Ruminations on the State of the Republic

I. The House I Lived In

When I was a child, growing up in the fifties, America was still a “new world.” If the Declaration of Independence had been proclaimed only “four score and seven years” before the Gettysburg Address, recent enough for a few very old men in Lincoln’s audience to have remembered the bells ringing on the old Pennsylvania State House when they were small children, then Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address itself only “four score and seven years” before my own childhood, recent enough for a few very old men to recall actually hearing Lincoln’s battlefield address. My father was old enough to remember a barely post-Industrial Revolution world, a world of gaslights and of a little boy’s excitement at seeing a still rare automobile or hearing a radio for the first time, to remember watching a parade of Civil War veterans and seeing Buffalo Bill perform. I am old enough to remember the last of the old street peddlers wending their way in horse-drawn carriages down the street in front of my house, listening to the radio signals from the first earth satellite, seeing television for the first time, watching (on television) the last living Civil War veterans and the last living ex-slaves interviewed.  Back then, in the mid-twentieth century, the continuities in American history seemed real and alive. 

Even to a child then, and certainly in retrospect, the imperfections of America in the forties and fifties are evident. It is easy to list the ways America did not live up to its own self image. The weight of Jim Crow was just beginning to begin to recede before the decisions of the Supreme Court and the growing Black movement. Poverty, especially in rural areas and among African Americans and the elderly, was rampant. A woman’s place was still “in the home.” The environment was to be exploited, not respected.  Homosexuality was a crime as well as a sin.

Despite these injustices, from the viewpoint of the fifties one could still see and glory in the history of the US as an unfolding of freedom. In the “old” America, the demand for equality was mixed with a demand for justice. Protestant perfectionism blended with American exceptionalism.  Individualism and antinomianism were tempered by a sense of community and mutual responsibility.

Progress could be measured concretely in the growth of productivity, of technology, and of GNP.  Despite recurrent panics and recessions and the Great Depression, in the wake of World War II, the U.S. had become the most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world. And progress could be measured in the march of American democracy. If American democracy remained deeply flawed, the U.S. still had a broader basis of mass participation in government than any land in history. The Declaration itself remained a beacon, a shining light for all mankind, an agenda for the world (and, not least, for women and Blacks in the U.S.).  The successful War for American Independence, the struggle for the Bill of Rights, the emergence of Jacksonian democracy, the full separation of church and state, the Civil War and Emancipation and Reconstruction, Populism, Progressivism, Socialism, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the rise of industrial unionism, marked the triumphant march of the Enlightenment. [1]

The triumph of America was marked in other ways, as well. The U.S. had become the center of both high culture (art, dance, music, literature) and of mass culture (Hollywood, comic books, jazz, rock’n’roll, and the new TV). On the world stage, America basked in its role in the great war against fascism, and despite its history of forays into traditional imperialism (Guatemala, Iran) and however mixed its motives, it seemed the champion of the new emerging nations of Africa and Asia as they struggled to escape the centuries old burden of colonialism.  The influence of American ideas and culture and ideals and of the American model were felt throughout the world.

 In the Sixties and early Seventies, the great pageant of democracy continued, despite occasional detours: social movements (blacks, women, gays, environmentalists, the demands for “participation in the decisions that affect our lives”); social reforms (the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid, Roe v. Wade and Title IX, food stamps, the earned income credit, environmental legislation); cultural ferment (the music, visual art, dance, the freeing up of sexuality itself).  Vietnam might represent the shadow, alternative truth about America, but the anti-war movement, the mass rising of the people against the reckless arrogance of our leaders, helped redeem us. “Anti-Communism” too readily justified support for the status quo, above all in America’s stable of dictatorial semi-dependencies (South Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Taiwan, pre-Castro Cuba, to name but a few), but it also contained a  strong moment of support for freedom and democracy, for open government, for government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.“

The America of my childhood also had a sense of community. In some measure, what I am calling a “sense of community” may be little more than nostalgia for the protected world of childhood, when home and family and neighborhood loomed large. By 1950, “America” was certainly far too large to be a community in any immediate sense. The reality of America was certainly often a reality of ethnic and religious and racial frictions and divisions and intergroup hostility. But the remembered sense of community is more than a mirage.  Life had a slower pace. There was a palpable sense of commonality, of shared values and purposes, of collectivity. Mid-century sociologists repeatedly remarked on the durability of Toqueville’s hundred year old observation of the high rate of involvement of Americans in voluntary organizations -- unions, church groups, charitable groups, the PTA, and other community-based organizations. There was a sense of a common culture. (Perhaps it was too strong a sense, in which the demand for assimilation -- the “melting pot” -- ran roughshod over ethnic identity and tradition). There were shared national “events,” when the nation gathered around the television (and before that, the radio) to listen to election results slowly trickling in or to watch the World Series or to mourn the death of a President. With only three national television networks and no cable and no Internet, popular television shows were enjoyed collectively (if in the isolation of individual homes). On a smaller scale, even in big cities, most Americans lived near their extended families and knew their neighbors. You shopped locally, from a merchant you knew rather than from a supermarket, much less a “big box store.” “Family” doctors still made house calls. The milkman still delivered milk to your door each morning. In many communities, a large fraction of the population worked for the same employer.  Schools, though plagued by a high drop out rate and blissfully ignoring those (often poor) with learning difficulties, imagined themselves as laboratories of citizenship, inculcating shared values as well as skills.[2] 


