Are we a less free people, maybe even a far less free people, than we were in 1963? Partial punch-puller that he is content to be, Christopher Caldwell is not about to offer either a tentative or final answer to such questions. But the evidence that he presents strongly suggests that we are certainly a very different country—and not necessarily a better one.
The Age of Entitlement, by Christopher Caldwell (352 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2020)
Early on in this hard-hitting history of America “since the sixties” Christopher Caldwell partially pulls a punch: “The United States is today a free country in a very different sense than it was between the administrations of George Washington and John F. Kennedy.” As big a mouthful as that sentence is it doesn’t do justice to Mr. Caldwell’s hard-hitting take on the most recent half century of America’s history.
Are we simply a free people in a different sense than was the case as long ago as 1789 or as recently as 1963? And if so, just what is that sense? Or are we a less free people, maybe even a far less free people, than we were in 1963? Partial punch-puller that he is content to be, Mr. Caldwell is not about to offer either a tentative or final answer to such questions. But the evidence that he presents strongly suggests that we are certainly a very different country—and not necessarily a better one.
Is there a villain in this conservative’s story? Not really. Not even Lyndon Johnson, who might deserve such a designation.
Does a hero emerge? Not really. Not even Ronald Reagan, maybe even especially not Ronald Reagan.
However, two unnamed figures do loom large in these pages. One is not only never named, but never so much as hinted at. The other is also never named, but twice appears, once somewhere along the way and then again on the very last page of the book. The first looming presence is Barry Goldwater, and the second is Donald Trump.
While Goldwater is among the completely missing, it might be fair to conclude that Mr. Caldwell would be inclined to think highly of the Arizona senator and failed Republican presidential candidate in that fateful year of 1964. And President Trump? Here the hard-hitting Mr. Caldwell has completely pulled his punch, content as he has been to conclude this history on the eve of the 2016 primary election season.
The year 2016 may one day be regarded as a watershed year in American history, but for the time being Christopher Caldwell zeroes in on 1964. His key event is not Goldwater’s defeat, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That would be the same piece of legislation that Goldwater voted against because he thought it was unconstitutional.
Mr. Caldwell might have praised Goldwater for that vote, but he doesn’t. In his view something like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was long overdue and immediately necessary. It was also ultimately revolutionary.
Passed to bring an end to the Jim Crow South, it became the “template” for too much of American policymaking and legislating since then. In fact, it is Mr. Caldwell’s contention that that piece of legislation did much to create the “entitlement” society that is the subject of this book, a society that might just as well have been termed the victimhood society.
Is Mr. Caldwell trying to hang too much on not enough? He certainly doesn’t think so, and he may well be right. No sooner had he pulled that aforementioned punch than he went unmerrily along making his case that post-1964 enforcement of civil rights, very broadly defined and redefined, has proved to be the “mightiest instrument of domestic enforcement ever.”
Mr. Caldwell does not for a moment deny that the dismantling of legal segregation was both an important and a noble goal. But the deployment of the federal government in pursuit of this goal—and many subsequent goals—did have considerable costs. For starters, it implied a “revocation of freedom of association,” not to mention that virtual “abolition of the private sphere.” In sum, this unleashing of the federal government amounted to an “almost military assault” on the original constitution—and one that led to its effective replacement with a second constitution under which we now live. No punches pulled here.
Given such a judgment, was Goldwater right to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Mr. Caldwell’s silence might well constitute a punch pulled, but he does go this far: “Those who opposed civil rights legislation were wiser about its consequences” than were its sponsors.
Mr. Caldwell then proceeds to detail those very consequences. Those details constitute not only an indictment of the uses to which civil rights legislation was put, but a larger indictment of the entire Great Society agenda, both domestic and foreign. In doing so he begins to veer away from his original argument that our current “entitlement” society is mainly, if not solely, a product of well-intentioned civil rights legislation.
To be sure, chapters devoted to the rise of feminism and the war in Vietnam lend credence to his conviction that the America of today is a very different place than it was in 1963. But is everything due to a second, if unwritten, constitution?
Some of it might well be due to words written about matters very much unwritten in the original constitution. That would be the “sloppily argued” Roe v Wade decision and its “nonce right to privacy.” To unpull another punch, that decision established a “fundamental moral and even religious order on a fickle and frivolous basis.”
Clearly, Mr. Caldwell is not pleased. Just as clearly, this case and the ongoing rise of a feminist movement before and after it, help make his larger case that the America of 1963 was much closer to the America of 1900 than it would be to the America of 2000 and beyond. How much farther beyond remains to be seen.
