For anyone worried that the U.S. under Trump could morph into populist authoritarianism like Hungary or Poland, sociologist David Kamens’ new book, A New American Creed, will not calm those fears. Kamens trains his social scientific expertise on U.S. politics and economics from the 1930s to the present. He recounts how a collectivist response to the Great Depression created national solidarity and social programs like Social Security. World War II continued that collectivism and solidarity and surprisingly, so did the Cold War.
But then, in the 1960s, the business counterattack against government regulation and high taxes began. The narrative of polarization gained ground. Social solidarity declined. Today, he writes, populism has “weakened the idea that society could act collectively to solve social problems,” while politics have polarized around “government regulation of the economy and regulation of public morality” (abortion, LGBTQ rights, the death penalty). Meanwhile, “the mantra of no tax increases and no government borrowing cripples economic policy.” Kamens argues that the U.S. fiscal crisis “derives from the inability of society to support the taxation levels needed to run a modern state and society.”
With the media as “purveyors of conflict,” all elites—in higher education, medicine, government, politics, science, and media—have become suspect and political parties and traditional citizenship duties, like voting and voluntary associations, have declined, replaced by radical individualism and right-wing populism. Attacks on university and scientific elites lower social mobility, Kamens argues, and push Republican state governments to cut funding for higher education. Similarly, scientists warning about climate change become targets. Kamens writes: “Business may be the one institution immune to this challenge. American civil religion has long defined business as a meritocracy and a major source of progress.” So business elites remain exempt from the abuse heaped on all other elites. The most telling example of this was when “the public blamed government, not financial institutions, for the depression of 2008.”
“Americanism is a highly individualistic and populist religion,” Kamens writes. “While the United States was founded as a religious enterprise, it was also a business venture. Frontier capitalism became a part of the creed.” That creed has fault lines—the media hypes it so much that the country is widely considered to be in permanent conflict. Add to this common discourse about a “culture war” and presto: polarization. Indeed, Kamens argues that current partisan prejudice is the worst it’s been since the Civil War.
The fault lines Kamens describes are economic libertarianism and cultural libertarianism. He argues that “there is deregulation of the economy as well as deregulation of morality,” and asks, “should the nation deregulate morality … to advance civil liberties for all?” And, “should the government regulate the economy to reduce inequality and promote growth and innovation?” Unfortunately, the rise of civil libertarianism has not engendered support for economic equality. That’s partly due to post-1960s neoliberalism, embraced by both major parties and seriously eroding the Democrats’ working-class base.
Kamens is more sympathetic to the left-wing populism of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. He also calls out the irrationality of the Tea Party belief that anyone who wants to work can find a job and thus Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid should be reserved solely for people with long work histories. He criticizes the widespread notion that no special training is needed to run government and warns that expertise is in decline: “This is the era of the rational public and the wisdom of crowds.” Public opinion has displaced knowledge. The results of right-wing populism have weakened collective action to solve social problems. But Kamens does not dispute that left-wing populism could have different outcomes. So there may be hope for populism yet.
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