II. Goodbye To All That?

In many ways, the America of 2010 is a far, far better society than the America of the fifties and sixties. For huge groups of Americans --women, African-Americans and other people of color, gay and bisexual men and women -- America provides far greater freedom, far higher status, far more opportunity, far greater safety than it did a generation or two ago. Both collectively and at a purely individual level, for members of these groups, the U.S. is certainly a better place to live now than then. For all Americans, we have created a better society. Life span is up and infant mortality rates down. The air and water are cleaner. Schooling (especially college) is more accessible. Expression of sexuality is freer. The danger of the U.S. being the victim of nuclear war (at least “all-out” nuclear war between states) is less.  Transportation is cheaper, safer, easier and more efficient. Information is more available. Health care is more effective and, finally (maybe) about to become more universally available.[3]

But despite these gains, something precious has been lost:

  • Even before the Great Recession, other countries (e.g., Norway, Switzerland) had surpassed us in the material well being of our citizens.[4] But wealth is not a zero sum game. It is of no great significance that we are no longer the richest of all, as long as we are rich enough. The problem is that in many ways we are less and less “rich enough.”  Proportionately, more Americans live in poverty than in the rest of the industrialized world, and absolutely, poverty has increased. Income in the U.S. is now distributed more unequally than at any time since 1929 and more unequally than in most other industrialized countries. Intergenerational social mobility is now lower than in Canada and much of Europe.  Our “social safety net” (health insurance, despite the Obama reforms; protection against impoverishment in old age; protection against the consequences of unemployment) is the weakest of all industrialized nations. Our social institutions (health, education) are failing: The U.S. ranks 38th in the world in life expectancy at birth, 33rd in the world in infant mortality rate. A child at school in Canada, Finland or Korea has a higher chance of being educated to a reasonable standard and a lower chance of falling a long way behind the average than a child born in the United States. Whatever constraints Progressivism and the New Deal placed on American capitalism have given way to deregulation, the worship of the free market, the pursuit of unlimited personal wealth, and the most predatory of corporate practices. Maintaining a reasonably low unemployment rate (even before the Great Recession) requires keeping many millions of Americans out of the work force – “willingly” in the form of extended time spent in school, unwillingly in the form of incarceration, silently in the form of those who have given up even looking for a job.[5]
  • Our much-bragged-about democratic political processes have broken down. The hallowed U.S. Constitution has produced a political system that no longer seems capable of solving problems or uniting the country. Only two of the last five presidential elections were won by a candidate receiving a majority of the popular vote. Political polarization grows.[6] The will of the majority in Congress is routinely thwarted by Republican Senators representing less than a third of the American population. [7] The Congressional committee system is more focused on turf battles and the efforts of the Chairs of each committee to maintain personal power than on promoting national well-being.  Members of the US Senate, the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” rarely even show up on the Senate floor for debate. Reactionary Supreme Court justices with lifetime tenure allow corporations to ride roughshod over American political processes in the name of supporting “free speech.” Elections are awash in money from “special interests.” The U.S. ranks seventeenth in the world in lack of governmental corruption, one of the highest rates of all the industrialized countries.  Civilian control of the military may not be in jeopardy, but increasingly, military operations (and prisons) are outsourced to private sector companies, operating with minimal accountability to elected officials.[8] The “free” press, when not devoted to keeping us up to date on the sexual intrigues of the entertainment world or to providing an outlet to reactionary demagogues (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck), is supine, rarely critical, little more than a mouthpiece for vested interests. Critical national problems–economic growth, reform of the financial system, immigration, global warming, reform of the educational system – remain unsolved and, increasingly, seem unsolvable.
  • In foreign policy terms, despite the “lessons of Vietnam,” little has changed. American foreign policy is still driven more by realpolitik than by principle. We continue to support corrupt political dictatorships as long as they welcome American investment and trade or are war allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). We wage aggressive war (Iraq). We engage in torture and hold the International Criminal Court in contempt. We speak nice words about genocide and ethnic cleansing, but we fail to act (Darfur, Congo). We find excuses not to act on global warming.
  • We have become a land of rampant consumerism, belligerent individualism, and unbridled greed. The very idea of the “common” well being has all but disappeared. Litigiousness to advance individual welfare has replaced advocacy of social reform to advance the general welfare. The percentage of Americans belonging to a union or to the PTA, writing a letter to the editor or attending a community meeting on town or school affairs has steadily declined since mid century.  Millions of parents turn to home schooling their children rather than to fixing the public schools, once the most democratic and shared of American institutions. Legitimate outrage at a stagnating standard of living and at the failure of government to respond to the needs of “ordinary” Americans has turned into Tea Party libertarianism and hysterical fear of illegal immigrants who are “taking our jobs” rather than to repairing the social safety net and reforming the economy. Right wing groups complaining of the intrusions of government into our lives breed right wing militias and have become a significant terrorist threat to America (a threat that no number of airport screeners will prevent).   The American justice system “excels” primarily in the percentage of our population in jail and in the number of executions we carry out.

It should be emphasized that the changes I have described are not the inevitable consequence of modernity or of prosperity. Although some elements can be found in other industrialized countries (e.g., anti-immigrant sentiment, cuts in the social safety net), it is only in the U.S. that the full range of phenomena appears. They are not merely a recent, maybe transient phenomenon, merely a reflection of the anxieties produced by the Great Recession, Bush Administration incompetence, Republican demagoguery, Tea Party activism, and inappropriate expectations of Barack Obama. And they are not merely part of a steady progression stretching back to the early years of the last century or before. They largely date from the nineteen sixties and since.  

