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The Age of Entitlement
America Since the Sixties
Table of Contents
About The Book
A major American intellectual makes the historical case that the reforms of the 1960s, reforms intended to make the nation more just and humane, instead left many Americans feeling alienated, despised, misled—and ready to put an adventurer in the White House.
Christopher Caldwell has spent years studying the liberal uprising of the 1960s and its unforeseen consequences. Even the reforms that Americans love best have come with costs that are staggeringly high—in wealth, freedom, and social stability—and that have been spread unevenly among classes and generations.
Caldwell reveals the real political turning points of the past half century, taking readers on a roller-coaster ride through Playboy magazine, affirmative action, CB radio, leveraged buyouts, iPhones, Oxycontin, Black Lives Matter, and internet cookies. In doing so, he shows that attempts to redress the injustices of the past have left Americans living under two different ideas of what it means to play by the rules.
Essential, timely, hard to put down, The Age of Entitlement is a brilliant and ambitious argument about how the reforms of the past fifty years gave the country two incompatible political systems—and drove it toward conflict.
The assassination of Kennedy
In the mid-1960s, at a moment of deceptively permanent-looking prosperity, the country’s most energetic and ideological leaders made a bid to reform the United States along lines more just and humane. They rallied to various loosely linked moral crusades, of which the civil rights movement, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, provided the model. Women entered jobs and roles that had been male preserves. Sex came untethered from both tradition and prudery. Immigrants previously unwanted in the United States were welcomed and even recruited. On both sides of the clash over the Vietnam War, thinkers and politicians formulated ambitious plans for the use of American power.
Most people who came of age after the 1960s, if asked what that decade was “about,” will respond with an account of these crusades, structured in such a way as to highlight the moral heroism of the time. That is only natural. For two generations, “the sixties” has given order to every aspect of the national life of the United States—its partisan politics, its public etiquette, its official morality.
This is a book about the crises out of which the 1960s order arose, the means by which it was maintained, and the contradictions at its heart that, by the time of the presidential election of 2016, had led a working majority of Americans to view it not as a gift but as an oppression.
The assassination of Kennedy
The era we think of as the sixties began with relative suddenness around the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Americans are right to say that nothing was ever the same after Kennedy was shot. You can hear the change in popular music over a matter of months. A year-and-a-half before Kennedy was killed, “Stranger on the Shore,” a drowsy instrumental by the British clarinetist Acker Bilk, had hit number one. A year-and-a-half after the assassination, the musicians who would form Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and various other druggie blues and folk-rock bands were playing their first gigs together in San Francisco.
This does not mean that the assassination “caused” the decade’s cultural upheaval. The months before Kennedy’s death had already seen the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (August 1962), which upended notions about science’s solidity and a lot of social and political assumptions built on it; Rachel Carson’s exposé of pesticides, Silent Spring (September 1962); and The Feminine Mystique (February 1963), Betty Friedan’s attack on what she saw as the vapidity of well-to-do housewives’ existence. Something was going to happen.
The two conflicts that did most to define the American 1960s—those over racial integration and the war in Vietnam—were already visible. In October 1962, rioting greeted attempts to enforce a Supreme Court decision requiring the segregated University of Mississippi to enroll its first black student, James Meredith. The last summer of Kennedy’s life ended with an unprecedented March on Washington by 200,000 civil rights activists. Three weeks before Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was ousted and then murdered in a coup that Kennedy had authorized.
Kennedy’s death, though, gave a tremendous impetus to changes already under way. Often peoples react to a political assassination, as if by collective instinct, with a massive posthumous retaliation. They memorialize a martyred leader by insisting on (or assenting to) a radicalized version, a sympathetic caricature, of the views they attribute to him. The example most familiar to Americans came in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, when the country passed constitutional reforms far broader than those Lincoln himself had sought: not only a Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery but also a broad Fourteenth Amendment, with its more general and highly malleable guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Something similar happened in the 1960s. A welfare state expanded by Medicare and Medicaid, the vast mobilization of young men to fight the Vietnam War, but, above all, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts—these were all memorials to a slain ruler, resolved in haste over a few months in 1964 and 1965 by a people undergoing a delirium of national grief. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was able to take ideas for civil rights legislation, languishing in the months before Kennedy’s death, and cast them in a form more uncompromising than Kennedy could have imagined.
