Sour dressing for the salad bowl society

From the Outside In - The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy - The American Dream - Guns or Butter - Barry Goldwater
July 12, 1996

Has America's Dream become a nightmare? Esmond Wright, in the third part of his "History of America", is reluctant to reach this conclusion, though he is clearly perturbed by the current state of the union, even as he reminds readers not to mythologise America's past. Wright does not provide a succinct definition of "the Dream", though he singles out for special attention its assimilationist project and its promise of material betterment for each generation of Americans. Both aspirations are threatened: "Americans can no longer assume that tomorrow will be better than today". Instead of marching ever onwards, United States citizens are taking several steps back.

Wright prefers to think of American society less as a "melting pot" than as a "salad bowl". Thus while each of America's ethnic ingredients remains distinct, tossed in a distinctively American dressing they take on a new flavour. As far as this ideal is concerned, Wright (to elaborate his metaphor) is not overly concerned that what was once an overwhelmingly green salad will be overwhelmed by tomatoes and other exotica, though he informs us that by 2050 "white" Americans are unlikely to remain a majority. Immigrants, he reassures the anxious, do not take jobs from Americans: they take jobs Americans do not wish to do. Rather, the main threat to the ideal is "the rising cult of ethnicity" that "threatens to become a counterrevolution against the original theory of America as 'one people'": in short, many of the ingredients no longer wish to constitute a salad. The manifestations of this "cult" are a move among America's minorities to resegregate themselves, and an Afrocentrism that Wright finds distasteful in its moral equivocations: condemning apartheid South Africa but not Amin's Uganda.

As for the dream of generational material advancement, this too is fading fast. A predominantly inner-city (and ergo, as Wright points out, black) underclass finds itself mired in poverty, with violent crime running alarmingly high in its train. Meanwhile, middle-class Americans find their incomes haemorrhaging in federal taxes, as their wealth is redistributed both upwards and downwards. The lion's share of Wright's sympathy is apportioned to these victims of "big government", and of Clinton's regrettable abandonment of the golden principles of Reaganomics. (Wright informs us with supreme assurance that the 1980s conclusively proved that "the poor get richer when the rich get richer" and "raising taxes on the rich does not help the poor".) African-Americans, on the other hand, are largely victims of their own lack of "personal responsibility" (as conservatives have "rightly" noted), and he excoriates the notion that "the delinquency of ghetto life can be ameliorated by economic policies". "Liberals," he chides, "were slow to recognise how their solution to poverty - the welfare state - contributed to its creation". Indeed, "leftists" are a frequent target of his often unintentionally humorous attacks: "The 1980s taught them the unwanted lesson that Marxist slogans, a sense of grievance, and a rhetoric of rights and 'demands' are economically useless I Incapable of performing any useful task for a business, they thronged into the environmental movement I on to the pulpits of the media and the academy in such numbers that a reporter or a professor often made less money than a garbage man."

The American Dream is certainly not, then, a dispassionate history of America, though it has pretensions to historical scholarship and objectivity. However, reading Wright's seven-page panegyric to "Mrs Kirkpatrick" and the plaudits heaped on her book The Reagan Phenomenon ("the work of an activist and participant that nevertheless has about it the qualities of scholarship and objectivity"), one realises that he has a rather peculiar notion of the objective. He also demonstrates a rather tenuous grasp of American foreign policy: Truman enunciated his doctrine because he recognised that "an atomic war would bring doom to mankind", and yet in 1947 the Soviet Union was two years away from its first nuclear explosion. Similarly, Wright's account of Reagan's Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev is purely an exercise in what one might call "fantasy summitry", with Reagan standing firm to the cunning Soviet's attempts to sunder him from his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative.