Interlude: On National “Greatness”

As a child, I recall thinking how lucky I was to be an American. How sad it must be, I thought, to come from “somewhere else”, to be sentenced to be a Frenchman or an Italian, or even worse, a Nigerian or Mexican. “Wouldn’t everyone, if they could, choose to be American,” I thought.  Years later, as an adult all too aware of the imperfections of America, my childhood pride seems puzzling.  “I’m proud to be an American” bumper stickers and “The United State is the greatest country in the world” rhetoric seem ignorant and repugnant.  The evils done in the name of national egocentricity  -- American or that of any other land -- are all too evident. 

Yet the familiar still draws and we are attached to what we are attached to.  The idea of national “greatness” is more than ignorant rant. Though jingoism is not serious reflection, there is something about the underlying memories and dreams and on-going experiences of so many Americans that make the “We’re number one” shouts meaningful and important to so many. A “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” demands that we ask seriously:  Can a country be “great”? What could make us call a country “great”? And then, of course, “Is the U.S. a great country? Was it ever?”

“Greatness” is an elusive concept. The Roman Empire was, certainly, “great,” if measured by its power, its reach, its ability to establish stability for a goodly chunk of the world for several centuries, and its lasting cultural and political influence on the world. But looked at as a society – a world of slaves, of conquest, of thoughtless cruelty - its greatness seems less. What could “greatness” possibly mean in a country? My list of criteria: 

1. A great country provides both economic opportunity and economic security.

2. A great country provides both political freedom in the sense of freedom from interference by the state in the affairs of individuals and political freedom in the sense of opportunity to participate in decisions that affect our lives.

3. A great country both allows individuals to feel connected, to participate in the life of the larger community, and allows individuals to express their individuality.

4. A great country has both tolerance for diversity (the many ways people have of ordering their lives) and recognizes the need for social order (which is themselves a prerequisite for freedom).

5. A great country has both tolerance for international diversity (the many ways people have of ordering their societies) and acknowledges a responsibility to peoples beyond our own borders. This is, I know, the slipperiest of slippery slopes. It suggests that a great country must be a moral country. Part of morality consists of not seeking to impose its way or its will on the rest of the world. Yet, to be moral, it is not enough to merely be a beacon, a shining “city upon the hill,“ while remaining  passive when the  world does not live up to our standards. There are times when a great country must act to protect those who cannot protect themselves  – whether the threat is genocide, ethnic cleansing, misogyny of near genocidal proportions, natural disaster, or dictatorship.

6. A great country both looks out for its own “national” interests and is a good citizen of the world. It provides  assistance to poorer and weaker nations. It shares in the burden of international challenges such as global warming and adheres to international standards of human rights. In balancing national interest and global needs, it is capable of taking a long term and generous view.

7. A great country is both stable and capable of change. Without a significant degree of stability, even in times of prosperity, anxiety takes over. Yet all is flow. Fixity and stagnation imply failure to adapt to changing times and changing needs.

Each of these elements of “greatness” is a balancing act. Each involves a “slippery slope.”  There are no simple formulas to determine the “correct” balance between opportunity and security, between freedom from and freedom to, between connectedness and individuality, between diversity and social order, between tolerance and responsible action in the cause of justice, between national interests and shared global concerns, between stability and change. Perhaps the ability to determine the balances that are appropriate to the historical moment and the context with flexibility and humanity is itself part of greatness.

So, is the U.S. a great (let alone “the greatest”) country? Was it ever?

Back in the fifties and sixties, each criterion suggests both a “yes” and a “no.” Yet weighing the “yesses” and “noes” misses the point. If, in 1955, you were Black, perhaps you would say, on balance, “no.” If, in 1955, you were a white male, perhaps you would say, on balance, “yes.” But for all it was clearly a mix, and even in the mid fifties, with the wave of McCarthyism just beginning to ebb, an American might look back on the past and forward to the future and say, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”[9]

And now again we can ask, what about my criteria for a “great” country? Does the U.S. still provide both economic opportunity and economic security? Does the U.S. still offer both freedom from interference by the state in the affairs of individuals and in the sense of freedom to (and opportunity to) participate in decisions that affect our lives? Does the U.S. still allow individuals to feel connected, to feel part of a larger community, and, at the same time, to express their individuality? Does the U.S. still exhibit both tolerance for internal and international diversity and carry out its moral responsibilities to peoples within and beyond our own borders? And, in some ways the most crucial question of all, does the U.S. still provide stability and yet a capacity for change?

Unfortunately, the answers seem to be: “less and less. The balance has shifted. Something has changed. “The center does not hold.”

IV. The Fate of The Republic

In the previous essay, I described four areas in which, despite very real advances and improvements in how we live, the path of America over the last fifty years is disturbing. To sum up my concerns:

  • Despite half  a century of economic prosperity, we see continuing high levels of poverty, increasing inequality in wealth, and declining intergenerational mobility. The social “safety net” and other social institutions such as schools have deteriorated. Americans, even before the recession, seemed to be experiencing a loss of optimism with respect to the future and with respect to the country’s ability to solve pressing problems.
  • American politics has become increasingly polarized and, recently, we have seen the emergence of a far right mass movement. The mass media has been decreasingly willing to engage in serious political criticism or debate. Political institutions have become increasingly unrepresentative, unaccountable, and dysfunctional, and government at all levels exhibits an increasingly evident incapacity to solve pressing societal problems.
  • On the world stage, a foreign policy based on waging aggressive war (e.g., Iraq)has led to relatively little protest. There is a growing contrast between our expressed concerns for human rights and our government’s inability or unwillingness to act on them (e.g., use of torture, failure to adhere to the International Criminal Court, failure to act effectively in the face of genocide,  ethnic cleansing, and other “crimes against humanity”  [Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Congo]). The U.S. has sometimes sabotaged, sometimes merely failed to embrace international attempts to deal with global warming. Respect for international institutions such as the United Nations and for international law as a way of solving international disputes has declined, both among politicians and the public at large.
  • Increasing  tolerance toward some groups (e.g., African Americans, gays and lesbians)  has been offset by decreasing tolerance towards others (e.g., immigrants, Muslims). We increasingly use  a punitive justice system to “solve” social problems. Any sense of collective identity (“We the People”) and of mutual responsibility for each other’s wellbeing has declined. 

