- Historic Sites
Have Americans slid backward since the sunny, prosperous years after World War II, as so many feel? To find out, an English-born historian compares our recent past with earlier times, and in the process learns something about our likely course into the next century.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
That’s probably been the most controversial bit of the whole book, the one that people have challenged most often. Let me see if I can restate it. I take it as a given that there were real, sharply felt, and occasionally violent cleavages between social classes in much of pre-1945 American history. Few Western European countries have a labor history as bloody as ours was up until 1945.
Now there are indicators that there are again sharp social cleavages in lifestyle and widening income disparity: Large numbers of people are not able to share in the benefits of the new economy. Now it’s true that hasn’t given rise to a political party that identifies with—to use a European phrase—the interests of the working class. Nor has there been any substantial labor militancy. Many people assure us that the unions are never going to be back in fashion, that this is an individualized society, an aspirational society, that people are never going to be motivated by envy the way they sometimes are in the European democracies. It just ain’t going to happen. And my response is, Well, I hope you’re right. But I’d hedge my bets.
But despite America’s violent labor movement, we’ve always had the least socialist working class in the history of the world.
Still, more and more people are living lives of sullen resentment. That resentment may not take the form of organized agitation for a change in political and social structures, but the fact is that in many times and places, including America, it has.
When this happened in our past, before the New Deal, we tended to get a weakening of the two-party system; we often had a two-and-a-half-party system. Do you think we’re seeing that again? Patrick Buchanan often sounds as if he’s speaking some thirdparty language of the 1930s. Is the stable postwar two-party rule weakening?
Yes, but I’d add this caveat: Since 1988 we have seen three very different kinds of third parties arise—Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in 1988, Ross Perot in 1992, and Pat Buchanan in 1996; we have not had a single sustained third force that could give real shape to the perceived failure of our old two-party system.
You’ve pointed out that our immigration experience was very different in the golden age, when the influx was historically low, and that our current experience is much more like the American norm. Can the pot continue to melt?
Well, the jury is still out. Immigration built the United States, and I’m encouraged by the evidence that Hispanics are assimilating at pretty much the same rate that East Europeans did a century ago. But there are studies that lean the other way. To put it bluntly, the modern nativist really has to worry only about Mexicans. Not for more than one hundred years has a single country of origin produced such a large proportion of the immigrant population as Mexico does now, and Mexico is different, even to people who, like me, are convinced, broadly speaking, of the benefits of immigration. For one thing, Mexico is so close that it’s extremely easy for these immigrants to maintain ties with their country of origin. For another, many of them are living in a part of the world that was Mexico not that long ago. Even so, I think Mexican immigration to the United States is essentially like every other immigration to the United States. Mexican-Americans are assimilating and speaking English at the same rate as the Poles, Italians, and Irish did a century ago.
“The rise of the military into a vast permanent estate of the realm seems to me to be a genuine revolution in this society.”
There are respectable scholars who would argue that I’m much too optimistic, but then let’s take the focus off Mexican-Americans, because the rest is easy. Asian-Americans aren’t a problem, and the Russian émigrés who sell me bagels every day on Fifty-seventh Street in New York City aren’t either. The girls who give me smoked fish at Bagel Baron are two months off the boat from St. Petersburg, and they’ve become American in no time flat. It’s an astonishing testimony to the continuing strength of the desire to be American, which means you speak English.
You write of Tocqueville’s praise for volunteerism as making up for a lack of social density and government strength in America, and you’re tentative about whether that aspect of pre-golden-age America is on the way back or not.
This is a question that has been much discussed in the last few years. I would align myself more on the “there’s nothing to worry about” side than I would on the “there is a massive decline in social capital because we’re all bowling alone” side. People argue that some voluntary organizations which were strong in the 1950s and 1960s are much weaker now, and that things like television encourage us all to stay home. Here I think it really helps to be a semi-outsider. I’m still struck by the richness and variety of community organizations in the United States. The one that I often think about is neighborhood soccer leagues, which didn’t even exist fifteen years ago and hence don’t show up in any of the statistics about community organizations. Where we’re sitting and talking, in Westchester County, neighborhood soccer leagues are an extraordinarily rich and quites ophisticated way for people to provide their own social networks. So I’m optimistic that Americans can still create new forms of voluntary association, even if some of the forms that were once very strong have indeed weakened.