Current events suggest that the progress in American social history, recently stalled, is now being turned around.

The long-run story of the American people is of the slow, swerving, incomplete, but steady expansion of participation in its voluntaristic culture. As told in Made in America, once-dependent and subordinate categories of people–women, immigrants, employees, the propertyless and the poor, ex-slaves, youth, the very elderly–have been able over the last three centuries to become more autonomous authors of their own lives, able act both independently for themselves and freely in concert with whomever they wished to join.

This extension of independence with community depended largely on the expansion of security–security of life, of fortune, of an assured future. And that, in turn, rested on economic growth, scientific advance, and critically, government protection against life’s perils–institutions of law and order, public education, public health, disaster relief, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and much more.

The last few decades have seen a slowdown in the underlying processes that had expanded voluntarism. The economic fortunes of working class Americans stagnated. Many both experience and anticipate a life less assured than that of their parents. Science keeps delivering, but neither the economy nor the government are currently sustaining the actual security and the sense of security that enable forceful individual and community action.

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There is a fashion among scholars of America to characterize the “American character,” a fashion that waxes and wanes, writes a dean of social historians, Peter Stearns, in his new essay “American Selfie.” Sometimes sketching a national portrait fits the cultural mood–say, during the bluster of the Cold War–but at other times Americans seem such a disparate assortment of types that trying to describe any one American character seems foolish. Sometimes the portraits depict bright figures–say, Americans as ambitious do-gooders; at other times they expose dark forms–say, Americans as ambitious narcissists. And sometimes the sketches show American character undergoing dramatic change, usually for the worse, while other times they depict a stolid American character that, for better or for worse, has been constant since the nation’s founding.lexington_minuteman_its_in_the_eyes.jpg

In “American Selfie,” Stearns addresses in particular my book (after which this blog is named), Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (2010), which he treats as the latest effort to describe an American character of enduring continuity. I appreciate that Professor Stearns felt the book worthy of such attention. My purpose in this post is to address two particular criticisms that he raises. The first, which I dispute, is that Made in America ignores or dismisses evidence of profound change toward less associational life and fewer personal connections, a loss of community. The second, which I largely accept, is that Made in America, like other books arguing continuity, insufficiently explains how a singular national character can stay so constant so long.

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American families have changed a lot over the last half-century or so: Americans are marrying later, typically after cohabiting; divorce and remarriage are creating variations of “blended” families; most mothers now work outside the home; more fathers spend more time with their children but fewer of them live with their children–just to hint at some of the tumult in family life. The question of this post is whether, given all this change, Americans continue to value  family life or have family bonds significantly weakened? I addressed the marriage part of this question in the previous post; this one addresses family life beyond the couple.

Americans certainly worry about “the” American family. In a 2000 Wirthlin poll, about three in five said that they thought the “state of the American family” was either “not very strong” or “weak.”[1] In a 2006 Pew survey, by over two to one, more people said that family life is worse “these days” than said it was now better than before.[2] And yet: Only a few years later in another Pew survey, 40 percent of respondents said that their families today were “closer” than were the families they grew up in–about three times as many (14 percent) who said that their current families were less close.[3] The contrast between the two Pew surveys not only reflects our localism bias (the closer things are to us–our families rather than others’ families–the better they look), it may indicate a mismatch between popular perceptions of “the” family and personal experience.

Let’s take a look first at some behavioral indicators of family bonding and then at some measures of family feeling and see how they have changed over recent decades.  Some of the findings may be surprising.

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(Scooped! Just as I was preparing this post, the N.Y. Times printed a detailed story on the same topic titled, in its print version, “Marriage is Valued, but in Decline. Economics and Culture May be Culprits.”)

Marriage is over. That was the comment–roughly in those terms–that I heard tossed out at a panel discussion among many eminent sociologists. No one demurred; a few concurred. Is it really over? Much of the public, 39 percent according to a 2010 Pew survey, agrees that marriage is “becoming obsolete.” And yet, I will argue, the facts are more complex and the prospects for marriage brighter than that capsule comment suggests.

This post presents a bunch of data that allow us to look at marrying and to look at Americans’ feelings about marrying since about 1970. (For an earlier discussion of the topic, see this post from 2012.)

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It is hard to imagine Steve Bannon–the deposed alt-right White House guru–and Willie Brown–the one-time Democratic power broker of California, as well as San Francisco’s first (and only) black mayor–sharing a view in common. But they are both hard-nosed, even cynical, observers of practical politics and here is what they recently agreed upon:

Bannon, in his notorious interview with The American Prospect, said:

The Democrats . . . the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

Willie Brown, in his regular weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote:

Every time President Trump gets in trouble he falls back on race identity politics, and the Democrats fall for it without fail…. [M]y friend House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of all Confederate-related statues in the halls of Congress, saying they’re “reprehensible.” She’s got a point, but so what? It has nothing to do with the issues that affect people, such as jobs, education and health care. Taking Trump’s bait only reinforces the impression held by too many Americans—that Democrats are all about apologizing for the country’s past attitudes about race.

The Democratic party is arguing these days about the role of identity politics in their campaigns–how much to focus on racism, blacks, Latinos, gays, gender and transgender issues, and so on. In 2016, Clinton tried to rally such groups and their sympathizers into a majority of minorities; it was not enough. Bannon and Brown both say that this is a losing strategy for practical politics (whatever the righteousness of the causes). It is practical politics that wins elections and winning elections is what lets you determine the courts, health policy, air pollution, taxes, child hunger, war and peace, and the fate of the planet.

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In the aural kaleidoscope that is American music, one genre owns the title of “American Standards” and has been compiled into the “Great American Songbook.” These songs–“Stardust,” “One for My Baby,” “Manhattan,” “A Fine Romance,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Just One of Those Things,”and on and on–propelled by immortal performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, were heard around the globe to the glory of American music in the mid-twentieth century–and they still are. But should they own the title of “American?” How much do they actually represent America and its distinctiveness?


Jerome Kern & Ira Gershwin (source)

Instead, as many commentators have noted, the Great American Songbook is full of musical compositions that seem closer to the Old World than the New and of lyrics that more often call to mind airish literary soirees than earnest church suppers or neighborhood bars. I listen incessantly to the Great American Songbook, but still wonder about the deservingness of the title. Continue Reading »

A deep, ideological component in the furious debate over “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)–as it was in the furious 2009-10 debates over the ACA’s passage, the 1993-94 failed Clinton health care plan, Johnson’s 1965 Medicare and Medicaid initiatives, and still earlier–is the opposition of two world views about health care.

On one side, health care is a right, just like equal protection of the law, free speech, and childhood education; it therefore must be in some fashion provided by government. (This is, for example, Bernie Sanders’ position.) On the other side, health care is a commodity individuals can choose to buy, just like clothes, housing, or iPhones, and therefore not a responsibility of government. (For two recent defenses of this position, see Shapiro and, more nuanced, Ponnuru.) The realpolitic of the current debate, of course, involves taxes, spending, vested interests, political promises, and a lot more than philosophy. But philosophical division is entwined in the long history of health care controversies.

FSA doc

Physician working with the Farm Security Administration, Missouri, 1939. (Source.)

Most Americans, like most citizens of western countries, say that “providing health care for the sick” should be “the government’s responsibility,” but Americans are less unified and insistent on that than are other westerners.[1] And we have the weakest public system of health care for the non-elderly in the West. That may be why Americans are much more likely than citizens of other affluent nations to report having in the previous year gone without medical treatment that they needed.[2]

Americans have generally leaned toward the “human right” position on health care–if not in those exact words–but in recent years party polarization has increasingly colored the recurrent debates. So has generational politics.

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