Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nostalgia for the 1950s, Left and Right

In his review of Charles Murray's Coming Apart, Yuval Levin ponders one thing the left and right in American have in common:
nostalgia for the roughly two decades that followed World War II. There is much to mourn in the passing of that era, to be sure: The searing experiences of the Depression and the war had united Americans as perhaps nothing had done since the American Revolution, and the war and its aftermath (with all of our global competitors having burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours alone stood strong) made possible a series of economic booms that launched into being a broad middle class unlike anything the world had ever seen. Social trust, and faith in government, reached unprecedented heights, while a liberal but generally capacious and tolerant political consensus kept the temperature of our politics unusually low (except when it came to the question of race).

The result was the America of the 1950s and early ’60s: Marriage and childbearing rates were high, religious practice was strong, employment was generally plentiful and rewarding, and crime was low. It was a time of cultural cohesion, economic dynamism, and government activism all at once, and thus a time that both liberals and conservatives can look back to with approval. This is the golden age in the background of Obama’s domestic policy speeches; it is the America lovingly recounted in the opening of Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007)—and in strikingly similar terms, in the opening words of Coming Apart.

All these descriptions of that era are a bit selective, of course, but they are not false. This was an America unlike any that had existed before the immediate postwar years, and unlike any we can expect to see again anytime soon. The left wants to re-create that America by re-creating the activist state and the powerful labor unions that characterized it, but this stands to make economic dynamism very difficult. The right wants to re-create it by re-creating the economic dynamism it achieved, but this stands to make social cohesion very difficult. Murray implicitly hopes to re-create it by recapturing its social cohesion, but acknowledges that this is no easy feat.

The fact is that the America of the immediate postwar years was made possible by an utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances, and setting out to re-create it is not a constructive objective for public policy. What we need to do, instead, is seek for ways to achieve broadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality today—to balance cohesion and dynamism in our own time, which is a time of great tension and change.
But how? As we have seen over the past 32 years, a policy of low taxes and reduced regulation only helps the top 10 percent, and it may even be one of the reasons things are so tough for the bottom half. Expanding the government's role seems politically unfeasible. And as for some sort of cultural shift, that would restore the work ethic, churchgoing, and desire for marriage among America's poor, let's just say that such things cannot be summoned into being.

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