I’ve written before at ToM about how Dan Rodgers’s work influenced me as an undergrad at UNC-Charlotte. In his 1987 book Contested Truths, the Princeton historian explored the ways that American thought about “the state,” “the people,” “liberty” and other fundamental political terms changed over time. The book opened my eyes to the study of political culture, and the ways that language and rhetoric shape the implicit norms and values that inform all of our debates about public policy. Like the work of linguist George Lakoff, it showed how we frame issues in ways that often matter much more than actual facts or figures.
So where does that leave us with Age of Fracture, Rodgers’s epic and award-winning attempt to account for a vast number of changes that swept through American life in the last fifty years or more? It’s a split decision, in my view. The book’s many virtues should not be diminished. It is written in a characteristically fluid and engaging style, and somehow manages to integrate huge swaths of economic history, critical theory, movement politics, and much more, summarizing the work of everyone from Clifford Geertz to Milton Friedman to Cornel West to Charles Murray in remarkably accessible language. Any grad student who feels daunted by the innumerable theorists and literatures they need to learn about should read this book, because it provides a terrific tour of the intellectual and social history of the late twentieth century.
On the other hand, though, something is missing. The book does not quite live up to its billing, or at least what I went into it hoping to find. Several historians have begun to try to synthesize the last few decades of American life into a satisfactory narrative. (Take, for instance, Sean Wilentz’s Age of Reagan—another way of framing the period 1974-2008.) As the title of one book about the 1970s put it, Something Happened. We’re just not sure what. Endless historians have put themselves to the task of explaining the rise of the New Right, with an increasingly wearisome focus on the origins, dynamics, and motivations behind conservatism. But a variety of related factors—the importance of identity politics, the proliferation of information technology, the renewed power of religion in public life, and above all the ideological shift that favored the market over the state—seem to have cut through American culture since the 1960s without a plausible explanation that ties them all together. It’s almost like the “theory of everything” sought by physicists, except for recent American (and to an extent global) history.
Age of Fracture doesn’t quite get there. In a series of chapters that work both as standalone essays and interlocking pieces, Rodgers explores changing conceptions of race, gender, power, the market, and so on. Some work better than others. I found the discussion of Reagan’s rhetoric of freedom (a topic addressed at the end of Contested Truths, but at the beginning of Fracture) to be rather thin—a sort of cultural studies close reading of the Gipper’s speeches. On the other hand, Chapter 3 (“The Search for Power”) offers an ingenious take on Geertz, Foucault, Genovese, EP Thompson, and even Alvin Toffler, while one of the finest chapters (“The Little Platoons of Society”) tackles both individualistic and communitarian ideas from the Left and Right in the 1980s and 1990s.
The over-arching metaphor is, of course, “fracture.” Things were breaking, shattering, becoming more divided and atomistic. Old bedrock assumptions (a woman is a woman and a man is a man, to paraphrase Prince; race is a real thing) collapsed under the weight of social struggles (like feminism and black power) as well as the sustained scrutiny of science and critical theory. Former solidarities also diminished, with the decline of the labor movement and a widespread loss of faith in public institutions, particularly schools but really encompassing government in its entirety. People seemed to turn inward to families and churches and their own, self-constructed identities, although Rodgers casts doubt on Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” thesis about declining social capital and attenuated communities.
Why all this splitting and fracturing was going on is harder to nail down. Rodgers is reluctant to be an economic determinist, though the stagflation and oil crises of the 1970s seem to loom especially large in his story—as a moment when dominant ideas of Keynesianism were called into question, the efficacy of the state was visibly challenged, and the door was left open for supply-siders, monetarists, and other neoliberal critters to get into both power and the public consciousness. (Notably, Rodgers points out that the monetarist experiment was tried only briefly and failed in the 1980s, its brittle intellectual basis unable to support actual implementation, although magnetic interlocutors like Milton Friedman ensured that its legend survived.)
But Rodgers’s fracturing resembles nothing so much as the shift from a mass industrial society of the early twentieth century (Fordism) to the “flexible,” post-Fordist or postmodern economy analyzed by David Harvey, among many others. We go from big to small, from mass production to customization, from standardization to diversity, whether it’s a Honda Civic or Wild Cherry Pepsi under consideration. (The same could be said for proliferating personal identities and subcultural allegiances, or habits of television viewing.) The development of a globalized, mobile, highly mediated form of “just-in-time” capitalism was, of course, enabled by policy choices made by figures like Nixon, Carter, Reagan, among many others, but it perhaps also has its analogue in a political culture where people’s allegiances to parties, governments, unions, and even TV networks (the lost trust in the moral authority of a Walter Cronkite) became increasingly frayed, and supplanted by new identities based on sexuality, taste, faith, and so forth.
The biggest problem in the book, for someone looking for a clear case of causation, is that Rodgers treats all these forces as interacting in some vague, nebulous way. Metaphors and images are always sliding around and intermingling. This reflects the author’s abiding interest in language and ideas, the way metaphors have an almost meme-like “life of their own.” And the approach allows him to make up in scope and depth what he lacks in analytical clarity. Thus you have a dizzyingly informative and rich book, with a certain fuzziness at the core of its argument.
Like I said above, this shortcoming in no way really subtracts from the achievement that the book represents—or, put differently, it in no way diminishes its great value to anyone who’d like to learn a lot about a lot of stuff that was really important over the last fifty years. In fact, some of its most profound insights deal with the commonality between Right and Left, where liberals’ disdain for so-called “neoliberalism” would suggest that every free-market or anti-statist idea came from a right-wing think tank. Not so, as Rodgers highlights time and again. The anti-government ethos and widespread suspicion of all things public was in many ways rooted in the New Left’s own brutal critique of what it saw as the oppressive aspects of institutions like public schools. Once the anti-statist genie was out of the bottle, liberals could not put it back in; distrust of government was going to be an issue no matter what in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, but liberals actively advanced many of the agendas they now abhor. (I was surprised to learn that school vouchers were first proposed by liberal activists who saw them as a means to alleviate the effect of underserved public schools on the urban poor, not as an ideological trojan horse for destroying public education.)
There are many remarkable insights in the book like this one, as Rodgers charts the evolution of feminism, the civil rights movement, the religious Right, and many other major forces in recent American life. I fault it for not cracking the code of a half-century of American politics and culture, which is perhaps too great a task to demand of even one of the profession’s leading minds. Joel has suggested that it’s best to approach the book as a provocative and engaging meditation on all these issues, rather than a study with a clear-cut, question-answering thesis. That may be so, but I still came to it with a hunger to know the answer to one question: “Why?”
Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University, co-editor of Tropics of Meta, and author of the book Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
Other posts in the series:
1. Joel Suarez, Debating Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture
2. Alex Sayf Cummings, Why Fracture? The Problem of Causation in Rodgers’s Book
3. Andrew David Edwards, When Genius Fractured
4. Mark Sholdice, Some Fractured Thoughts
5. Brian Ingrassia, After the Fracture: An Age of Disaggregation and Reaggregation