple crises of the sixties, the deindustrialization of America’s heartland, the stagflation coinciding with the oil crisis, and partisan realignment, it opened the door for the neoliberal order. The so-called Reagan Revolution meant a shift from Keynes to Milton Friedman. It demonized government and sanctified the hardy individualism that Coors, the Kochs, and their allies had celebrated since the 1950s. Neoliberals exchanged earlier conservatives’ reverence for tradition with the “creative destruction” of unchained market capitalism.
An equally long campaign transformed the Democratic Party. Most post–World War II Democrats in Congress resisted the Left’s demands for change, agreeing with John and Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson that a clean ideological divide would threaten bipartisan deals. Post-war Democratic Party leaders backed away from labor radicalism. The 1950 Treaty of Detroit secured impressive benefits for members of the auto workers union, but it sapped support for the universal programs FDR proposed.
Bipartisanship had its virtues. Liberal Republicans made possible LBJ’s landmark achievements, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Opportunity Act, and the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act. The New Deal alliance of white ethnics and Blacks, however, began fraying even before the Democrats finally endorsed the moderate wing of the civil-rights movement. The electoral landslide of 1964—even bigger than the one FDR achieved in 1936 when he defiantly welcomed the business community’s hatred—seemed to ensure that Democrats at last would tackle not only racial but economic injustice. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget, another call for universal programs to eliminate slums, unemployment, and poor schools not just for Blacks but “for all.”
Various kinds of unrest, including urban riots, antiwar protests, and second-wave feminism, all opened cracks in the Democratic coalition. White Southerners and many rural Americans fled first to the segregationist George Wallace, then to the Republican Party. So did many union members, who shelved earlier notions of solidarity with the poor and adopted instead “law and order,” a slogan that signaled resistance to demands for racial justice. Hubert Humphrey ran in 1968 on a platform that was consistent with the most radical proposals of the late New Deal, the Freedom Budget, and the programs adopted by postwar European social-democratic governments. But Humphrey’s party was coming apart over the issues of war, race, and federal authority. In his study of Wallace’s home county, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (Basic, $19.99, 512 pp.), Jefferson Cowie illuminates a crucial dynamic: for many white Americans, liberty means opposing all challenges to white supremacy. No Democratic presidential candidate since Humphrey has won a majority of white voters, and the party has never again challenged the prerogatives of organized capital as boldly as Humphrey did. After Watergate delivered another solid Democratic congressional majority in 1976, President Jimmy Carter veered away from universal health care and full employment bills and instead deregulated the trucking and airline industries.
Progressives within the Democratic Party had been struggling for decades to seize control of it. Jesse Jackson and other veterans of the civil-rights movement, former student radicals and antiwar activists who had rallied behind Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern, women fed up with second-class status, and consumer activists led by Ralph Nader all battled against what they considered the Democratic establishment. To use Rosenfeld’s terms, “moral insurgents” with “an expansive social democratic vision” propelled a range of sixties social movements. These reformers finally ripped control from insiders and empowered a new generation of activists committed to racial equality, democratic deliberation, women’s rights, environmentalism, and economic reform. Like Goldwater in ’64, McGovern lost the presidency in Nixon’s ’72 landslide yet won the war for the party apparatus. Progressives would remake the party as thoroughly as movement conservatives had remade the Republican Party. The difference, however, was that whereas Republicans such as Gingrich insisted on, and were able to enforce, party discipline, the new Democratic Party remained only a constellation of disparate interest groups with too little in common to form a united front.
Radicals’ efforts, moreover, had a paradoxical effect. Activists on the Left fueled changes within the Democratic Party while at the same time intensifying many young radicals’ disenchantment with government and alienation from public life. Paul Sabin, in Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism (Norton, $26.95, 272 pp.), points to the ironic consequences of many leftists’ disillusionment with the New Deal order. Outrage drove Ralph Nader’s consumer-rights crusade, and personal emancipation was the promise of NOW feminists and disparate radicals such as Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Mario Savio, and Stewart Brand. But emancipation was also the promise of the jocular, grandfatherly Reagan. Since many sixties radicals shared neoliberals’ interest in breaking free from constraints, lines stretched not only from the New Left to Reuther’s social-democratic labor movement but also to Ayn Rand’s libertarianism. “If it feels good, do it” could authorize free love, blue jeans, and rock music. It could also authorize the offshoring, job cutting, union bashing, and deregulation preferred by freewheeling financial-services firms, automakers, and new-economy entrepreneurs and enterprises such as Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The ideals of solidarity and obligation were collateral damage in the campaigns waged by the counterculture and neoliberals against stodgy neo-Victorian morality. Consecrating liberty empowered the powerful and tightened the screws on almost everyone else.
