Daniel Rodgers is best known as a historian of the Progressive Era. His previous book, Atlantic Crossings (1998), traced the transatlantic intellectual networks of social reformers from the 1870s to the end of the New Deal; it’s easily the best single-volume history of American progressivism and reform. But the main characters in Rodgers’s books aren’t Progressive intellectuals. They’re metaphors: the modes of thinking and ways of speaking that give meaning and coherence to ideas and actions.
Rodgers cares most about the metaphors we use to try to reconcile inherited ideas with new experiences of the world. This is, at a basic level, what being a teenager is all about, as you figure out that what your parents told you doesn’t quite fit the world you live in. On a larger scale, the problem is a recurring one in all modern societies, where we’re always rediscovering that the old myths we’ve passed off on ourselves don’t quite fit the new world constantly in the making.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in Contested Truths (1987), Rodgers analyzed metaphors as they’ve been used in American political speech. Utility, natural rights, the people, government, the state, interests, freedom: Americans have tried to use each of these words to gather the stray strands of a particular political moment into a coherent bundle of meaning, or to lend legitimacy to a mode of political power. “Let such words shift,” Rodgers wrote, “let a part of the citizenry suddenly read new meanings into the reigning political figures of speech, let the self-evident truths undergirding the structures of power be open to doubt and contest,” and you get a revolution in thought—which is to say, a revolution in society.
That’s the case Rodgers always tries to make, anyway; his emphasis on the power of thought and language to reshape society is the thread that ties his work together. His mind has been formed by studying the same milieu that produced the pragmatists in Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, and he has taken on parts of the pragmatic position as his own. For Rodgers, words and ideas really are tools: not only do they help us make sense of the world, but they also help us remake the world. Of course, anyone who has been put to work in an industrial factory or at an internet terminal might reasonably quarrel with that view: those material conditions seem to be the main things shaping our world, giving us a sense of constraint or possibility, isolation or interconnectedness, that no amount of thinking or speaking can change.
The most recent keyword Rodgers examined in Contested Truths was “freedom.” Though the term has a long history in American political speech, it took on a new importance at the start of the cold war. Roosevelt described the world of dictators and democracies as “divided between human slavery and human freedom,” while anti-New Deal businessmen shifted from an emphasis on “private” enterprise to the rhetoric of the “free market.” Soon the two meanings were conflated through constructions such as “freedom of choice,” which neatly folded capitalism and democracy together against communism. In the sixties, though, the term became more radical, launching a flurry of protests and marches, including the famous “freedom summer” of 1964, as well as a wagonload of rights claims: women’s rights, gay rights, patients’ rights, consumers’ rights. Finally, by the seventies and eighties, “freedom” was accepted as a nervous compromise—something generally desired but hard to pin down—whose details had to be worked out in the courts. “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1965, in the midst of this change, grasping for a way to explain where, exactly, the right to privacy could be found.
By the eighties, Rodgers thought, “freedom” and “rights” were breaking under their accumulated baggage—and, as a result, “interests” was emerging anew as an important term in American political speech, now liberated from any connection to the common good. Trying to talk about the people as a whole, Reagan referred to “a special interest group that has been too long neglected”; and indeed, today, all our “communities”—the business community, the gay community, the black community—are seen as nothing more than interest groups. Different interest groups vie for power and generally balance each other out: this process is what has become, for most Americans, the essence of politics.
If you believe, as Rodgers does, that thought and language help make the world we live in, then the rise of “freedom” and “interests” in the eighties pointed in one direction. Those terms provided an economic way of talking about politics. Politics was a marketplace, full of individual actors trying to maximize their own advantage. What happened in the last few decades of the 20th century, Rodgers argues in his new book, Age of Fracture, was that similar market metaphors, emphasizing freedom and individual interests, roamed far and wide across the intellectual landscape. “Choice” replaced “duty”; individualism took over from ideas of social dependence. “Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.”
Many writers use “fracture” or “fragmentation” to describe America in the late 20th century, but these writers mostly talk about political polarization. For about two decades after the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans maintained a rough consensus on the virtues of what’s often called “growth” or “embedded” liberalism, in which the government intervenes in the economy to promote growth and stability as well as a more equal distribution of wealth. But that agreement broke down in spectacular fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, as deindustrialization, domestic turmoil, and the war in Vietnam took their toll and conservatives questioned the costs of the liberal state. In Before the Storm (2001) and Nixonland (2008), Rick Perlstein describes “the fracturing of America” into two rather clean-cut divisions in the late sixties and early seventies. Taking a different tack but using much of the same rhetoric about polarization, Sean Wilentz concentrates solely on the rise of modern American conservatism in The Age of Reagan (2008). He argues that Reagan dominated the era, pushing the country to the right and leaving the left behind.
