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America Since the Sixties: A History without Heroes

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties
by Christopher Caldwell
Simon & Schuster, 2020, 349 pages

For over a decade Christopher Caldwell has been the indispensable American journalist writing about European politics. As populist movements across the continent (mostly on the right but occasionally on the left) continue to make gains at the expense of centrist parties, the American media coverage increasingly looks like an exercise in ideological quarantine more than an effort at explanation. Populism takes different forms and has distinctive priorities from country to country, but so long as it traduces a limited set of principles—globalization, immigration, the EU—American journalists reach for the delousing powder and sequester it in a cell known as the “Far Right.” Nearly all European populist movements are treated as homogeneous threats to liberalism in the grandest sense. One has to envy the unique journalistic perspective that Caldwell enjoys simply by not loathing the parties and voters he writes about.

His perspective is one of real cosmopolitanism, in an era when a phony, class-bound variety is commonplace among “global citizens” on both sides of the Atlantic. Caldwell has a rare sensitivity for regional and national differences, and he defends the value of democratic sentiment against the claims of bureaucratic efficiency and the imperial language of human rights (which he defines in bracingly left-wing fashion as “the system of identity-group and interest-group politics by which America is ordered, and by which America orders the world”). Caldwell is a polyglot, and he performs a traditional office of that role, introducing Americans to European writers and politicians who have insights not yet translated into English. He was an early promoter of the French “geographer” Christophe Guilluy, for example, who explained that the French banlieues are less a segregated powder keg than an integrated part of the world economy. He has written lucid essays on the major flashpoints and personalities of the era: Syriza, Calais, Orbán, Putin. These include the best analysis of the post-Brexit chaos, which memorably described Boris Johnson’s strategy to complete Britain’s withdrawal from the EU as one of burning his ships à la Cortés.

Caldwell synthesized many of his dispatches into a 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West. In measured, even tantric prose, he offered a pessimist’s take on Muslim immigration to Western Europe, building his argument so coolly that he transcended what had been a tabloid genre. “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines,” he concluded, “it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.” Remarkable was the praise it received from liberals and even neo-Marxists. It won plaudits from the New York Times and the Economist, and historical sociologist Perry Anderson described it as “the most striking single book to have appeared, in any language,” on the subject. One wonders about the reception had it been published a few years later, amid ISIS terror attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis, when mainstream outlets might have circled the wagons. Caldwell’s writerly talents are such that it possibly wouldn’t have mattered. He is an indoor-voice contrarian who is able to package his arguments in beguilingly commonsensical prose.

At the same time, Caldwell has been writing about American culture and politics for a number of prominent publications. Perhaps owing to his New England background, he is a distinctive voice in the world of conservative journalism, one suited to the present moment in which Republican intellectuals are rethinking the purpose of government, the prudence of military intervention, and the axioms of globalization. In Left Hooks, Right Crosses (2002), an anthology of 1990s political writing edited by Caldwell and Christopher Hitchens, the two men noted with amusement that the “left-wing” editor had supported the bombing of Serbia and the ouster of President Clinton, while “right-wing” editor had not. Around this time Caldwell criticized the “Southern captivity” of the GOP in an Atlantic cover story, sniffing at the idea that the “traditional” values of the Republican Party ought to be “the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls.” He explained that crude (and largely empty) anti-government rhetoric in the southern style had alienated voters, even conservative ones, in other regions of the country. “Anti-government sentiment makes little sense in New England,” he wrote, “where government . . . is neither remote nor unresponsive.” In a conservative movement that is presently split between sudden-onset nationalists and born-again liberals, Caldwell has timely things to say about American politics just by being himself.