Bill Clinton came to embody both the promise and the perils of the new Democratic Party. He and his wife, Hillary, proudly endorsed their generation’s rejection of what preceded them; his presidency promised renewal. The legacy of Clinton’s two terms, however, boils down to three notorious proclamations: “The era of big government is over”; “End welfare as we know it”; and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Defeated in his attempt to overhaul health care and chastened by the ’94 election, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1952, Clinton changed course. Kazin and Gerstle note that the Democratic Leadership Council had been advising the party to get over its New Deal obsession and adopt neoliberal policies. Government, which Reagan famously labeled the problem rather than the solution, should shrink. Welfare should be “reformed” and the budget balanced. Banking and communications should be deregulated and NAFTA ratified, freeing global flows of capital, information, and people. Together with European social democrats such as Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, Clinton Democrats embraced the “third way,” or “triangulation” between conservatives and their own party’s left wing. Economic reshaping through downsizing and offshoring was inevitable. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s acronym “TINA” (there is no alternative), Clinton called globalization “the economic equivalent of a force of nature, like wind or water.”
Craig Calhoun, in Degenerations of Democracy (Harvard, $29.95, 368 pp.), a brilliant book co-authored with Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Charles Taylor, offers incisive analysis of the neoliberal turn. Unleashing the economy from government oversight and taxation meant more capital for investment bankers, increased pay for corporate executives, and fewer jobs, with reduced benefits, for everyone else. Although government-funded research made possible the high-tech revolution, those it enriched offered neither acknowledgment nor payback. Clinton celebrated diversity and tried to persuade white Americans to do the same. His endorsement of multiculturalism and other controversial changes, though, together with his private behavior and public lies about it, so outraged Republicans that their ceaseless charges of corruption still clung to Hillary Clinton years later.
President Clinton embraced the neoliberal strategies of deregulation and free trade, which antagonized Democratic progressives such as his own Treasury Secretary Robert Reich but won him reelection. By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, however, the costs of Clinton’s initiatives had become apparent. The financial crisis of 2008 resulted from financial chicanery made possible by repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had regulated the banking industry. Clinton’s crime bill accelerated mass incarceration and devastated Black communities. Even though Clinton instituted an earned-income tax credit and raised the minimum wage, most blue-collar workers found themselves falling further behind the ever-rising incomes of the elite.
The salaries of CEOs in the 1960s were, on average, twenty-five times those of their employees. They are now more than three hundred times as large, a bountiful harvest of the neoliberal seeds planted in the 1970s. State legislatures as well as the federal government cut taxes on the wealthy and cut programs designed to help everyone else. As “austerity” became the norm, “lean” strategies, sold as liberation from costly regulations, benefitted those at the top. Although I agree with Jedediah Purdy when, in his jeremiad Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope (Basic, $17.95, 304 pp.), he calls neoliberalism “perhaps the shallowest worldview ever held by a modern elite,” this ideology somehow penetrated both parties, hollowing out public services while enriching slivers of the private sector. The super-rich now funded Democratic as well as Republican campaigns, earning elected officials’ gratitude, securing their preferred policies, and removing economic inequality from legislative agendas.
The gulf in wealth and income has continued to grow under the Democratic administrations of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, just as it did under every Republican president since Reagan. Charting the top marginal income-tax rate in the United States tells the tale. For families filing jointly, in 1920 it was 73 percent for income over $1 million. During the roaring twenties, the top rate dipped to 20 percent. Under FDR, it rose from 63 percent to 94 percent and remained there until 1964, when it dropped to 70 percent for incomes over $200,000. Reagan Republicans lowered the top marginal rate to 50 percent, then to 38.5 percent, where it has hovered ever since. The top marginal rate today for joint filers making under $329,000—all but the top 4 percent of Americans—is 24 percent, less than a third of what the wealthiest paid from the 1940s to the 1970s, the years of the “Great Compression.” These were also the years of the fastest economic growth in U.S. history.
