- Historic Sites
How Have We Changed?
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
The awkward fact that is overlooked in much reporting and commentary is that the DNA that created America has suffered a mutation. It can no longer be assumed that immigrants want to be American. The 1965 Immigration Act, thought to be a modest reform, has produced a flood-tide of immigrants who will not assimilate as easily as earlier generations, many of them because they do not want to assimilate at all, and who claim rights not as Americans but as ethnic and linguistic minorities. The very identity of America is being challenged, in its political faith, its history, and its culture. A vague sentimentality about immigration and a fear of being accused of “racism” have suppressed proper discussion of this crucial issue.
The greatest change in America since the birth of American Heritage was the placing of electric motors inside typewriters. Sure, IBM did it sometime earlier, but by the mid-1950s the others were doing it, and it became possible for college and university teachers to participate in this revolution in typewriter technology. I remember the first one I bought, a boxy Underwood with a slightly futuristic decor, but inside was that mighty motor, and this meant that after most of a day of talking to students and listening to students it was possible to try to write something without feeling as if one were rowing a boat. There are people like David McCullough who have never appreciated this typewriter revolution and insist on using Remington portables circa 1941. David tests his machines by (so he says) throwing them against a wall, whereupon they simply bounce off, proving they are made of steel. He would never buy a machine with a motor, he says. But he likes to live in the typewriter Dark Ages.
There have been changes in machines since the 1950s, notably the introduction of electronics (31 moving parts versus 247, which means that they last only until their circuit boards break). Word processors were the next step, which I refused to take (spend my day looking at a screen?). But the typewriter motor was the principal change of our time.
So enamored are we of diversity that merely trying to define what an American is today is itself un-American.
As for what it says about us as a people, it says that we are a lot less tired than we used to be.
The most important change in this country in the last forty years took place in 1973, when the upheaval of Watergate triggered a shift from presidential government to congressional government.
The term congressional government was coined by a young history scholar named Woodrow Wilson as the title of his first book, an analysis of the way Congress seized control of the nation after the near impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1865. Wilson foresaw the danger of an aggrandizing legislature. “In proportion as you give it power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything.”
The ultimate danger, Wilson feared, was legislative tyranny, which would be a despotism far worse than that of a dictator. Congress could become a despot “who has unlimited time—who has unlimited vanity—who has or believes he has unlimited comprehension.”
Wilson put his astute finger on the fatal flaw in congressional government: “Nobody stands to sponsor the policy of government. A dozen men originate it; a dozen compromises twist and alter it; a dozen officers whose names are scarcely known outside Washington put it into execution.” The result is massive alienation among the citizenry.
In the nineteenth century—and in our own era—another by-product of congressional government has been massive corruption, corruption so pervasive Washington insiders no longer even recognize it. Mark Twain summed it up in his era when he said the United States had no distinctly criminal class “except Congress.” The modern Congress, bloated with perks and PACs, the creature of lobbyists and pressure groups, suggests a similar conclusion.
What was Wilson’s answer to congressional government? A strong Presidency. “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, twentieth-century Presidents restored the balance between the two branches. For present and future Presidents to regain this authority, the modern Congress will have to give up some of its power. This will require an epic political battle. But it must be fought—and won—as soon as possible.
Today’s curious tolerance of forked-tongue corporate labels for special-interest outfits and privately financed think tanks has long been overlooked. To define the gimmick by opposites: The venerable “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” is irreproachable. “League of Women Voters” and “U.S.English” are candid enough. But even “Common Cause"—much as I respect most of what it does—is a bit slippery. That could just as well apply to a junta concocted by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al. For more flagrant examples, consider “American Enterprise Institute” and “Center for National Policy Studies”—masterpieces of camouflage-ambiguity recently rivaled by “United We Stand.”
Not that this letterhead shell game is anything new. A century ago things like “Non-Partisan League” occasionally surfaced. But for every such creation in great-grandpa’s time hundreds are now churning out smothering masses of direct-mail come-ons, TV pitches, and “position papers.” My current favorite, succeeding “National Organization for Women,” is “Concerned Women for America"—narrowly red-hot against abortion and for school prayer.