So how do we account for this trajectory? What follows are thoughts rather than a comprehensive attempt to connect the dots. Four major developments can be identified as the major sources of the trajectory of recent American history: The relentless search of corporations for profits, the defeat of social movements, the growing domination of politics by corporations, and changes in technology. Each of these has had an interrelated variety of consequences.

1. The most basic development has been the relentless search of corporations for profit. Three major elements, all of which can be found in earlier years but which have accelerated in the years since World War II, were central:  First, mergers: After a wave of corporate mergers in the early years of the twentieth century, the structure of American business remained relatively stable from the Great Depression through the early sixties. Since then, in the late sixties and almost continually since 1980, there has been wave after wave of business consolidation. Second, “globalization”: Foreign investment and international trade have penetrated into the most remote corners of the world. Outsourcing and low wages in East and Southeast Asia and elsewhere undercut employment, wages and the social safety net at home. Third, penetration of new markets: In their search for profits, corporations moved into areas previously left to the “non-profit” sector, ranging from schools and colleges to health care to corrections.

These changes have a variety of more or less direct consequences, including:

  • Family income has stagnated. Real wages peaked around 1974 and have declined since then, reaching 1964 levels in the last year or so. Manufacturing, once the major source of decent paying jobs for those with limited education or skills, has been especially severely hit by outsourcing and imports from low wage countries. Only the rise in two income families (with all of the strains on childcare and other family relationships that this implies) and the expansion of credit (largely based in easy mortgages and the real estate boom) enabled families to keep up, much less get ahead.
  • Cuts in individual income tax rates for high income earners, shifts in practices for reimbursing corporate executives (from paying wages to providing stock options, driven by provisions of the tax code), and explicit efforts by top corporate managers to seize an ever growing portion of corporate profits for their own personal benefit have led to rapid increases in inequalities in the distribution of income. Income distribution in the United States became significantly less unequal from the late 1930s to the early 1940’s, but in the early 1980s inequality again began to grow.  The large growth in total national income of the last three decades has largely been concentrated among the richest fifth of the population.
  • The restructuring of corporate reimbursement policies, with top management paid in stock options, has resulted in the triumph of the short term perspective. The individual well-being of top managers became linked to the generation of short-term profits (and thus stock prices), even if this was at the expense of long term planning and growth. Corporations have been increasingly unwilling to make long term investments in activities that do not guarantee rapid and large scale payoffs, unless they are accompanied by massive government subsidies or guarantees (e.g., government guarantees for drug companies developing vaccines) .
  • The most human of relationships, such as educating children, caring for the sick, caring for the aged (and, bizarrely, imprisonment of felons) have been turned into commodities, whose availability and quality are subject to the vagaries of the market and the imperatives of profits.  In turn, this leads to the rise of powerful vested interests that prevent or distort reform in areas central to social well-being (e.g., healthcare).  
  • “Big box” stores and national chains, such as Home Depot, Barnes and Noble, Circuit City, and others , have driven out Small “Mom and Pop” retail establishments providing day to day commodities such as food, clothing, hardware, and books. This, in turn, contributes to the collapse of small scale, “people-friendly” neighborhoods.

2. The second major driver of the last four decades of American history has been changes in public policy and the role of government.

Liberalism, Bill Moyers once said, consists of “public action for the public good.” By that definition, liberalism has been in steady decline in America since the early or mid seventies. Ironically, by the standards of 2010 Richard Nixon was the last liberal American President. (Think, for example, of the expansion of the Food Stamp program, the application of cost of living adjustments to Social Security, the expansion of affirmative action, the creation of the earned income credit, and the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970!). But from the cautious centrism of Carter and Clinton to the outright assault on the liberal tradition by Reagan and the Bushes, little of liberalism has survived.

In the eighties and nineties, it seemed as if free market capitalism might be able to provide some of the social benefits that liberals in earlier years had assumed could only come from the public sector. But those benefits were superficial at best, reserved for the few and not for the public as a whole, and, in any case, post 2007 the hollowness of the free market solution was revealed. At the level of the individual, it brought rising incomes only for the upper levels of American society, stagnation and an unraveling of the social safety net for the rest. At a societal level, poverty grew, the energy crisis went unaddressed, and the earth heated up. Looking forward, the failures of the last decades, brought on by the failure of government to act and the reliance on the free market to solve all problems, have been accompanied by a loss of faith that government can or should help solve problems. Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” rules; even the possibility of “public action for the public good” grovels.

The victory of Obama and the Democratic Party’s conquest of Congress in 2009 raised our hopes that a new era of social action was at hand. But Obama’s message of hope was largely emotional, a non-programmatic belief that “yes, we can.” (We can what?). It is far too soon to assess the Obama presidency, of course. If Obama’s election did not signal a “post-racial” era, the very fact of the election of an African American to the Presidency was certainly a significant milestone in American history. If the health care reforms, the financial system reforms, and the actions to prevent the Great Recession from turning into another Great Depression were deeply flawed, they certainly represented a serious effort to improve “the public good” and were a significant shift from the policies of the preceding decades. But the subsequent drive of American politics to the right is deeply troubling, not just as a short term phenomena, but as evidence that the first two years of the Obama Presidency did not really signal a decisive shift in the longer term, secular changes in America.

