Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties is stuffed so full with iridescent observations, on so wide a range of subjects, that it would be a shame to spend all of this review rehashing its controversial central thesis. Mightn’t we set aside his claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an implicit refounding of the American legal and social order, and get to some of the fun bits first? And so we shall.
Caldwell, late of the departed Weekly Standard and now a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, guts and disembowels the last half century in American history. Playing against type, he is surprisingly sympathetic to a certain feminist critique of the conformist 1950s: the “pointlessly narrow” social role allotted to housewives; the earnest belief in science that excused the evisceration of small towns and neighborhoods in the name of progress; and a “transactional, aggressive, and indelicate” culture that prized uniformity and sowed the seeds of its own demise.
He is unflinching, more than many conservative writers would dare to be, toward Ronald Reagan. He sees traditionalist conservatives as having been a cheap date for a governor “who had done more than any politician of either party to build up the institutions of post-feminist sexual liberation.” Caldwell argues that conservatism was something Reagan tapped for political gain, not embodied. (Some heads will wag at the claim that the hippie agenda was, in some ways, more authentically conservative than Reaganism, but Rod Dreher might defend it.) Beyond a strategically convenient relationship with social conservatives, Caldwell argues, the Reagan administration’s belief in supply-side economics justified deficit-financed tax cuts. And “what did the debt buy?” In Caldwell’s telling, the need to paper over the tensions created by the Civil Rights suite of programs led to a “consolidation, not a reversal” of the Great-Society-fueled transformation, leaving conservatives unsatisfied.
The Age of Entitlement argues that Reagan left behind a movement and a nation more willing to “cut the past away, provided the cutting were done heedlessly by businessmen rather than purposefully by bureaucrats.” The go-go 1980s represented an individualist ideology that prioritized the here and now over yesterday or tomorrow, accelerating when the internet came online. The new market was able not just to compete with the old public square, but to destroy it entirely: “The bookstore where you could go if you didn’t like shopping at Amazon was no longer there.”
So far, so interesting. Caldwell’s provocations would provide grist for a thousand conversations if he limited his razor-sharp pen to the hubris of the Baby Boomers, the perils of modern gender relations, and the flaws of the Reaganite consensus. But the main hinge point of the book is a self-consciously revisionist take on the familiar story about civil rights. Caldwell suggests that too many on the right delude themselves with a focus on noble words about a dream and a promissory note, and are mistaken in thinking there was a “good” civil rights movement that slid off the rails after the political turmoil and assassinations of the late 1960s. No, he says, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “put not just Jim Crow but all of American culture up for re-examination and renegotiation.” Caldwell continues:
The entrenchment of political correctness . . . [made] clear what Americans had done in 1964: They had inadvertently voted themselves a second constitution without explicitly repealing themselves the first one. . . . Affirmative action and political correctness were the twin pillars of the second constitution. They were what civil rights was.
Caldwell argues that the excesses of school busing, inner-city riots, and affirmative action were essential—perhaps inevitable—workings-out of the logic of the civil rights movement. In this telling, what was being fought over in the 1960s was not civil, but human rights, laying the groundwork for all the social upheaval that would follow over the next five decades. The movement for civil rights was a “template . . . for overthrowing every tradition in American life,” from a right to abortion, gay marriage, immigration across any border, and every other cause celebrated by the progressive left.
One defense of the standard interpretation of the civil rights movement might draw on the likes of Mary Ann Glendon to argue that the expansion of “rights talk” to cover every inconvenience under the sun may have been predestined long before the 1960s—Patrick Deneen, among others, might argue that the 1760s would be a better place to start. An unadulterated social-contract approach to rights, untethered to social institutions or traditions, may indeed lead to far-ranging “witches and unicorns” territory pretty quickly; but, as Daniel E. Burns recently reminded us, American society has never been purely Lockean.
A less theoretical but, by my lights, equally compelling rejoinder is to observe, cautiously, that Caldwell might be telling a historically selective story. He uncritically relates the idea that northern and western whites thought that “racial harmony had arrived long ago,” and his defense of the idea that “citizens of a republic [should be permitted to] assume that the system is set up for them” leaves one to wonder about how the system should be set up for citizens like Easby Wilson.
Wilson was an autoworker and veteran who, in 1955, moved his family to a modest home in northeast Detroit, three blocks west of Dequindre Avenue. (I borrow his story from Thomas Sugrue’s masterly The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) The residents of houses west of Dequindre were white; the Wilsons were black. For five months, neighbors launched a siege against the Wilsons—black paint on the walls, anonymous phoned threats, stones through windows, picketing crowds, rotten eggs, snakes in the basement. “I believe in Democracy; I believe in what my husband fought for [in World War II],” said his wife during the ordeal. “They fought for the peace and I wonder if it’s worthwhile. I have a question in my mind: where is the peace they fought for—where is it?” The Wilsons’ son developed a nervous disorder; the family gave up the fight and moved out of the house. The neighborhood stayed predominantly white into the 1970s.
