The first stanza of William Butler Yeats much quoted poem, The Second Coming, contains the words:
‘Things fall apart, the center cannot hold….
The best lack all conviction,
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.’
It is unclear whether these words, penned in 1919 referred only to the Irish war of independence or somehow expressed a prescient vision of what Yeats called ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ that would soon engulf Europe. But there can be little doubt that these words eerily convey the tone and content of much that passes today for political speech in the United States.
Why are things falling apart? Why are so many Americans rejecting those in both parties whom they have trusted in the past to lead them? Why are they turning to rebels and outsiders so disturbingly full of passionate intensity? I believe that the answer resides in three identifiable strands in recent history, largely separate but temporally linked. One is a belief that traditional elites whom the public has long trusted to lead them lack the will and the capacity to act in the nation’s best interest. The second is a series of economic developments that have fallen with particular severity on those Americans with less-than-college education. The third is a shift in values and norms of behavior that have liberated many but that threaten others and are at war with deeply held convictions of many. Chasm-like differences in values separate people with shared economic interests.
Ordinarily, blunders by those in power cause voters to switch allegiance from one set of leadership elites to another with a more appealing agenda. Successful candidates have long run against Washington, often from state governorships, but never in rebellion against the core ideas of their parties. The debate in both parties is different this year. The insurgent in the Democratic primaries, a long-serving Senator, is tapping into anger among many Democrats who believe that party leaders have been too willing to compromise on ideas to which the party faithful are devoted but that party leaders regard as dubious policy (protectionism), impracticable (single-payer health reform), or both (highly progressive taxes).
The debates among the Republican candidates are redolent with something more visceral—fear, anger, and sadness that, as they see it, the fundamentals that define American life are in mortal jeopardy. Republican primary voters have turned to candidates who promise an end to compromise with and even civility toward those whose policies and values they reject.
The decline of trust in elected officials is stunning and crosses party lines. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right always or most of the time. And with good reason. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt had struggled mightily, with mixed results to be sure but always with irrepressible confidence, to restore prosperity after the Great Depression. The federal government—the president and Congress acting jointly—had organized the nation to fight and win the largest and bloodiest war in world history. A quarter century of rapid economic growth followed the war. Incomes of all economic groups increased. Success fostered trust.
The two major parties differed, of course, often bitterly, exemplified by the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s. But the range of views within each party far exceeded the average difference between them. Conservative, segregationist, and anti-union Democrats of the South had little other than a party label in common with liberal, intergrationist, and pro-union Democrats of the North and West. A gap only slightly narrower separated the internationalist, ‘modern’ Republicans led by Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Arthur Vandenberg from the conservative, isolationist Republicans represented by Robert Taft and John Bricker. The Republican party encompassed similarly wide differences as recently as the administration of Ronald Reagan, seen incorrectly by many as ideologically unified. In order to succeed, aspirants for party leadership had to master the art of compromise. Party standard-bearers for whom intra-party political bargaining and compromise were second nature, found it natural to apply those same skills in inter-party dealings.
In the glow of post-World War II America, few recognized how unusual it was for Americans to have confidence in the efficacy of the federal government. The founding fathers deeply distrusted centralized power. They divided authority among three branches of government expressly to frustrate the exercise of such power. They reserved to the states all powers other than those the Constitution explicitly granted to the central government. The first decades in the life of the new nation saw repeated and sometimes violent resistance to actions of the national government, culminating in the Civil War, the bloodiest war in our history.
Erosion of the post-World War II interlude began in earnest with the Vietnam War and Watergate. Then the economy turned sour, buffeted by the first OPEC ‘oil shock’ and the recession that followed. Growth of productivity slowed. So did growth of per worker earnings. Inequality, which had fallen for more than four decades, began to increase. Faith in the federal government rebounded during the Reagan administration in part and paradoxically because he appealed to the abiding distrust of Washington. It fell again toward the end of the eighties, but recovered briefly in the 1990s following the well-managed, ‘good war’ against Iraq and the only decade since the 1960s during which incomes grew across the entire income distribution. Trust in government reached a high of 60 percent in October 2001, one month after 9/11.
Then, based on inaccurate information or downright lies about weapons of mass destruction by its leaders, the United States invaded Iraq. Thousands of soldiers died, tens of thousands were wounded, and trillions of dollars were spent. When America withdrew, chaos ensued. It is not hard to understand why voters would bitterly blame elites for the self-inflicted wounds from a misbegotten war.
On the home front, blinkered or feckless elites were blind to the emerging real-estate bubble, to rampant financial mismanagement, and to plain fraud, practiced not only by get-rich financial scammers by also by their complicit customers. In 2007 and 2008, the financial system teetered and nearly collapsed. Economic chaos ensued. Elites suffered sharp losses, but regained most of those losses during a recovery in which the top few percent of the income and wealth distribution enjoyed most of the gains. Public policy shored up financial system, a move that doubtless saved Main Street as well. It also supported incomes of the middle class through such government programs as Unemployment Insurance and food assistance. But relief for the financial sector struck those suffering unemployment, foreclosures, and vanishing home-equity as evidence of cozy collusion between policy-makers of both parties and the plutocrats who caused mass suffering and epidemic insecurity.
