Friday, September 07, 2007

Barone on 3 Americas

Great piece by Michael Barone summarizing a new book by Morton Keller (America's Three Regimes).

His three regimes are the deferential-republican, from the colonial period to the 1820s; the party-democratic, from the 1830s to the 1930s, punctuated vigorously by the Civil War; and the populist-bureaucratic, from the 1930s to the present.
Barone focuses mostly on the second (party-democratic).

Continue Reading

Key piece:

By today's standards, some of the trends seem progressive, some regressive. Yet all swept the nation, and not by centralized imposition by a well-positioned elite but by the more or less simultaneous decisions of state legislatures and courts of various partisan composition. Today no one thinks that married women shouldn't be able to enter into contracts, and pressing for child support has been a position taken by liberals as well as conservatives. On the other hand, today's liberals certainly don't favor limiting the grounds for divorce, and many believe that confining marriage to the union of a man and a woman is a deprival of basic human rights. Sunday blue laws are regarded as regressive, antismoking restrictions as progressive.

What do these post-Civil War measures have in common? They were the demands of New England Yankees, the fiercest opponents of slavery in the territories and advocates of abolition. The Yankee culture was not shy about using the power of the state to regulate private conduct in the interests of morality, and morality meant the protection of women and children (by restricting divorce, among other things) and the prohibition of sinful or harmful behavior (smoking, gambling, drinking, working on Sundays). However differently today's liberals (or conservatives) may respond to this agenda, they amounted to a coherent agenda for certain Americans at the time. If the Civil War could be regarded as the Yankee Conquest of North America, this agenda could be regarded as the postwar Yankifying of the newly conquered territory. But not exactly a conquest, since it was acquiesced in or joined by legislatures that were never controlled by New England Yankees.

Barone then goes through the overturning of some of these Yankee state (not federal) moralist projects: prohibition overturned, divorce allowed, etc.

He then writes:
Can I go from these observations to a more general theory of American history? Let me try. The natural state of America, in my theory, is decentralized toleration: We stand together because we can live apart. We are, most of the time, the nation described by Alexis de Tocqueville, made up of various ethnic, religious, and racial strands who believe fervently that we can live and triumph together if we allow one another to observe our local mores.
His general theory would be more grounded I think if he dealt with the rise of the third tradition (populist-bureaucratic) and whether there may in fact be a fourth tradition rising (free markets, de-regulators.....need better name, can't think of one right now).

Ending very nicely:

The Civil War, the imposition of New England Yankee mores in the way described by Morton Keller, and the creation of national business and professional organizations described by Robert Wiebe in The Search for Order 1877-1910 reversed the extreme decentralization of the 1850s. The cultural rebellions, to the left and the right, described recently in neat form by Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance reversed the extreme centralization of the 1950s.

For those of us who grew up in the backwash of the 1950s, this decentralization seemed like an abandonment of American tradition. In the long line of history, I think it is more like a reversion to norm. The seeming inconsistency of currently prevailing attitudes on marriage and divorce, gambling and drinking, cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking, is part of the continuing turmoil of a decentralized society. The results don't cohere, but perhaps that is to be expected in a society like ours.

His point about the 50s being an "other than normal" time of conformity should be kept in mind whenever the "Bowling Alone" meme is brought up (usually though not exclusively by conservatives). It is true that such connections, community clubs have been lost and we should try to fashion new ones, but not ones based on a 1950s era of conformity, which was a historical accident and anomaly. We need those communities in a more pluralistic "de-centralized" frame.


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