With the Trump presidency in the rearview mirror, many Americans—including the brunch liberals at the Atlantic and other tony publications—are taking a victory lap as President Joe Biden consolidates power. Publications that once ran headlines on pandemic disinformation and “kids in cages” now cluck over Biden’s latest Cabinet picks and the cuteness of his pets. Few seem interested in Biden’s capitulation on the $2,000 relief checks—a campaign promise that won him two Senate seats from Georgia—or his newfound friendship with the Saudi monarchy that murdered dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi. After an excruciating election cycle sold as a choice between despotism and democracy, the political establishment is celebrating while the country burns.
Hardly anyone cares to reflect on the last four years of carnage, unless it can be directly tied to Trump and his odious personality. Few mainstream pundits are interested in addressing the elephant in the room— namely the 74 million Americans who, despite Trump’s botched pandemic response and a scandalous term in office, still pulled the lever for him. But this is unsurprising, since finding self-awareness and humility in #Resistance liberals is like squeezing water out of a stone. Incapable of comprehending the Trump phenomenon and cozied up in their ideological echo chambers, our ruling classes are totally disassociated from reality and the unruly masses at their doorstep.
In his recent book The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, the conservative scholar Christopher Caldwell takes a reactionary stab at diagnosing the pathologies infecting the body politic. A scion of the paleoconservative Claremont Institute—better known as the intellectual headquarters of Trumpism—Caldwell boldly pins the blame for our modern decadence on the “social revolutions” that have roiled the nation since the 1960s. In a blatantly revisionist historiography, Caldwell indicts the social activists of the 1960s and their revolutionary fervor for breaking up the country over three critical faultlines: race, sex, and class.
The civil rights movement is considered to be one of the finest examples of nonviolent civil disobedience in American history. Having been fully incorporated into the civic religion, the movement is often portrayed as a unifying power that reinforced the all-American values of liberty, equal opportunity (whatever that means), and incremental change. Few would dare criticize the movement, although plenty of critics have argued that its promise has been “betrayed” by ungrateful heirs.
Conservatives—and not a few liberals—have often invoked the rise of fatherlessness and Black-on-Black crime as examples of minorities abrogating their end of the social contract, deftly summarized by the Borgish slogan “Obey and assimilate.” Of course, this bootstraps mentality has been selectively abandoned by the political right as rural whites have begun to exhibit the same symptoms of social and economic decay. Liberals, on the other hand, use this hagiographic view of civil rights to congratulate themselves on their secondhand courage while parroting empty platitudes about “nonviolence” every time a garbage can gets knocked over in a Black neighborhood. In both cases, the historical record is drained of conflict and ideology, subsumed into a folksy parable that exonerates the past and justifies inaction in the present.
Caldwell bluntly dismisses this entire narrative of the civil rights movement, providing a more critical perspective from the Pat Buchanan wing of the conservative movement. He’s not alone in his skepticism: leftists have long critiqued the mainstream historiography for fetishizing incrementalism and political moderation, as well as sanitizing the movement of the radical principles and demands that animated its most fervent activists. But Caldwell’s account sheds light on what may be considered the “populist” conservative interpretation of civil rights, one that is far more ambiguous about the movement’s goals and downright pessimistic about its consequences. For Caldwell, and the populist conservative tendency he represents, the civil rights movement (and the 1960s as a whole) is considered a catastrophe for both white America and the constitutional order established by the Founding Fathers.
Activists have long used the lexicon of the American founding to better advertise their appeals to conservative white audiences. “Mainstream” figures like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were adept at using patriotic rhetoric to soften the edge of their demands, a habit that rubbed off on more radical types like John Brown and the Black Panther Party. Many people interpret this as a sign that civil rights was perfectly compatible with the existing political order, a convenient conclusion for both conservative elites and craven liberal politicians.
Caldwell largely eschews this politically comfortable narrative, arguing instead that civil rights represented a “social revolution” that moved the republic away from its founding principles. In his eyes, the movement created an “unwritten constitution” that threatened to undermine the original Constitution and its negative liberties with the revolutionary paradigm of “human rights.” Having gained credence in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the concept of human rights imposed a far more demanding set of “social rights,” such as equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination. Caldwell portrays this discourse of human rights as a foreign and invasive modification of the American political tradition, one that spawned a half-century’s worth of legal and administrative boondoggles such as affirmative action and anti-discrimination mandates for “public accommodations.”
