The book argues that global events of the 1930s and the following decades temporarily suspended key elements of the American creed. The role of government became enlarged and a regulated capitalism emerged. The decades of the post–1960s witnessed a reaction to these changes. An expanded education system legitimated a surge in individualism and a decline in citizen obligations. Emphasis on individual rights swelled, and individual responsibilities became options. Fear of government as an enemy of individual freedoms also grew. These developments were the seeds out of which social and political polarization later grew. They also provided support for intensified anti-elitism and its political offspring—anti-establishment populism.
This chapter surveys the elements of the traditional American creed. It is the narrative of a frontier society that deemphasizes diversity of opinion and culture. In its place this ethos imagines that all legitimate citizens share a diffuse religion called the American way. In this depiction this common belief system is the glue that holds society together society in lieu of a strong state. It places a high value on conformity, though equality of all citizens and individualism are also parts of the creed. This folk culture supports populism as a political philosophy and source of political action, anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific attitudes, and exclusion of those who do not share this folk culture. Yet it provides staunch support for deregulated capitalism and technological innovation. This chapter shows with comparative public opinion data that U.S. political culture continues to be different from that of other wealthy democracies.
This chapter argues that American government is more embedded in society than European democracies. This means that the boundaries between state and civil society are weaker in the United States. This form of populist democracy compels government officials to bargain with citizen groups over policy. This feature helps account for the rapidity with which American society can mobilize policy and resources if there is a popular consensus for change. The same feature also allows for rapid demobilization once popular interest has waned or when the public mood changes. Politicians avoid legitimacy crises by using a form of decision making that produces consensus but gives less weight to cost control and the evaluation of outcomes. Congress passes legislation with broad goals. Decision makers in regulatory agencies must then interpret the statutes and formulate the working rules and outcomes. Cost control and evaluation of outcomes fall by the wayside in this process.
The argument of this chapter is that the Great Depression of the 1930s initiated a period of suspension of the classic American creed. Suddenly government became legitimate as a collective actor in the struggle against a major economic catastrophe. But its form did not change. The center distributed resources and new authority to local governments. The federal government did not centralize policy control because of the preferences of Southern Democrats. The 1950s continued this process with the growth of the national security state and the threat of the Cold War. The perception of external threats also acted as a check on populism during this period.
The optimism of the 1950s led to resurgence of two key elements of the American creed: individualism and deregulated capitalism. Two movements developed around these themes. First, movements pushing for the extension of individual rights and freedoms resurfaced. Second, business groups began the fight against a regulated economy. Liberals supporting the first agenda pushed for more government spending to expand the welfare state and education. The idea of the knowledge society was born. Supporting education and the expansion of universities and science became legitimate government responsibilities. Government funding for them soared. Civil society responded by backing social movements pushing for the extension of individual rights. But support for government expansion became contentious among business groups and conservatives. Opposition to this plank of liberalism was growing.
This chapter argues that the individual has become the main social construct of society. Its significance displaces the idea of citizenship, which includes a variety of obligations as well as rights. Becoming educated has become the major responsibility of children and parents. Education is now the secular religion of society and the way to produce rational and moral individuals. One result is to reduce the charisma and authority of many institutions and to confer it on educated individuals. This transformation of authority in society has paved the way for radical forms of populism based on generalized anti-elitism.
This chapter argues that government growth produced a backlash from those who saw it as an attack on a key feature of the American creed: the hegemony of capitalism in America. The chapter describes the decline of the liberal state and the growing unwillingness of political elites to fund it. Business elites fought the regulated capitalism of the postwar period by mobilizing politically. These attacks escalated and focused on starving government of funds both by cutting taxes, particularly on business and the wealthy, and by refusing to borrow money to finance government projects. They successfully revived that part of the American creed that supported individual freedom to thrive through their own economic efforts. The chapter also describes key changes in society that result from an expanded state.
This chapter describes the dissent that emerged in the post–1960s era. It argues that conflict grew around two elements of the American creed: the extension of individual freedoms and rights that was occurring and government regulation of capitalism. These splits produced four separate political cultures that neither political party has been able to contain. Two majoritarian positions have emerged: majorities favor the extension of civil rights and freedoms to many, and majorities favor less regulation of capitalism and the economy. But there are strong minorities who dissent from both these positions. Moral conservatives and the religious have reservations on many issues such as abortion and homosexuality. On the other hand, people who define themselves as progressives argue for more regulation of industry and the economy, such as pollution regulations and worker rights. Political entrepreneurs and the media have seized on these issues and have produced a more polarized society.
This chapter argues that the new populism castigates all elites in society as illegitimate. It has arisen and become successful because of two major changes in American society. First, the intensification of individualism has transferred authority to individuals and undermined that of elites in society. Second, the breakdown of the center and the failure of both parties to deal with economic and other problems has opened up space for radical alternatives to flourish. The chapter discusses the types of populism that emerge and the way that economic and cultural discourse becomes connected to intensify populist antagonism to particular sets of others.
This chapter notes that local community politics is much less polarized than the national political debate. This fact suggests that it is national institutions that are responsible for the new politics of polarization. The chapter discusses the sources of this change: (1) the changing trajectories of the political parties, (2) deregulation of the national media, and (3) the increasing importance of social media as megaphones of extremism.
This chapter discusses three issues raised by the book: (1) whether individualism can be the basis for national solidarity, (2) the future of the current polarization of politics, and (3) populism and its future. It presents several different possibilities and cautions that these futures will be determined by both what happens in the United States and the fate of globalization itself.