In its defence of the "forgotten" middle-class Americans and enthusiastic endorsement of new right thinking, The American Dream is, one imagines, exactly the sort of book Barry Goldwater would approve, were he a reading man. Given that he was never a great one for book learning, so his illuminating biographer Robert Goldberg informs us, he might well be more drawn towards Dan E. Moldea's The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy. Written in the style of a latter-day Mickey Spillane ("Sirhan Bishara Sirhan became my last hope for any glimmer of evidence of a second gunman or other co-conspirators. I guess I had known all along, whether I fully realised it or not, that this entire case would begin and end with him"), the author-as-detective ultimately dispatches conspiracy theories. Always drawn towards conspiracies, Goldwater might be rather disappointed to find that there was no second gunman; no contract taken out on Kennedy by his bete noir James Hoffa; no suspicious circumstances surrounding the once mysterious "girl in the polka dot dress".

The conspiracies and shadowy demons in the wings Goldwater feared were of a rather different cast: intellectuals and east coast sophisticates (whether in the shape of Democrats or liberal Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller) were mistrusted. But it was the "red threat" that underlay his paranoid world view - appropriately enough, perhaps, for a man whose entrepreneurial flair had exploited a red menace of another variety by inventing "Antsy Pants" ("underdrawers with red ants rampant"). Fear of "creeping socialism" informed Goldwater's distaste for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and its successor, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Indeed "big government" in any form was anathema to him and, for this reason, despite his crushing defeat at Johnson's hands in 1964, he became for the new right an iconic "Mr Conservative". As Newsweek put it: "He is to Conservatism what Elvis is to rock and roll".

Unlike Elvis, Goldwater has not turned to drugs and hamburgers in his dotage (though as a libertarian he has flirted with the legalisation of marijuana and cocaine). And unlike Elvis, he is no longer worshipped as he once was, now that Republicanism has taken on a Christian fundamentalism that is too extreme for a man who, arguably, lost the 1964 election with a speech extolling the virtues of "extremism in defence of liberty". In fact, old age finds Goldwater adopting some rather unlikely positions: he believes abortion should be a woman's private decision, and he has advised President Clinton to lift the ban on gay men and women serving in the armed forces - in one of his more felicitous "Goldwaterisms": "You don't have to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight." So has the leopard changed his spots? Goldberg suggests not, and argues that Goldwater's espousal of these positions reflects the lifelong libertarian's belief that the state should not interfere in the private sphere.

Yet Goldwater's libertarianism has not always been consistent. He advocates governmental intervention to create equality of opportunity for gays in the military in the 1990s, but in the 1960s voted against Civil Rights legislation (aimed at ending segregationist practices) on the grounds, inter alia, that it infringed the rights of shopkeepers or restaurateurs to serve whomsoever they pleased. In his time he also opposed equal opportunities legislation, believing that the state has no role in creating a more level playing field for women and ethnic minorities. For Goldwater, inequality (in these cases) is conceptualised in personal terms, as individual lack of initiative in seizing opportunities that all possess in equal measure at birth, while discrimination is regarded as friction between individuals that cannot be legislated away. Any notion of structural inequality appears entirely alien to him.

Goldberg tries hard to convince us of underlying consistencies in Goldwater's thought. His is a nuanced biography, sometimes a little overly protective of its subject (despite himself, one senses): as, for example, in his defence of Goldwater from the charges of racism that bedevilled his career. Similarly, Goldberg is too polite to spell out the "serious defect" with which Irving Bernstein presents us in his account of the 1964 Johnson vs Goldwater contest: "he was not very bright". For an American president this need not be a fatal flaw (comparisons constantly spring to mind with another selfconsciously western, film-star handsome Republican), but in Goldwater's case it meant he never left the presidential starting blocks.

Goldberg does, however, provide plenty of evidence to bolster Bernstein's claim. Goldwater had a ingrained tendency not just to dig himself into a hole when speaking, but to keep tunnelling. He had no interest in detail, and, as Walter Lippmann commented, his speeches read "as though a child were speaking on the problems of the times". Even favourably disposed reporters had a difficult choice between reporting what Goldwater actually said (gaffes and all) and what he really meant, while Democratic campaign strategists had a field day with his Gumpish "Goldwaterisms". During the ill-fated campaign of 1964, his toughness on the Soviets, and advocacy of delegated authority to Nato commanders to detonate nuclear missiles, earnt him the moniker "Dr Strangewater". But Goldwater did not learn the lesson Reagan's pollsters pressed upon him during his presidential re-election campaign: talking tough on the Soviet threat may make a candidate appear not reassuringly assertive but alarmingly "itchy-fingered". Public fears that Goldwater would launch a third world war were exploited shamelessly by Johnson's election commercials.