Indeed, Caldwell uses the contrast of the two constitutions—the old, legitimate written one, and the new, illegitimate unwritten one—to support his broader thesis on the revolutionary nature of the civil rights movement and its sister movements. For him and the paleoconservative crowd that he represents, the original Constitution (blessed be thy name) is the Holy Grail of American politics, a fundamental pillar of the political culture that unites our vast republic. The Constitution’s focus on negative liberties serves as a testament to the Founders’ conservative temperament. They— unlike their Jacobin cousins in France—recognized man’s “fallen nature” and crafted a political system around this observation.
Armed with this dour and reactionary portrait of human nature (and fiercely suspicious of more popular interpretations of the Revolution) the Founders sought to build their new republic upon a charter of negative liberties, including freedom of association. This particular right is, in Caldwell’s view, the cornerstone of the conservative vision of human liberty—one that very necessarily implies the freedom of individuals to discriminate against each other. Or as he himself puts it, the freedom of a hypothetical Mrs. Murphy to “humiliate [a person of color] because of the color of [their] skin.”
The “unwritten constitution,” by contrast, threatens to swamp this harmonious political order by creating a network of counter-institutions and counter-narratives that muddy up the American civic religion. The rise of the administrative state—i.e. the bureaucracies that enforce government regulations—is tied to the Johnson administration’s newfound commitment to civil rights in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, welfare, Medicaid: all these represent the bureaucratic offspring of the civil rights movement, as well as an inspiration and source of employment for scores of political activists and bureaucrats hellbent on eroding “local customs” and laws.
Indeed, Caldwell impugns much, if not all, of the legal and administrative history of the civil rights movement, even the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education. He equates the NAACP’s scripted use of public relations and reliance on scientific evidence (as opposed to legal proofs) with legal “barratry,” and accuses them of manipulating the American judicial system to impose an “almost military assault on the Constitution.” The Southern segregationists’ blatant disregard for the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of voting rights goes unmentioned—an indication of what sort of “barratry” Caldwell considers tolerable.
This legal onslaught is accompanied by another “military assault,” this time on American culture. Like many conservatives, Caldwell is fixated on “political correctness” and its “oppression” of white Americans, leading him to some very odd places. He briefly complains about the shift in Black demonyms from “Negro” to “person of color,” and later goes off on how rap (associated with urban Black culture) replaced rock as America’s chief cultural export. He even finds time to criticize the existence of MLK Day as a federal holiday, scornfully observing how it was promoted via an aggressive public relations campaign and how this honor required combining Washington’s birthday with Lincoln’s into “Presidents’ Day.” A far cruder take on the issue can be gleaned from Ron Paul’s notoriously racist newsletters, some of which referred to the holiday as “Hate Whitey Day.”
Caldwell goes on to argue that white Americans were now obligated to “accommodate” the newfound expectations of Black Americans, largely through the stick of political correctness. In his eyes, political correctness is a core feature of the civil rights movement, one that explicitly disciplines white Americans into conforming with the new order.
Turning to the politics of sex and gender, Caldwell wisely couches his conservatism in the language of secularism and social norms. He launches broadside after broadside against the second-wave feminist movement, much of his ire focused on how feminism shaped American popular culture through its novel discourses on sexuality. Pointing to opinion polls and surveys in the 1960s, Caldwell boldly argues that the infamous “problem that has no name” was no problem at all, eerily echoing old segregationist claims of how “good Negroes” knew better than to engage in politics.
In many ways, Caldwell’s critical analysis of feminism—and sexuality more generally—echoes the social and political concerns animating the modern “incel” movement, that sorry group of men who just can’t get laid. His analysis of sexuality is largely economistic and cynical, suggesting that the patriarchal norms of the postwar era could be explained by the “oversupply” of marriage-age women compared to men and the resulting need to “compete” for male partners by submitting to more feminine standards of behavior. Likewise, the modern “undersupply” of marriage-age women is associated with the overall “feminization” of societal norms, a Spenglerian take on American decadence that associates social decline with feminine gender norms. This cynical view on feminism and sexuality has found adherents in the various alt-right forums of the internet, many of which host the various internecine disputes within the incel community. Pervading this cynical view of sexual relations is a quaint and almost pitiable nostalgia for the masculine norms that prevailed immediately after World War II, a world where men were men and women knew their place.