The gap separating the economic status of Black and white Americans—the wealth gap even more than the income gap—has likewise changed little in recent decades despite the emergence of a new elite of highly educated Black professionals and highly visible Black athletes and artists. The murder of George Floyd prompted a nationwide outpouring of anger and activism from white as well as Black Americans. In some quarters that outrage persists. Most of the recent changes, though, have been cosmetic. More attention paid to books, articles, films, and performances focusing on race, valuable and overdue as it is, has not lowered the social and economic obstacles facing most Black Americans. Like Obama’s presidency, our current insistence on more inclusive terminology has had a negligible impact on race relations.
Why has so little been done about social and economic inequality? There are multiple hypotheses. The commitment to freedom, after all, means that within the capacious boundaries of the law, no one should prevent anyone else from thinking, saying, or doing whatever they like. That sensibility helps explain not only skyrocketing salaries and lower taxes but also how a mendacious serial swindler could become president of the United States, incite a mob to sack the nation’s Capitol, and (at least so far) pay no price for it. If freedom now trumps every other value, then solidarity and social obligation are for suckers. If only a lucky few can feast in our less regulated economic environment today, so much the better for them. If others are starving, say neoliberals, they should become entrepreneurs and get rich.
The problem, of course, is that the ideology of self-help is no more tied to reality now than it was during the first Gilded Age. Millions of Americans work more than one minimum-wage job or try to stay afloat as “independent contractors” in the gig economy, while others cruise ahead. False as its promise has proved for most Americans, neoliberal ideology has seeped into every part of our culture. The top 1 percent, those at the pinnacle of our economic pyramid, attract so much attention and criticism from progressives that less has been said about the top 10 percent, the segment of professionals and denizens of the new “knowledge economy” whose household income is more than $212,110 a year. Such upper-class Americans (who often consider themselves merely upper-middle-class) once voted Republican. Recently they have become, along with nonwhite voters, the backbone of the Democratic Party. Since the New Deal coalition fractured during the 1970s, the party now depends on a different set of voters.
This is a global phenomenon. Thomas Piketty, Amory Gethin, and Clara Martínez-Toledano at the World Inequality Lab (WIL) in Paris have studied voting across fifty democracies since 1948. The evidence in Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities (Harvard, $39.95, 656 pp.) shows that, whereas less well-educated voters in blue-collar and low-skilled service jobs voted consistently for social-democratic parties in the postwar period, they have now gravitated to conservative parties. Parties on the Left now rely on a core of highly educated voters who work in the knowledge economy. The standard explanation for that phenomenon in the United States has stressed cultural backlash against racial unrest, the counterculture, and feminism. But the shift of less-educated voters toward conservative parties in Europe predates by decades the mass immigration of non-Europeans often cited as its cause. The class-based party cleavages of the twentieth century, in short, have been replaced by “multi-elite party systems.” Conservative parties represent high-income and low-educated voters; liberal parties “have become the parties of higher-educated voters.”
In the spring of 1787, Madison argued in “Vices of the Political System of the United States” that democracies can fracture along multiple lines, of which class is only one. Among other factors, Madison also identified religion, region, occupation, culture, and the irrational attachment of some voters to individual leaders. The WIL group’s evidence confirms Madison’s analysis. Class is now one among other divisions, including “collective beliefs” concerning tradition, cosmopolitanism, authoritarianism, and the adequacy of neoliberal reliance on market mechanisms. In a recent working paper, “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right,” Piketty argues that left parties have abandoned redistributionist programs thanks to near unanimity on the adequacy of capitalism. Moderate left parties’ acceptance of neoliberal ideas has made cultural conflicts more prominent, especially the resentment felt by the less educated toward the more educated.
By adopting the cosmopolitan worldview that, thanks to our education, seems to us self-evidently correct, we members of the college-educated elite have distanced ourselves from the cultures of those who lack not only tertiary education but also the privileges such education brings. Forgetting the advantages that the well-educated usually enjoy growing up, including intact families that prioritize schooling and instill self-discipline, we have consciously or unconsciously embraced the idea of meritocracy. Our preferred politicians, from schoolteacher McGovern and engineer Carter to technocrats Michael Dukakis, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Obama, hold not only bachelor’s but also graduate degrees from the nation’s most selective universities. Culturally, these people inhabit a different world from the rough-and-ready cowboys Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—even if they were only fake cowboys—and the celebrity wheeler-dealer Donald Trump, even though he was only a bankrupt con man. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham noted evidence of increasingly “polarized cultural conflict” in the United States as early as 1970. The battle lines have since become much more deeply entrenched. As Carlos Lozada showed in his exhaustive study of the books published during Trump’s presidency, What Were We Thinking (Simon & Schuster, $17, 272 pp.), four years of listening to the president’s unhinged harangues only intensified progressives’ bewilderment over his election. Four years of listening to Trump’s critics belittle his voters as ignorant dupes or racists only intensified their resentment.