The American experience is never far from his mind, even in his European reporting. Despite the image of Europe as the vanguard of NGO-style “rights talk,” Caldwell has been alert to the ways in which American law after the Civil Rights Act has shaped—or rather misshaped—a number of European legal systems. He has evidently been thinking about the legacy of the Civil Rights Act for a long time. His new book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, is about how civil rights transformed us—not just legally and politically but socially and constitutionally. The title is unfortunate. It has several meanings and accurately reflects the contents of the book, but it nevertheless sounds like a belch from the depths of the Regnery or Encounter catalogues. One hopes that it doesn’t drive away Caldwell novices. Many of them would benefit from reading a post-sixties history that is mordantly anti-Whiggish and relentlessly discouraging.

The thesis is clear and categorical. At some point in the past half century, Caldwell writes, “what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more.” It became, “most unexpectedly,” the source and model for “an entire new system of constantly churning political reform.” In reality it was nothing less than a second constitution—“a rival constitution”—and one which frequently clashed with the historic constitution “as the civil rights regime was built out.” What we rather prosaically refer to as polarization is something deeper and more noxious. It is the “increasing necessity that citizens choose between” the de jure constitution of 1788 and the de facto constitution of 1964, each of which enjoys distinct forms of legitimacy and commands the allegiance of different groups.

Reduced to a short abstract, The Age of Entitlement seems artificially and debatably schematic in the manner of a David Brooks op-ed. But the book is more capacious than this would suggest. It is an eccentric work of history that is simultaneously a narrative of the baby boomers and their parents; a revisionist, even patricidal, account of the Reagan administration; and an entry in the crowded genre of How You Got Trump. (Mercifully, Caldwell refers to the forty-fifth president obliquely and never by name.) It’s also a sure-footed cultural survey, at ease discussing leveraged buyouts, Oxycontin, postwar architecture, and the culture of internet moguls. Caldwell has an especially fine ear for linguistic change and its social meaning: “Never was the word ‘community’ used more indiscriminately and emptily,” he writes, “than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find.”

Above all, it is about how these disparate elements connect to the reforms of the 1960s, the scope of which we don’t properly appreciate. The civil rights revolution was what William James called a “moral equivalent of war,” one whose expansive, permanent nature slowly dawned on a shrinking majority population, unbalancing our political system in the process. “At its outset in the 1960s, middle-class Americans were prosperous, exuberant, enraged at the death of their president, and certain they had the resources to wage such a war,” Caldwell writes. “They were wrong about that.”

The Private Sector as the “Hammer of Civil Rights Enforcement”

In May 1964, Everett McKinley Dirksen, the minority leader in the Senate and the man who commanded the Republican votes needed to overcome the southern filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, gave what he described as “a little sermon” to Washington reporters. Prompted by those asking how he set aside his misgivings about the bill, Dirksen began his speech by quoting a loose translation of Victor Hugo’s Histoire d’un crime: “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” In a sense, the quote was apt. The Republican leadership had little room to maneuver, as political pressures had built up to the point where they couldn’t risk being seen as allies of the pigheaded southerners trying to kill the bill.1 Dirksen tried to make the best of a constrained situation by declaring himself an instrument of Providence.

Behind closed doors, Dirksen negotiated with liberal senators, leaving his mark on the bill. For most Americans, liberal and conservative, civil rights was a distant problem; it was “almost one of foreign policy,” Caldwell writes. “The folkways of the South clashed intolerably with mid-century Americans’ self-image.” Still, there were qualms among northern senators about how much change would be required closer to home. Disturbing news from Dirksen’s home state of Illinois made this a particularly vivid concern. Motorola had rejected a black applicant for an assembly-line job on the basis of a general ability test. Upon appeal, the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission took the unprecedented step of ordering Motorola to hire the applicant and junk the screening test. New York Times columnist Arthur Krock spoke for many when he warned that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (covering employment opportunity) would make a federal bureaucracy a senior partner with private business, extending “the rationale of the Illinois F.E.P.C. ruling throughout the free enterprise system of the United States.”2 Dirksen shared this anxiety. Title VII stuck him as reproducing, as if by mitosis, that hated New Deal relic, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would have the power to interfere with businesses in an entirely new sphere of authority.

