The common interpretation of the 2016 election put forward by the American left over the last three years holds that Donald Trump won by arousing the country’s latent racism and driving bigots to the polls. He spoke of building a wall along our southern border to keep out Mexican criminals, and he didn’t straightforwardly disavow “birtherism”—the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States—until September 2016, thus signaling to racists across the Upper Midwest that he sympathized with their hatreds. One of this theory’s flaws, other than the supposition that millions of Americans are racists, is its reliance on the belief that Trump speaks in code. Its promoters frequently use the term “dog whistle.” But what would lead anybody to believe that Donald Trump is capable of rhetorical subtlety?
Christopher Caldwell never mentions Donald Trump’s name in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, but the book offers its own race-related interpretation of the ’16 election. It is a vastly more sophisticated, thoughtful, and generous version than the one spat out by left-liberal pundits in their pique, but Caldwell also believes that that election was mainly about race. “By the election year of 2016,” he writes, “Americans would be so scared to speak their mind on matters even tangential to civil rights that their political mood was essentially unreadable. Americans’ grievances against diversity were now bottled up, in a way that was reminiscent of French people’s late-19th-century obsession with reconquering Alsace and Lorraine. (‘Think of it always,’ the 19th-century French statesman Léon Gambetta had said. ‘Speak of it never.’)”
That state of quiet frustration is where the book ends. It begins a half-century before, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Caldwell’s overarching argument is that the civil-rights law inaugurated a completely new worldview in American politics and government and abrogated its predecessor. “The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution,” Caldwell writes.
They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible—and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil-rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave—it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation.
This gives one some idea of why Trump’s 2016 victory was a shock. Many of the people who voted for him had been reluctant openly to express the anxieties that led them to make that decision. To question any component of the civil-rights law, or to reveal the suspicion that there is something deeply amiss about the way white liberal elites have handled the matter of race over the last half-century, is to risk the accusation of racism and to associate oneself with nostalgists for segregation. Such accusations wrongly assume that specific legislation passed in the 1960s was the only way to redress the wrongs of racial discrimination in the public and private spheres, but American elites, especially those in politics and the media, are now almost totally incapable of holding nuanced discussions about race. Querying the rationale behind that law and the modern understanding of the world to which it gave birth is nothing less than an act of secular blasphemy. In 2010, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broadly suggested that there were problems with the Civil Rights Act and couldn’t say whether he would have voted for it; he was castigated for it in the media so relentlessly that he wound up issuing a lengthy press release in essence denying that he was a racist who wanted to take us back to the days of segregation.
But the Civil Rights Act, Caldwell contends, didn’t simply repeal the clearly unconstitutional system of segregation. “The civil-rights movement was not precisely a movement of civil rights, in the sense of giving American blacks access to the ordinary rights of cives, or citizens,” he writes. “If it had been, the laws would not have required changing, only enforcing.” What Congress fashioned in the early 1960s was not a guarantee of civil rights but a conception of human rights and an “anti-racist regime” that explicitly carved up the American people along lines of race.
The 1964 law—together with the 1972 amendment assigning enforcement provisions to Title VII, as well as a body of Supreme Court rulings defining various types of discrimination as violations of the law—redefined the American polity. The federal government soon adopted a new understanding of its purpose: to remake American society according to enlightened theories of racial justice. Federal authorities, and, to a lesser extent, state authorities empowered by state-level versions of the Civil Rights Act, could henceforth monitor and meddle in private affairs even in the absence of any evidence of racial discrimination. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), for example, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Duke Power Co. could not impose aptitude tests on job applicants if such tests adversely affected minority applicants, even if there was no intention to exclude them.
The right of association, furthermore, long held to be implicit in the First Amendment’s guarantee of free assembly, was effectively neutered by the law. This point is obvious, but you don’t often hear it mentioned, even by conservatives, since to do so would seem to put one on the side of segregationism and other forms of bigotry. If a restaurant won’t serve black people, say, the Civil Rights Act empowers the government to arraign the restaurant’s proprietor. The proprietor in that case would deserve every bit of public ridicule coming to him, but the question is not whether one approves or disapproves of such repellent behavior. The question is whether it’s wise or practical to allow federal authorities to monitor hundreds of thousands of private businesses for patterns of behavior that are extremely difficult to detect and even define. Customers themselves are far better equipped to carry out that task. Indeed, with the assumptions undergirding the civil-rights revolution now firmly part of the American moral outlook, the public is now probably too well equipped to punish the unenlightened. A world in which all forms of prejudice must be ferreted out by the authorities is a world in which the proprietor of an Indiana pizzeria had better give the right answer about same-sex marriage when asked about it by a local news affiliate. If he doesn’t, he can expect to be harassed and shamed and threatened and, eventually, driven out of business.