Stories like the Wilsons’ were, unfortunately, not rare. Into the early 1950s, the underwriting manual for the Federal Housing Authority based property valuation partly on “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” and “compatibility among the neighborhood occupants.” Majority-white homeowners used a variety of legal means to preserve racial purity in neighborhoods as long as they could, as Jessica Trounstine and others have studied.
Whose right to free association should take precedence? The homeowners seeking to preserve their property values? Or families like the Wilsons, eager to escape the crowded city centers for the safety and opportunity of the suburbs? Caldwell writes that civil rights legislation was not about “giving American blacks access to the ordinary rights of cives, or citizens. If it had been, the laws would not have required changing, only enforcing.” Instead, this was an exercise of state power to directly intervene in social relations.
Some, even some conservatives would openly concede the charge. Writing two decades after its passage, George F. Will noted that “the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s, was, of course, designed primarily to improve the condition of the descendants of slaves. But it had another purpose. It was supposed to do what it in fact did. It was supposed to alter the operation of the minds of many white Americans . . . to change (among other things) individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior.”
As Will would have it, this was “statecraft as soulcraft;” explicitly acknowledging the law’s role as a teacher that compelled a more just, more humane system of race relations. An honest accounting of the pre–Civil Rights era—not just in the South, but in Detroit and Palo Alto and Camden and all across the fruited plains—would acknowledge the frustration of Americans who wanted to benefit from the construction of the largest middle class the world had ever known, yet found themselves trapped in the transparent jug of segregation.
In reply, Caldwell might say that he is simply being descriptive, not prescriptive. Whether or not we approve of it, whites who used to enjoy untrammeled freedom of association now had that right constrained by the long arm of the federal government reaching into matters public and private; hence the backlash. Yet taking this revisionist claim at face value could engender a sense of despair; like Ta-Neihisi Coates, Caldwell is not here to give you hope. Both writers—starting from very different assumptions—imply a thudding finality to politics: that it is inescapably about group differences and a matter of race all the way down.
The brilliance of Caldwell’s pen is able to compensate for some of the misreadings that weaken his overall narrative. The housing crisis was, to a large extent, not fueled by indiscriminate lending to minority Americans, but by a consumerist culture that treated houses as piggy banks and promised get-rich-quick schemes. To say that President Obama “governed in such a race-conscious way” is to accept, uncritically, the offense taken by some in the president’s simple acknowledgment that his hypothetical son would have been a black teenager like Trayvon Martin. He calls out the post–Civil Rights Act world as “requiring the majority’s resources,” but we hardly live in a system of lavish spending on reparations or a race-neutral commitment to equal opportunity for every child. On the contrary, two of the biggest drivers of the federal debt are Social Security and Medicare: 46 percent of federal payments to individuals go to seniors in those programs.
That said, The Age of Entitlement’s insights into our increased willingness to eat our seed corn and our inability to propagate the future are worth the price of admission. Caldwell has a magpie’s eye for illuminating tidbits, such as how the highest praise for a businessman evolved from “aggressive” in the 1980s to “disruptive” in the 2010s. This book, like his perceptive (and prophetic) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, is a master class in spinning a coherent and compelling narrative.
Caldwell’s history of the Civil Rights era helps explains the moral power of rights claims, such as when Joe Biden declares on Twitter that transgender equality is “the civil rights issue of our time.” But those statements draw moral power precisely because of the necessity of civil rights legislation in the 1960s; they are marketing claims, not philosophical ones. A more hopeful response than what Caldwell traces would be to dispute the premise of those statements. The systemic discrimination inflicted on African Americans, especially but not only during the Jim Crow era, called for a federal response in a way that was specific to that injustice; it was not intended to be a one-size-fits-all tool for erasing every difference between social groups.
Making that argument, though, relies on acknowledging both the injustices and inequities that fueled the revolutions of the mid–twentieth century, and the way those disparities are felt in community and civic life even up to today. It is incumbent on conservatives to frankly acknowledge the shortcomings of the social order that led to the civil rights movement, without being tempted to adopt an understanding of that movement that leads one inescapably to conclude that racial resentment is the decisive force in American politics. Indeed, the very fact that explicit affirmative action and school busing have fallen out of favor over recent decades suggests a more optimistic view of politics than what The Age of Entitlement proffers.
America may not be a young nation, but it is a young multi-racial democracy. Many leftists want to draw a clear line from the march on Washington and crossing the bridge at Selma to their favored cause du jour. In adopting this framework, Caldwell gives too much away. We can deem the immorality of racial segregation to be an appropriate reason to use state power without conceding that every social difference gives an equally justifiable reason for government intervention; and, in so doing, we can help smooth the transition from an age of entitlement to an age of responsibility.