Mr. Caldwell wants his readers to think of the war in Vietnam as a “sister movement” to both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society. Well, yes—and no. Yes, it was a piece of the larger Johnsonian project of bringing democracy to such disparate places as Mississippi and the Mekong Delta. And, yes, because of that failed war we have moved further away from pre-1963 America. But how does this piece fit into the larger puzzle of an age of entitlement?
What Mr. Caldwell’s consideration of the war in Vietnam does do is serve as a bridge to the most surprising portion of the book. As he sees it, by the end of the 1970s the three “great progressive endeavors” of the 1960s (civil rights, women’s liberation, and the “attempt to impose a liberal order on the world militarily”) had all been “resoundingly repudiated.” Really?
Mr. Caldwell might be forgiven for some hyperbole here. Vietnam wasn’t quite the world. And “resoundingly repudiated” surely does capture what happened to Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980, but probably not the fate of Mr. Caldwell’s big three.
Nonetheless, the Reagan victory in 1980 might be taken as evidence that those who voted for him thought that the country was about to be rid of those three “progressive endeavors.” If so, they did not get what they voted for.
Here is where Mr. Caldwell is both hard-hitting and eye-opening: Rather than repudiating the 1960s, Reagan rescued the 1960s. In other Caldwellian words, “the 1980s were what the 1960s turned into.”
For many conservatives the 1980s were—and remain—a golden age. For Christopher Caldwell, the 1980s were years of fiscal irresponsibility that hazily took on the appearance of a golden age.
Reaganite rhetoric aside, government continued to grow by 2.5% a year during the Reagan presidency, thanks to a “full-throttle stimulus” provided by the Reagan presidency. In the end, Mr. Caldwell argues, Ronald Reagan saved the Great Society in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism. On the one hand, Great Society programs were too big to be financed. On the other hand, they were too big to fail.
Mr. Caldwell also takes the Reagan administration, among many others, to task for the failure to restrain another sixties initiative. That would be the failure to rein in the excesses of the immigration reforms of the 1960s. Here is a case where Reagan and Reaganites were either complicit or snookered.
The authors of the 1965 legislation that reopened the floodgates assured their colleagues that new immigrants would be 80% European. That was not to be the case. Instead, this would be legislation that dramatically “alter(ed) American culture.”
In 1986 Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which was either an effort to stem the tide of immigration or an effort to stem the tide of opposition to the tide of immigration. Mr. Caldwell offers no answer to this question, but he is certain of this much: the parts of that legislation that encouraged immigration were unpopular, but “proceeded smoothly,” while the parts that were supposed to retard immigration were “fake.”
What is neither fake nor undisguised is Mr. Caldwell’s self-characterized “more skeptical” view of Reagan: “he was put in command of a victorious insurgency and handed away its victories.” No punches pulled here. To clinch his point he then delivered this hard hit: (Reagan) abused the trust of a democratic movement and created conditions under which the next populist movement that arose would be satisfied only with deeds, not words.”
Rather than move directly to a consideration of that movement, Mr. Caldwell devotes two final chapters to sorting through the “winners” and “losers” under the post-1964 American regime.
By and large Mr. Caldwell’s winners under the new constitution have been those who have benefited from the reforms of the sixties, as well as those who thought that more good than harm came from those same reforms. In other words, Democrats in all of their intersectional, politically correct diversity.
And the losers? By and large, they comprise that ever-dwindling demography of white Republicans, as well as anyone who had come to understand—and lament—that the United States had “ceased to be a classic, open-ended democratic republic.”
Christopher Caldwell would therefore be inclined to include himself among the losers. And atop his winners list would likely be a recent president. That president would be a descendant of slave owners (but not slaves), who had had less direct contact with American black culture than almost any of his white senate colleagues: Barack Obama.
The “gift” that the civil rights legislation had promised non-blacks was to make the “wearying subject of race disappear.” Well, surely Barack Obama would complete that gift-giving process. Instead, Mr. Obama’s America proved to be one in which political correctness reigned and where people were “kept on their Ps and Qs about race and gender as never before.”
It was in the middle of the Obama years when disparities in income first reached a serious point in post-sixties America. In 1978 income inequality dipped to its lowest point since the late 19th century with the top 1% taking home 23% of the total pot. By 2013 that figure had nearly doubled to 42%.
Clearly, the stage was set for the next populist moment. Would it come from the left or the right? Would it be one stronger in deeds than in words? Mr. Caldwell stops short of offering a postscript on the presidency of he who is never named. All we can know is that if Barack Obama was the president of America’s post-sixties winners, Donald Trump is the president of, by, and for America’s losers.
Do the Trump years represent the last gasp of a bygone America or a watershed moment in our history? Mr. Caldwell does not appear to be optimistic. He certainly is not about to celebrate. After all, “a long, unwarranted celebration was . . . what all of modern conservatism” has been in the first place. And that’s not a pulled punch, but a gut punch.
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