But the real significance of the Civil Rights Act, in Caldwell’s account, wasn’t the act itself. There are cogent arguments for and against the constitutionality of different parts of the sprawling law. Its cultural and historical importance lay, rather, in the way its premises about law and society came to dominate the minds of American elites.
The Age of Entitlement is a work of history, not a work of sociological analysis. It does not conclude with a list of solutions or proposals. But this is no ordinary work of history. It engages and dazzles the reader in the way the histories of A.J.P. Taylor once did. Caldwell, as those who know his journalism and his 2010 book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe will know, has a marvelous talent for pointing out the unacknowledged contradictions and perversities in the outlooks of both left and right.
The overarching theme of the last half-century is this: that the war generation, the so-called Greatest Generation, the people who wrote, passed, and implemented the 1964 Civil Rights Act, felt they’d triumphed over the gates of hell in 1945. In many ways they had, but their confidence and pride led them, as policymakers and managers of the 1950s and ’60s, to arrogance and innumerable follies. They sought to remake the world by force of will. Whatever they wanted to do henceforth—obliterate racism by fiat, establish an American stronghold in Southeast Asia, enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibilities of child-rearing—they felt they could do.
They could also build a welfare state without the means to pay for it. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Caldwell observes, was “the institutional form into which the civil rights impulse hardened.” The modern American welfare state is in many ways the necessary outworking of the civil-rights movement, or at least of the movement as it was interpreted by whites. Desegregation, he writes, was “the most massive undertaking of any kind in the history of the United States,” involving “endurance, patience, and prohibitive expense,” requiring as it did not just the abrogation of segregation laws but the creation of a byzantine web of government entities, from higher education to housing policy, designed to manage and enforce the integration of races in every sphere of American life. The work is still far from done.
The Great Society, indeed, was only one of the massive and massively expensive projects carried out by an American political class that believed itself invincible. Another was the Vietnam War. Johnson, Caldwell points out, “frequently described the war as a New Deal–style project and even launched a Mekong River Redevelopment Commission to industrialize, as far as possible, the vast, ramifying waterway that entered the South China Sea south of Saigon.” Johnson said: “I want to leave the footprints of America in Vietnam. I want them to say, ‘When the Americans come, this is what they leave—schools, not long cigars.’”
“It was the war itself, and not the protests against it,” Caldwell writes, “that was the sister movement to the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society.”
By the mid-1970s, white Americans had begun to realize how costly it would be to carry out the goals of the civil-rights law and attendant programs, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan was there to tell them they could have it both ways. “The rhetoric that brought Reagan two landslides,” Caldwell writes, “was, among other things, a sign that Americans were unwilling to bankroll with their taxes the civil rights and welfare revolution of the 1960s and the social change it brought in its train.” The solution? Deficit financing. “Once debt was used as a means to keep the social peace, it would quickly run into the trillions.”
Another consequence of the belief that we could have anything we wanted, cost-free—the belief that America could simply decree itself into the multiracial harmony to which it was entitled—was the criminalization of anything that stood in the way of absolute equality and fulfillment. The civil-rights law’s empowering of federal authorities to manage private affairs was modest compared with the social phenomenon that flowed out of it: political correctness.
For centuries, the conflicts between individual sexual needs, on the one hand, and society’s need for order and stability, on the other—Caldwell asks us to think of Romeo and Juliet or the angst-ridden lyrics of gay pop singer Morrissey—were tragic manifestations of the human condition. They were not political; they could not be managed or corrected by force of law; that is what made them tragic. Now, though, writes Caldwell, “with the tools provided by civil rights law, they appeared quite political. . . . No longer was the irreconcilability of individuals’ and society’s sexual priorities a tragedy or a disagreement. Recast in the categories of civil rights law, it was a crime, a crime that was being committed against a whole class of people. The customs and traditions in the name of which it was being committed were mere alibis.”
Some of the most penetrating passages of The Age of Entitlement are those in which the author lays bare the assumptions behind fashionable words and phrases. Under the permanent civil-rights revolution, liberal elites had to go on pretending that the objects of their paternal solicitude—racial minorities and, later, women and gays—were still the disadvantaged and persecuted people and groups they were before. And so the word “subversive”
became a term of praise in academia . . . but it was deployed in an unusual sense. “Subversive” scholars were supporting the very same things the government was mustering all its budgetary and enforcement power, and the corporate and foundation sector all its funding and ingenuity, to bring about. Rarely did professors now seek to subvert (as they had in the past) promiscuity or atheism or pacifism. Today’s “subversive” opinions—that there ought to be more blacks in positions of authority, that a gay relationship is just as good as a straight one—were given special protection by civil rights laws, and there were now hundreds of thousands of people at all levels of government and business who had been trained to impose them.
