What was the 2016 election really all about? In one version, Donald Trump’s rise was an awakening of bigotry, of nostalgia for the days when Americans were mostly white, women knew their place, and gays lived in the shadows.
But there is another way of telling this story. It is one in which Americans who grew up in a country that was more or less prosperous and wholesome for the majority had found, by 2016, that they were strangers in their own homeland. A mixture of hedonism and demographic changes had despoiled the decency of family life and eroded cultural unity. Meanwhile, globalization strip-mined the economy and made life precarious for the middle class. America had become a mistrustful and lonely place, increasingly a land of winners and losers who didn’t talk to their neighbors, or even knew what country their neighbors came from.
A new look at the Trump era, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties by Christopher Caldwell, examines our political crises from the point of view of those Americans who, by 2016, were feeling that the country they knew and loved was slipping through their fingers. Like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which spawned countless essays on the merits of the Founding philosophy, this book is a literary mortar charge that spares no idols.
It’s central target: the Civil Rights revolution, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Caldwell’s explosive idea is that the inchoate grievances that have animated conservatives for generations—spasms of rage about “reverse racism,” affirmative action, political correctness and the like—have really been directed at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, a working majority of Americans found that they did not like what “free at last” had become—indeed, what it had been destined to become.
There’s nothing new about conservatives grumbling about the 1960s, affirmative action, or political correctness, of course. What makes this book so provocative is its suggestion that the triumphant account of civil rights is a myth—that it is just one way of looking at things. History is written by the victors, and after fifty years of civil rights winning, the mere suggestion that maybe this victor shouldn’t have won is heresy.
Most revolutions gone wrong are characterized as having been pure at their inception. Die-hard socialists insist that Stalin corrupted the pure intentions of Marx and even Lenin, for example. Today, many conservatives are in the curious position of doing the same with respect to the 60s, a revolution that was never even theirs. While allowed to lament its excesses, all Americans are required to accept that the epoch was a necessary step forward. Leftism today may be extreme, but the progress made back then was necessary. Feminism today may be too radical, but Betty Friedan’s was the authentic article. With respect to race, the race-conscious militancy of today, with its vicious sloganeering and brazen hostility towards whites, is seen as the corruption of the pure, race-neutral liberalism of the civil rights movement.
But Caldwell nudges the reader to see the civil rights revolution as a genuine revolution, one that came with “staggeringly high” costs to “money, freedom, rights, and social stability” and, like the upheavals of 1789 and 1917—though he does not make the comparison directly—left the world in its aftermath completely unrecognizable. Those who suffered the most had realized, by 2016, that they were on the losing side of an upheaval and waged a counter-revolution with Trump. That Caldwell identifies civil rights and King at the core of this conflict makes for a bold argument indeed.
Caldwell riffs on a familiar critique of revolution: what was meant as a liberation went south, and instead seeded new forms of oppression. With civil rights, the promise was less consciousness of race. Instead, it made race into the central fact of American life. Once institutionalized, civil rights grew into a mighty, bureaucratic regime, an identity-fixated Eye of Sauron empowered to police and transform every nook and cranny of public and private life. The two primary tools at its disposal, political correctness and affirmative action, emanated directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created new ways of working around the will of the majority. Through fear of litigation and the stigma of being labeled a bigot, civil rights empowered activists to win transformative changes not by persuading the people to accept them and passing laws but through a combination of legal gamesmanship, censorship, and court-ordered redress.
In Caldwell’s telling, everything that conservatives hate about political correctness and progressivism—the bullying and witch hunts, the judicial activism—was baked into the civil rights pie. At each step of its advance, civil rights intimidated a majority into giving up its rights, status, dignity, and resources to an ascendant group of protected minorities who had acquired “an iron grip on the levers of state power,” working in tandem with “judicial elites” to short-circuit democracy. Civil rights empowered “minoritarian impulses,” like the push to normalize gay marriage, to “override every barrier that democracy might seek to erect against them.”
Gradually, this new system became its own “rival constitution,” one that steadily eroded the understanding of liberty that Americans had taken for granted under the written Constitution of 1787. While minorities acquired a “mysterious set of passwords and procedures” that required society to “drop everything and respond to their demands,” the erstwhile majority got the short end of the stick. They were dethroned and relegated to the margins of America’s national story. Life in America became about “diversity,” and nothing more. That is, it became about everybody except them.
Conscripted in the Racism Witch Hunt
Very quickly, the kumbaya anti-racism of King had devolved into a national witch hunt against “racism” in which all Americans were conscripted. This is not what was expected. Whites thought that once racism was “solved” through legislation, all Americans could live in harmony and peace. But what started in the 1960s as a movement against racism had turned, by 2016, into an entirely new social order defined by race—as well as sex, sexual orientation, and other forms of belonging centered on those groups that previously had not “belonged.” What was billed as a one-time solution to segregation had become an “entire new system of constantly churning political reform” that was extended to include new groups: women, gays, immigrants.
