Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America by Lisle A. Rose is a provocative, in-depth study of the Liberal and Conservative forces that fought each other to shape American political culture and character during the nation’s most prosperous years. The work’s central theme is the bitter struggle to fashion post–World War II society between a historic Protestant Ethic that equated free-market economics and money-making with Godliness and a new, secular Liberal temperament that emerged from the twin ordeals of depression and world war to stress social justice and security.
As the author explains here, Farewell to Prosperity is no partisan screed enlisting recent history to support one side or another. Although absurdity abounds, it knows no home, affecting Conservative and Liberal actors and thinkers alike
The audacity of writing the history of your own time is self-evident. Like many such efforts, Farewell to Prosperity contains more than a slight element of memoir. I was a young schoolboy when World War II ended and with millions of others have lived through all the storms, dramas, excitements, triumphs, tragedies, and follies that have marked national life ever since. Age does bring a certain measure of detachment and tranquility--an appreciation of experience for its own sake that, hopefully, can transcend narrow partisanship. That such a perspective is badly needed today hardly merits mention.
Liberalism and Conservatism, the two great movements that have lashed our postwar polity, have each in its own way overreached; neither has been able to bring a lasting measure of domestic peace and satisfaction to our always turbulent and ever-changing society. Why and how this has happened has preoccupied me for many decades and is the subject of the book.
My intellectual debt is clearly traceable. One rainy Berkeley evening in 1962, I read Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform in one sitting. In setting forth his theory of reform politics as a reaction to social displacement, Hofstadter grounded his story in a generous consideration not only of traditional sources of explanation--economics and politics--but also in the hitherto largely unexplored realms of sociology and literary criticism. His aim was to understand, not advocate. Hofstadter’s approach was, and remains, a heady mix, and it was taken up by a talented crew of acolytes including Marvin Meyers and Leo Marx. Tragically, their promising line of inquiry was soon steamrollered by a “New Left” school who returned to the ways of crude and unimaginative Marxist economic determinism overlain with a patina of equally crude social criticism based on the writings of Che Guevara and Herbert Marcuse. While such partisan advocacy scholarship (Conservatives have their own doctrinaire practitioners) may be personally and collectively comforting to those who pursue it, it has done little to advance a sophisticated understanding of our lives and times.
We have reached the point where the received academic wisdom demands reconsiderations that will enable us to escape from the dead end of meaningful explanation. Now, as always, the central conflict in national life has been the struggle to define what this country is and means. With few interruptions, that conflict has been as fierce since 1945 as at any time in our past.
For all its many faults and failures, the liberalism that has been in and out of power since 1933 has successfully advanced an agenda of mass economic well-being and social betterment through government action. The ways and means have often been abrasive and in the late sixties and early seventies shaded into an extremism that, coupled with new and divisive forms of cultural expression, brought the entire enterprise into disrepute.
The conservative experience has been no less fascinating. Throughout American history, those more or less excluded from power have been adept at expressing their opposition in code words. Modern conservatism has been no exception. Liberalism’s steady empowerment in the early postwar years led to the virulent and irrational anti-communism of the fifties and sixties; its later excesses in pursuit of legitimate ends deflected conservative criticism into the realm of “states’ rights,” “family values,” and a renewed defense of religion-sanctioned “free market individualism” that had been the hallmark of conservative thought and practice throughout our national past.
Since 1933 and particularly throughout the postwar era, the great themes underlying conservative thought and conversation have been those of dispossession and loss. Despite the evident decline of liberalism over the past forty years and the emergence of Reagan Republicanism, conservatives are united in the sense that the country is no longer theirs. This perception--both right and wrong--charges their policies and practices with a striking urgency. We need not mount a mournful epitaph for Dixie or defend heterosexual male supremacy to add a dash of pity to our cup of condemnation. Millions of Americans are hurting because reality has passed them by.
I suspect many thinkers and scholars will dismiss such a view as un-progressive and wimpish hand-wringing. Caring about the losers is, after all, un-American, as Vince Lombardi and a host of college and professional coaches will tell you. But contemporary conservatism continues to clog the gears of national life. If we seek the wellsprings of its beliefs and practices, they can be found in the discoveries of Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd eighty and ninety years ago when they probed the social dynamics of one typical “Middletown.” The political culture of Muncie, Indiana, which the two sociologists uncovered during visits in 1925 and 1936 continues to resonate throughout Red State America, shaping its response to the host of issues confronting the country today; race relations, feminism, gay rights, immigration, national health care, and the like.
But seeking out the dynamics of conservatism and its often venomous interplay with the liberal opposition does more than illuminate our current national paralysis and malaise. It rounds out the picture of what this nation is and was--and how the was has become the is. The search for answers to questions such as these constitutes the real meaning and challenge of history, which now, as ever, is practically preoccupied with the basic question: “What happened and why?”