The polarization of American politics and the rise of modern conservatism are events that undoubtedly did occur in the decades after the 1960s, and they’re important tales to tell. But to look at late-20th-century America through that narrowly political lens is to miss the bigger, messier story. “The era’s key intellectual shifts cannot be pinned to any single part of the political spectrum,” Rodgers argues. “Ideas slipped across the conventional divisions of politics, often incongruously and unpredictably.” Many of the first practical school voucher proposals came from critics on the left, such as the law professors John Coons and Stephen Sugarman, who argued in 1978 for a “family power equalizing plan” that would “redistribute the means of self-determination in the formation of will and intellect.” Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans took up the banner of deregulation: whether regulators hampered business or were captive to industry, either way, they had to go. One 1974 summit meeting of economists, including Alan Greenspan, John Kenneth Galbraith, and several former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers under JFK and LBJ, could agree on nothing but the virtues of deregulation, which they all thought would “improve the pricing and cost performance of the economy.” In case after case, American elites from across the political spectrum decided that the market was the answer to what ailed the country.
As Rodgers tells it, the seventies saw a tired nation abandon the highly regulated economies of the Bretton Woods era to adopt microeconomic models more or less on the fly. There were too many details to discern in the chaos of economic collapse—stagflation, the oil crisis—so people turned to “the power of simple ideas in hard and confusing times.” In contrast to macroeconomic theories, which tried to explain how land, labor, and capital came together in the economy as a whole and acknowledged, as Paul Samuelson put it, that the idea of market equilibrium was “not a picture of the real world as we know it,” the new emphasis on microeconomics allowed economists and policy-makers to focus on individual actions without regard to the different types of goods, industries, and labor that were involved in production and exchange. The new microeconomics models worked so well, at least on paper, because they jettisoned the complexity of a broader view of entrenched economic structures and institutions by building up from an ideal base of rational individuals acting outside historical time and apart from institutional influences. These models, because they started at such a low level, could also much more easily come to seem like reality.
If this economic story were the whole of Age of Fracture, though, there would again have been little reason for Rodgers to write the book. The economic story is, essentially, the story of neoliberalism, a story that has been told with passion and bite in David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism, as well as in his earlier book, The Condition of Postmodernity. Harvey’s account is clean and coherent, but also deeply ideological—an attempt to pin down an era with an abstraction. The term “neoliberal” appears just twice in Age of Fracture. This is, in part, because Rodgers wants to distance himself from Harvey and others critics on the far left. But it also reflects his view of history. Rodgers is interested in metaphors—in relations between ideas and experience. For him ideas are not determined by material conditions; rhetoric and reality remake one another. An economic crisis precipitated the “age of fracture” and economic thought pervaded it, but the era cannot be reduced to an economic story. What happened in the last quarter of the 20th century, Rodgers states, was not the rise of “a single, dominant idea—postmodern, new right, or neoliberal—but a contagion of metaphors.”
Before we get to the specific metaphors Rodgers takes on, though, it’s worth considering why he thinks language and thought are so important. This is not obvious. It may even look a little naïve, especially when the subject is politics or economics. Politicians being what they are, we have come to expect an almost necessary gap between speech and act, between Sunday morning talk show and closed committee room. And aren’t employment status, work conditions, and income level pretty clearly more important, both for society as a whole and in private life, than the words you happen to use to think about your relationship to your job and your coworkers?
Rodgers thinks those who would see a strict separation between the world of ideas and speech, on the one hand, and the world of actions and economics, on the other, look through too simplistic a lens. “The making of words is indeed an act,” he argues in Contested Truths, “not a business distinct from the hard, behavioral part of politics but a thing people do. So, by the same token, are the acts of repeating other people’s words, rallying to them, being moved by them, believing in them.” The articulation of an idea—equality, say, or supply-side economics—can generate a movement. A striking phrase—a “war on poverty” or “war on drugs” or “war on terror”—rallies people to a cause and constrains the choices they make. Posing a hard problem in a new way often reveals solutions that were already lying around, waiting to be uncovered.
Rodgers is known for slicing neatly through knotty problems, breaking down vague, abstract ideas into concrete, manageable pieces. One particularly hard problem for historians in the 1970s was early-20th-century progressivism. What did progressives believe? Were they apostles of efficiency? Moralistic crusaders? Campaigners for social justice? No one could come up with a coherent answer; some historians had given up completely. The problem, Rodgers wrote in a 1982 article, “stems from the attempt to capture the progressives within a static ideological frame.” Historians had worked so hard to fix a single label on the movement that they had ignored the multiple ways in which progressives saw the world. The progressives didn’t have a coherent philosophy; what they did have were different languages they could draw on to articulate their discontent—rhetoric about antimonopolism, about social bonds, about social efficiency. Wouldn’t it make much more sense, Rodgers argued, to ask what problems the progressives could articulate within those languages, and what solutions they could imagine?
