U.S. Intellectual History Blog

more on "Age of Fracture"

In a comment on David’s recent post investigating neo-pragmatism as an influence on Daniel Rodgers, I invoked the name of Brian Ingrassia. Brian is on the history faculty at Georgia State University, along with David and myself, and is the author of a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Cornerstone of the Ivory Tower: Big Time College Football and the Origins of American Intellectual Culture (Kansas). After being dragged into this discussion, Brian felt the need to clarify his thoughts on the book, and surprised me a few days later with a substantial written critique. In it he issued a criticism similar to that of Lisa Szefel, who argued that  Rodgers “rarely ventures outside the realm of books and articles.” Unlike Szefel (and unlike just about every writer on this blog who has commend on it), however, Brian finds Age of Fracture to be ultimately unsatisfying. His thoughtful take on the book, I thought, would be an interesting addition to all the recent USIH commentary on Age of Fracture, and I asked him if I could post it. His comments are below. 
Since Mike invoked my name in the comments, I feel obligated to weigh in, although I do not feel qualified to comment on whether or not Rodgers is a neo-pragmatist. Rather, I want to express why—although I admire Rodgers’ book and learned much from it—I still remain unsatisfied. (As a caveat, I read the book in bits and pieces as I was finishing my own book and conducting a brutal and fruitless job search, so my reading of it is admittedly imperfect.)
Age of Fracture, as some have pointed out, could also be characterized as an age of “disaggregation.” Even then, the question remains: what fractured, or why did late-20th thinkers embrace theories of disaggregation? Rodgers’s book is very good at showing how post-1960s thought embodied this shift, but does not explain why it happened. As David says, this is beyond Rodgers’s scope. Rodgers is just trying to illustrate the loss of ideas of solidarity in the last part of the 20th century. But if that is true, then I think that Rodgers’ scope limits the analytical power of his argument.

