Paradise Lost?

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

When Michael Elliott, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, first visited America in the early 1970s, he was deeply struck by the generosity, optimism, and confidence he found. Some twelve years later he returned as a reporter for the Economist and discovered a very different mood: All about him was talk of decline and a yearning for the years just after World War II, which, everyone seemed to think, represented what should be the normal state of things.

 
 

When Michael Elliott, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, first visited America in the early 1970s, he was deeply struck by the generosity, optimism, and confidence he found. Some twelve years later he returned as a reporter for the Economist and discovered a very different mood: All about him was talk of decline and a yearning for the years just after World War II, which, everyone seemed to think, represented what should be the normal state of things.

Elliott was intrigued. The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe the postwar decades were not so much a lost Eden as a historical anomaly. But what was the “normal” state of America, and where did we really stand in terms of our past? These big questions eventually coalesced into a book, The Day Before Yesterday , which takes a close look at the postwar years Elliott has come to call the golden age and puts them in what he sees as their proper historical context.

To his mind the country we live in today bears a powerful resemblance to the nation of a much earlier time—a century ago—and that’s both bad and good. Recently I talked with him about it in his home in Bronxville, New York, from which he now commutes to Manhattan to edit the international edition of Newsweek .

The very fact that you refer to the thirty-odd years after World War II as the golden age carries a hint of irony. But it was a good time, wasn’t it?

Sure it was. But it was also a very strange time in historical terms. When I started work on my book, I was trying to answer a personal question. I had first arrived here in 1974, straight out of graduate school in England, and I had been overwhelmed by the sense of American abundance—not just activity and energy but prosperity and confidence. After living here for a while, I went back to Britain. When I returned in the mid-1980s, it was clear to me that something had changed: There was a mood of concern and anxiety and loss. I was intrigued by this and surprised by it, and I tried to figure it out.

“In fact the America of the mid-1990s is the kind of place in which Americans had actually lived for most of their national history.”

I came to the conclusion that when I’d arrived for the first time, in 1974, at the end of twenty-five or thirty years of continuous and growing prosperity, I had encountered something beyond the expectations of anyone who had been young at the end of World War II—anyone anywhere. That prosperity had been allied with very strong social cohesion. This combination—the prosperity and the social cohesion—had disappeared by the time I came back. But those years had left Americans convinced not only that this was the way their society should be but that this was the way it had always been.

As I started to explore the period after 1945, I came to believe that wonderful though those years were, they were really very peculiar—and that in fact the America of the mid-1990s is the kind of place in which Americans had actually lived for most of their national history. The country today is messy, fragmented, and ragged at the edges, with lots of people who don’t speak English. There are real cleavages among social classes, races, regions, what have you, but, at the same time, there’s great vigor and a sense of get-up-and-go.

In particular I became intrigued by the similarities between our condition now and what existed before and immediately after World War I, in the Teddy Roosevelt—Taft period, when America was becoming the world’s premier economic power. The nation was then, as it is now, tremendously dynamic economically and innovative entrepreneurially, but it wasn’t an entirely comfortable place. That America also had very real and troubling divisions between regions, between social classes, and over mass immigration.

So I concluded that we had fallen into a big error (I say “we” because I live here now and am raising my family here). We had elevated the period after 1945 into a corrosive national myth. The error didn’t lie in thinking the golden age was a condition to which we should aspire but in thinking that the golden age was normal and that insofar as the country had changed, it was a catastrophic failure. I thought that if we understood our own history better, we could get over this obsession with a false benchmark and be much happier.

But how was the period after World War II so different? Not in terms of per capita GNP growth, was it? Or in productivity growth?