As the 1960s progressed and a newfound assertiveness began to develop among middle-class housewives on issues like discrimination and reproductive rights, the “unwritten constitution” established by the civil rights movement grew to accommodate the burgeoning demands of the second-wave feminists. From the gradual liberalization of divorce laws to the notorious Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, the “counter-institutions” of the unwritten constitution are deployed effectively by Machiavellian activists hellbent on imposing feminism from above. Traditionalist canards about “family values,” functionalist concerns about the role of sexuality in a world where sex was divorced from reproduction, all of these fall by the wayside as the feminists use the administrative state to reshape society.
Interestingly enough, Caldwell integrates a novel form of class analysis into his broader critique of second-wave feminism, one that is usually more associated with the socialist feminist tradition embodied by proletarian stalwarts like Rosa Luxemburg and Emma Goldman. Gloria Steinem’s anti-capitalism notwithstanding, second-wave feminism is portrayed as a fundamentally bourgeois movement that readily adapted to the cutthroat world of capitalism rather than transcending it. The high-stakes push to break the glass ceiling in Corporate America is contrasted against second-wave feminism’s relative silence on more proletarian occupations like manufacturing and the building trades, highlighting the middle-class bias that pervaded in second-wave feminist circles. Caldwell concludes that second-wave feminism was “in its essence, an ideology of the innovative, entrepreneurial and managerial classes…[who] wanted to integrate the Metropolitan Club, not the Elks.”
This novel class-based critique sets the stage for Caldwell’s broader reflection on class, political economy, and the counterculture, and how all three were upended by the turmoil of the 1960s.
Throughout the book, Caldwell is rather blunt about how social and cultural markers like race and sex became politically-charged identities that have often crowded out more class-based concerns and interests. In a startling echo of modern progressive arguments against “identitarianism,” Caldwell associates the rise of identity politics with the emasculation of the (white) American working class by globalist technocrats and cosmopolitan cultural elites.
Leftists have long debated the rise of identity politics and the gradual erosion of working-class support for progressive movements, with much of the discussion animated by a crude version of Marx’s theory of “false consciousness.” Some progressives have argued that reactionary elites use cultural conflicts over race and gender to rally working-class voters to conservative projects, even those that theoretically go “against their own interests.” We need not rehash this debate here, although it would suffice to say that this argument relies on the flawed assumption of a natural symbiosis between proletarian and left-wing politics. There are plenty of examples of right-wing movements mobilizing the masses away from progressive goals and toward more chauvinistic concerns about blood and soil, often with a dash of economically populist rhetoric to lighten the mood and get the masses moving.
Caldwell takes this rather dialectical tension between identitarian and class-based concerns to a new level, arguing that social and cultural disputes over race and sex are in reality a novel form of class conflict. He is heavily influenced by the quasi-Marxist James Burnham and his ruminations on postwar capitalism, namely the emergence of a “professional-managerial class” (PMC) that has displaced the original capitalist class as the chief exploitative force in both the capitalist and communist blocs.
Conservatives have long toyed with this novel concept of the PMC, particularly as an explanation of the “New Left,” which was largely—though not exclusively—supported by middle-class professionals and university students. Many have argued that the PMC uses “identitarian” concerns to mask its broader social agenda of neoliberalism and austerity, an observation buttressed by the Democratic Party’s cynical use of identity politics against progressive outsiders like Bernie Sanders. This is particularly salient given how the political battles between New Leftists and neoconservatives (the “mugged by reality” types) mostly centered around cultural issues such as crime and abortion, battles which ultimately set the stage for the infamous “culture wars” that haunt us today.
Caldwell argues that the culture wars are a sociopolitical manifestation of the class conflict between the PMC and the (white) working and lower-middle classes. Socially liberal, globally oriented, and fraught with status anxiety, the PMC leverages its cultural hegemony to advance liberal concepts like “tolerance” and “diversity” alongside more reactionary economic policies (such as free trade and deindustrialization) at the expense of (white) working class interests. The (white) working-class has grown increasingly alienated from mainstream society, having lost economic security due to deindustrialization and now facing cultural marginalization for its “backward” cultural beliefs. Feminism, civil rights, LGBT rights—all of these are the pet fancies of the PMC, who dismiss the patriotism and social conservatism of Middle America as petty forms of bigotry and oppression.
Here Caldwell engages in an interesting bit of revisionist historiography, undermining many longstanding conservative shibboleths in the process. When discussing how the Vietnam War helped spark the antagonism between the PMC and the working class, Caldwell completely eschews the traditional hawkishness of American conservatism, going so far as to basically endorse Ho Chi Minh’s project of national liberation. This is rapidly sidelined, however, by his focus on how the political conflict over Vietnam served as the opening shot of the culture wars between affluent anti-war protesters and the more proletarian grunts fighting in Southeast Asia.
