This book is the result of many years of conversation with Ron Jepperson on American political development. We both lived through the 1960s as students and saw the start of an episode of democratization, as a wide variety of disenfranchised groups successfully challenged classic legal and social restrictions against them. These successes, however, were quickly followed by countermovements aimed at de-democratization. One sign of the latter was the wave of voter demobilization that occurred after the 1960s (Burnham, 1984). This was an anomaly, and a puzzle for political scientists, because it occurred simultaneously with rising popular education levels, which typically increase electoral participation. Declining participation seemed to be a sign that many people were ignoring conventional politics. Meanwhile, bitter conflict was surfacing in the political system. White Southerners were turning Republican in response to President Johnson’s and the Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights. Racial resentment among white working-class voters in the north was also surfacing. Their migration to the Republican Party was beginning and later became a stampede. And the Democratic coalition was crumbling. Clearly from the viewpoint of the 1950s, something had changed for the worst as society appeared to go from consensus to paralyzing conflicts around fundamental issues.
How to theorize this dramatic change became our challenge. We knew of significant research on many pieces of this puzzle, but neither sociology nor political science had convincing answers at the macro level of how such changes could come about so dramatically and quickly. Many of the contemporary arguments did not seem up to the scale of the problem. Not only were individuals changing, but organizations, communities, and the political system itself were undergoing reorganization. S. M. Lipset’s (1996) argument comes closest to a satisfactory explanation. Lipset recognized that the changes were systemic and proposed an argument suited to the scale of the problem. It invoked the dramatic challenges that the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War posed for American exceptionalism. Lipset argued that in response to these developments, governing elites and their constituents suspended many of the tenets of classic American political culture. However, once American hegemony had revived a sense of “normality” in society, public support for these changes weakened. Classic American exceptionalism reemerged as a political response. I have built on this insight and have sought to show how the changes provoked by these developments in state and society led to the current political crisis.
This insight also led to the realization that these earlier crises had produced national responses that were deviations from the normal path of development that the American political system would have followed—and major segments of society believed should have followed—at the time. One of Ron Jepperson’s particular contributions was the recognition that the 1930s were a “collectivist moment” in American history. Global crises and developments drove many of the changes in American politics. An ongoing crisis arose when, to cope with these shocks, elites introduced adaptations that challenged key narratives of American exceptionalism. Such deviations produced a dialectic in which the changes introduced, such as big government, became sources of conflict when normality reemerged. Important political factions then denounced these changes as “un-American” or “socialist” and demanded a return to small government and deregulated capitalism. Business groups, for example, considered the experiments of the 1930s a complete mistake. Similarly, ideological conservatives saw the developments in the 1960s as preludes to anarchy and disaster for society. Many joined the chorus crying for “law and order.” American society became divided between the pro-1960s factions and the anti-1960s ones.
American hegemony in the 1960s and early 1970s opened the door for these reactions to develop and flourish. Classic American responses to these changes began emerging in this period: anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. People were angry at political elites and their allies. The South was in revolt against government intrusion. Many resented “big government” and the gains of minorities. These post-1960s developments were not new, but they were more extreme versions of classic American responses. How these responses developed and intensified is one of the central subjects of the book.
We also realized that given the scope of change in society, any explanation had to be one suited to the scale of the problem. Change had occurred at multiple levels: individual habits and attitudes changed; communities had undergone reconstruction; and society itself had changed. Big government, big science, and a big military were part of the new normality. Realization about the scale of the problem was slow in coming, in part because the literature was itself fragmented.
Yet, as we began to grapple with the scale of change, we also recognized that there had been a major shift in authority in society. Many institutions and norms suffered diminished authority or lost it. Citizenship was one but there were many others, including families, communities, ethnic/racial groups, and the nation-state itself. The responsibilities conventionally associated with the key role of citizen morphed into options for the liberated person (Janowitz, 1983). Military service, voting, and religious observance, for example, declined once they ceased to be the obligations of respectable citizens. Other facets of the traditional citizen role—like local community participation and volunteer work—also became obsolescent or, at least, optional. How this happened is an important subject of the book.
As a result of these changes, American political culture evolved in an important way. The “individual” became framed as the key agent of society. Charisma shifted from institutions to “persons” in dramatic fashion. This new cultural framing of authority in society threatened to vitiate that of all elites in society. It also dramatically enhanced the power of public opinion in society. The authority of science, medicine, law, the media, the state, and education were all weakened by this change. Virulent anti-intellectualism gained legitimacy under this redefinition of authority in society, freeing populism from constraints, and providing justification for a growing public disdain of elites. These changes created new problems for democracy. How to curb the anarchy that enhanced individualism licenses is one. Another is the question of whether enhanced individualism can be the basis for a communal ethic and social solidarity? (Bell, 1973). I address both issues.
