The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties
“Christopher Caldwell may be on the receiving end of the slings and arrows of the liberal governmental and cultural elite he scorns in this book. He may be called a ‘bigot’ or a ‘white nationalist’ or worse. Or, hopefully, his erudite arguments will be debated, analyzed and discussed on their merits without rancor or venom.”
In this provocative and well-argued book, Christopher Caldwell, who writes for both the conservative Claremont Review of Books and the liberal New York Times, contends that the current uncivil political divide in this country stems from the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. A seemingly positive and limited constitutional reform, he writes, was weaponized by liberal elites to establish a “rival Constitution,” which was and is often incompatible with the original Constitution.
The movement to enable black Americans to enjoy the same rights as white Americans armed liberal governmental elites (judges, lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats) with enforcement mechanisms, Caldwell explains, that enabled them to later engage in a full-scale reordering of society. In this, they were aided by cultural elites often funded by liberal philanthropies.
The political divide in this nation, he writes, is fundamentally a disagreement about which of the two Constitutions will prevail: the 1787 Constitution with its accompanying amendments or what Caldwell calls the “de facto constitution of 1964.”
Caldwell describes the de facto Constitution as one that obliterated the distinction between the public and the private spheres of life. He quotes the philosopher Leo Strauss’ warning after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that a “liberal society necessarily makes possible, permits, and even fosters what is called by many people ‘discrimination.’” Prohibiting every act of discrimination, Strauss continued, “would mean the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between the state and society, in a word, the destruction of liberal society.”
Government enforced desegregation, Caldwell writes, “implied a revocation of the old freedom of association” guaranteed by the First Amendment to the original Constitution. It also meant a diminishment of private property.
Caldwell cites polls from the late 1960s that showed most American whites favored gradual desegregation, but not a strict or vigorous enforcement of the Civil Rights Act. “The problem,” Caldwell writes, “is that rights cannot simply be ‘added’ to a social contract without changing it. To establish new liberties is to extinguish others.”
White Americans came to accept the limited tradeoff of some aspects of freedom of association for extending civil rights to blacks who had suffered so much from public as well as private discrimination. But many civil rights activists and their liberal elite allies wanted more than a colorblind society. “The civil rights movement,” Caldwell contends, “was a template. The new system for overthrowing the tradition that hindered black people became the model for overthrowing every tradition in American life . . .”
Racial desegregation was followed by racial preferences, called “affirmative action,” and was established in our law by the Supreme Court in the Bakke decision. Racial preferences were followed by calls for “women’s liberation” and “gender equality.” Feminists used the enforcement mechanisms of civil rights to demand greater sexual freedom, including unlimited abortion rights, and once again the Supreme Court agreed.
Increasingly, Caldwell writes, members of the “educated” and “sophisticated” class instructed their social inferiors as to what their views on these and other issues should be. And they wielded governmental power and cultural authority to enforce those views on society. It was what Patrick J. Buchanan called “a war for the soul of America,” and the other side never had a chance because the battlefield was not democratic elections and votes, but rather executive and judicial fiat backed by an education establishment and a popular culture committed to overturning traditional American values.
Gay marriage, transgenderism, unlimited immigration, diversity, and political correctness were imposed in many instances on an unwilling public that increasingly felt helpless to do anything to recover their values. Caldwell believes that the Reagan administration, while it talked a good game of traditional conservative values, did little to fight the culture wars and instead bought off its conservative supporters with tax cuts.
Caldwell also decries the cultural and political censorship that he believes flowed from the rival Constitution of civil rights. He provides examples of careers ended by the thought and speech police, and the use of “lawsuits, shaming, and street power to overrule democratic politics.” Dissent was not tolerated.
He harshly criticizes President Obama for posing as a leader who desired to bridge the racial gap in America, when in reality he widened it. [A]lmost all of Obama’s policymaking,” Caldwell writes, “was tied up in race and identity.”
The losers in all of this, Caldwell believes, are conservative white men whose values and traditions have been trampled on in undemocratic ways. “Whites suffered,” he writes, “because their electoral victories could be overruled in courtrooms and by regulatory boards when necessary, and because the narrative of civil rights required that they be cast as the villains of their country’s history.”
The Tea Party movement and the rise of Donald Trump, Caldwell believes, were reactions to the undemocratic imposition of the liberal cultural elite’s policy preferences and the transfer of “as many prerogatives as possible from the majority to various minorities.”
Christopher Caldwell may be on the receiving end of the slings and arrows of the liberal governmental and cultural elite he scorns in this book. He may be called a “bigot” or a “white nationalist” or worse. Or, hopefully, his erudite arguments will be debated, analyzed and discussed on their merits without rancor or venom.