Even more surprising is Caldwell’s take on Ronald Reagan, who he condemns for failing to repeal the much-hated Great Society programs. Powerless to roll back the clock, Reagan elected to accommodate the administrative state and used supply-side tax cuts as a way to “compensate” white Americans for the social and cultural costs of civil rights. Rising deficits and the parasitic growth of the financial sector are thus attributed to Reagan’s inability to undo the progressive gains of the 1960s and ‘70s, setting the stage for the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing decline of middle-class fortunes.
Caldwell’s book ends on a somber note, reflecting on the social catastrophe that has befallen white America in recent years. Family disruption, rising mortality rates, and widespread social alienation have swept over the heartland, a tragic sequel to the social crises that have long been associated with urban black communities. Caldwell contrasts this sorry picture of the (white) working class with the self-congratulatory exuberance of the PMC. He even alludes to the rise of Trump in a throwaway anecdote in the last few pages, implying that Trump’s charismatic cult-of-personality is Middle America’s long-awaited reaction to the social and economic developments of the last half-century.
Caldwell omits any serious discussion of Trump or his presidency, but the book’s tone and direction suggests that absent massive political change, a more forceful reckoning is in the cards.
The Good, the Bad, and the Useful Bits of Caldwell’s Book
The Age of Entitlement was notably provocative when it first came out, although its revisionist history has won accolades from standard liberals such as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. This is partly due to its sober depiction of the social alienation of working and lower-middle class white Americans, which contextualizes their enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. Caldwell introduces the reader to the complex relationship between American conservatism and civil rights, one largely consisting of antagonism, begrudging accommodation, and simmering resentment. Despite the best efforts of the political right, the aforementioned social movements have succeeded in transforming American society in ways that were unimaginable at the beginning of the last century, and Caldwell is refreshingly frank on the conservative predicament.
This clarity enables him to probe the deeper insecurities—particularly the bigoted ones—that plague white America, and expose them to the reader in a way that is both comprehensible and edifying.
Caldwell’s realist perspective is arguably his greatest asset, as it demystifies the aura surrounding the social movements of the 1960s and provides a clear political analysis of the social revolution that ensued. In a boon for more radical-minded progressives, Caldwell’s reintroduction of controversy into the popular history of these social movements eviscerates the mainstream liberal approach to politics, an incrementalist style that sees social progress as inevitable and is often associated with the lukewarm politics of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
By dispelling this quixotic faith in the blind justice of the universe and highlighting the incompatibility of social progress with the archaic Constitution, Caldwell unwittingly allows progressives to free themselves from the cultural and political baggage of the American political system and demand revolutionary change, armed with the knowledge that fundamental shifts can only be secured in the presence of a radical militant alternative. This is particularly relevant to his critique of the PMC and its relationship both to capitalism and the working class, a critique echoed by progressives like Joan C. Williams, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Amber A’Lee Frost. Overall, Caldwell’s book is commendable for its breadth and comprehensiveness, broaching everything from constitutional jurisprudence and political maneuvering to cultural shifts on identity and sexuality.
That being said, Caldwell’s book is not progressive by any means, and there is a lot to criticize in his expansive account of recent history. While discussing illegal immigration, Caldwell exclusively focuses on the deleterious effects of uncontrolled migration, both economic and cultural, and how it became shielded by the “unwritten constitution” both politically and legally. Precious little is said about the grueling poverty that oppresses most of Latin America, or American foreign policy’s role in perpetuating instability in the region.
This selective unwillingness to scrutinize U.S. foreign policy contrasts with Caldwell’s critique of the Vietnam War, which emphasizes the incompetence of American leaders and the deleterious effects their mismanagement had on the men who served (the Vietnamese perspective considered “irrelevant” to American policymakers). This contention may be somewhat partisan, as the architects of imperialist bungling in Southeast Asia were largely Great Society liberals, the bête noires of Caldwell’s narrative, as opposed to the Reaganite conservatives who spread repression and death across Latin America. Yet given Caldwell’s own revisionist take on Reagan, neglecting to tackle conservative foreign policy blunders makes his analysis incomplete.