The limited scope is partly the result of a presumption that I find problematic. Rodgers disagrees (p.9) with historians who stress a base-superstructure model that places economic change before intellectual change. I agree with his critique of base-superstructure, but I do not think that the solution is to settle for a mere analysis of late-20th century words. After all, discourse, while not just a reflection of some kind of social “reality,” is still shaped by events—the same way that events can be shaped by words and ideas. We should see words in a long-term interaction with events. And I do not find it satisfying (i.e., I am not Foucauldian enough) to say that things changed in the 1970s and 1980s because the words changed. The words and ideas shifted because they were shaped by words, ideas, and events in an earlier time.
Part of my problem with the book lies in the fact that it starts off in the 1970s and seems to portray the 1970s as a new world barely shaped by anything that came before—or at least a world that diverged from all that came before. Here is an example. Although it took me a while to put my finger on my critique, I was very unsatisfied with the chapter on Reagan and presidential rhetoric. The chapter has an in-media-res character: In the 1980s, Reagan’s vocabulary exhibited a declining belief in the nation or in a sense of solidarity among Americans, so that at the same time the U.S. “won” the Cold War, it essentially lost it. But to explain 1980s Ronald Reagan without discussing 1960s Ronald Reagan is to lose much of the story of why his vocabulary fractured. Reagan’s initiation as a serious national political figure was 1964, when he spoke in favor of Barry Goldwater and critiqued the Civil Rights Act as a law that pushed federal control too far into the private lives of Americans. Certainly, as Rodgers points out, Goldwater spoke of “freedom” and “liberty” within a Cold War framework (p.16), but we must also remember that he (like Reagan) was speaking within an anti-civil rights framework when he spoke of resisting the “license of the mob and the jungle.”
This is a critical distinction. Building upon the work of historians such as Joseph Crespino, I would argue that the white backlash against civil rights was evidence that the social contract, heretofore primarily imagined as white in America and many other places, died sometime in the 1960s. We might say that it is good that the white public sphere crumbled at this time, but we simultaneously have to admit that it was not replaced by an interracial public sphere, except perhaps if we limit our analysis to certain aspects of mainstream popular culture. Rather, it was replaced by competing racial spheres, some of which sought to re-imagine society as a place where private space was preferable to public space. Once “public” accommodations were integrated by federal government action, white people in many parts of America (Mississippi, Atlanta, Boston, etc.) pulled out of an all-inclusive social contract in order to create a privatized public sphere. Reagan’s vocabulary lost the Cold War, to use Rodgers’s formulation, because his concept of national solidarity had already foundered upon the rock of civil rights two decades earlier. At the same time the U.S. as a nation won the Cold War diplomatically, the meaning of the “nation” had already been hollowed out by thinkers and leaders like Reagan.
Rodgers addresses civil rights weakly by arguing that although the civil rights movement made many strides, it was not able to reshape American society to the fullest extent (see pp. 3-4, 113ff). But such an argument loses sight of the fact that the civil rights movement’s historical significance was as much negative as it was positive. It was a classic case of unintended consequences. By promoting the logical conclusion that all people, regardless of color, should be included in the public sphere, the public sphere inadvertently fragmented and color became an important marker of group identity. This is why identity politics and university programs focused on race/gender/ethnicity emerged at the same time that public space and education were privatized. Once the public sphere dissolved and society disaggregated, we ended up with smaller groups, each of which felt that it had a privileged place within society based on its own identity markers. One of my favorite chapters in Age of Fracture is “Little Platoons of Society,” in part because it starts to nod toward this interpretation (p. 195). But then it quickly backs away from the long durée to focus on the 1980s.
Backlash against civil rights, though, is just one part of a larger story. We see this if we look at the emergence of market discourses based upon the individual in a disaggregated society. Rodgers, perceptively, mentions that the oil crisis of the early 1970s was a “critical hinge point in global economic history” (p. 9) yet still seems reluctant to admit that economics could have led to changes in social thought—after all, that would perpetuate a crude base-superstructure model. But I would argue that we should not see the oil crisis as an economic deus ex machine that disrupted American thought and solidarity, but rather as a result of post-World War II post-colonialism (its practical realities as well as its ideologies). The oil crisis was a long-term result of de-colonization, as newly formed nations sought to assert control of the globally valuable commodity of petroleum. As Rodgers implies, the oil crisis was so significant because it disrupted economic thought that had been constructed within the parameters of the nation-state. But the oil crisis exposed the brittleness of those parameters. Once the nation-state was no longer the reigning paradigm for economists, upon which basis could economic thought be restructured? The aggregate was gone. Or, at least, traditionally powerful aggregates were losing their power and influence. Henceforth, the market would be restructured upon the basis of the individual, a lower common denominator that was able to permeate porous national boundaries in an age when the importance of the nation declined. Disaggregation was necessary so that new aggregates could be constructed out of individuals.
Once again, the American civil rights movement is instructive in this context. Some argue that civil rights was a post-colonial movement—or, at least, a movement analogous to various post-colonial movements, especially in Africa. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” even gives direct evidence of this interpretation. Identity politics and the restructuring of the market were evidence of an “age of fracture,” just not one rooted in the 1970s. The disaggregation of 1970s social and economic thought was the flowering of a worldwide movement rooted in the global conflict of the 1940s (and its aftermath). The age of fracture resulted when a turn-of-the-century understanding of “civilization” and the “public” and the “market”—based on nationalism, colonialism, and whiteness—was challenged and then toppled. Once that happened, American society (like others throughout the world) became much more inclusive in some ways, but new boundaries were constructed and a process of re-aggregation began. This also has something to do with why we are currently seeing the death of many Progressive Era reforms, institutions, and structures in the United States.
I am sure that these comments will still seem too base-superstructure for most intellectual historians, but I think they provide additional food for thought. While Rodgers sets an ambitious and thought-provoking agenda for intellectual historians working on the late-20th century, his book probably gives us more questions than answers. Some of these questions, I think, can be answered by looking into the events of an earlier age. What exactly fractured, and when—and why—did the cracks start to appear?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for posting them, Mike. And thanks for writing them and letting them be posted here, Brian.

    I need to digest them more before I can formulate a comprehensive response to them. But two thoughts right off the bat.

    First, I think Brian is 100% correct that one of the burdens of Rodgers book is to suggest that something fundamental changed in the mid-1970s. How we ought to periodize the history of post-1929 American history is, I think, a very interesting question, both for intellectual historians in particular and US historians in general. I’m less unconvinced by Rodgers’s take on this issue than Brian is, but it’s far from resolved by Rodgers’s book.

    Secondly, while I think Brian is correct to say that we shouldn’t treat Reagan’s rhetoric as emerging out of nowhere in the late 1970s, it’s also worth remembering that his famous Goldwater campaign speech also didn’t emerge out of nowhere. In fact, it was a variation of the speeches that he’d been giving for GE since 1954. Arguably the biggest influence on these speeches was Lemuel Boulware, a man more concerned over issues of class than issues of race. I certainly don’t think we should discount the battle over civil rights in the mid-1960s as an important context for Reagan’s “Time of Choosing” speech, but “Boulwarism” is probably a more important influence in Reagan’s ideological development (if memory serves, Kim Phillips-Fein writes a lot about this in her book, but my copy is in my office and I’m writing this from home).

  2. Your memory is spot on, Ben. Boulware is a very important figure in “Invisible Hands.” Kim Phillips-Fein also wrote an article about him in the edited collection “American Capitalism” (Penn).

    (Also, Ben, you deserve congratulations for what I believe is a new coinage to enable intellectual hedging: “less unconvinced.”)

