To Make America Exceptional Again?

Seeking distance from the dispiriting political news, I spent the best hours of last week reading various chapters of four books by Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers.  I am as eager as the next guy to make sense of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but I do not expect to work my way through to useful opinions by following the primary and caucus returns. So I turned to the work of a scholar who has spent his career writing about the evolution of the political culture of modern capitalism in the US over the last 150 years.

I first read Rodgers a few years ago after an old friend recommended Age of Fracture, which had won a Bancroft Prize in 2012. I was struck by how attentive the historian had been to various developments in economics in the 1960s and ’70s  I knew something about: the influence of deregulators such as Ronald Coase and Alfred Kahn, macroeconomists Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas, lowbrow supply-siders, highbrow game theorists, legal educator Henry Manne.

I know much less about the other realms Rodgers reconnoitered in the book in order to elaborate his central metaphor – international relations, class, race, gender, community, narrative.  But I know that his fundamental diagnosis rings true.  Life today is more specialized, more highly differentiated, and, yes, somehow thinner than in the past.

Conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones… Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind the last quarter of the century, was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.

Over the next year I skimmed Rodgers’ three previous books. They turned out to offer a fairly seamless narrative of, not so much economic history, but arguments about economic history, over the course of a century and half. Rodgers was born in 1942, graduated from Brown University in 1965 and from Yale in 1973, taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1980, when he moved to Princeton University, where today he is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, emeritus

That first book, The Work Ethic in Industrial America: 1850-1920, traced American attitudes towards work, leisure and success, from relatively small-scale workshops before the Civil War to highly mechanized factories at the beginning of the industrial age. The second, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence, identified a handful of ostensibly technical terms – “utility,” “natural rights,” “the people,” “government,” “the state,” and “interests” – and examined their use in arguments, especially as the confident tradition he describes as “liberal” gave way to a rediscovery, both academic and popular, of “republicanism” in the Reagan years.

The third work, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, is a highly original reconstruction of various ways “progressivism” was understood in the first half of the twentieth century, in Europe and the United States: corporate rationalization, city planning, public housing, worker safety, social insurance, municipal utilities, cooperative farming, wartime solidarity, and emergency improvisation in the Great Depression. (A research assistant was Joshua Micah Marshall, who went on to found the influential online news site Talking Points Memo.)

Age of Fracture is the fourth.

It’s a rich vein.  I plan to mine all four over the next few months, making a Sunday item, when and if I can. One needs something to discipline mood swings during the rest of the campaign, and I’ve decided that, for me, this is it.

Today I’ll offer a small but concrete example of what Rodgers calls “ideas in motion across an age,” or, in this case, many ages. American exceptionalism is a persistent theme with him: the free-floating idea that, as “the first new nation” and “the last best hope of democracy,” the United States has a mission to transform the world and little to learn from the rest of it. Is that the note that Trump so single-mindedly and simple-mindedly strikes when he promises to “make American great again”? It helps me to think so.

As for Rodgers, he is spending the year in California, writing a fifth book, a “biography” of a 1630 text that would come in time to be seen as central to the nation’s self-conception — the John Winthrop sermon that contains the famous phrase, “[W]e shall be as a city on a hill.”

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