A new paternalistic state looked with favor on certain groups while heaping punishment on others, most of all whites but especially white men. While the “winners” in the new system praised it as a liberation, the “losers” grew conscious of having been displaced.
In spite of this profound re-alignment, civil rights continued to draw from the “permanent emergency powers” established in the quest to smash the “sham democracy” of Jim Crow. Caldwell here alludes to a curious feature of revolutionary regimes: namely, the need to pretend that it is always the year that the revolution began. This make-believe gives the regime moral authority. As the “good” intentions of the revolution are corrupted, it becomes increasingly necessary to trick the people into believing that the revolution is in imminent danger, that an existential threat to its ideals is still present. One of the distinct features of civil rights ideology, it seems, is a time freeze: it is always 1964, and Jim Crow is alive and well. Caldwell makes notes of the curious, recent explosion in the cavalier use of “white supremacy,” even as public displays of racism have dropped, the costs of being branded a bigot have become ruinous, and of course, the actual population of whites is dropping. Under civil rights, everyone is required to pretend that it’s still Reconstruction.
The regime that civil rights built was most unnatural, one that required “trillions upon trillions” of dollars to maintain and a constant effort to humiliate and repress those on the wrong side of the revolution. Eventually, Caldwell suggests, white Americans realized that pressing claims for their rights and dignity in the name of the old constitution was a waste of time, since it had been replaced by something else: an ideology of “anti-racism” that had actually developed into plain old racism, this time directed toward them. Precisely through their constitutional exclusion under civil rights, whites became more conscious of their race. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, the only way back to the race-blind, old constitutional order had become “the repeal of the civil rights laws.”
By presenting civil rights as an optional, necessary choice between two social orders, as something either to be accepted or rejected rather than the inexorable unfolding of Justice, Caldwell crosses a line—but a line Caldwell suggests all conservatives must cross themselves, like it or not.
In a revolutionary regime, the greatest crime is to question the revolution. Caldwell’s gravest transgression is to attack civil rights’ preeminent status as the “unique surviving narrative” of an era awash in suspicion of the past. We are accustomed to viewing civil rights as a story of everyday heroes working together to organically, even miraculously, overcome the odds and perfect the logic of democracy. But Caldwell presents it as a minoritarian, hostile takeover accomplished at every step by force or deception or both. Rosa Parks, he audaciously observes, was not a random bus passenger but an “organizer of considerable sophistication” and an intellectual leader of the civil rights movement, an oft-overlooked fact in popular folklore. Verboten observations like these are sprinkled throughout: a majority of Americans disapproved of the mythic March on Washington in its immediate aftermath.
Such hate facts were washed away by diversity, the official, pseudo-religious ideology of the revolutionary regime of civil rights. Reverence for King was ordained, and any skeptical thoughts about the rightness of civil rights became crimes. It was as if America had been founded in the 60s and everything that happened before was a cause for shame. Americans were now required to think of their country and its history as a disgrace, and no group was more deserving of humiliation than American whites. As diversity became America’s creed, a Manichean dualism that held up “white” and “people of color” as moral opposites crept in. “The lines between white racism, white failure, and mere whiteness blurred,” and whites became evil.
Immigration in the Wake of Civil Rights
Alienation was forcefully shepherded through the civil rights regime. A major preoccupation of The Age of Entitlement is the titanic demographic shifts that followed in the wake of the Hart-Celler act of 1965, a law which, like civil rights itself, was vastly underestimated even by its proponents. The reassurances of Hart-Celler’s advocates now read like parody. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset,” said Senator Ted Kennedy at the time. “The bill will not aggravate unemployment, not flood the labor market with foreigners, nor cause American citizens to lose their jobs.” It did all of those things and more.
Dove-tailing with Hart-Celler, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 institutionalized permanent transformative change, by marking illegal immigrants “victims,” American citizens their moral and legal inferiors, and any criticism of migration racist and taboo. By 2016, America had been totally transformed in ways that no one had voted for. A “link that had made Americans think of themselves for three centuries as, basically, a nation of transplanted Europeans” had been cut on the sly.
The costs and the indignities of the new order, from its intrusions on free speech to its incursions on dignity, from its forceful cultural transformations to the exorbitant costs of maintaining the Great Society, eventually grew intolerable to a majority that disproportionately had borne them. In Caldwell’s telling, the 2016 election was a bottled up explosion of populist anger that had been delayed, for some time, by Ronald Reagan. Elected to cut welfare and stop mass migration, Reagan instead bought an expensive illusion of peace between the two constitutions by leaving Johnson’s Great Society in place and simultaneously cutting taxes for the white middle class. Under the order Reagan created, which made globalization and mass migration permanent features of American life, the majority would continue to suffer a stream of indignities, from the loss of their labor power to foreigners, to the loss of their status under a civil rights regime that Reagan did nothing to roll back. By 2016, when whites’ economic prospects had diminished enough to make the loss of their rights unbearable, the Reagan peace was no longer tenable.