An NLRB clone is precisely what liberals wanted. But Dirksen and the Republicans compelled them to privatize Title VII, making private lawsuits the chief mode of enforcement.3 This meant stripping the newly created civil rights agencies of the “quasi-judicial, cease-and-desist authority” that typified the NLRB, which forced them into a different model, one of issuing guidelines and regulations—what the literature calls “notice-and-comment rulemaking.”4 There were hidden advantages to this approach. No matter how broad its powers, an administrative agency can be “captured” by the interests it is supposed to regulate. No such hazard exists for a torrent of private litigation. Just as important, federal courts treated civil rights guidelines as if they were law itself, and directed lower courts to comply with future guidelines. The result was something of a black box: “without the participation—or even the knowledge—of the broad, non-lawyerly public,” Caldwell writes, “progressive legal projects ricocheted from bureaucrats to judges and back, growing more ambitious and onerous with each bounce.”

Thus the Dirksen compromise was one of the great Pyrrhic compromises in legislative history. These changes strengthened the civil rights regime beyond all imagination. Perhaps the Republicans had in mind the conservative federal judiciary of the 1930s, but judges proved extremely favorable to aggressive and even creative enforcement of the law. “If the spirit of the law was to humiliate Southern bigots,” Caldwell notes, the effect of it was to put “the entire country—all its institutions—under the threat of lawsuits and prosecutions for discrimination.”

The Dirksen compromise typifies the fecklessness of conservatives and the looking-glass logic of civil rights development. It shows how, once enacted, civil rights (in all its shifting forms) tended to advance regardless of electoral outcomes or legislative compromises. More profoundly, it supports Caldwell’s point that only blacks understood what civil rights meant. Compared to whites, their views “were more congruent with the reality of what would be required, and what would be effective, in bringing racial equality about.” Caldwell quotes a number of black intellectuals who saw earlier and clearer than most that desegregation was just the beginning.

The explosion of private litigation that the Republicans set off is key to understanding one of the distinctive aspects of The Age of Entitlement. Caldwell argues that the private sector became “the hammer of civil rights enforcement,” in the vanguard of promoting both affirmative action and political correctness. Corporations, advertisers, and the press did not behave this way out of high-mindedness; they did it, at least initially, as a pragmatic response to the threat of lawsuits. The cliché that businesses hate uncertainty turned out to be true, at least in this regard. When the Reagan administration belatedly sought to move against affirmative action, corporations reacted with a skittish reluctance to change anything, not with gratitude and relief.5 This was happening while, as Caldwell writes, Republicans succeeded in persuading voters that business was the “innocent opposite” of overweening government. The GOP could win electoral victories with this message, but it could not win the larger war over institutions and culture, because it was a misdiagnosis. The resulting confusion and disaffection among the Republican base go a long way toward explaining what happened in 2016.

A New Constitution?

We are used to a Whig version of civil rights history, taught in grade schools and colleges, reinforced by high culture and low, which justifiably stresses the moral grandeur of the movement. As Caldwell notes, it is the lone “metanarrative” to survive the acids of postmodernity. Less often do we consider the size of the movement in quantifiable terms. To that end Caldwell hits us with a bunch of comparisons. “In ways few people anticipated,” he writes,

[the civil rights revolution] proved to be the mightiest instrument of domestic enforcement the country had ever seen. It can fairly be described as the largest undertaking of any kind in American history. Costing trillions upon trillions of dollars and spanning half a century, it rivals, in terms of energy invested, the peopling of the West, the building of the transcontinental railways and highways, the maintenance of a Pax Americana for half a century after World War II, or, for that matter, any of the wars the country has fought, foreign or civil.

It’s hard to figure out all of the expenditures that Caldwell throws in the bin of civil rights.6 Here as elsewhere, he’s not inclined to show his work. He has written a volume of history, but the style is basically essayistic, throwing off elliptical provocations on every other page. This makes for compulsive reading, with remarks and images lingering in one’s mind with a kind of literary half-life. The book is so well written—so eminently quotable—that it will be referenced for many years to come. But perhaps more is expected of an argument that is “constitutional” in scope. I’m reminded of a comment a German professor scrawled on the back of one of my term papers: “Not enough of the tedious.”

