The Soul of America: Book Review

June 13, 2018

Jon Meacham: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (2018). Meacham reviews American history for periods where "the politics of fear triumphed over hope" (which he also calls the Maelstrom of the moment), plus eras of recovery and progress. The business cycle (plus political cycles) is alive and well, with downturns and recoveries. Politics seems to follow similar cycle Meacham doesn't focus on cycles, but specific people and dark periods. Slavery has been called our "original sin," although American Indians may have a different view. The Civil War erased slavery, but not racism and nearly a century of segregation. George Wallace, governor of Alabama played a part, including claiming; "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Slavery started in 1619 at Jamestown, and there is 400 years of history and counting on racism. Legal rights for minorities have improved, but much of the culture remains far behind. The Ku Klux Klan was part of the story, a hate group going in and out of popularity. What I didn't know was that of the 1100 or so delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention, 343 were KKK members. A fair number of governors (11), Senators (16), and House members (75) also were Klan members. As H.L. Mencken stated: "enlightenment among mankind is very narrowly dispersed."

 

There was plenty of dissent to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s. Conservatives called the programs "efforts of half-baked Socialists." Democrats responded that the New Deal was an effort to save capitalism from dumb capitalists. Then there was Huey Long, a corrupt Louisiana Senator (and former governor) promoting his own brand of propaganda and populism. Long actually got things done, just taking a major cut for himself and cronies. He seemed to be suggesting an armed revolt (assuming he didn't win the presidency) and was only stopped by an assassins bullet. The 1930's also saw the American first isolationist views of of Charles Lindbergh and others. One of the deplorable episodes in our history was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 

 

Anti-communism became a things in the 1920's, but a significant political issue in the late 1940's. The Truman Doctrine called for containment, many Republicans wanted nuclear obliteration of the USSR (and China after 1949). This became the McCarthy era after Joe McCarthy's seemingly obscure speech claiming he had a list of hundreds of Communists working in the State Department. He claimed this was a "battle between Communism, atheism and Christianity." He was a master of angry false charges. In 1954 he was denounced by Edward R. Murrow, denounced by Joseph Welsh and censured by the Senate, Gallup reported that 34% of the country still backed McCarthy (behavioral economics suggests anchoring, framing, and cognitive dissonance as partial answers).

 

There were no Donald Trump stories, although his name was brought up on occasion, mainly with the perspective that we have all these episodes from the past with similarities to the Trump presidency. The suggestion is recovery will happen. What is not so clear is how much potential damage is possible.

 

  

 

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© 2016 Gary Giroux

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