Democratic presidents, while in office if not before or after, have shown no greater interest in the economic condition of struggling Americans than have Republicans. Millions, especially but not exclusively in the heartland, have watched their middle-class lives—and those they envisioned for their families—vanish along with the well-paying jobs that, between the Depression and the oil crisis, secured that status. Republicans tell voters that cultural elites are to blame for their situation; Democrats give them little reason to disagree. If an unstoppable “force of nature” reshaped our economy, as neoliberals have claimed for half a century, and if one party loudly endorses American traditions of patriotism, self-reliance, Evangelical Christianity, and white male supremacy while the other party makes fun of all that, then the choice for many voters will be clear.
Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor borrow terminology from David Goodhart, who contrasts “somewheres,” whose lives are rooted in particular—and often decaying—places, with “anywheres,” whose cosmopolitan experiences and preferences shape their very different sensibilities. Joan C. Williams has been pointing out for decades, most recently in White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, $22.99, 192 pp.), that those who provide service work and “care work” for the young, the old, the sick, and wealthy midlife professionals are understandably tired of elites’ condescension. Unctuous expressions of gratitude do not make up for long hours and lousy pay. Preserving your self-respect is hard when the entire culture undervalues your work while overvaluing those who, as John Adams put it, do nothing but push money around.
Wealthy Americans once voted Republican because they preferred low taxes and an unregulated economy. Evidently, despite their redistributionist rhetoric, so do most Democrats, whose tepid reforms offer “somewheres” little of economic value while supplying them with a steady stream of scorn. For that reason, Alan Abramowitz has argued, promises of economic redistribution might not persuade less skilled manual workers and service workers to return to the Democratic Party. We won’t know unless the party at last delivers FDR’s Second Bill of Rights or Rustin’s Freedom Budget. Even before Trump was elected, Larry M. Bartels and Christopher H. Achen provided evidence in Democracy for Realists (Princeton, $29.95, 408 pp.) that most people vote not on “issues” but on their personal situations, which have not improved for decades, and on their social identities, defined for millions of Americans by educational elites’ disdain.
Few Americans at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder even bother to vote, as Jan-Werner Müller points out in Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 256 pp.). We are witnessing what Müller terms a “double secession” of the rich, who have escaped the world of public services for private enclaves, and the poor, who understandably feel excluded and ignored. The failure of Democrats and Republicans to take seriously the problem of intergenerational poverty helps explain why. Perhaps the answer, as E. J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport argue in 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting (The New Press, $23.24, 224 pp.), is to follow the two dozen nations where citizens are required to vote, or to follow states such as Oregon, which have instituted citizen-led initiatives to foster participation. Sadly, neither party seems interested in reforms to address the disengagement that plagues U.S. politics.
Beyond neoliberals’ upward channeling of profits from labor to capital and the role of tertiary education in distancing a new elite of cosmopolitans from other Americans, two more factors help explain our current condition.
The media landscape has been transformed by technology, by the blurring of reality through disinformation, and by the paradoxical consolidation of the sources providing information. Everyone understands how the internet has created echo chambers in which Americans find their own perspectives confirmed, amplified by passion, and intensified by endless repetition. When the “primary criterion of truth” is what “those on my side believe,” Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor write, partisanship becomes “almost epistemological.” Trump’s lies were central to his presidency, delighting his loyalists while outraging everyone else. The 24/7 news cycle of our political entertainment complex requires ever more sensational stories, or at least ever-renewed outrage at the other side’s perfidy. Before the 1949 Fairness Doctrine was killed by Reagan in 1987 and the libertarians at WIRED magazine succeeded in making the digital world a new Wild West, nearly every community had its own local newspaper focused on local concerns. Most mid-century big-city newspapers either aspired to “objective” news coverage or had a competing newspaper to balance their perspective. Because most local papers have shrunk or vanished, many Americans now know less about community issues that really matter to their lives. Filling that vacuum, Müller argues, are obsessions with the largely symbolic, highly charged issues of the culture wars.
