Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. . . . True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.It's a quotation from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, published in 1961. It sums up how many elite Americans felt about the 1950s: a boring, sordid time, when the mass culture was Leave it to Beaver, politics was Eisenhower balancing the budget, and the iconic vehicle was not a Packard or a Tesla but the 57 Chevy. Kept from filthy riches by 90% income taxes, the business elite focused gaining status by being more respectable than everyone else. The serious artists reacted by creating Abstract Expressionism, Beat Poetry, and other forms designed to be completely impenetrable to the Levittown masses in their horrible little suburban houses. The intellectuals seethed and scorned.
Looking back from the cruel, exciting 21st century we now recognize that the 50s and early 60s were the most economically equal time in American history. The elite seethed partly because the masses had more of the money than ever before, and through their taste in television, movies and music were setting the cultural tone like never before. Artistes recoiled from the spreading suburbs, but in those suburbs, for the first time in human history, ordinary working people were able to afford decent houses.
I don't have time to get into everything that was wrong with the 1950s, which we all know about. But think about the basic socio-economic facts: that was what an economically equal America was like. That was when television and Hollywood catered to the tastes of the real masses. That was also when our politics was least partisan, with the most bipartisanship in Congress and the most split-ticket voting.
And the nation couldn't stand it. It all seemed like a straight jacket of conformity, a gray prison we couldn't wait to burst out of. And by the nation here I mean mainly the elites. The businessmen hated the high taxes, the corporate conformity, the way union contracts and oligopolies limited their ability to create, innovate, and get rich. The feminists hated suburban motherhood. Black leaders hated the polite racism, which was sometimes more galling than the mailed fist kind had been. Young college students hated the path laid out before them toward corporate offices and suburban houses and longed for something more authentic. The intellectuals hated everything. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War provided the spark, but the explosion was coming anyway. Our restless, ambitious country was not going to sit still in identical suburban houses watching three tv channels, voting for tweedledum or tweedledee. We could not accept mediocrity as a national principle.
Everything that has happened since has been about breaking free: from rigid gender roles, from segregation, from television shows pitched to the average suburban family, from a static business world defined by starched white shirts and ever more tightly controlled factories. And we got our revolution: women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, trans rights, 500 television channels, the internet, the global economy, universities with no curricula and no grades, a flood of immigrants bringing a hundred new cuisines, designer drugs, a hundred kinds of music, an upper middle class numbering millions with huge houses, swanky cars, and foreign vacations.
The price was the collapse of economic equality and the disappearance of any unifying culture. And a political echo: the people who miss that world, both its economic equality and its cultural conformity, the people who elected Nixon and have now elected Trump. Because not everybody thought Levittown was a disaster, or that Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show were tedious dreck. For many people, that was America at its best. And every time you mourn our own problems – inequality, partisan rancor, a business world dominated by egomaniacal billionaires – think on the 1950s. Because any equal America, any America really run in the interests of working people, is going to be a lot more like that.