The Age of Entitlement is not a book about where civil rights “went wrong” or “went too far.” It’s something more unusual. Caldwell knows that segregation couldn’t have been smashed without far-reaching government intervention and restrictions on cherished liberties. He also sees the Great Society as an institutional form of the civil rights impulse, a series of transfers from whites to blacks “of the resources necessary to make desegregation viable.” The book is rare in that it dwells on the opportunity costs of these reforms and on the “merciless contradiction[s]” into which they threw our political culture.

For the most part, these costs were unavoidable. Caldwell is scathing about those Republicans who console themselves with a myth: “The ‘good’ civil rights movement that the martyred Martin Luther King Jr. had pursued in the 1960s had . . . been ‘hijacked’ in the 1970s by a ‘radical’ one of affirmative action, with its quotas and diktats.” Caldwell thinks it was a package deal. Color-conscious civil rights inexorably followed from color-blind civil rights. Likewise, political correctness is not the invention of overzealous HR teams and campus snowflakes. It is inescapably “the cultural effect of basic enforcement powers of civil rights law.”

The reason for this inevitability is easy to summarize. The Dirksen compromise and Title VII were pieces of a larger story, and Caldwell pithily narrates the rest of it, including Supreme Court milestones like Brown v. Board of Education and the Bakke case (which gave birth to diversity as a governing principle). He distills, with aphoristic flair, the constitutional uneasiness in the legal scholarship on these cases, particularly among liberals who fretted about the implications in the years immediately after the rulings. He quotes the Harvard Law School professor Herbert Wechsler, who argued in 1959 that desegregation poses difficult-to-resolve conflicts with the implicit First Amendment right of freedom of association. For Caldwell, that resolution never came, and the Civil Rights Act introduced the same conflicts into the private sector. The result was constitutional revolution: “Just as assuming that two parallel lines can meet overturns the whole of Euclidean geometry,” Caldwell writes, “eliminating freedom of association from the U.S. Constitution changed everything.”

Caldwell describes freedom of association (rather awkwardly) as “the master freedom,” without which every other political freedom becomes a pallid and shrunken version of itself. The Civil Rights Act therefore opened a can of worms—or worse—by limiting that freedom. (From Dirksen’s private notebook of 1964: “Can Congress destroy freedom of association in the case of privately owned and operated businesses?”) This limitation cleared the way for a new model of government, defined by “executive orders, litigation, and court-ordered redress,” which took up every issue that could be presented as analogous to the black struggle. The roles of men and women, the relations between women and employers, the approval due to homosexuality, the welcome due to immigrants, even the ontology of sex itself—delivering the coup de grâce to the Jim Crow South meant, ultimately, redefining all of those things.

The new model sees things from the “victim perspective,” to use Alan David Freeman’s phrase from a 1978 law review article that Caldwell repeatedly invokes.7 It deals with unequal conditions more than specific actions, and it “assumes bias” where none can be proved instead of trying to eliminate biased intentions. (What Freeman called the “perpetrator perspective,” which reverses those concerns, was the view of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as written.) Over time, the triumph of the new perspective meant that inequality and discrimination became virtually indistinguishable. In the 1980s, at the height of the Reaganite backlash, the president’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was pouring millions of dollars into a case against Sears Roebuck that rested on statistical analysis rather than testimony about discrimination. When a judge ruled in favor of Sears, the head of the EEOC, Clarence Thomas, was obligated to file an appeal.8

This new model came at the expense of older notions of pluralism and a liberal society, both of which necessarily foster private discrimination. As Caldwell sees it, a society that systematically destroys every male-only social club is not a liberal one. A country that seeks to coerce ethnic neighborhoods out of their insularity (through, e.g., forced busing) no longer believes in pluralism.