“Subversive,” like “transgressive” and “revolutionary,” has come to mean establishmentarian and mainstream. This goes some way toward explaining why today’s liberals so often sound, attitudinally at least, like conservatives—or rather like cardigan-wearing fuddy-duddies lamenting the changing times. It is no longer conservatives but liberals who must defend the existing regime. They, to use the popular term, own it.
The way liberals will need to defend the civil-rights regime is nicely illustrated by an early review of Caldwell’s book. The review, by Jonathan Rauch in the New York Times, is about as snide as you would expect, calling the book “overwrought and strangely airless” and suggesting, predictably, that Caldwell half-believes that “Southern segregationists were right all along.” In fact he states clearly what should have been obvious to any thinking person, namely “that government-sponsored racial inequality was a contradiction of America’s constitutional principles and an affront to its Christian ones.” Snideness aside, though, the Times review conveniently amalgamates the outlawing of segregation and Jim Crow, on the one hand, and the massive civil-rights apparatus and attendant ideology, on the other—as if the one could never have been accomplished without the other.
Rauch, in other words, simply sidesteps the point of the book. “I worry about the illiberal excesses of identity politics and political correctness,” the reviewer writes, “but I think excesses is what they are, and I think they, too, can be worked through. Being a homosexual American now miraculously married to my husband for almost a decade, I can’t help feeling astonished by a history of America since 1964 that finds space for only one paragraph briefly acknowledging the civil rights movement’s social and moral achievements—before hastening back to ‘But the costs of civil rights were high.’”
It’s worth noting, and I wonder if Rauch has ever noticed, that phrases like “the civil rights movement’s social and moral achievements” are used almost exclusively by white people. Blacks speak glowingly about members of the civil-rights movement, especially Martin Luther King, but they do not typically glory, as Rauch does about his status as a gay married man, in the advantages and privileges they enjoy as a result of the movement’s achievements. You don’t need to deny the courage of black civil rights leaders, or question the rightness of their cause, to wonder why that is. Perhaps it’s because to speak airily of the civil-rights movement’s “social and moral achievements” is to suggest that the justice and equality the movement sought have been achieved already. Blacks know they have not. Perhaps it’s also because the adjectives in that phrase—“social and moral achievements”—seem designed to highlight the virtue of whites, as if the main value of the civil-rights movement was to unburden white people of their guilt.
Nor is it quite right to dismiss the twisted ideologies and vicious practices constantly issuing from the race and identity worldview as so many “excesses.” Political correctness has now morphed into a cruel and arbitrarily coercive set of protocols that keep well-meaning people in a state of fear. Civil-rights laws have expanded to include so many protected classes that small and midsized businesses are obliged to keep expensive attorneys permanently on retainer to tell them if anything in their policies or language falls afoul of the law. Caterers, florists, and churches across the country are pressured to participate against their wishes in same-sex weddings, manifestly in the hope that a court decision will force them to accede to the civil-rights agenda. Innocent people see their reputations ruined and their families threatened because they spoke a misguided word about race or gender or sexual identity in a public forum. Accomplished scholars are shouted down and assaulted on allegedly elite college campuses because they wrote something on race disfavored by the arbiters of racial justice. Mainstream news organizations’ fixation on race intensifies with each passing year, almost as if there is no topic worth considering apart from its relationship to race, as jaded subscribers reluctantly decide to get their news elsewhere or not at all. Blacks continue to falter in educational achievement, and black neighborhoods continue to struggle with violent crime, decade after decade, even as government agencies run mostly by whites keep encouraging the dependency and illegitimacy that ensure failure. But at least white liberals can go on congratulating themselves for their moral superiority and pretending all is basically as it should be.
The Age of Entitlement calls to mind a bestseller of 33 years ago, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book that outraged the country’s liberal elite by contending that American higher education’s unthinking emphasis on “openness” had become a kind of moral and intellectual idiocy. Caldwell’s is a less pretentious book than Bloom’s, and the latter’s strange and impractical counsel to return to the virtues and ideals of classical Greek authors has no correlative in Caldwell’s book. But like Bloom, Caldwell writes with a nearly unparalleled fluency and authority, and like The Closing of the American Mind, The Age of Entitlement poses a direct challenge to contemporary pieties.
And yet Caldwell’s book has had a quieter reception. Judging by its Amazon sales ranking six weeks after its publication date, The Age of Entitlement is selling well, but it has not been the media sensation that Allan Bloom’s book was. It has not scandalized the American elite in the way that, by every objective measure, it should. Is that because, in the age of Donald Trump, the elite are not so easily scandalized? Maybe. But I wonder if it’s also because liberal academics and intellectuals simply aren’t mentally prepared to engage with a work that is so—what’s the word?—subversive.
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