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.

Prohibition and Apocalyptic Politics

Temperance Parade 1919

Temperance Parade, 1919.

Last Sunday I watched some of the Ken Burns’ documentary about the history of Prohibition ( It’s another top-notch production like his series on the Civil War.  What especially interested me was the portion dealing with the leaders of the Temperance Movement.  The documentary claims that Prohibition in some form might have succeeded if the leaders of the Temperance Movement had been willing to compromise on some points.  Instead, they adopted an uncompromising stance and as a result not only saw the end of Prohibition but also contributed to the rise of organized crime in America.

The documentary illustrated the inflexibility of the Temperance leaders, as well as the harsh rhetoric that they used for their cause.  This rhetoric was aimed not only at those urging an end to Prohibition, but also against Catholics, immigrants, and urban-dwellers.  The Temperance Movement, in other words, saw the fight not only as a battle against liquor but also against everything that seemed to be responsible for America’s moral decline.  It was, in other words, a crusade on behalf of rural, conservative America against urban, changing America.

(This point was reinforced for me when, around Christmastime, I was watching the Wizard of Oz [1939] with my granddaughter, Juliette.  One of the big themes of this film is that, although the city [Oz] seems to be a utopia, home is really rural [Dorothy’s farm in Kansas].  Here’s the there’s-no-place-like-home scene:  The Wizard of Oz is in one sense a parable about the struggle of rural America to assert its importance in the face of growing urbanization.)

This episode of Burns’ documentary about Prohibition makes it clear that little has changed in American politics: We still have a highly conservative, rural Evangelical voice that is inflexible in its politics and fearful of urbanites, immigrants, and everything else that is different from traditional rural culture.  This voice is governed by apocalyptic anxiety about big government and cultural decadence and it is no surprise that Donald Trump is making inroads into this portion of American society.  Its apocalyptic theology makes it easy for it to see politics and culture as a battle of good vs. evil, of truth vs. error, of right vs. wrong.

That is why one of the challenges facing American Christianity today is coming to terms with Christianity’s apocalyptic heritage–its centrality to the Christian message and also its capacity for distortion and misuse.