Caldwell doesn’t discuss these older notions very much. What The Age of Entitlement calls “the de jure constitution of 1788” is a static foil. So is freedom of association as it existed before 1964. Critics of the book have complained about this vigorously, pointing to various “refoundings” in American history, from Jacksonian democracy to the Civil War and Reconstruction.9 One thinks of Henry Adams, who could with equal justice describe the Louisiana Purchase as a “constitutional cataclysm” because it was fatal to eighteenth-century notions of states’ rights. Or consider Cass Sunstein’s After the Rights Revolution, which treats the 1960s and 1970s as merely the “culmination” of a New Deal regulatory transformation that involved curtailing freedom of association to benefit unions.

Still, critics who insist on the 1960s as merely another refounding make a version of Caldwell’s argument for him. Caldwell’s point is that civil rights was not sold this way—“[i]ts toolbox of reform measures had been advertised as a remedy to one heinous constitutional exception”—and conflict was assured between the new dispensation and those who had not consented to it. The exceptional scope of the 1960s reforms is also defensible. Caldwell’s perspective is broadly similar to Hugh Davis Graham’s The Civil Rights Era, one of the doorstop histories on the subject:

Civil rights policy appears to have been the unwitting cutting edge of a vast but quiet revolution in the nature of the American state itself. . . . The phenomenon in question was a deep, national shift in the American administrative state, beginning around 1960, away from the consolidation that followed the New Deal and WWII, and toward a regulatory apparatus that paradoxically combined disaggregation with growth and with even greater intrusiveness by government.

Caldwell sharpens this appraisal by calling it a new constitution. He uses the term in the British sense, meaning an unwritten tradition of principle and practice which emerges out of law, legislation, and con-vention. The new constitution was awkwardly superimposed on the written one of 1788. As Caldwell sees it, the coalitions behind the two parties are loyal to separate dispensations, which means that political conflict is shading into constitutional conflict, “with all the gravity that the adjective ‘constitutional’ implies.”

The Reagan Counterrevolution?

Ronald Reagan looms over The Age of Entitlement, as he does in many accounts of the past sixty years. But Caldwell’s Reagan is not the usual conservative colossus. He is a blasted monument to a pseudo-golden age. The book rejects the assessment of candidate Barack Obama (from January 2008) that Reagan “changed the trajectory of America . . . [and] put us on a fundamentally different path.” What Reagan did was head off a social confrontation that might have altered the trajectory we were already on. The familiar discontents of the 1970s—inflation, crime, “malaise,” the trauma of a lost war—compounded a deeper problem. The civil rights revolution had, by that time, won “potentially limitless statutory power” but had lost much of its social legitimacy. (Whites opposed affirmative action, for example, by a margin of 81 percent to 11 percent.) Reagan couldn’t turn back the revolution or change its nature, but he could, in effect, bribe those who stood to lose from it.

Thomas and Mary Edsall’s Chain Reaction (1991), a classic history of the GOP’s rise to dominance, speaks of Reagan’s “attack on race liberalism” and “assault on affirmative action.” In hindsight, we can see it was a superficial attack. Reagan could, in his first term, reduce the budget of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by 10 percent and cut its staff by 12 percent, but this was merely a glancing blow. As Caldwell writes, “Having promised for years that he would undo affirmative action ‘with the stroke of a pen,’ lop the payments that LBJ’s Great Society lavished on ‘welfare queens,’ and abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education, [Reagan] discovered, once he became president, that to do any of those things would have struck at the very foundations of desegregation.” So he couldn’t abolish the race liberalism of the 1960s and ’70s. But, politically, he also couldn’t ask his supporters to pay for it. Reaganomics, with its supply-side tax cuts, was ushered in to address this “merciless contradiction.”