But then, as Bernstein suggests, Goldwater's mental shortcomings were perhaps generic: conservatives are prone to being weighed down by a suspicion that they lack intellectual ballast. Johnson's fatal flaw was rather the reverse - abundant intelligence (and a memory like blotting paper) but an absence of wisdom. In a word, hubris. Indeed to Bernstein, Johnson is a latterday Pericles, and he provides an epic account of the presidency, bulky as its hero. Guns or Butter - unencumbered by excess scholarly baggage, and wearing its author's learning very lightly - zips along with brio, filled with sparky asides and engaging character sketches. Johnson's physicality is powerfully evoked, just as the man himself impressed his fleshy presence on his advisers. The "Great Society", Bernstein reveals, was invented in the presidential swimming pool, where Johnson ordered two aides to strip and join him. Similarly, he was in the habit of forcing his underlings to discuss business in the men's room, while the president performed business of an altogether more personal nature. No surprise then that Johnson should demand, as he himself put it, "kiss-my-ass-at-high-noon-in-Macy's-window loyalty" from his aides. They were expected to work impossibly demanding (sometimes ruinous) hours and were subjected to frequent torrents of abuse. Together, though, the Johnson team registered a 9.8 on a "Richter-type scale of legislative effectiveness", as against FDR's 6.7 - a legislative record Johnson consciously sought to better.

The domestic balance sheet is impressive indeed. Sensing that others regarded him as an illegitimate usurper (and fearing this himself), when he stepped into John F. Kennedy's shoes in 1963, Johnson determined to fulfil JFK's legislative programme, and then outstrip both Kennedy and Roosevelt's reputations as social reformers. Were it not for the fact that LBJ's domestic achievements were themselves overshadowed by the enormity of his failings over Vietnam, Johnson's overweening arrogance would be vindicated. As it is, of course, the gains in civil rights, education, Medicare, environmental conservation and in progressive immigration legislation (some of which are now under threat from Gingrich's "Contract With America") are all too often overlooked. Instead, Johnson is remembered as the president who, with almost Nixonian duplicity, escalated American involvement in Vietnam, on the spurious pretext of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And yet he had pledged in 1964 that American boys would not die doing Asian boys' fighting in, what he privately called, a "ragetty-ass little fourth rate country". As a result, his Great Society was crushed under the weight of the Great Inflation. The lesson, Bernstein concludes, is that of Pericles: one cannot have guns and butter.

In the case of Vietnam, the costs of the war - not yet fully accounted, nor indeed fully accountable - were indisputably ruinous. Bernstein's point that wars have unanticipated long-term effects is one with which Bartholemew Sparrow would doubtless be in agreement, though he might dispute that the consequences of war in general are necessarily injurious. From the Outside In provides a challenging analysis of the impact of the second world war on the American state, and a refutation of any simple-minded notion that wars (particularly "hegemonic wars" of the kind America has twice been involved in this century) cause only temporary blips on an essentially incremental process of state-formation. Applying a sophisticated theoretical model of "resource dependence" to empirical case studies covering social security, labour management, public finance and naval defence procurement, Sparrow seeks to show that the postwar shape of the American state was cast by the war. Traits often considered endogenously American, signifiers of "exceptionalism", turn out to have been exogenously shaped by the experience of war: the domestic ramifications of America's interactions with other states and of alterations within the international system. The underdevelopment of America's welfare state, the corpulence of its defence procurement industry, and absence of a strong labour movement, Sparrow argues, were all moulded by the experience and legacy of the second world war. American dreamers who believe that the particularism of US institutions and social relations is solely the product of a unique political philosophy - the dressing in which the American salad is tossed - should take note.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

From the Outside In: World War II and the American State

Author - Bartholemew H. Sparrow
ISBN - 0 691 04404 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £31.50
Pages - 354

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