Given this framing, the narrative focuses on long-term sociocultural processes rather than on short-term political ones. It also takes a macro societal view. Once we had developed these ideas, Prof. Jepperson developed an outline of the argument in the summer of 2013. This was a significant point in the development of the book.
Numerous people have helped realize this project. Prof. Ron Jepperson has been a long- term collaborator and friend. Many of the central ideas of the book were developed in discussions with him. He, unfortunately, was unable to participate in writing the book. Nevertheless, his fingerprints are all over the work. Doubtless, it would be better had he been able to continue participating.
We also received strong encouragement and help from many others. John W. Meyer has been an important mentor to us both. Over the years he read drafts and commented in ways that helped keep our enthusiasm intact and pushed us to keep thinking theoretically about these problems. He pushed us to think about macro social processes comparatively that work out over long time periods. He also cautioned us to act like anthropologists. His advice was to view Americans as natives acting out social rituals linked to major societal myths (narratives) rather than as enacting their own personal action repertoires. This led us to think about how transformations of society affect the citizen role. The eclipse of traditional citizenship became one of the themes of the book.
In addition, through his seminar at Stanford we developed strong bonds with many of his graduate students who were generous with their time in reading and critiquing drafts. Early versions of the first draft circulated among this group, and their insights and critiques were helpful. Members of the seminar included Frank Dobbin, Michelle Lamont, John Boli, Phyllis Riddle, and Francisco Ramirez.
John Boli was an early member of this group, and he has been especially generous in reading and critiquing the current manuscript. His efforts helped me reorganize the original architecture of the book and to extend the analysis of neoliberalism. He commented extensively on all the chapters, identifying weaknesses wherever he found them. Whatever faults remain are despite his wise counsel.
Francisco Ramirez was influential in both his work and conversations with us over the years. In some of his own work he focused on an important feature of American exceptionalism, namely how embedded the American state is in civil society from a comparative perspective. His display of the utility of this idea gave us a valuable tool in our analysis of the evolution of the U.S. polity. His comparative work also helped us put the United States in international perspective.
Ann Swidler was one of the early supporters of the project, and her enthusiasm was a source of strength. She continued to encourage us long after the initial phase and at points when anyone else would have imagined that the project was dead. Early on she helped organize a faculty seminar at Stanford where I presented an early version of the project.
Two other friends and colleagues were influential. Charles Cappell, a longtime colleague and friend, taught me most of what I know about modern methodology and worked with me on empirical projects highlighting the growing polarization in American politics. His influence has been substantial and his friendship sustaining.
Jeff Mirel is an American historian and colleague whose work and conversation have tutored me on many subjects, particularly those concerned with American educational history. His monograph is featured prominently in the book as a major study of one strand of American history, that is, rising social libertarianism and tolerance for pluralism. His friendship has been invaluable in surviving academia.
I owe two other colleagues an enormous debt for encouraging Stanford University Press to back the project with a book contract. One is David Frank of the University of California at Irvine and the other is an anonymous reviewer. Both wrote extremely useful and detailed comments of an earlier version of the manuscript. I owe them immense gratitude for their interest and the care they took to constructively critique the manuscript.
David Baker is another longtime colleague and friend who was helpful. He deserves thanks for encouraging the project and for the many conversations we have had about education and national development that helped shape this project. His own work has been influential in tutoring me on international development, particularly in Europe. I also want to thank him for introducing me to Stanford University Press and its editor, Kate Wahl. My own editor at the press, Marcela Maxfield, has been extremely helpful in suggesting changes that have made the text more intelligible and accessible. I have been lucky to have such an astute editor.
My wife, Beth, was a staunch supporter and participant in the project. She helped edit the manuscript. More important was her acceptance of my multiyear commitment to the project. Her patience and positive outlook have been remarkable. In addition, her experience as historian, as editor and publisher of In These Times in Chicago, and as senior staffer at the Institute for Policy Studies and Every Voice in Washington, D.C., gave her insights into American politics that she generously shared with me. She was also instrumental in introducing me to people and viewpoints I would not otherwise have experienced. James Weinstein, historian and founder/publisher of In These Times, and the late Marcus Raskin, a Kennedy administration veteran, critic, and founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, were two of the many whose comradeship supported and informed me. I am grateful to Beth for surrounding me with intellectually informed practitioners of politics whom I otherwise would not have known. Beth and my stepdaughters, Anna and Claire, have also provided a family life of adventure and pleasure that has been sustaining and kept my curiosity alive.