Useful perspectives for our time
A reasonable person might ask if either of these books really contributes anything new to our understanding of the past.
The answer depends on what a person believes history to be.
In truth, none of us approaches history neutrally. The very passage of time influences our understanding and interpretation of the past, and we inevitably read history through the lens of our experience, our values unconsciously influencing our reactions to the individuals and events we encounter there.
Such is true of every person who writes history as well.
Jill Lepore’s “These Truths: a History of the United States” begins with the first Europeans to come to the Americas and notes how closely the exploitation of blacks through slavery was joined from the very beginning to the story of what became the United States. What struck me as significantly different from other accounts was her portrayal of US history as being one of both many accomplishments and of constant struggles for greater justice dignity.
She notes how America’s expressed ideals collided with the gritty and complex real world, being either imperfectly implemented or, worse, ignored, compromised, or violated as various groups of citizens — people of color, urban and rural workers, women, and immigrants — fought against those determined to keep them in their place.
It is this aspect of her narrative that I believe is so useful in helping us understand and respond to our current times in which we — once again — find ourselves fighting against the entrenched interests of the powerful and corrupt.
The last quarter of Lepore’s book covers the years from the end of World War II to the election of Donald Trump, in which she notes the many unsettling undercurrents that co-existed with the vast expansion of America’s middle class and abundance of affordable new consumer goods during the immediate post-war decades that were to eventually coalesce in moving this country sharply to the right. In a very real way, the center could not hold. She thus provides a valuable framework for understanding our own time.
Michael Tomasky, in his “If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It might be Saved,” significantly contributes to this effort, noting that the period many older Americans fondly remember as “normal” — the 50s and 60s — was, in fact, an anomaly in our country’s history, a unique consequence of the combined effect of the Great Depression and World War II that forged a unique sense of solidarity that infused every aspect of society, including the Congress and business.
Of course, differences existed even then, some of them bitter and divisive.
But, there was general agreement on issues very important domestically, including the imperative of ensuring widespread full employment, providing good-paying jobs with generous benefits, allowing big business to partner with labor unions for the larger general good, and obliging both businesses and the wealthy to meaningfully contribute to the general welfare.
That time, Tomasky argues, is not only clearly over, but it is very unlikely to ever return.
He notes how quickly partisan divisions began even during Washington’s presidency, and traces how they evolved over time. In doing so, he shows how many of the things that most alarm or disgust citizens today have been with us almost from the beginning.
The great divide
Even so, there is one very disturbing way in which our post-80s politics is unique: Historically, the two major parties have wrestled with internal dissent as well as quarreled with each other. In marked contrast, over the past 30 years the Republicans have steadily purged dissenting voices from within, becoming much more ideologically rigid.
He believes the many rifts of the 1960s began the great divide between citizens that has been growing deeper and angrier ever since: the Vietnam War, the ending of segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South, and the triumph of seeking personal “lifestyles” over the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
Together, these developments deeply disturbed many citizens who interpreted them as evidence of eroding patriotism, of growing disrespect for many cherished institutions, including the military and churches, and of increasing acceptance of those who made “immoral choices.” Furthermore, the destruction of long-established mechanisms of control by whites over blacks caused a hard-to-measure but very real sense of loss that continues to underlie many grievances among whites even today.
While the response of political leaders to many of these developments was often incredibly clumsy, there is probably no one who could have successfully managed the turmoil and lowered the social temperature inflamed by these developments. In just a few short years, what had been largely accepted as “normal” was either overturned, challenged, or mocked.
Both Lepore and Tomasky note how politicians were quickly pushed to choose one side or the other, and how mercilessly they were attacked and voted out of office if they sought to avoid doing so. And then, into this already volatile mess, appeared the explosive issue of the “right” to abortion, a consequence of the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
Inevitably, Tomasky notes, the parties found it to their advantage to eventually take opposing positions on each divisive issue, even though each had previously consisted of members who were divided on them. Today it is hard to believe that civil rights, women’s access to abortion, and environmental protection had all once been strongly supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. By the 1990s, however, this was no longer the case.
The status of money
At the same time, encouraged by both the rise of an intellectual right that challenged standing economic and political assumptions and by the decisions of the Supreme Court regarding the status of money as a “form of free speech,” wealthy individuals, separately or in concert, began the flood of money that has reached obscene proportions today. Members of Congress, inundated by the armies of lobbyists unleashed against them as well as by the sophisticated writings emerging from right-wing think tanks, now had to hustle ever harder to raise the massive amounts of money necessary to allow them to be competitive in re-election campaigns.
The result is somewhat akin to James Bond’s preference for a martini: a society shaken, not stirred.
The only disappointing part of Lepore’s otherwise stirring and eloquent writing occurs in her concluding paragraphs as she offers a somewhat opaque metaphor: “It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.”
Tomasky, on the other hand, very helpfully provides a lengthy list of things that he believes either must, or should, be done if we are to have a chance at restoring the kind of comity that will allow our Republic to survive. He candidly admits that he is not at all sure that we can, let alone will, take the necessary steps in time to restore a viable republic. But the cost of not doing so will be great.
While a country can “muddle through” for a time, at some point — when important things no longer get done, when stalemate and refusal to cooperate basically shut the whole damn thing down — then even the people of the United States will force such fundamental changes that once cherished institutions, and even our precious Constitution, may not survive.
The author was a member of the Iowa State House of Representatives and also served in the Iowa executive branch. He has retired.