This selective approach also extends to Caldwell’s obsessive focus on race and the “unwritten constitution.” He makes much hay out of the expectations gap between white and Black Americans over civil rights, even going so far as to portray civil rights activists as pulling a bait and switch on white America. But conservative and moderate whites don’t receive a similar level of scrutiny, ostensibly because Caldwell is painting them as the clear victims of the civil rights project. This is a shame, because a more balanced critique would highlight how white America’s reluctant and haphazard approach on civil rights has contributed to present conditions, where superficial displays of progress proliferate alongside deteriorating conditions in Black and brown communities. But this would undermine Caldwell’s overall story of victimhood and give more credence to the political stances of Malcolm X and Dr. King, both of whom stressed the need for a social revolution that Caldwell explicitly seeks to prevent.
From a leftist’s perspective, any conservative account of civil rights or racial issues in general is bound to be cringey, given conservatism’s complicity in perpetuating social hierarchies throughout American history. But Caldwell’s story is different; other accounts usually pay lip service to the vague idealism of the original civil rights project, while lamenting how Black and brown communities suffer today as a result of cultural dysfunction and—in the darker corners of the alt-right—racial inferiority. Caldwell’s story eschews this lukewarm sympathy, instead framing civil rights as a zero-sum battle between whites and Blacks for political power. While this realist approach has the benefit of excising white guilt from his analysis, it ultimately paints civil rights, and emancipatory projects in general, as fundamentally hostile to the interests of poor and middle-class whites. Essentially, Caldwell is overtly calling the civil rights movement a mistake, one that has effectively unsettled the economic and political foundations for American greatness.
Here Caldwell is playing with fire, because it is precisely this talk of civilizational malaise and scapegoating that fuels the fire of reactionary politics. His account of how upper-middle class elites and wily social agitators ruined the country has obviously found a certain resonance in the distressed small towns of the heartland where all those “deaths of despair” keep occurring. By tying the progressive movements of the 1960s to modern crises of economic stagnation and political polarization, Caldwell’s book gives white Americans license to embrace the darkest fancies and conspiracies of the far-right.
We can already see the fruits of conservative revanchism in the growth of far-right militias like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. With Caldwell effectively providing intellectual support for a racial “stab-in-the-back” legend, one can only guess at the horrific monsters that may spawn in this new decade. It would be too crass to suggest that Caldwell’s book is a clear example of American-style fascism, but his narrative clearly serves as a pipeline for many distressed whites from the staid conservatism of the Tea Party to the conspiracy-laden chaos of Trumpism.
But progressives can take heart in the few gold nuggets that can be gleaned from Caldwell’s exhaustive narrative. For instance, the importance of historical narratives in building and propelling a political movement. The genius of the civil rights activists was their ability to work within the American political tradition while simultaneously critiquing its limitations. This is an invaluable model for a left that is desperate to gain a foothold in working-class communities, where allusions to old historical victories work better than identitarian cant and woke performism.
Another important lesson is the recognition of how social class and race are fundamentally intertwined in American politics. Most liberals—and many leftists—have largely eschewed class-based political programs in favor of a mixed variant of neoliberalism and performative identitarianism that plays well with wealthy donors and PMC voters. Meanwhile, the political right eagerly combines economically-populist rhetoric with a chauvinistic view of American culture, a formula that has proven successful at the polls.
Leftists need to take the issue of social class more seriously while recognizing how it interacts with other social hierarchies such as race. Thankfully for us, there is a wealth of literature on how socialist activists have tried to integrate racial issues into their political program. Indeed, it was the famed intellectual and black socialist W.E.B. Du Bois who observed how racism “bribed” white workers into repressing their black counterparts in the name of white supremacy, hindering the growth of a socialist labor movement in the United States. As these “wages of whiteness” have declined in recent years, in part due to impressive gains by ethnic and sexual minorities, the white working class has grown increasingly aware of how the system exploits their suffering. It is up to us to appeal to their class interests and replace the meager wages of whiteness with the wages of interracial and intersexual class solidarity.
And finally, Caldwell’s book offers a clear picture of the immense task that stands before us. American society continues to be plagued by a variety of social ills, which require bold solutions that both continue from the rich American tradition of political struggle while simultaneously forging a clean break. We must leave the comforts of our partisan echo chambers and tailor our political message for the broader masses, cis-hetero white men included. But we must also be wary of those who would dilute our demands for the sake of bipartisanship and short-term expediency. It’s possible, maybe even necessary, to understand why many white Americans are reluctant to join the fight for social justice. But that doesn’t mean excusing their actions or accommodating their prejudices—then, now, or in the battles to come.
This post was originally published on Current Affairs.