In addition to policies that threaten the liberal project, the political process itself has changed.  Electoral activity shifted from a community organizing approach (door to door, personal telephone calls) to a media driven model (ads on radio and television, robotic telephone calling). These demand dollars – dollars that cannot be substituted for by the unpaid labor of volunteers. They benefit the candidate with the most money, rather than the candidate with the most troops. In turn, this creates a new dynamnic: Fund raising becomes increasingly central to the jobs of Senators and Congressmen. More and more time is spent on the fund raising trail. Less and less time is even spent in Washington. Social interactions among representatives, other than the act of voting itself, are reduced to the bare minimum and the interpersonal “grease” that used to contribute to compromises and deal making is gone. Even the time needed to become expert in policy matters is reduced, turned over to staff. With the increased polarization of politics, fundraising becomes a national search, with donations sought from outside of one’s own district. Congressmen and Senators become ever more dependent on the largesse of the Party machines, which in turn contributes to party line voting and polarization. The centrality of fundraising contributes (along with gerrymandering) to the advantage in elections experienced by incumbents. Challenging the political status quo becomes harder and harder. In 2010, when the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision made anonymous corporate donations to elections possible, many more millions of dollars became available to “outsiders.”Needless to say, the triumph of money in politics benefits most the interests of those who have the most money to give – the wealthy and the corporations.

One consequence of political logjam is that corporations have been increasingly effective at turning government to their own service. In particular, they have been increasingly effective in demanding and getting deregulation for themselves (including, not least, loosening up regulations limiting their ability to fight unionization).

The interpenetration of government and business both required (and was, in part due to) a vastly increased cadre of lobbyists intimately linked to fund raising who, in return, demand political favors and policies benefitting their corporate employers. Fund raising dependence on lobbyists and the forces they represent, essentially a legalized form of bribery and corruption,  further  undercuts whatever autonomy and “independence” politicians formerly enjoyed and undercuts politicians’ responsiveness to “ordinary” citizens. 

3. Another possible driver of America’s recent history is technology. The technological changes of the last half century are, of course, staggering, although many of the changes are incremental rather than qualitatively new. At least since the invention of the telegraph and the railroad, in the first half of the nineteenth century, transportation and communication have become ever more efficient, ever faster, and ever cheaper. Since the late nineteenth century, medicine has gained in its ability to save lives and prolong life. New materials have appeared. But in the last decade or so, a more revolutionary innovation, the Internet, an innovation perhaps comparable in its social and cultural implications to the invention of moveable type, has appeared. 

Though rooted in corporate imperatives to lower costs, technological change has a life and logic of its own and new technology may have unexpected consequences. The various technological innovations have individually and collectively transformed our lives in many ways. To take one case, the dramatic reduction in the costs of communication and transportation and the computer may have turned the world into a “global village,” to use Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated phrase, but they may have also contributed to social fragmentation. The diversity of cable television has undercut the unifying force of the old television networks. The Internet (and the collapse of print media) has fragmented the national “community” further. The 24-7 news cycle has destroyed the time for considered reflection on events and interfered with the maintenance of historical memory. Easy, cheap air flight has facilitated the geographic dispersion of family members. The forms of social encounter promoted by the Internet (e.g., Facebook) testify to the persistence of the desire for connection, but provide only a pale shadow of the face to face connection typical of earlier years.

But if some technological changes, at least, have had relatively deep and perhaps irreversible cultural impacts, the impact of technological change can too easily be overestimated.  First, changes in technology can cut both ways. Increased ease of communication may have trivialized human relationships, but it can also facilitate them.  Increased access to technology-driven media may have increased exposure to right wing ideas (e.g., Fox News), but also may have reduced the barriers to spreading alternative ideas via the Internet, and permitted alternative voices (e.g., Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow).  The “twenty four-seven” news cycle lends itself to sensationalist and shallow journalism, but it exposes all of us to the experiences of the entire world. 

Both blaming technology as the sources of the ills of contemporary society and, conversely, looking to technology for solutions, divert attention from the underlying economic, political, and social explanations.  Improvements on communications and transportation certainly facilitated globalization, but they did not cause it. High-tech companies (e.g., Microsoft, Google) created a new source of extreme wealth, but so did coal and oil and railroads and so did radio and television and airlines. High-tech medical equipment has increased the cost of health care, but the computer was not the cause of the consolidation of the health system. It is not the impersonal and irresistible progress of technology but human actions that explain history. To take one example, the dominant explanation of the crisis in publishing (including book, magazine, and newspaper publishing) is technological determinism: As Ben Ehrenreich has written, “All that is solid melts into gigabytes, nothing can be done.” To be sure , millions of people prefer the constantly updated news sites on the Internet to the daily paper, Craig’s List and EBay have eaten into ad revenues, and Internet journals such as Slate have become an alternative outlet for writers.  But the deeper reasons for the crisis in publishing have more to do with general trends in the reorganization of capital. Leveraged corporate takeovers in the publishing industry resulted in the new owners demanding profits that the industry could never hope to obtain. The result is a substantial narrowing in what kind of book can get published and in the willingness of newspapers to meet the needs of any but the largest mass audience. At the next remove, we see a narrowing of readers' expectations that becomes a matter of general taste, a narrowing of the formal possibilities that most writers are able to imagine, and a narrowing of the imagination for writers and readers alike.

Assessing where the “blame” lies –technology or other social processes – is crucial. If technology is to blame, then negative changes in people’s experience is no one’s fault, and change – at least social and political change – is both irrelevant and impossible. Only technological fixes are possible.