Civil rights ideology, especially when it hardened into a body of legislation, became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform. Definitions of what was required in the name of justice and humanity broadened. Racial integration turned into the all-embracing ideology of diversity. Women’s liberation moved on to a reconsideration of what it meant to be a woman (and, eventually, a man). Immigration became grounds for reconsidering whether an American owed his primary allegiance to his country or whether other forms of belonging were more important. Anti-communist military adventures gave way, once communism began to collapse in 1989, to a role for the United States as the keeper of the whole world’s peace, the guarantor of the whole world’s prosperity, and the promulgator and enforcer of ethical codes for a new international order, which was sometimes called the “global economy.”
There was something irresistible about this movement. The moral prestige and practical resources available to the American governing elite as it went about reordering society were almost limitless. Leaders could draw not just on the rage and resolve that followed Kennedy’s death but also on the military and economic empire the United States had built up after World War II; on the organizational know-how accumulated in its corporations and foundations; on the Baby Boom, which, as the end of the twentieth century approached, released into American society a surge of manpower unprecedented in peacetime; and, finally, on the self-assurance that arose from all of these things.
The reforms of the sixties, however, even the ones Americans loved best and came to draw part of their national identity from, came with costs that proved staggeringly high—in money, freedom, rights, and social stability. Those costs were spread most unevenly among social classes and generations. Many Americans were left worse off by the changes. Economic inequality reached levels not seen since the age of the nineteenth-century monopolists. The scope for action conferred on society’s leaders allowed elite power to multiply steadily and, we now see, dangerously, sweeping aside not just obstacles but also dissent.
At some point in the course of the decades, what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more. The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible—and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave—it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation. The increasing necessity that citizens choose between these two orders, and the poisonous conflict into which it ultimately drove the country, is what this book describes.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 21, 2020)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501106897
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Raves and Reviews
The Wall Street Journal's Best Political Books of 2020
“One of the right’s most gifted and astute journalists”
— New York Times Book Review
"The Age of Entitlement is a work of history, not a work of sociological analysis. It does not conclude with a list of solutions or proposals. But this is no ordinary work of history. It engages and dazzles the reader in the way the histories of A.J.P. Taylor once did. Caldwell, as those who know his journalism and his 2010 book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe will know, has a marvelous talent for pointing out the unacknowledged contradictions and perversities in the outlooks of both left and right."
“American conservatism’s foremost writer… This is a heretical, unsettling work"
—The Irish Times
"The Age of Entitlement is an eloquent and bracing book, full of insight."
— New York Magazine
“Scholarly, provocative, insightful: this is history-writing at its best. Readers of Caldwell’s journalism will instantly recognize his capacity to use a single moment or event to illuminate a much wider phenomenon. Anyone wishing to understand the failure of the American elite over the more than half century since President Kennedy was assassinated, and thus why Donald Trump was elected, must read but profoundly thoughtful book.”
— Andrew Roberts, New York Times bestselling author of Leadership in War
“In this landmark cultural and political history of the last half-century, Christopher Caldwell brilliantly dissects the new progressive establishment, and shows how the reforms of the sixties gradually devolved into intolerance, self-righteousness, and the antithesis of what had started out as naive idealism. A singular analysis by a masterful chronicler of the sixties dreams that have gone so terribly, but predictably, wrong.”
— Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Case for Trump
“The Age of Entitlement rudely dismembers the moral pretensions of our ruling class in the tradition of Christopher Lasch. If the trajectory of political correctness leaves you bewildered, here you will learn its institutional logic—the key role it plays in legitimating new structures of inequality. Thanks to Caldwell, we now understand how this regime change happened, and why half the electorate thought it necessary to cast a vote of desperation in 2016.”
—Matthew Crawford, New York Times bestselling author of Shop Class as Soulcraft
“The sharpest and most insightful conservative critique of mainstream politics in years.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A deeper, wider cultural and constitutional narrative of the last half-century... Caldwell’s account is indispensable — especially for liberals — in understanding how resentments grew... nuanced and expansive”
— Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
"A sweeping but insightful examination into every social, political and legal decision, movement and trend that leaves us where we are today in a polarized nation. ... a fascinating read that could ignite 1,000 conversations ... Caldwell’s analysis of our Vietnam legacy is particularly masterful but the book brims with brisk evaluations of how a confident nation became an argumentative, fragmented one."
— The Associated Press
"In all, a deeply felt, highly readable, and dead honest account of America since the 1960s and the terrible wrong turn we took then and continue to follow, disrupting what we used to call the American way, and leading to the increasing alienation of many of our most productive citizens, who believe they may be losing their country."
— The Washington Times
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