Caldwell repurposes the standard line on Franklin Roosevelt, making it a backhanded tribute to Reagan. As a recent history of the New Deal argues, “Roosevelt saved American capitalism from its own excesses and won the enduring hatred of those thus rescued.” Caldwell says that Reagan saved the Great Society in a similar way. Attacking it rhetorically, he nevertheless left it mostly intact while subsidizing with tax cuts those who hated it. In effect, he allowed middle-class whites to secede financially from the Great Society. Thus, “Reagan permitted Americans to live under two social orders, two constitutional orders, at the same time. There was a pre–Great Society one and a post–Great Society one.” It was an expensive arrangement. The cost of maintaining both orders “can be measured roughly by the growth of the debt, public and private,” in the decades since Reagan assumed office. This deal liberated the American consumer and bought a measure of social peace, but it was merely a reprieve from the “institutional dissolution” that seemed imminent in the late 1970s.

That’s the basic argument of The Age of Entitlement, and Caldwell tends to circle back to it as he surveys other topics. He imbues it with a pervasive sense of foreboding, although the disaster that will be visited upon us lurks offstage, unarticulated in the pages of the book. It’s clearly more than the election of Donald Trump. He leaves the impression that it may have something to do with the national debt.10 Implicated as well is the deep congruity between the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, with their mutually supporting “rhetoric of smashing limits.” Caldwell thinks we are about to ram into those limits, which are vague but apparently unyielding.

Yet Reagan is not the villain of the book. Caldwell’s approach reminds me of A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, which began with the notorious pronouncement that it was “a story without heroes; and perhaps even without villains.” Taylor scandalized England by writing a World War II history without villains; Caldwell has elicited outrage, on a much smaller scale, by giving us a decidedly unheroic account of the Civil Rights Act and its legacy. Everyone in The Age of Entitlement does his part to chip away at the foundations of the republic, for what are ultimately sympathetic reasons. The boomers, for example, throw around their demographic weight like a juvenile elephant in a liquor store. Or consider Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—not the opposites of common myth—who Caldwell thinks propagated a version of human rights that was alien to the American constitutional tradition.

The historian Jefferson Cowie once wrote of the Reagan coalition: “it was easy [for them] to connect every problem to the new citizenship demands of African Americans.” Caldwell thinks our major challenges really are connected to those demands, often in ways nobody intended or anticipated. It makes for a potent distillation of recent American history, conveyed in a series of revisionist epigrams. At one point Caldwell remarks of a passage by the New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow: “[it’s] almost biblical in its capacity to cast everything . . . in a different light.” This is the effect he himself aims for, sometimes to a fault.

The idea that Reagan was the savior of the Great Society, for example, seems forced. The book dwells on the extraordinary power of “the new constitution” and the feebleness of democratic resistance to social change, so it’s unclear why a decade without Reagan would have posed a bigger threat to the reforms of the 1960s. Caldwell occasionally wants to inject a sense of contingency, or historical drama, into the narrative, but it doesn’t quite work. How could it, when he presents civil rights as something like a universal acid, unstoppably eating through legal barriers and dissolving popular opposition? He suggests, to take another example, that Nixon’s resignation amounted to a close call for the 1960s political project, when Nixon was probably too incoherent on domestic matters to carry out a counterrevolution.

Caldwell’s notion of “two social/constitutional orders,” created out of the Reagan tax cuts, also invites some quick objections. For one thing, the American welfare state has an “increasingly middle-class character,” as one political scientist put it.11 More to the point, are we really supposed to equate an older generation of Medicare beneficiaries with a “pre–Great Society” social order? The dichotomy is a slippery one. Is it supposed to overlap neatly with social groups? The meaning tends to shift depending on the thematic and chronological demands of the book. On the whole, the “orders” are just a way to discuss, with a Machiavellian flourish, the Republican and Democratic coalitions as they presently exist. And those coalitions, Caldwell suggests, were created in large part by immigration.

