Close reading of K-12 history textbooks has suddenly become popular among adults (not so much among students). This is surprising given how bored most American adults were in their history classes and given Americans’ focus on the immediate present. (“The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today,” said history-maker Henry Ford.) But conservatives have opened another front of the culture wars as they seek to regain lost ideological territory. The schools are their chosen battlefield. One such engagement is over the connection between slavery and the Civil War.

Union soldiers guarding a slave dealership turned into a jail for Confederate captives, Alexandria, VA

For generations, downplaying slavery’s role in bringing on America’s most traumatic and consequential war has not only burnished the image of Southern ancestors but also lightened the South’s guilt for the racial divisions in the country. (If slavery was only incidental to the war–if the war was about states rights perhaps–maybe slavery was also only incidental to today’s racial inequalities.) Ironically, some on the left have also been eager, for other reasons, to find the causes of the Civil War elsewhere than slavery.

In a 2012 Journal of American History article, Michael E. Woods reviewed the current scholarship on the causes of the Civil War. Preeminent historians have, he pointed out, “reaffirmed that slavery’s centrality . . .[is] beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Woods’ and yet more recent articles[1] (h/t Woods) provide new insights into just how slavery was, in several ways, key to the conflagration.

This scholarship is not just about setting the historical record straight. It is also about setting straight our understanding of America today.

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Major League Baseball (MLB) is instituting a ball-bucket full of rule changes this season. They include shortening the time between pitches, limiting pick-off attempts, stipulating where the infielders can stand, using an automatic runner in extra innings, and shortening the distances between the bases. On the horizon is an even greater revolution: Having cameras and computers instead of home umpires call balls and strikes. The 2023 changes are being welcomed by some but scorned by others. The argument is reminiscent of the debates about originalism in the justice system.

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(Updated April 26, 2023)

A political identity–being a liberal or Democrat (a “D”) versus being a conservative or Republican (an “R”)–has become viscerally more important to more Americans, reaching partisan intensities not seen for at least a century and not seen elsewhere in the western world. R’s and D’s have increasingly and heatedly differed on public issues and on private ones as well, such as who to marry, who to befriend, where to live, what to buy, and the nature of faith. It is the era of the great polarization.

My previous post, Part I, described how so many Americans became so divided over the last 40 or so years. In this post, I try to explain why, evaluate the consequences, and consider what might be done. The short answer to why is that the nation’s political leaders first sorted themselves into separate and increasingly well-defined camps. Politically-attuned Americans could more clearly see where the parties stood on their big concerns, first race and then later “culture war” arguments. Different sorts of people became D’s or R’s and identifying as a D or R made people different. Peer influences, mass media, and social media did not create polarization, but accelerated it, particularly raising the emotional heat. In several ways, these forces all fed one another. One can argue that by now the fervor of the rank and file drives leaders to further polarize.

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(Updated May 8, 2023)

More Americans have become increasingly and deeply divided by political party over roughly the past quarter-century. Last November’s election showed just how evenly split and polarized we are. Polarization is no longer news (see these 2012 and 2017 posts). But, what is new in the last few years is the tidal wave of research helping us understand the nature, history, breadth, and sources of this development. More has come into focus, especially on the connection between politics and personal identity. Journalist Ezra Klein’s 2020 book, Why We’re Polarized, is an excellent, informed analysis. I use this post to bring in the latest work and insights in order to describe, especially for the general reader, what happened. In Part 2 I will address polarization’s explanations, prognoses, and policies.

The bumper-sticker version of what follows is that division along party lines has spread from politics to many seemingly apolitical and private realms. Polarization has become deeper and more bitter as party identity–being a Democrat versus a Republican–has absorbed more and more of Americans’ other identities. Continue Reading »

When the Covid pandemic erupted in America in early 2020 one might have predicted that the United States would weather it relatively well, better than most other western nations. We are a rich, well-educated people with a sophisticated medical system, advanced pharmaceutical research, and hospitals full of high-tech equipment, all regulated by watchful government agencies.

Yet, we did the worst.

The figure below displays one measure of Covid’s destruction: Cumulative excess deaths per million people, a measure that helps correct for missing diagnoses. (Simply counting deaths officially attributed to Covid reveals the same pattern.) Early on, the U.S. had about an average rate of excess deaths among several comparable western nations. (Adding more western nations yields the same pattern.) By February, 2021, the U.S. rates had risen to tie Italy at the top. By Thanksgiving, 2021, the U.S. stood on top alone, exceptional in excess deaths.

One reason is vaccination rates. We would have expected the U.S. to lead the world in Covid vaccination. In addition to the reasons listed above, the U.S. led vaccination development at “Warp Speed” and we bought up a lot of the early doses. For the first six months or so, as shown in the next figure, America did lead in vaccinations. A few months later, Americans fell behind, became, and then stayed exceptionally, tragically unvaccinated.

What is going on?

The Covid story displays the many ways that the U.S. is an exceptionally weird nation. (My earlier, 2020, take on this appears here.)

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The news hook for this post is the Supreme Court’s rulings in June, 2022, on guns, religion, and abortion. The connection may not be immediately apparent, but it will emerge.

About two hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville argued that it was Americans’ widespread membership in voluntary associations that produced democracy in America. In such groups Americans learned to channel their individualism into common projects, working together peacefully, effectively, and democratically.