Now, with Age of Fracture, Rodgers has used the same approach to examine the generation just past. Aware that not every reader will buy his assertion that shifts in thought can be as transformative as shifts in the relations of production—that “arguments over selves and identities were not simply a reflex of the world’s capital markets”—he offers an opening chapter on the importance of presidential rhetoric.
Modern presidents give speeches with the regularity of the rising sun; Clinton and Bush averaged about a thousand per term. Understandably, much of this talk seems meaningless; with nearly a speech a day, how could it not? “But in the very course of the everyday acts of politics,” Rodgers argues, “presidents and their speechwriters cannot help mapping an inchoate theory of society and politics.” They express a vision of the people to which they speak, and their phrases and images then multiply in newspapers, broadcasts, and blog posts. Presidential speeches “set into circulation mental pictures of society and its field of obligations. They articulate the nation and its promises.”
In the decades just after World War II, presidents and presidential campaigners emphasized freedom in their speeches, but they nearly always couched it in the language of obligations and responsibilities. John Kennedy exhorted his fellow citizens “to seize the burden and the glory of freedom.” A few years later, Barry Goldwater also spoke of “Freedom—balanced so that liberty, lacking order, will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle.” While celebrating American freedom, the presidents of the fifties, sixties, and seventies reminded Americans of their duties. Eisenhower invoked “our common labor as a nation”; Kennedy asked us to consider what we could do for our country; even Nixon advised, “Until he has been part of a cause larger than himself, no man is truly whole.” The logic and style of cold war politics, Rodgers explains in Age of Fracture, “formed a way of articulating public life in which society, power, and history pressed down on individual lives as inescapably dense and weighty presences.”
This rhetoric began to change, almost imperceptibly, with Carter, who brought populist evangelical Protestantism to the presidency, and then it rapidly underwent a revolution with Reagan. Reagan asked not what we could do for our country; he asked only for us “to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds.” Where in the sixties even Reagan had encouraged sacrifice because, as he put it in his first inaugural address as governor of California, “freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction,” two decades later he had adopted an incorrigible optimism.
In the space of a decade, the rhetoric of freedom shifted from duties to dreams. This was neither natural nor necessary. As Reagan’s ally Margaret Thatcher noted in 1978, “There are many difficult things about freedom; it does not give you safety; it creates moral dilemmas; it requires self-discipline; it imposes great responsibilities.” But Reagan cast off the limits and burdens that had formerly come along with freedom. “There are no constraints on the human mind,” he told the country in 1985, “no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.”
The main barrier we had erected was, in Reagan’s view, government, which he set in strong opposition to “the people.” But Reagan’s people were not a united people, working together toward a common goal. Instead, his speeches focused on a lone Washington or Lincoln, a single settler heading west in his wagon, individual “heroes in the balcony” who were called out at the end of each State of the Union address. In focusing on individuals and infinite possibilities rather than structures, limits, and burdens, Rodgers writes, Reagan lost the words of the cold war: “its rhetorical gestures, its collectively enacted rituals of urgency, the language of obligation and responsibility that had been its inextricable attachment.” In the process, he helped to reframe the way Americans thought of themselves and their society.
In exploring late-20th-century American social thought, Rodgers usually sticks with the works of academics and other intellectuals, descending occasionally to the realm of policy but only rarely to pop culture. His M.O. in each chapter—in addition to presidential rhetoric and economics, he writes about conceptions of power, race, gender, society, and history—is to analyze the big books on the subject, by the likes of John Rawls, Judith Butler, Charles Murray, and Allan Bloom, and to touch on the relevant policy debates, such as affirmative action, welfare reform, and originalism, in order to show that Americans of all political persuasions began to think more in terms of individual agency, free enterprise, and quick fixes than mass society, powerful institutions, and gradual development.
The trajectory Rodgers traces in his chapters on power, society, and history—from certain to shaken, from stable to fluid, from social to singular—applies equally to matters of race and gender. The marks of race and the bonds of womanhood are hard to ignore; they collectivize individuals and bring the power of history to bear on the present. The conception of race expressed in Alex Haley’s Roots, for instance, was grounded firmly in history and society—hence the title. The book spent twenty-two weeks at the top of the bestseller list and won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977; more than half the country watched the finale of the miniseries, making it, at the time, the most-watched television broadcast in American history.
