In the presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on October 28, 1980, Reagan asserted, “We’ve made great progress from the days when I was young and when this country didn’t even know it had a racial problem,” to which Carter replied, “Those who suffered from discrimination because of race or sex certainly knew we had a racial problem.” Despite losing the election a few days later, Carter made a point which has held up over the decades: being oblivious to injustice doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Yet a new book suggests that, in this exchange at least, Reagan may have been on to something.
Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties is the latest of many barbarians-at-the-gate treatises which have appeared since Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Caldwell’s innovation is to posit not higher education, permissiveness, or popular culture as the big problem affecting American society, but two historic pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For all the moral triumphalism which has cemented in their wake, he argues, the Acts amounted to a second US Constitution rivaling the original, through which enforced rights supplanted implicit freedoms as the basic principles of national governance.
Age of Entitlement doesn’t really reject the ideal of equal opportunity for all, nor does it deny the harsh realities of sexism and segregation which drove the feminist and civil rights campaigns. But Caldwell says that the legal – or legalistic – claims of Blacks, women, immigrants and others have become entrenched in the US political system to the point where they have produced an inevitable response in the form of Donald Trump, unnamed but obvious here, and his supporters. Even supposedly old-fashioned conservatives like Reagan paid lip service to earlier values but didn’t stop the tide; instead they bought off a dubious public with ruinous tax cuts and deregulation while the rights revolution advanced. What some expected to be only a one-time correction of uneven standards (which would finally ensure that all citizens got a fair shake) turned out to be an indefinite program of redress (which opened every sphere of life to government oversight). Trumpists may not want to roll back every gain won by everyone else, but they reject the premise that the state must commit to a permanent, costly war against discrimination, with ordinary people caught in the crossfire. “The imputation of free-standing, spontaneously arising racism – racism with no cause or justification, like some force of nature, and which no reference to history or custom could mitigate or justify – was the only logical channel for the exercise of power that the ‘diversity’ doctrine had dug,” Caldwell writes.
Other commentators have identified the distinction between “managed liberalism,” whereby a broad range of personal liberties are promoted and policed by an elite minority of judges, philanthropists, and media stars, and “illiberal democracy,” whereby electoral majorities choose leaders who denounce or dismantle the same protections. Age of Entitlement critiques the first without quite endorsing the second. Caldwell’s staccato prose lends itself to the bluntness of his message, although he tends to skim other factors which may just as likely have affected American life over his time period: deindustrialization since the 1970s, the rise of the national security state since September 11, 2001, even the gradual movement of population from the northeast to the south and west since the end of World War II. Nor does he acknowledge that many of the same excesses of social justice he laments in the US cropped up in other countries with their own unique histories and laws. Still, Age of Entitlement‘s provocative notion of an unrecognized second Constitution may help explain why America now stands at the brink of an undeclared second Civil War.