- 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
One of the things that people tended to say about America before the golden age is that we were a genuinely self-reliant society. With the big exception of Civil War pensions, America was not a welfare state. Do you see the privatization of pensions, the decreasing provision of medical care as part of labor contracts, and so on as a return to the economic individualism of an earlier America?
I do, and I think that people aren’t terribly comfortable with it and don’t really appreciate the extent of it. The 401 (k) is an astonishing thing, embodying a very substantial change in the way in which people are expected to provide for their old age: Here’s some money; do it yourself. There has been a substantial rolling back of what a European would call the American welfare state—meaning state-mandated economic protection of the citizen, not aid to the hard-core unemployed. People do want to be economic individualists, but I think a lot of this rollback has been done by stealth, and people don’t realize what’s happened. When they find out, they are sometimes annoyed and surprised—by the practices of some HMOs, for example.
Let’s talk about race in America, before the golden age, during it, and now. The golden age was the heyday of the civil rights movement; now immigration is making black Americans into a smaller and smaller percentage of the American population.
I’m surprised how little has been written about this. Before and during the golden age, describing race in America was very easy: It was white and black. That’s gone now, and the consequence seems to me to have been very little noticed: The special position of black America is disappearing. When there was only one important minority in this country, the situation of black Americans had appalling aspects and also hopeful ones, because the reaction to those appalling aspects was to try to do something about them. Now black America has lost that specialness, and it’ll lose it even more in the next fifty years.
I think black Americans have been astonishingly tolerant of immigration over the last twenty years; I’m not sure I would have been if I’d been a black American. And in America fifty years hence, the largest minority group will be Hispanics, and there will be a very large and very economically successful society of Asian-Americans. What will the nature of the black American experience be like? That’s an uncomfortable question. There was a very interesting piece in the paper a few months ago about how the now-famous Johnny Huang asked for a political meeting with Joe Kennedy, I think, on the Hill, representing a bunch of Asian-American banks, and he didn’t want the Community Banking Act to apply to them. Translation: They didn’t want to loan to blacks. That’s a twenty-first-century American issue right there.
The flip side of the coin is that the position of black Americans has improved astonishingly over the last forty or fifty years. Two out of three black Americans now lead lives that in most important ways are the same as white Americans’, though you would not easily guess this from reading the press.
“I think it has taken a long time, but that sense is actually filtering through to the American public too, the sense that life isn’t too bad.”
From the 1880s to 1929 Americans had an increasing sense of national power, and in the golden age that power seemed unprecedented. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s we seemed to fear that our power was shrinking. Now what’s happening?
The situation has changed very quickly. I started on my book during the 1992 elections, and that’s just what the 1992 election was about: Two of the three candidates, Clinton and Perot, ran on a platform that the country was going to hell. Well, George Bush wasn’t a dreadful President, he wasn’t presiding over a particularly bad economy, and he had just won a war; but somehow he looked like a little kid trying to stick his finger in the dike, because everybody knew the country was going to hell in a hand basket. That was still true in 1994, but it isn’t now. The indicators, the tracking polls—do you feel good, do you feel bad, is the country on the right track, is the country on the wrong track?—have been changing dramatically over the last couple of years. There’s also a sense of awe in the rest of the world at what America has managed to do. I think it has taken a long time, but that sense is actually filtering through to the American public too, the sense that life isn’t too bad.
But things change. There will be other periods when Americans worry about their nation’s power, and though the nation’s anxiety and insecurity are not what they were in the early 1990s, its optimism and confidence are not what they were in the 1950s either. We haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, gone back to the conviction that anything is possible, which typified the late 1950s and early 1960s—nor should we, because conditions are different. In many ways the contest with the Soviets was extremely productive—not just in building freeways, which were a national-defense program,and not just in the immense investment in scientific education but also in the kind of rhetoric that Martin Luther King used to such great effect: “ We are engaged in a great struggle with people who are not free.” The Cold War found its way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies of American life.