Americans have not been constitutionally prone to pessimism. We’re supposed to be pragmatic, ingenious, and inclined to think that hard work and a little luck will fix just about anything.
And yet, we are told in myriad ways that we have been sliding steadily toward disaster for decades. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of this tale of woe. For the right, the cultural revolution of the sixties set off the downhill slide-sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, long hair, Vietnam, bra-burning, short skirts, spitting on returning veterans, permissive child rearing, Miranda warnings, and the coddling of criminals. The goal is to find a path back to the folkways that made America great-the self-sufficient family, the strong-jawed young man ready to take up arms in defense of the country, the firm conviction that God is on our side and that regular church attendance will secure God’s blessing. Somewhere back in the Leave It to Beaver days, we had it just about right and have witnessed nothing but moral degradation ever since. Only leaders with cowboy hats and cowboy boots can set things right.
For the left, the Golden Age came just a few years after the time the conservatives celebrate, when the country was the civil rights movement and anti-war movement writ large. Democracy was vital, voter registration drives were alive and well, mass demonstrations could be mounted again and again, students talked politics among themselves and argued with their parents vigorously enough to shatter family peace, there were hints of worker-student alliances and millenarian optimism in the Peace Corps, blacks and whites walked hand in hand, and ancient verities were questioned in the name of equality and in the hope of worlds yet to be born.
And then, somehow, it all shut down-the War on Poverty stalled in the distress of the Vietnam War, the expanding beneficence of government became a target of revitalized Republicans and frightened Democrats, civil rights shattered the New Deal coalition as the solid South of the Democrats became the nearly solid South of the Republicans. Meanwhile younger people turned careerist, headed for business school, or just tuned out in front of their favorite cable channel, while those old enough to recall the sixties worried about getting tenure. People traded in citizenship and service for comfort and consumerism. So in 1985, when Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart lamented the hyper-individualism of American society, and when Robert Putnam a decade later struck a similar note in Bowling Alone, the left, such as it had become, without Marx, without socialism, willing to countenance the market in its place but unable to think through what that place might be-this chastened, cautious, and exhausted left took solace in jeremiads that, between the lines, told us there wasn’t much we could do; the best days lay behind us.
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