4. Finally, the flip side of the great success experienced by giant corporations in the last four decades was the collapse of what John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing forces” and, in particular, of progressive social movements.  Progressive social change is not the product of “liberal” politicians. American history amply shows that liberal politicians are able to enact progressive social changes only when there are active progressive social movements demanding change. Further, social reforms are only retained when organized, sustained political forces demand their retention; in their absence, social policy at best stagnates, at worst regresses.

It was the populist revolt, labor unrest, and the rise of Socialist Party electoral success that gave rise to Progressivism: The replacement of a spoils-based system of government employment by the civil service, the creation of the Fair Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, the direct election of senators, the vote for women, and the graduated income tax were among the outcomes. It was massive labor unrest that produced the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration, The Fair Labor Standards Act, the Federal Housing Authority, and, above all, the Social Security Act resulted. It was the 1960s mass demonstrations and “riots” of Blacks and the revolt of  students and, later, the militancy of women and gays, that led to the Great Society: Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts (the latter having major implications for women as well as for Blacks), Food Stamps, legal services for the poor,  Head Start, Title IX of Education Act, the legalization of abortion, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Earned Income Credit, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act followed.

So what happened: In simplest terms, unions, the Black Movement, the student movement and the New Left, the Women’s Movement  -- the major social forces that produced and sustained change in the first two thirds of the last century – collapsed or were defeated.

The unrest of the Thirties was institutionalized in the form of the labor movement. The unions (especially the more liberal “industrial” unions) became the backbone of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. They provided the money, the ideology, and the bring-out-the-vote “troops” for the Democratic party electoral machine. The right wing assault on organized labor began immediately after the end of World War II when the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. The Taft Hartley Act made organizing unions more difficult and directly attacked the role of the organized left within unions. Even so, for several decades the post-War grand arrangement – wage increases and good company-based benefits tied to productivity increases, in return for limiting the disruptiveness of union activity – held up. But industrial unionism was based in the manufacturing industry and, by the sixties, the relative decline in manufacturing in the United States began to undercut union membership. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, delivered the coup de grace with his 1981 direct assault on the air controllers union. A hostile National Labor Relations Board, a Congress increasingly unwilling to support unions, and the continued decline in manufacturing did the rest:  Union membership dropped from 39% of private sector employment in 1958 to 7% in 2006.

The liberal and left ideologies underlying much Thirties activism also came under relentless assault. The American people were mobilized to fight the Cold War against the Russians and Communism, but the mobilization extended to the home front, in the form of the Red Scare. “Reds,” a category extending beyond Communists to radical trade unionists and anyone who defended them or hung out with them) were barred from the leadership of labor unions, purged from the State Department, blacklisted by Hollywood, fired from universities and public schools. Left wing critiques of American society (especially of U.S. foreign policy) and efforts at serious social reform such as national health insurance were instantly branded as “Communist” or “socialist” (which was nearly as bad; after all, wasn’t the “USSR” the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”)? The assault was successful.   By 1960, “dissent” could only take disguised forms. Critiques of “mass society” and “mass culture” remained acceptable, but even calling capitalism “capitalism,” much less criticizing it, was all but unthinkable.

Unlike the Thirties, The Sixties movements never really achieved a strong institutional form equivalent to the unions, This was, in part perhaps, because of their very diversity. What did inner city Blacks and Latinos, students at elite universities, middle class feminists, gay activists, and radical environmentalists really have in common? Ideological tendencies such as the shift of the Black movement from integration to nationalism, the growing extremism and contempt for “ordinary” working class Americans on the part of  many in the New Left,  and the rise of “identity politics” further undercut the possibility of turning the Sixties’ forces for change into a coherent movement. (Not that the American working class has historically needed identity politics to justify fragmentation along lines of race and ethnicity).  Partial successes also undermined the unity of the movements: The end of the draft undercut student opposition to the war; growing economic and educational opportunities for women and for Blacks undercut the unity of these movements and reduced the appeal of their more radical sections to a wider constituency; passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act took the sails out of radical environmentalism.

Although Sixties activism never created a lasting institutional base, the Sixties’ movements did outlive the Sixties decade in the form of a panoply of liberation-oriented ideologies: radical feminist ideas about the structure of the family, New Left proposals for rethinking schools and the workplace, gay demands to rethink sexuality, the growing body of ideas developed by radical ”caucuses” in religion, the arts,  medicine, law, and virtually every academic  discipline. But progressive and radical Sixties ideologies, along with the memory of the Sixties as a time of progressive social change and of Sixties’ notions as to the very possibility or potential benefits of change for ordinary people all came under an orchestrated and heavily financed attack from the right.  From the early 1970s on, wealthy conservatives poured millions of dollars into right wing pressure groups, media outlets, and think tanks devoted to promoting “free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense” (to use the Heritage Foundation’s mission statement as a model). The religious right added in ideological warfare against the triumphs of the women’s movement (especially abortion) and the gay movement. In the right wing media, the history of the Sixties was rewritten. In the right wing and, increasingly mainstream view, the Sixties were about “spitting” on Vietnam veterans, promiscuous sex (which undercut the family and led to the AIDS epidemic), flamboyant gays, and chaos. Such incongruent facts as the progressive triumphs of the era (e.g., Medicare) and the mass rejection of the War by the majority of the American people were all but written out of the history. Concentration of mass media in fewer and fewer hands and especially the takeover of important outlets by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (beginning with the NY Post in 1976 and soon extending to the explicitly “business friendly” Fox Broadcasting Network) gave the right wing of the Republican Party and the US Chamber of Commerce a major propaganda outlet. In the eyes of Fox and, increasingly, “mainstream” media, the words “social problems” came to mean not poverty, racial discrimination, and gender inequality, but crime (read: race), immigration (read, at least in part: race), child molesters, school-based propaganda for anti-Christian ideas such as evolution, government “interference” with business (government aid,  such as agricultural price supports, were okay), high taxes, and “the deficit.”  Free market ideology triumphed and critical ideas were pushed to the margins.