It may be a mark of civil rights’ success that Caldwell approaches his fraught subject with a polite delicateness that borders on consternation. “The more distant King’s vision of race relations became,” he notes with vexation, “the more imperative it became to advertise it as if that were the vision of race relations the country had gotten.” But elsewhere, Caldwell hints that the race-conscious militancy that civil rights became was always lurking somewhere in King’s rhetoric. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in which King expressed his disappointment with “the white moderate” and his reluctance to surrender his privileges, Caldwell sees the invocation of a “pragmatic international solidarity against white rule” that presaged intersectional politics, which would unite a rag-tag coalition of minorities against a common white enemy. While King is seen as taking a more moderate approach than Malcolm X in “twenty-first-century civil rights pageantry,” King “soon moved beyond it” and “turned down a different path.”
So was civil rights really bedeviled by a fatal contradiction? The idea doesn’t exactly meld with the portrait of a terrifying, powerful system that Caldwell sketches. Perhaps this “contradiction” was not really a weakness, but a fault imputed to civil rights by its frustrated victims? The “winners” certainly would never challenge its legitimacy by contrasting what it had become, in 2016, with how it started. Indeed, they received—and continue to defend—civil rights in its whole trajectory as a blessing. Why posit a “contradiction” when civil rights devolved so quickly into race consciousness, and never went back, anyway? Perhaps this “contradiction” can be elided by assuming that civil rights has no such weakness—that it was a kind of sleight of hand, and that its fifty years of revolution have been a stunning success on its own terms?
Caldwell seems to say as much, but the outer limits of his position are somewhat unclear. While clearly sympathetic to the “losers,” he does not argue for the repeal of civil rights outright. Caldwell is clear that Jim Crow was an evil system that could not stand. And yet, civil rights “moved beyond the context of Jim Crow laws almost immediately.” So at what infinitesimal point in time was civil rights legitimate? Presumably, never.
Here’s where The Age of Entitlement reaches the peak of provocation: by asking, “was civil rights a mistake?,” Caldwell at least hints at the prompt, “was there an upside to segregation?” or at least, “was there a downside to desegregation?” Integration was necessary, but “the costs of civil rights were high.” The most radical consequences of civil rights were not incidental but developed logically in a cascade out of desegregation and its erasure of what Caldwell calls the “master freedom,” the First Amendment’s implied freedom of association. Once groups began mixing freely, race-neutral jurisprudence had to be replaced with “something the overwhelming majority of [American] citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference.” Since mixing groups together came with the possibility of friction and offense, political correctness was created to iron out that wrinkle.
Caldwell makes a convincing case that the polite tremor that greets the mere question, “was civil rights legitimate?” was in some sense engineered, that it is the product of ideology. As such, The Age of Entitlement is sure to provoke predictable howls of condemnation. Liberals will see in its eloquent narrative a reactionary wail of sentimental “racism.” To simply dismiss the grievances of the “losers,” though, is to identify oneself with the “winners,” and not much more than that.
To evaluate a book like The Age of Entitlement in a culture as fragmented as this one may be complicated by that fragmentation. It is fitting that Caldwell cites Nietzsche, father of all postmodernists, because The Age of Entitlement depicts an America in which a “will to power” is all that really matters anymore.
“It is far easier,” he writes, “for both former perpetrators and former victims alike, simply to transvalue the prejudices—so you wind up with the old world turned upside down.” If Caldwell is right, then words like “racism” have become terms of abuse used by the “winners” to keep the “losers” in their place.
Jim Crow was intolerable, but what it almost immediately became in its replacement has been intolerable, too. There’s a simple and dark answer to this conundrum, the idea that equality is not possible. This realization is the darkest part of The Age of Entitlement. Caldwell is obviously disturbed by the difficulty, impossibility even, of equality, of how old inequalities seem to succeed almost inevitably to new ones. That is something familiar from the history of revolutions, of course. Caldwell dives into the chaos of revolution and counterrevolution without really taking a side. He recedes into Nietzschean perspectivism, presenting the “loser’s” point of view without fully adopting it himself. Since this is a work of heresy, that is not only understandable but wise. Americans now live in a country in which a deadly pandemic cannot be discussed without making it about race.
Agree or disagree, the rage that Caldwell identifies isn’t going away. But then again, if he’s right about the awful power of civil rights, perhaps it’s just a final spasm of dissent.