The loss of freedom of association became so acute, over time, that the people not benefiting from the new protections one way or another ended up voting for Trump as an act of rebellion.
Author Christopher Caldwell argues that those people, meaning white non-southerners, voted for the Civil Rights Act as a one-time measure to address the problems with institutionalized/government racism in the South. Instead, the logic of the law ended up being applied for more broadly, and in more domains, permanently. The new rights eventually pitted groups against groups. “A measure that had been intended to normalize American culture and cure the Gothic paranoia of the southern racial imagination had instead wound up nationalizing southerners’ obsession with race and violence quotes,” he writes of the negative white reactions to the race riots of the 1960s.
The Age of Entitlement is written like a book-length op-ed: Caldwell gestures at sweeping claims, but stops short of stating them outright, instead relying on implication or innuendo. Characterizations of mass movements or decadelong trends are substantiated with only one anecdote or not at all.
Oftentimes, the style of rhetoric is not convincing. For instance, when Caldwell touches on a topic of which I have some knowledge, the history of the financial crisis, he endorses a narrative of the housing bubble and collapse — that government regulations and programs steered millions of people into unsustainable loans to meet affordable housing mandates — that is hotly contested, to say the least. Congressional Republicans, who generally subscribe to that line of argument, advanced most prominently in Peter Wallison’s dissenting view to Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report, have gone approximately 1 million rounds debating congressional Democrats about its merits. Certainly any author is welcome to contribute to the debate, but I am skeptical of the idea that it could be settled, or even given its due, in passing.
I suspect that Caldwell’s impressionistic style, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots in key passages, is what has spared him from harsher criticism. The book implies that the Civil Rights Act should be reversed. I can remember a time when the suggestion that the Civil Rights Act was a mistake was enough to get Rand Paul condemned by many who’d been his allies up to that point.
But that is the conclusion that flows from Caldwell’s history, which ends with Trump rising to power as a reaction to the Obama years. The Obama era, in his view, ended the “illusion” that the tools used to secure civil rights would be temporary, and whites came to like Obama less as that happened. He notes that Obama’s second inaugural was meant as a constitutional address but identified Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, civil rights watersheds, as the basis of constitutional rights -- an implicit acknowledgment that the Constitution had been supplanted by civil rights law.
Three decades before Obama, the 1978 Supreme Court decision Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke validated affirmative action as a diversity mandate rather than as a measures of redressing past discrimination, in Caldwell’s view. “Now the government got into the business of promulgating attitudes about race,” he writes.
And, in his view, the culture changed along with law. The establishment and observance of Martin Luther King Day, he writes, for many white people “marked not the end at the beginning of shame, of an official culture that cast their country‘s history as one of oppression, and its ideals of liberty as hypocrisies.”
Eventually the civil rights project, as it advanced an understanding of citizenship based on race, sex, etc., led a critical mass of whites to think of themselves as a race, Caldwell writes. “When race rather than citizenship becomes the structure through which people accede to their rights, one must have a race… And under the law, whites were ‘raceless,’” he says, invoking Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “stateless.”
A few notes from the book:
-- Caldwell accuses the Greatest Generation of extreme thoughtlessness in domestic affairs, citing the built environment. He quotes Harry Truman saying “Go right to it -- that’s the way I feel about it,” referring to 1952 plans by D.C. authorities to demolish the downtown rowhouses in which 25,000 people lived, including Marvin Gaye, and replacing them with concrete towers.
-- Sees the Vietnam War as of a piece with the liberal planning agenda that was behind the civil rights project: “it was the war itself, and not the protests against it, that was the sister movement to the CIvil Rights Act and the Great Society.”
-- His encapsulation of the civil rights constitution as he sees it:“the voice of the people is sovereign, once it has been cleared of the suspicion of bias. If people are blocked by bias from understanding the ‘true’ nature of human relations, authorities have the license, even the obligation, to overrule them. Civil rights thus does not temper popular sovereignty, it replaces it.”
-- Caldwell is extremely skeptical of foundations, seeing them as akin to an extra layer of government as described by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to the point that he writes approvingly of FDR’s preference for broad government programs over private charity and disapprovingly of the tax deduction for charitable giving -- the exact opposite stances of most conservatives.