By Jonathon Van Maren
Christopher Caldwell’s latest book The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties is the latest attempt by a conservative intellectual to summarize how we got from there to here. Caldwell makes the case that, as one reviewer put it, the “polarization of political opinion and the dissolution of the American fabric…has its roots in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which represented a sharp break with the past.” According to Caldwell: “The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible.”
In short, the United States created second constitutional regime frequently at war with the first. The Constitution as created by the Founding Fathers stressed the rights of the individual before the law, while the new civil rights regime “demands that historical injustices be accounted for through affirmative action, racial preferences, and the imposition of judicial authority over broad areas of social and commercial life to ensure the erasure of inequality.” This new framework, Caldwell argues, was successfully used by the feminists, gay rights activists, and now trans activists to entirely reshape society and confer special rights on those who could claim discrimination or victimhood. Incidentally, no matter how impoverished or disadvantaged white Americans got, they could never qualify.
That case has been made before (although rarely as eloquently) and it is compelling in part. Robert Verbruggen did an effective job of responding to the weaknesses in Caldwell’s argument from a conservative perspective in National Review. For the purposes of this column, however, I’d like to draw attention to a few of Caldwell’s observations that are particularly helpful in shedding light on what has transpired since the Sexual Revolution, and how both major parties have enabled society’s ongoing transformation (or, more accurately, disfigurement.) Caldwell notes, for example:
There were a lot of reasons why, in the 1960s, eroticism seemed to overflow the levees of tradition. They included the prestige attached to manliness (and even machismo) in the wake of the Second World War, the bringing to market of an almost perfectly effective birth control pill in 1960, and, with the Baby Boom, an unprecedented temporary concentration of people of sexually active age.
Caldwell also observes that there were far more women than men—in 1970, “the ratio of unmarried white men ages 23 to 27 to unmarried white women ages 20 to 24 was 2 to 3. For blacks it was close to 1 to 2.” In other words, the cultural conditions for a sexual revolution were perfect. The Vietnam War and America’s first major defeat helped it along. I’ve never seen anyone summarize the fallout as succinctly as Caldwell:
Because of an extraordinary coincidence in American demographics and American politics, the surrender would mark an epoch. The U.S. military was, as we have noted, the template on which the whole civilian order had been patterned. As trust in the military plummeted, a lot of other things went down with it.
Interestingly, Caldwell notes that British philosopher Bertrand Russell was clear-eyed about what would happen if sexual mores were removed and the state replaced the father as protector and provider, much as Nietzsche understood what would happen if God was dead:
…if this should occur, we must expect a complete breakdown of traditional morality, since there will no longer be any reason why a mother should wish the paternity of her child to be indubitable…Whether the effect on men would be good or bad, I do not venture to say. It would eliminate from their lives the only emotion equal in importance to sex love. It would make sex love itself more trivial. It would make it far more difficult to take an interest in anything after one’s own death. It would make men less active and probably cause them to retire earlier from work. It would diminish their interest in history and their sense of continuity of historical tradition.
All of this, of course, has now come to pass. In fact, as Peter Hitchens has pointed out, feminism became the best friend of Big Business. “Feminism offered corporations an excuse for breaking the implicit contract to pay any full-time worker a wage he could raise a family on. It was feminism that provided, under pressure of the recession of the 1970s, a pretext for repurposing household and national budgets,” Caldwell observes. “Instead of being used for reproduction, those budgets would now be consumed. The increment in the family wage that had been meant for the raising of children was withdrawn. Families were no longer entitled to it—mothers would have to enter the workplace to claim it.”
Interestingly, it is this point—the growing inability for anyone to raise a family on one income—that has captured the attention of many on Right and Left of late. Tucker Carlson addresses this issue in his book Ship of Fools as well as in speeches and on his TV show. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren detailed this in her book The Two Income Trap, although she would recoil in horror at the idea that feminism had anything to do with it. It is precisely this problem that nations like Hungary are seeking to address by financially incentivizing the raising of families first. People should not be cogs in an economic machine dedicated to fattening the wallets of the upper class. American feminism made this almost inevitable.
Caldwell’s critiques are not solely aimed at the Left, either. He takes a few devastating swipes at Ayn Rand’s libertarianism, which involved “freeing” citizens “from historical rationales, traditional institutions, vernacular frames of reference, homespun ideas of moral responsibility, and habits of respect.” Rand, he notes, spent the last months of her life traveling the country warning about the dangers of the Religious Right, which terrified her (she was an atheist who despised C.S. Lewis with an almost irrational hatred.) The Reagan Revolution, Caldwell says, did not undo Johnson’s Great Society, but simply blunted the backlash.
As novelist Kurt Anderson observed of the Great Society and Reaganomics working hand-in-hand: “Do your own thing is not so different than ‘every man for himself.’”
This fusion, says Caldwell, ultimately created an ignored class of Americans who made up the backlash of 2016: “The targets of elite condescension could be roughly identified as those Americans who made up the American electorate, minus the richest people in it. A new social class was coming into being that had at its disposal both capitalism’s means and progressivism’s sense of righteousness. It would breathe life back into the 1960s projects around race, sex, and global order that had been interrupted by the conservative uprisings of the 1970s.”
Big Business adopted progressivism to create a force of unparalleled power. Caldwell echoes the observations of Darel E. Paul in his book From Tolerance to Equality: How the Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage. This transformation, he notes, constituted a top-down revolution. “Political correctness was top-down reform. It was not enabled by new public attitudes towards reactionary opinions but by new punishments that could be meted out against those who expressed them.” A handful of companies controlled the new digital public square, which functionally replaced the old one. Private companies now hold the power government once did, and they are run by the woke. Nearly every major American company, for example, backs the radical LGBT org the Human Rights Campaign.
Add to that a corporate class reaping the benefits of free trade and the New Economy, Caldwell writes, and the conditions created were truly toxic. The American worker was trapped. “Until they consented to the out-sourcing of their jobs, they were called pampered obstructionists, and berated; once their jobs had left and their consent was no longer needed, they were called nostalgic losers, and forgotten.” That, in once sentence, goes a long way towards explaining how Donald Trump became president. As Tucker Carlson has frequently observed, healthy countries with happy citizens do not elect Trump to the Oval Office.
Caldwell is long on incisive analysis and short on encouraging solutions, but such appears to be the historical moment we find ourselves in. America is at least two nations, and they hate each other. It is difficult to see how the shredded polity survives, especially as a handful of corporations have begun to exercise the awesome power they wield, kicking the president of the United States off social media platforms, deep-sixing dissident platforms that provided an alternative, and banishing those who disagree with them to the fringes. What was once considered common sense is now considered hate speech by progressives, and encouraged by the radicals at organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, the purges will surely get broader and more frequent.
Conservatives should fight, certainly. But we should also prepare for the marginalization that appears inevitable. Caldwell’s book goes a long way to explaining why.