I have never had much patience for the kind of universal history that trades in ideas like “decline and fall.” I look at Italy or Spain in 2018 and don’t really buy that life for the ordinary Italian in 1470 or ordinary Spaniard in 1570 was better than life for a comparable person today. Power and empire have their obvious pathologies—and their perhaps a little less obvious costs.
Is the US today worse off than it was in 1955? Not for blacks and gays, it would seem obvious to say. Or even for leftists, one might add, given the rather terrifying impact of Joe McCarthy’s ravings. For the grand American middle class, things generally are worse. We can tell ourselves a story about how, coming out of the collective effort and collective sacrifice of the War, we entered the most egalitarian moment in US history, the moment when a grateful nation rewarded all its citizens for what they had done for the war effort. It is certainly true that Harry Truman’s embrace of civil rights (as far as it went) was driven partly by electoral calculations, but also partly by his outrage that black veterans could be treated so shabbily at home. Truman’s ah-ha moment came with the killing (not quite a lynching, but damn close) of a black Army veteran in Georgia in 1947.
American confidence—and rude health—in the post-War years can also be seen in its investments. The interstate highway system, the airports, the public universities and health care facilities were all products of a positive outlook on society and its future. American decline can be measured, it seems to me, in the growing refusal to invest in the future—either in infrastructure or in our children’s health or education—since the 1970s recession. The contrast to China (as illustrated in the most recent issue of The New Yorker) could not be more stark. While they are building universities, roads, high speed trains, we are letting our infrastructure decay all around us. Our subways and highways are falling apart—and our universities are being left to rot.
Of course, this is a story about privatization, about the evils of neoliberalism, about the loss of any sense that the public coffers should finance such things as education, health, or transportation. But we can also tell a story in which it stems from the on-going (and seamlessly endless) backlash from the 1960s, the interminable culture wars. The right has insisted on an “us” vs. “them” narrative since 1968 (at least), where “them” are the uppity blacks of the civil rights movement and the hippies of the anti-war movement, later joined by feminists and gay activists. The right will be damned before spending public money (“our taxes”) on these god-forsaken folks. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face it all too often is, but to hell with the consequences.
It’s the loss of any sense of fellow-feeling with whole cross-sections of one’s fellow Americans that makes abandonment of infrastructure investment so easy to countenance. We know it is not for lack of funds. So we all get to live in a crumbling physical environment in which higher education and decent health care become increasingly unaffordable. Each day present day America resembles