Distributed April 1996
Copyright ©1996 by James T. Patterson
A chorus of so many voices, however cacophonous, will occasionally happen on the right notes. So with our contemporary Jeremiahs. Some of their laments wake us up and alert us to serious social, economic and political problems. We would do well, however, to bring more historical perspective to our perception of these problems. What we must really face today, as in the past 25 or 30 years, is not the approach of doom but the fallout from dangerously grand expectations. Since the 1960s we have too often imagined that we can do it all, that there are no limits to the health, wealth and happiness that we can achieve. Until we come down to earth, we will hear ever more about doom and Armageddon.
We can trace the most recent rise of such expectations to the legacy of an extraordinary era in American history - the quarter century or so following World War II. As early as 1941 the publisher Henry Luce predicted the coming of an "American Century" which would feature the triumphant spread of American ideals and institutions throughout the world. Historians since then have labeled the postwar years the "Golden Age," the "Best Years," "American High" and the "Proud Decades." What made this era so high and so proud was above all the performance of our economy - a wonder to experience for the ever larger and more expectant middle classes. Amazing advances in productivity in turn promoted great economic growth and unprecedented gains in real income.
The vibrant economy of those unusual years greatly intensified popular optimism. So did the civil rights movement, a quest for justice so transcendently noble that it spread a contagious rights-consciousness throughout the country. It was Lyndon Johnson, with soaring rhetoric about a Great Society, who really swept the rights revolution forward. "We have the opportunity," he proclaimed in May 1964, "to move not only toward the right society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society ... where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community."
Dramatic laws cascaded off Capitol Hill in 1964-65 - federal aid to elementary and secondary education, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, two historic civil rights laws, long overdue reform of racist immigration statutes. Johnson also promised "wars" that would destroy poverty and Communism in South Vietnam. The military metaphor reflected contemporary expectations: The United States, people thought, had the mind, the might and the money to conquer whatever scourges stood in its way.
Stubborn obstacles, however, quickly confronted the can-do dreamers and warriors of the 1960s. The appearance of these barriers should not have surprised people - there are limits, after all, to what social engineers and democratic politicians can accomplish. But the obstacles nonetheless arose with remarkable suddenness. Five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights law, rioting broke out in Watts. Social unrest and backlash so polarized the nation later in the year that Johnson himself began to despair. "What do they want?" he asked of his critics.
What many wanted was not only rights, but also gratifications and entitlements of all kinds. Some Americans believed they were entitled to live in a world without discomfort or dissatisfaction. By the mid-1970s, the relentless quest for such a world seemed so intense that Tom Wolfe spoke of a "Me Decade" and Christopher Lasch bewailed the "culture of narcissism." These were loaded labels, but they accentuated a central point: Grand expectations had captured the culture.
As we well know, however, the American economy, whose explosive vigor had done so much to promote the expectations, sagged in the 1970s. Since then it has recovered considerably - and is more healthy than most Jeremiahs have been willing to concede. But it does not meet the expectations of people who, having warmed to the seductive economic growth of the 1960s, damn our political and corporate leaders for failing to work wonders in the 1990s.
Grand - grandiose - expectations about the economy are but the most obvious of the dazzling high hopes that have blinded many Americans to the limits of progress in our times. A better understanding of the historical background to these expectations might muzzle some of the Jeremiahs and help us look for more realistic goals. A few journalists and others are trying to promote such understanding. Political leaders in this presidential election could add to the effort by talking honestly about our recent past and our future. Let us hope they do.