The presentation of competing points of view, which the Fairness Doctrine codified at least as an ideal, has been replaced by hyperbolic denunciations of the other side’s idiocy or wickedness in outlets on both the Left and Right. With fewer newspapers and radio and television stations aspiring to neutrality, and more owned by conglomerates concerned with increasing “shareholder value” rather than citizens’ understanding, sensationalism and polarization are unsurprising. In Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic, $19.99, 688 pp.), Darren Dochuk shows that our hyper-partisan mediascape originated in mushrooming independent AM radio stations funded by southwestern wildcatters who gave thanks for their instant wealth by broadcasting the gospels of Evangelical Christianity and free-market capitalism. Even more dispiriting than the partisanship of our media is the decline of civil debate among people who disagree with each other. Because democracy is by nature conflictual, providing opportunities to persuade—and to be persuaded by—other citizens is not a luxury but a requirement for a healthy civic sphere.
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” Madison wrote to a friend in 1822, “is a prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.” When Tocqueville visited the United States, he traced Americans’ remarkable political engagement to their newspapers almost as much as to their proliferating voluntary associations and their service on juries. Alert to warnings about the dangers of an uninformed public, New Dealers created the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the airwaves, preserve the autonomy of local stations, and prevent the consolidation of power in a few media monopolies. By contrast, when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was debated, Gerstle points out that neither Republicans nor Democrats “dared suggest that the broadcast/cable/satellite spectrum was a public good owned by the American people.” Cassandras such as Newsday’s Marvin Kitman predicted that monopolies, not Naderite consumer sovereignty, would result, but such warnings went unheeded.
Although U.S. news media have always been profit driven, technological advances have made things worse. A century has passed since Walter Lippmann worried that the mass media’s filtering of complex information through easily digested “stereotypes” would facilitate the manipulation of public opinion, which he had learned to do during World War I. Sophisticated and cynical commentators now use simple slogans and images to gin up audience anger, then perform that anger on air, not to educate the public but to boost ratings and sell advertising. Demagogues perform the same trick in exchange for votes. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, $38, 704 pp.) shows how online platforms use ever more sophisticated algorithms to manipulate their users. As bots improve, AI rather than charismatic talk-show hosts might one day tell us what to think. Meanwhile, the pieces of our already segmented democratic populace drift further apart from each other. Citizens might know even less about complex issues but, thanks to our media entertainment complex, many are furious much of the time.
Oddly, one of the casualties of this transformed media landscape is public engagement. Feeding our partisan passions nonstop offers the illusion of involvement in civic life, and participation is so much easier on the screen, from the comfort of one’s living room, than in the messy endlessness of town meetings or party caucuses. Paolo Gerbaudo, in The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy (Pluto Press, $24.95, 240 pp.), contends that parties in the United States and Europe have exchanged the time-consuming legwork of organizing for the more predictable results of focus-group-tested media blitzes. Paul Pierson and Jacob S. Hacker have aptly termed the elite manipulation of manufactured popular passions “plutocratic populism.” Party membership has shrunk to the use of checkbooks and credit cards rather than human interaction.
My book Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (2016) traces the arduous, millennia-long developments that made possible the consolidation of self-government in the North Atlantic world. Besides institutions such as the rule of law, free and fair elections, and constitutional government, and beyond sustained commitments to the values of autonomy, equality, and popular sovereignty, I argue that democracy rests on cultural predispositions, the premises of deliberation, pluralism, and an ethic of reciprocity. Without those hidden pillars, which have taken centuries to establish, democracy can, as the ancients feared, devolve into anarchy or oligarchy. Only if citizens are willing to engage with each other, tolerate differences, and lose to their worst enemies in an election can the institutions of democracy and the commitment to equality survive. Mine was the argument of a historian studying change over a very long time, but it dovetails with the arguments of social scientists analyzing our current predicament.