    As both conservatism and post-1945 history become increasingly popular topics in the profession, an important debate is forming, it seems to me, over the question of how important race is to the development of both movement conservatism and the conservative intellectual project. The issue has already come up a few times in the comments section of this blog, and I suspect that the debate it represents will only become more pronounced in the near future.

    Along these lines, I was very taken by a comment that David Sehat made to me some months ago when I told him I was reading “Suburban Warriors”: he said that the important thing about that book was that it argued that conservatism arose without much concern for race. When I objected, saying that the book said very little on that topic, David replied “Exactly!”

    Initially I didn’t think that was fair. Using myself as an example, as someone who is primarily interested in the American economic thought, I believe that one should be allowed to isolate the libertarian strands in modern conservatism without being subject to criticism that he/she is whitewashing the movement or ignoring its less savory aspects. Choosing not to write about race, I thought initially, should not be too easily conflated with *failing* to write about race.

    I still think that is true, but the more I look around, the more I understand David’s comment differently. I now view it less as a criticism of Lisa McGirr (which is not, I think, what he intended) but instead as an acknowledgment of an historiographical reality: there are people who see race as central to the rise of conservatism, and people who see it as less so. Members of each group are going to frame their histories quite differently, and disagreements are bound to crop up. Lisa McGirr didn’t simply start doing research only to discover that there were few black people in Orange Country during the time period she was covering. She chose her own subject, and in focusing on that place, she picked a location that that helped her relate the particular story that she wanted to tell, which was one that was not focused on racialist discourse. Looked at this way, I think, it *is* a reasonable inference to conclude that racial issues were not among her primary interests in accounting for the rise of modern conservatism.

    One could contrast that choice with Kevin Kruse’s focus on Atlanta in “White Flight.” That book is entirely focused on racial issues, strongly makes the point that resistance to integration (and not just better schools, lower homes prices, etc.) was a major factor in the white move to the suburbs, and is subtitled “Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.” From these facts alone, one could, I think, fairly surmise that McGirr and Kruse are likely to have different views on the importance of race to the rise of modern conservatism.

    To be honest, it is not apparent to me in which camp “Age of Fracture” puts Daniel Rodgers. Others may see it differently, and I would be curious to hear opinions on this topic. To the extent that this debate becomes an important one, however, this lack of clarity might be a limitation of the book itself.

  3. Thanks to Brian for contributing to this discussion. I haven’t completed my reading of Rodgers, but I think I can contribute something on the topics discussed in the book and here.

    This racial question in relation to modern conservatism is most certainly tricky. I think part of this is empirical. There was a growing sensitivity to the fact that explicitly articulating racial issues in an insensitive, negative fashion put one on dangerous ground. The civil rights movement, and its offspring multiculturalism, had some degree of popular support. So what you get from conservatives is either (1) silence or (2) isolated and/or indirect events with racial messages embedded. On (2), one could cite opposition to MLK day, persistent complaints about Mexican immigration (legal and illegal), dissatisfaction with black culture (complaints about rap and hip hop), criticism of black intellectuals and cultural figures (e.g. Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Gates, Malcolm X’s legacy, Oprah), and complaints about black athletes not being role models.

    But what about the conservative ~intellectual~ movement, or the history of ideas and the ascendant conservative movement? What of multiculturalism, for instance? Many think it unfair to attribute complaints about multiculturalism as one-for-one for being white-centered (i.e. appreciation is not always celebration). And concern for fragmentation is not race-based issue.

    Another problem is silence in the face of racial injustices and obvious instances of racism. For instance, some thoughtful conservative politicians (if not conservative public intellectuals) have been called out for not showing leadership in relation to racism. I recall a positive instance of David Brooks calling out candidates for pandering to racism during the 2008 campaign season.

    What does all of this show, or mean? My tentative conclusion is that while race is not ~central~ to recent conservative movement, it is nevertheless an important consideration—it should be considered and weighed carefully by historians. There can be little doubt that race has factored into the movement’s tactics and appeal.

    – TL

  4. Ben, thanks for your comment about Reagan’s time as GE spokesman. You make a really valuable point that I glossed over in my comments. A few years ago Columbia University Press published an interesting book on this subject (maybe titled “The Education of Ronald Reagan”? It is on my shelf at home and I am writing from work!) and I definitely agree that Reagan’s ideas didn’t emerge full formed in 1964. I was just using the “Time for Choosing” speech as shorthand for his pre-1970s transformation.

    And I would agree that Reagan wasn’t necessarily motivated by race (or racism). Lou Cannon and others have spoken on this. However, the practical effect of Reagan’s rhetoric was to create a conservative coalition in which anti-civil rights voters coexisted side-by-side with anti-government conservatives. Race certainly was not the only issue, but it was one important issue that allowed Reagan and others to successfully hollow out the core of the liberal state after mid-century.

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