Popular Sentiment Versus Public Opinion

Anyone who reads Caldwell’s two books in rapid succession will suffer from whiplash on the subject of immigration. In Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the United States is contrasted favorably with western Europe. It is a great success story, a country that is able to assimilate vast quantities of foreigners with only a few disrupted local habits and some “logistical headaches for schools, hospitals, and local governments.” In The Age of Entitlement, his optimism has vanished. Immigration is an issue at “the dead center of American politics,” one of the chief sources of our partisan derangement. In the stylized past tense he adopts while discussing the present (as if he were a historian writing a century hence), Caldwell observes that nonwhite immigration “would be what the spread of slavery in the western territories had been in the two decades before the Civil War—an issue that could be used by one side or the other to connive at a position of permanent political dominance.” In a book mined with provocations, this one is perhaps the most startling.

As Caldwell sees it, the problem is how immigration interacts with and amplifies the civil rights regime. With masterly concision, he describes the 1965 Hart-Celler Act (which abolished the system of national quotas) and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (which issued a broad amnesty while setting in place “fake” immigration controls). Late amendments to the IRCA, which looked perfunctory at the time, added wording about employer liability for discrimination on the basis of national origin. Anyone familiar with the development of civil rights law, from the Dirksen compromise onwards, can predict what happened next. The window dressing “became the heart of the bill,” turning “inside-out” the penalties meant to curb the hiring of unauthorized immigrants. Caldwell believes the law had far-reaching effects: “It provided the courts and federal civil rights agencies . . . with new ground for overruling and overriding legislatures and voters on any question that could be cast as a matter of discrimination. That was coming to mean all questions.”

Mass immigration in the past forty years has increased the salience of race, confounding expectations. Decades ago, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson predicted that “migratory” patterns would nullify America’s racial divide: “By the middle of the twenty-first century, America will have problems aplenty. But no racial problem whatsoever.” Unfortunately, as Caldwell notes, civil rights law racialized whites in a paradoxical way—it rendered them, for legal purposes, raceless, something that would become more visible as the country diversified and slowly organized itself around a new demographic binary: the legally raceless and the “people of color.” The arrangement was bound to cause resentment. As Caldwell wrote shortly before the 2016 election, “Any system of race-based transfers and rights will eventually polarize voters along racial lines, even with the best will in the world.” Disquieting pessimism like that—and actual engagement with civil rights law—are what distinguish The Age of Entitlement from the recent wave of books on tribalism and identity.

All of these books are responding to the rise of Trump, of course, but also to the swell of angry, sanctimonious posturing that began sometime during the Obama administration (starting with the Tea Party and continuing through the “Great Awokening”). This had a lot to do with Obama himself. Nathan Glazer once observed that it was “the condition of the black population of the United States, not the state of their rights, nor the practices that affect them,” that is the strongest support for the “massive machinery” of the civil rights regime. It was not the amelioration of that condition but its basic transformation that President Johnson, in a famous 1965 address, called “the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” It is hard to demonstrate by social scientific standards, but I suspect the contrast between that stalled transformation and a black man occupying the highest office in the land catalyzed something akin to a religious revival—a recommitment, at once earnest and histrionic, to waging that next and more profound battle. The extraordinary profusion of references to racism and white privilege in the mainstream media, beginning well before the Trump campaign, should be understood in that light.12

Caldwell focuses more on a second reason. Although much of white America saw Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights movement, his presidency dispelled the illusion that there would ever be a culmination. The “more intrusive tools” of civil rights were not temporary but permanent. It was a particularly dangerous realization for a white working class facing decline across many dimensions: in its life expectancy, in its financial security, even, as Caldwell notes, in its “ability to carry out ordinary daily tasks.” The combination has given us an endless debate over the primacy of “racial resentment” or “economic anxiety” in the 2016 election—the great particle-or-wave question of contemporary political science. Caldwell intervenes in this debate with brutal simplicity:

In a world in which no one was able to say what he really thought, American politics turned into a bizarre tacit bargain, like an embarrassing family secret kept among 300 million people. White people were supposed to console themselves that their superior economic standing somehow “compensated” them for their inferior status as citizens. As their economic standing eroded, though, the consolation rang hollow and the compromise grew unstable.13