Women’s Club, W.Va., 1939 (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017809462/)

If vibrant associations–religious congregations, lecture societies, quilting guilds, sports teams, and so on–make democracy, then their thriving is a matter of great concern.

In the years after World War II, many observers saw the Nazi takeover of Germany as a cautionary tale of weak associational life: Too many Germans in the 1920s and ’30s, these analysts argued, had been isolates unconnected to civic life, which made them easy to sweep up into an authoritarian mass movement.[1]

Today, many observers similarly explain political extremism in the U.S. as fueled by isolated individuals who, being detached from normal group life, find companionship and identity in fringe militia. (I will return later to the claim about Nazi mobilization.) These analysts worry that associations in the U.S. have been in decline, that we are heading toward a mass society of disconnected individuals, posing a dangerous risk for our democracy. The facts, however, are more complex. But not necessarily reassuring.

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One of the leading economic historians of the American south, Stanford’s Gavin Wright, observes in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article that both 19th-century defenders of slavery and 21st-century critics of slavery credit it for the rise of modern industrial capitalism. Southern “King Cotton” was, goes the argument, the cheap ingredient that grew the critically important northern textile factories that propelled industrialization.

The 19th-century group claiming slavery’s necessity was trying to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution.” The 21st-century group, composed of “New Historians of Capitalism” and many writers on the Black experience (such as contributors to the New York Times1619 Project”), is trying to show that American affluence today was built on the backs of slaves and, by extension, to show how much Americans today owe the descendants of those slaves.

Wright, while never underestimating the moral abomination of slavery and, later, serfdom, their long-lasting harms, and the complicity of Americans beyond the slave-owners themselves, objects: The proposition that slavery powered industrialization “has been rejected by virtually every economic historian who has examined the issue.” In the end, “slavery enriched slave-owners, but impoverished the southern region and did little to boost the US economy as a whole.” (Another historian of the South has a harsher rejection here.) Wright tip-toes around the connected reparations issue. But on this Juneteenth, the connection warrants more attention.

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The first thing to note about Opening Day, 2022, is that it is late by a week, pushed back to April 8 by the owners’ long lockout of players. That and the owners’ halfhearted bargaining infuriated fans. Unlike earlier strikes and lockouts, there is little doubt that those of us who care–fans who follow and journalists who cover the sport–overwhelmingly sympathized with the players. In recent years, the owners have been getting grossly richer and players’ salaries have stagnated. It has been a bitter start to 2022.

The second thing to note is that, while agreement on money issues was achieved in a new, five-year contract, critical issues concerning the game itself were largely postponed. Some tinkering has reduced incentives for owners to pocket their club income and forego trying to win (known as “tanking.”) But serious changes have yet to be made to correct the core problem of baseball as a sport, entertainment, and business: longer and longer games with less and less action on the field. (The action is increasingly between the pitchers mound and the umpire: strikeouts and walks, spiced with occasional and boring home runs. What are the seven guys standing behind the pitcher out there for?) I reviewed this problem in detail in last year’s Opening Day post and won’t repeat it here.

Some experiments are to be tried in the minor leagues this year. As described by Theo Epstein–the savior of doomed franchises (Boston, Chicago [NL]) and now “special consultant” to the MLB–these innovations, such as a short pitch clock, constraints on infield shifts, electronic catchers’ signals, and a reshaped strike zone, could do what he wants to do: generate more balls in play, more action, and shorter games. We will see. This year in the majors still promises to be slow.

The third thing to note is that my Giants will have to survive without newly-retired Buster Posey. Experts are already projecting them to be out of the running in 2022. But that’s what the experts projected for 2021 and the Giants won 107 games, more than any other team. Maybe there’s a 2022 surprise brewing at the ballpark on the shore of San Francisco Bay. GO, GIANTS!

The cry of “No Justice, No Peace!” was, by best estimates, not heard on American streets until the 1980s. Its first mention in The New York Times was in 1987 following the acquittal of a police officer for the shooting of a Black man. The phrase appeared often in the Times in the 1990s, then less frequently for a while, and then roared back since the mid-2010s.[1]

What kind of statement is “No Justice, No Peace”? (And its complement, “Know Justice, Know Peace.”) It cannot be an historical claim that absent justice, peace is absent, too. Tell that to the vanquished (and often decimated) subject peoples of empires across human history. Arguably, the longest stretches of domestic peace have followed not justice triumphant but the brutal consolidations of empires.

In fact, history suggests that the reverse is more commonly true, that peace brings some justice (and mercy) by fostering economic, political, and physical security. Slavery, unjust and merciless, was an accepted commonplace across the globe for millennia. Challenges to it emerged as the middle class grew in the era of Pax Britannica. Similar humanitarian movements such as temperance and child protection emerged, too (see, for example, here). People–masses and elites–who are occupied with their own survival rarely step up for others; that usually follows gains in security.

We see this dynamic playing out on a smaller scale today as Americans react to an apparent upsurge in crime and disorder somehow connected to the pandemic.

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The previous post presented evidence that over the last generation or two Americans have moved leftward on a wide front of social and cultural issues from marriage and manliness to race and language. Alarmed, conservatives have sprung to arms and are vigorously prosecuting a culture war.

This follow-up post presents a specific example. It was sparked by Margaret Talbot’s recent New Yorker article on new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Talbot’s piece illustrates both the impetus for the right’s political mobilization and its likely futility.

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