The U.S. economy has since recovered better than those of most other developed nations. It has done so despite prematurely restrictive fiscal policy, adopted before recovery was well advanced, out of a bizarre belief that imagined future problems from future budget deficits posed a greater threat to the nation than did current mass unemployment. Average earnings, stagnant for four decades, remained flat. Earnings of workers with less than college education actually fell. Expansion of such government programs as the earned income tax credit and Medicaid offset such losses to a degree. But they are a poor substitute for the across-the-board income growth of the post-World-War-II decades. And they have done little or nothing to offset forces, including the decline of unions and competition from low-wage workers abroad, that have hammered earnings of low-skilled workers.
Can one be surprised that by 2015 the fraction of Americans who said that the federal government will do the right thing always or most of the time had fallen to 26 percent among Democrats and to a dismal 11 percent among Republicans?
A dispassionate outsider might point out that the United States remains an island of stability to which millions around the world flock for refuge and opportunity and that the U.S. economy is still stronger than that of any other developed nation. But that same dispassionate observer could also note that social and economic mobility, never as great as popular myth supposed, had fallen well below that in other nations and that U.S. economic inequality surpassed that of any other developed nation. With a cold eye, that observer might well conclude that the dyspeptic majorities in both parties have reason to reject leaders who failed them so often and so catastrophically.
Although anger at the objective failures of leadership elites has a solid rational basis, rational anger cannot fully explain the emotional intensity of alienation among large swaths of the American population. To understand that depth of feeling, it is necessary recognize that shifts in values, sex roles, and civil rights—changes that have enhanced lives of most Americans—have also eroded the objective condition and subjective sense of security, status, and well-being of many of our fellow citizens.
Women, summoned from domesticity to factory and office jobs during World War II, returned to birth the Baby Boom. When that was done, they began an inexorable march back to paid work. At first they were confined to such ‘appropriate’ occupations as teachers, secretaries, and nurses—career ghettos with short job ladders and low ceilings. A succession of rebellions against such limits became a massive civil rights revolution, spawning exhilarating opportunities for half of the population. The flood of women into the labor force and into occupations from which they had largely been excluded was a boon not just for them but also and for U.S. economic capacity. It was, however, a decidedly mixed blessing for many men—for those working men who lost monopoly possession of many occupations, for married men threatened more by the erosion of economic dominance within the family than appreciative of added income from empowered economic partners, and for single men who found themselves devalued as potential ‘husband-providers.’
For African Americans, the Emancipation Proclamation ended legal slavery, but not repression. Official policy—federal, state, and local—and private collusion perpetuated subjugation well into the 20th century. Litigation and direct political action eventually curbed those practices, albeit slowly, painfully, and incompletely. Here too, there were gains and losses…gains for African-Americans and other people of color, whose rights to live and work where they wanted expanded, and gains for the nation as a whole, which benefitted from an expanded pool of talent and from the first steps in expiating opprobrious behavior toward fellow citizens.
Again, not everyone gained. Some have had to confront new economic competition. Some, rightly or wrongly, have seen affirmative action as depriving them of access to services once exclusively theirs. Others react against favoritism even toward groups long egregiously disfavored. And still other whites, lacking wealth or status, lost the unpriced yet priceless satisfaction of feeling superior to others.
As women and people of color entered occupations from which they had long been excluded, technical change and competition from abroad eroded the base of well-paid jobs for those with comparatively little education. Unionized jobs disappeared, as did the extra earnings and fringe benefits that unions extracted from resistant employers. White men without college degrees and the women who were their partners no longer could count on rising wages and the improved status that comes with seniority in career jobs. The toll was not only economic but physical. While life-expectancies of middle and upper income men and women rose sharply, life-expectancies of lower-income women fell and of lower-income men barely increased because of drug use, depression, and other self-destructive personal behaviors
An upheaval in social norms and values accompanied these market-place developments. The contraceptive revolution weakened the link of sex to marriage. Cohabitation, once known as ‘living in sin,’ became a normal precursor or alternative to marriage—the ‘first union’ for 70 percent of women with less-than-college education. Women increasingly came to bear children as single mothers and to do so without shame, or with much less of it than in the past. Homosexuality, formerly regarded as abnormal at best and criminal at worst, emerged from the shadows to become generally, if not universally, accepted. Whites males, once economically, culturally, and politically dominant, saw one area of ascendancy after another slipping from their control, as women achieved economic and sexual independence and as people with skins darker than theirs emerged from the social and economic shadows. Demographers heralded the imminent emergence of a majority-minority nation. The idea of white ascendancy, if not superiority, morphed from accepted truth into anachronistic myth.
These three forces—bald failures of leadership, changes in the relative standing of races and sexes, and upheavals in accepted values—explain the moods within each political party. The weights attached to each of these forces varies across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders cites growing economic inequality, favoritism toward the rich, and past foreign policy blunders. Donald Trump exploits resentment, particularly that of white males with little education, with scattershot attacks on virtually every other group he can find and indicts leaders for what he sees as current as well as past foreign policy mistakes. Ted Cruz, unabashedly asks voters in a nation founded on religious tolerance to allow immigration only of Christians-at least for now.
The electorate will choose a new president and new legislators a few months hence. That election will determine who is president and who serves in the House and Senate. But it will not remove the forces that have caused so many to scorn leaders they once trusted. The center may hold once again. But if it does, it will do so tenuously, and it will be on probation.
Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.