The censorship that Caldwell refers to, delegated to the private sector, is one of his great themes. In a New York Times review, Jonathan Rauch called The Age of Entitlement “strangely airless.” Oddly enough, this is one of the strengths of the book. Caldwell’s prose is able to recreate a cultural milieu in which, as he writes, “Americans in all walks of life began to talk about the smallest things as if they would have their lives destroyed for holding the wrong opinion.” The historian John Lukacs once described how popular sentiment (belonging to the masses) and public opinion (belonging to the educated classes) were formerly distinct concepts that began to converge in the nineteenth century with the spread of democracy and mass education.14 Caldwell, in effect, believes the categories have forked once again under the new constitution. “By the election year of 2016,” he writes, “Americans would be so scared to speak their mind on matters even tangential to civil rights that their political mood was essentially unreadable.”

One might hope that Caldwell is a prisoner of the last election cycle. But The Age of Entitlement is not a Trump-inspired book. Caldwell sketched out the argument at a Harvard lecture in 2014, well before the famous escalator ride.15 What’s impressive, or disturbing, is how the past five years slipped into the argument with bespoke precision—to the point where many reviewers assumed it was conceived as a how-you-got-Trump book. In a sense, deciding if Caldwell “lucked” out—if the 2010s were merely a feverish interregnum, the growing pains of the new constitution—is a verdict on his argument.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 2 (Summer 2020): 182–97.


1 E. W. Kenworthy, “Rights Bloc Wins Closure Support,” New York Times, May 20, 1964; Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960–1972 (New York: Oxford, 1990), 143–44.

2 Quoted in Graham, The Civil Rights Era, 149.

3 Sean Farhang, “The Political Development of Job Discrimination Litigation,” Studies in American Political Development 23, no. 1 (January 2009): 23–60; R. Shep Melnick, “Adversarial Legalism and the Civil Rights State” (paper presented at the Virtues and Vices of Legalism: A Conference to Honor the Work of Robert A. Kagan, University of California, Berkeley, Center for the Study of Law and Society, September 19, 2008).

4 Graham, The Civil Rights Era, 467.

5 Nathan Glazer, Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), xiv.

6 In fairness to Caldwell, it should be noted that because enforcement is so widely dispersed, “we do not even have a good estimate of how many federal employees work on civil rights.” R. Shep Melnick, The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2018), 33.

7 As Caldwell discusses, the triumph of the “victim perspective” was due to a number of things: the stubborn poverty of many black neighborhoods, the clientele capture of the civil rights agencies, the mismatch between those agencies’ growing powers and the scope of action provided by the “intentional” view, and the occupational sociology of the late twentieth-century judiciary.

8 Juan Williams, “Discrimination Case: Administration Fights Unhappily with Sears,” Washington Post, July 15, 1985; Juan Williams, “A Question of Fairness,” Atlantic (February 1987).

9 For the sharpest critique of the legal aspects of the book, see Robert Verbruggen, “Did Civil-Rights Law Ruin America?,” National Review (February 5, 2020).

10 It is remarkable, given that Caldwell is a sympathetic expositor of the new populism, that The Age of Entitlement is suffused with libertarian concerns, such as “rights,” “the Constitution,” and an almost aesthetic revulsion toward the national debt. On this point, see Darel E. Paul, “Clashing Rights,” First Things (March 2020): 61–63.

11 Christopher Howard, The Welfare State Nobody Knows: Debunking Myths about U.S. Social Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 209.

12 For a quantitative breakdown, see Zach Goldberg, “America’s White Saviors,” Tablet (June 5, 2019).

13 Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized, suggests that Caldwell’s synthetic approach to the racial resentment/economic anxiety question is correct, but it gets the causality backward. Klein cites social scientists who believe that racial and cultural anxieties lead to economic pessimism, not the other way around. The grim assessments of both books, however, are remarkably similar, at least on questions of race and the American political future. See Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020), 120.

14 John Lukacs, Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 263–64.

15 Christopher Caldwell, “The Endless 1960s,” a lecture delivered at the Program on Constitutional Government, Harvard University, October 24, 2014.

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