Robert D. Putnam has devoted his career to tracing the ways in which cultures nurture democratic sensibilities and practices of civic engagement, as in early modern northern Italian city-states, or allow them to atrophy, as in the United States since World War II. In a seminal article of 1995 and his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, $17.12, 544 pp.), Putnam examined the bonds that once connected Americans in civic life, worship, and recreation. He showed that those bonds were fraying as Americans became increasingly isolated from each other and inclined to value their personal preferences over solidarity or obligation. The German social theorist Jürgen Habermas has long warned against what he calls “the colonization of the lifeworld,” the tendency of market strategies and economistic values to intrude into interpersonal relations, where ethical considerations should outweigh self-interest and efficiency.
In Degenerations of Democracy, Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor focus on exactly those issues. Democracy, they insist, is more than institutions. It “is guided by ideals” and involves “commitments and aspirations; it is defined by purposes even if they are never perfectly met.” Democracy “degenerates when citizens no longer treat each other with basic respect and recognition and when citizens refuse to accept that they really belong together.” When all goods are seen as individual goods, the idea of a public good disappears—the worst consequence of neoliberalism. In the book’s concluding pages, they summarize the problems we face: “Declining citizen efficacy, weakening local communities, fraying intergenerational bonds, evaporating small-scale economic opportunity, and eroding social ties that had once knit citizens together across lines of difference and fostered solidarity.”
Is democracy failing? Self-rule is certainly under siege in many places, particularly where it has shallow roots, but hyperbolic predictions of democracy’s global demise do no good. More than nine hundred of the January 6 rioters are in jail or on trial. Although too few Republican officials have repudiated the insurrection, polls have found that most Americans were and remain disgusted by it. Remember that Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination with votes from 6 percent of the electorate and the presidency with the votes of only 28 percent. His victory hardly constituted an authoritarian wave. It is a mistake to inflate his narcissism into a political program. Müller quotes Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon admitting, when asked about a philosophy of traditionalism, that he was “just making it up as I go along.” So was Trump.
Yet anxieties about the future persist. The undeniable evidence of climate change sparks worries about the earth’s future habitability. Equally undeniable evidence of narrowing economic prospects for young Americans fosters a different fear. Upward mobility, like economic growth, has slowed since the mid-seventies. For the first time in U.S. history, Raj Chetty has found, young Americans can no longer expect to live as well as their parents. If the three decades of unusual quiet from ’45 to ’75 were made possible only by the sacrifices required by a world war, the unprecedented economic explosion that followed, and the subordination of women and minorities, then it would be folly to expect or even want an echo of that era. Americans tempted by the Far Right, although far fewer than some hysterical accounts suggest, are being egged on by cynical, irresponsible Republican officials. So, should we despair?
Perhaps against the odds, almost all the authors I’ve discussed, as well as some of the most important Black scholars writing today, agree that the renewal of democracy is within reach. In his most recent book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (Simon & Schuster, $19.99, 480 pp.), Putnam traces the rise of communitarian reform energies from the Progressive Era though the New Deal until the 1960s. Americans then “took their foot off the gas,” and progress toward racial justice and women’s rights ground to a halt. Individualism and laissez faire emerged as alternatives to the progressive strategies that had made Americans more equal and American culture more inclusive. If Americans now want renewed commitment to progressive reforms, they must forge coalitions for change. That strategy comes at a price: we must surrender our self-righteous insistence that others share our views and cooperate to achieve piecemeal, moderate reform, which requires humility and patience as well as tolerance. Dogmatism and purity tests obstruct Americans’ ability to work together across lines of difference.
Purdy, notwithstanding his sharp critiques of the un- or anti-democratic aspects of the U.S. Constitution, cautions against nihilism with the same buoyancy he showed in his first book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (1999). No source of power exists in our political system except the people, just as James Madison and James Wilson insisted in 1787. Americans need only to marshal our energies on behalf of social democracy. Purdy calls for a new “patriotism of responsibility” that firmly restores equality alongside freedom in the American pantheon.
Gerstle’s title announces the fall as well as the earlier rise of the neoliberal order. He is as frustrated as many on the Left by Obama’s presidency. He is heartened, though, by Biden’s election and by the breadth of resistance to Trump. He interprets the incoherence of Trump’s policies as evidence that neoliberal orthodoxy is coming apart. Americans can now decide whether what comes next is even more authoritarianism or a renewed democracy. Shenk’s acerbic history of the deal-making centrists who have shaped party politics might suggest cynicism about the future. In the end, though, he describes coalition building, repeatedly criticized in the book, as “a practical necessity and a moral obligation.” If Kazin still sees the future through the lenses of particular interest groups rather than a shared common purpose, he does find signs of democratic renewal in widening support for racial and gender justice and a rejuvenated labor movement. Gerbaudo argues, in The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic (Verso, $21.56, 288 pp.), that we already have the template of “long-abandoned social democratic ideas” such as social care and solidarity, meaning the equal sharing of benefits as well as costs up and down the economic pyramid.
Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor likewise call for a “new solidarity.” We must work to establish alliances, not deepen animosities. If we are to reverse degenerations of democracy, they argue, those experiments must include small-scale private enterprise. Some on the Left treat all business, whatever the scale, as the moral equivalent of rapacious monopoly capitalism, a “specious” as well as counterproductive equation. Many forms of life can contribute to democracy. Only when all goods are seen as individual consumer goods do we lose sight of the public good, the ideal that animated Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Wilson. The “expressive individualism” sometimes extolled by the Left as well as the Right encourages selfishness and undercuts commitments to rebuild democracy, a never-finished “telic project” that, like a horizon, we can approach but never reach.
We need local experiments that nurture interaction, in civil society as much as in politics, just as John Dewey argued in The Public and Its Problems (1927), his spirited and still-convincing reply to Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922). Only if we encourage inquiry, experimentation, and cooperation from early childhood onward, Dewey counseled, can citizens learn to internalize the practices as well as the ethic of democracy. Central to Müller’s Democracy Rules, as it was to his earlier book Contesting Democracy (2011), is Dewey’s conviction that uncertainty, open-endedness, tolerance, and community are the heart of democracy, an argument Müller bolsters by citing many anti-dogmatic European political theorists. Müller adds two nonnegotiable rules, still sadly denied by many Americans: people cannot have their own facts, and no citizens can be denied equal standing.
Having long been denied just that equal standing, Black Americans could be forgiven for despairing about racial justice. Many Black writers and artists have expressed doubts that white Americans will ever surrender their inherited racism. But not everybody. The distinguished philosopher Danielle Allen argues, in Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry’s fine collection To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard, $35, 464 pp.), that King called for integration rather than desegregation because he wanted not simply legal rights for Black Americans but ethical regeneration for all Americans. If members of all races and ethnicities were to adopt the principle of “nondomination” and see each other as ends rather than means, as Jesus (and later Kant) urged, the neoliberal me-first ethic might no longer poison interpersonal relations.
If Americans were to understand the “non-sacrificeability” of positive as well as negative freedom, the freedom to rather than merely the freedom from—a distinction Dewey inherited from Aristotle and that King employed in his most important speeches—they might see the need for solidarity as well as liberty. King had in mind legally unenforceable duties “to recognize and enable,” in Allen’s words, “the equal capacities of all to deliberate, decide, and take responsibility.” King realized that the United States could approach its ideals only if all citizens internalized such ethical imperatives. As a Baptist preacher powerfully influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, King appreciated the difficulty of that challenge. Yet as King understood, legal, social, and even economic equality remain necessary but not sufficient conditions for both a culture of integration and Dewey’s ethic of democracy.
In his new book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Basic, $27, 288 pp.), Peniel E. Joseph contends that we have now entered a new stage of American history. The first Reconstruction followed the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education inaugurated the second, and the third began with Obama’s presidency. Despite the disappointment felt by those who imagined, naïvely, that Obama’s election would usher in a post-racial America, and despite the continuing nightmares of intergenerational poverty, police murders, and mass incarceration, Joseph sees encouraging signs. The swearing in of Obama, Kamala Harris, Raphael Warnock, and Ketanji Brown Jackson and the dismantling of “ancient memorials to racism” across the nation signal a long-overdue reckoning with Lost Cause mythology and racial injustice.
Both earlier Reconstructions ended prematurely. Americans today, Joseph concludes, can complete the Third Reconstruction by choosing “love over fear, community building over anxiety,” and “equity over racial privilege,” thereby nurturing the culture of encounter envisioned by Pope Francis. Despite the obstacles identified in the works discussed in this article, I share the determination expressed in Joseph’s closing words: “We have a grave political and moral choice to make. I choose hope.”
On Sundays during this liturgical year, Catholics will read the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the wisdom we need. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed too are the merciful and the peacemakers. Those who would follow him, Jesus instructs his disciples, must love their enemies. Those words, too often defanged by familiarity, issue a challenge for all Americans interested in redeeming the promise of democracy.