American Politics: Nothing New Under the Sun

July 29, 2016

Halberstam, the fiftiesI’m reading a great book, David Halberstam’s The Fifties.  It’s a journalistic look at major cultural (e.g., Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe) and political (e.g., Joseph McCarthy, Eisenhower) moments in America in the 1950s.

Here are three excerpts from chapters on political trends.  Although describing political dynamics in the 1950s, they are also a commentary on conservative politics today:


The crisis of the postwar years was . . . still the crisis of isolationism versus internationalism.

It was not by chance that so much of the resistance to America’s new internationalism came from the great center of the country. In some ways the heartland was still apart, instinctively resistant to any greater American involvement in Europe and wary of those Eastern leaders who would tie us closer to any nation in Europe, traditional ally or not. Part of the reason for the resistance was geographic, for the American Midwest remained a vast insular landmass that bordered on no ocean and still felt confident and protected by its own size.

Richard Gid Powers has described Hoover’s ethos as “a turn-of-the-century vision of America as a small community of like-minded neighbors proud of their achievements, resentful of criticism, fiercely opposed to change. As twentieth-century standards of the mass society swept over traditional America, subverting old values, disrupting old customs and dislodging old leaders, Americans who were frightened by the loss of their community saw in Hoover a man who understood their concerns and shared their anger, a powerful defender who would guard their America of memory against a world of alien forces, strange people and dangerous ideas.”

Even today, American politics still turns on issues of internationalism vs. isolationism, and the way in which this contradiction maps onto geography, with the urban, coastal centers leaning toward internationalism and the country’s interior sympathetic to isolationist, America-first impulses.

Not related to politics, but a great quotation anyway:

Design [of automobiles in Detroit] became the critical decision. . . . Engineering became steadily less important. . . . .  All three major auto companies became caught in a vicious syndrome: a worship of the new at the expense of the old, even if on occasion the old was better.

This quotation nicely summarizes the triumph of vacuous image over reality in American culture.

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