Another, less direct, element in the ideological defeat of progressive thought in America may have been the world-wide collapse of alternatives.  While Soviet-style Communism was hardly attractive to Americans, on a world scale ideological counterbalances to American hegemony were readily available. Soviet military power, Chinese economic growth, Cuban success in building schools and health care institutions, Communist Vietnamese insurgents’ uncanny ability to thumb their collective noses at American might -- all gave non-free market capitalist ideas a worldwide credibility (and, in many instances, economic and/or military support ).  In Latin America there was liberation theology. In Africa and Asia there was nationalism, throwing off the colonial yoke and promising a new age of peace, prosperity, and social justice. In Europe there was Scandinavian social democracy.

Radical movements in the past assumed there was a linkage between the ills to be redressed and the existence potential agents of change. It was capitalism that called into being and united Marx’s working class, colonialism and imperialism that called into being Third World liberation movements. To the U.S.- based movements of the Sixties, the working class seemed a frail reed on which to place much hope, and there was no peasantry to fall back upon. But the idea of looking for agencies of social change generated by social processes and, in any case, identifying with world movements for change was compelling:  There was the New Left idealization of “marginalized” groups such as Blacks and students and of “community control.” There was the radical feminist belief that “the personal is political” and effort to equate the many forms of societal oppression (e.g., women were an oppressed “class”). There was the Southern civil rights movement’s belief in the creation of a “beloved community.”

But by the nineties, world historical visions of social change had collapsed. The Cold War was over and with it the practical and ideological counterbalances to the U.S. free market model. The wave of Latin American revolution had been defeated. The Chinese “cultural revolution” and even the more banal post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Communism had morphed into authoritarian capitalism. European social democracy, requiring high taxes, was in full flight in the face of wage competition and immigration. Nationalism in Africa and Asia had created not a new birth of freedom but instead, corruption, nepotism, crony capitalism, and economic collapse.[10] Liberation theology had fallen at the hands of the Popes. No alternative models were left. Even where mass discontent has flourished in the last decade or two, it has tended to take on non-ideological form (e.g., in Mexico, where marginalized young people joined drug gangs rather than political insurgencies and in Colombia, where initially revolutionary insurgencies degenerated into drug gangs).The possibility of imagining a progressive alternative was undercut.

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Many of these developments I have discussed were, of course, interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Organizational forces for change, visions of an alternative society, and ideas of how change could come about all declined together. Most directly, there was no longer any countervailing force to growing corporate domination. But the collapse of social movements is also the collapse of the idea of a social movement and the defeat of movements for progressive social change is also the defeat of the idea of progressive social change. Even if people believe change would be good, they do not imagine it as possible. In the face of discontent with what is, people turn not to collective action but to individual action. (e.g., the decay of the social safety net mean people have to rely on themselves, not others). Community and collective feelings are further undercut and it becomes harder and harder to mobilize communities for change.


V. End Notes

 “Indeed I live in the dark ages,” wrote Berthold Brecht in the late thirties, reflecting on a decade of depression, the rise of fascism, and the approach of war, an age when “a smooth forehead betokens a hard heart” and “he who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.”

In the Nineties, Bill Clinton offered us “the man from Hope.” Two years ago, Barrack Obama offered us “the audacity of hope.” Is there hope? Do we live in an age where men and women can still dare to hope? Or is this the beginnings of a much darker time, a moment presaging a long period of social regression, if not looming social disaster? Perhaps “we live in hard times, not end times,” as  Jon Stewart has said. The early “Twenty-Tens” are certainly not as foreboding as the years leading up to Brecht’s poem. But the despair of the Thirties, at least, was accompanied by a glimmer of hope, by the existence of potential agencies for change. These included not only the organized working class movements of the advanced industrial countries, not only the growing nationalist movements in the colonies, but the United States itself, for all of its flaws. The land of the New Deal and the soon-to-be Bastion of Democracy cast a long shadow.

 Making long term predictions based on the experience of a few months is, of course, foolish. Social and cultural change does not occur overnight, and it still may be that the Obama election really did signify the beginnings of a generational shift in American politics and culture. The Tea Party and the current mood of anger in America undoubtedly reflect the state of the economy, and with recovery, they may fade. The fact that the Tea Party per se disproportionately appeals to older, white, richer males might be seen as evidence that underneath the current political noise, the Obama shift may survive.  But it ironic that the mass movement engendered by Obama’s triumph is a mass movement of the right, not of the left.[11] No movements of the left have arisen to address the nation’s anxiety and discontent. The danger is that in the absence of a left alternative, a revived and more conservative Republican dominance might introduce hard-to-reverse changes in political structure (e.g., Congressional redistricting), in tax structure (it is always easier to lower taxes than to raise them), and in the possibility of dissent (McCarthyism really did stifle political discourse for more than fifteen years). Alternately, the attractiveness of a “man on a white horse” grows. Already pundits such as Thomas Friedman and politicians such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are floating the idea of an “independent” candidate for President in 2012.

Hard to come up with a coherent vision of a left that would address the concrete needs of the twenty-first century and would also speak to the felt needs of the American people. Part of the problem is that the traditional issues of the left (wages, the social safety net, etc) have been augmented by new issues and complicated by the global stage in which they must be solved. Addressing economic needs is harder in the face of global competition for jobs. Addressing security needs is harder in the context of terrorism and “asymmetric” warfare. Global warming, international flows of refugees and immigrants, and the consequences of grossly uneven development on an international scale complicate policy making and make choices harder to understand.  On an international scale, as well as an American one, unambiguously positive forces for change have disappeared: Socialism, social democracy, anti colonialism, nationalism, radical Catholicism --  all of the traditional sources of the narrative of change, of hope, have eroded or ended in their own disasters. The Enlightenment narrative itself – a narrative holding out the possibility, if not the inevitability of progress, has faded.

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So what is left? Does the future hold continuing expansions of individual freedom and opportunity (e.g., for women, for immigrants) but without any paired sense of collectivity and mutual responsibility? Is that a “good” (let alone “great” society? Will democratic forms persist in a land of increasing un-democracy, of ownership of the political process by corporations, by a heedless and heartless free market capitalism, by a suppression of any real dissent, of the uncontested hegemony of neo-liberal ideology? Does a new Roman Empire, retaining the forms of the old Roman Republic lie in our future?  Will the meaning of “freedom” continue to deteriorate into a synonym for consumer choice and social atomization? Or will increasingly authoritarian solutions appeal to Americans?[12]  The Roman Empire retained the forms but not the content of the old Roman Republic. Does a similar fate lie in our own future? (And was the transformation of Roman republic into Roman empire a tragedy or a triumph, from the perspective of “history”?)

More than two hundred years ago in Philadelphia, the Founders of the Republic wrote, “We the People of the United States” do establish a Constitution for the United States of America, “in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  From these words arose a great country. Two phrases stand out: “liberty” and “the general welfare.” Where do we go from here to realize those worthy aims?

[1] I do not mean to idealize or romanticize these movements and policies. The “revisionist” historians of the sixties have shown us the role of giant corporations in forging Progressive and New Deal reforms, the national self interest and realpolitik underlying American foreign policies in and after World War II, the role of foreign policy and economic considerations in providing support for decolonization (and anti-racism), and the contradictions in many movements for social justice (e.g., Jackson’s anti-Indian policies, the failure of Reconstruction Era reforms to address the rights of women as well as those of freed slaves, the know-nothing-ism inherent in some parts of the Populist movement). Nevertheless, the role of progressive mass movements and the ultimately beneficial effect of these movements and policies for millions of people seem undeniable.

[2] It was just this role of schools that the “New Left” of the sixties often criticized. The “common attitudes” inculcated by the schools, we held, were those of accepting industrial discipline and conforming to the rules of corporation; the “common values” of the liberal arts college were those of the ruling elite and their common content more a set of recognition signals for members of the ruling elites than any real effort to broaden the base of a shared humanist tradition.

[3] It should be noted that these changes did not just “happen,” as if they were the inevitable march of history. They were the results, direct and indirect of social movements, of demands on the system. And it should hardly be necessary to say that progress is not the same as victory. The path to full equality  and full social justice remains a long one.

[4] Never mind China, where rapid economic growth has been accompanied by growing inequality and continued political repression, and, which is, when all is said and done, a nation that is still far, far poorer than we. 

[5] Neither students nor prison inmates nor those no longer looking for a job are considered part of the labor force, so they are not counted in unemployment statistics.  It might be argued that the expansion of post-secondary education is a response to the needs of the job market, not just a way of keeping young people off the job market.. While in some technical fields (e.g., engineering, information technology management, nursing) this may be true, millions of other students major in “disciplines” such as “communications” and “recreation management” that prepare them for jobs most of which could be (and in the past, were) done by high school graduates. It also might be argued that the expansion of college enrollment represents the creation of a generally more highly educated public. But much of what is now taught in colleges was once taught in high schools, and liberal arts education has not participated fully in the growth of post-secondary education.

[6] The polarization seems to me to be largely due to the Republicans. By and large, the Democrats have been less able or less willing than the Republicans to maintain party discipline in defense of a “party line” and have been more willing to move to the center right from the outset of any policy debate.

[7] The filibuster is a very asymmetrical institution, because Republican Senators tend to come from states with smaller populations. Republican Senators representing states with one third of the US population can block a bill, but when the Democrats were last in the minority, it took Democratic Senators representing states with 48% of the population to put a filibuster-driven hold on legislation

[8] 54% of the US Department of Defense workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan in March 2009 consisted of private contractors. To be fair, only 10-15% of the contractors were in jobs that have traditionally been considered “military.”

[9] The phrase as quoted is, of course, from Martin Luther King, Jr., but he borrowed it, with acknowledgement from the nineteenth century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who wrote: ‘"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

[10] The failure of African leaders to confront Mugabe, or Latin leaders to confront Castro, and of Middle Eastern leaders to confront Ahmadinijab represents a dim memory of what anti-colonialism, the Cuban Revolution, and the overthrow of the Shah once represented, amplified by the lack of contemporary challenges to neo-liberalism.

[11] The mass labor movements of the Thirties owed a great debt to the F.D.R.’s National Recovery Act’s legitimization of unionization. “The President wants you to join the union,” trumpeted John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers organizers. Equally, the Sixties’ civil rights movement and, especially, the student movement owed a great debt to the legitimation of social activism conveyed by J.F.K.’s “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” speech. At this writing, at least , “yes we can” has had no such resonance.

[12] Is freedom “just another word for nothing less to lose” (Janis Joplin), or is freedom “when there is nothing between you and the horizon” (Talon zipper ad), or is freedom “the recognition of necessity” (Hegel)?

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