Yet even race slipped away from any set meaning. Already in 1978, in its Bakke decision about affirmative action, the Supreme Court began its retreat toward color-blindness. William Julius Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race, which argued (at the very end) that race was no longer the most important factor in the lives of black Americans. Meanwhile, black intellectuals were turning toward post-essentialist notions of identity, putting race in quotes—as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., did in a Critical Inquiry forum in 1985—and calling it a “fiction.” In this case, as in so many others that Rodgers describes, ideas coming from radically different places on the political and ideological spectrum ended up looking pretty much the same on the surface. It didn’t take long for conservative advocates of color-blindness to recognize this: “Any attempt to systematically classify human beings according to race will fail, because race is an arbitrary concept,” as Linda Chavez, staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan, put it.
In a parallel development, the feminist sisterhood of the seventies fell apart, sparking the culture wars of the eighties and nineties. Initially, second-wave feminism had been held together by shared conceptions of the patriarchal structure of society and the socially constructed constraint of gender. Women worked to find a common voice, celebrating what the poet Adrienne Rich called “forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.”
Soon, however, the emphasis shifted away from women’s experiences of male domination and constrained choice. Some feminists began to take up poststructuralist theories of language, analyzing the binary oppositions they saw built into linguistic relationships and arguing, as Joan Scott did in 1992, that identity was “subject to redefinition, resistance and change.” The most-cited feminist theory text of the nineties, though, was Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. “The feminist ‘we’ is always and only a phantasmatic construction,” Butler wrote. Identities were nothing but a set of scripts that individuals could act out, “open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citation from within.” The feminist “we” had disappeared, taking along with it the notion that there was, outside of language and performance, such a thing as gender at all.
Readers of his previous works will know that Rodgers regrets, maybe even deplores, many of the developments he describes. “Freedom cannot be the whole of public talk. Nor Interests,” he wrote in Contested Truths. “A democracy must also have strong and generous words for its common life and common wants.”
But because he frames the late 20th century as a period when similar metaphors ranged across realms of thought and political persuasions, Rodgers can neither celebrate nor condemn. All we get is a sort of stocktaking in the final few pages. “There were more choices than before,” both in things to buy and ways to be human; but at the same time, “the webs of dependence and connection that joined the disaggregated selves had become far harder to articulate.” We end not with optimism, but with exhaustion. “The age of fracture had permanently altered the play of argument and ideas,” Rodgers writes about the early 2000s—Bush, Iraq, the recession. “The pieces would have to be assembled on different frames, the tensions between self and society resolved anew. But how that would be done, amid the anger and the confusion, the liberations and the anxieties, still hung in the balance.”
There are, however, two themes that run throughout Age of Fracture, themes that offer a way out. Social metaphors may have broken down, but social life itself has not dissolved. Rodgers quietly yet insistently maintains that there is a there there—that the currently popular notions of detached individuals, diffuse power, fluid identities, and pliable history are not accurate reflections of reality. “Social structures persisted.” “Power remained as it always does: instantiated in institutions, inequalities, and constraints.” “Race mattered. As a claim and a mark of power, it remained deeply etched on early 1990s American society.” “History worked sometimes with glacial slowness, at other times with revolutionary and unpredictable swiftness. But it was not an empty chasm that could be leaped.”
Alongside this firm belief in structures and institutions lies a persistent concern for the particular, the limited, the bounded, the concrete. That is what was left behind in the past forty years, as a “theme of limitlessness,” Rodgers says, “ran through the social thought of the age.” The new market metaphors, detached from history, institutions, and power, painted an abstract, idealized picture of the world. These new metaphors came to seem natural, which is to say, eternal and universal. Reagan gave cheerleading speeches full of dreams—“that ultimate state of boundlessness,” Rodgers writes—which articulated “a vision of freedom without obstacles or limits.” With freedom cut off from history and politics, and the market severed from industry and labor, those abstractions became harder to argue with and easier to use. They became all-encompassing metaphors for politics and power, self and society—without regard to whether they actually touched on life as it is lived.
This isn’t to say we should return to a cold war mentality or adopt a dangerously strong nationalism. But our current shortcomings have become obvious in our inability to make a strong case for public health care or strong financial reform and, perhaps most importantly, our failure to prevent the rhetorical bashing and financial gutting of public education.
At its best, public education provides individual opportunity—which should never be denigrated as a social good—while also instilling a common sense of belonging and responsibility. Perhaps books like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), in which she turns her back on vouchers, charter schools, “choice,” and market-based approaches to schooling in general, will remind us of the importance of common schools for citizenship. “Neighborhood schools are often the anchors of their communities,” Ravitch writes, “a steady presence that helps to cement the bonds of community among neighbors. Most are places with a history, laden with traditions and memories that help individuals resist fragmentation in their lives.” Strong public schools, connecting people to the local community and the larger country, cannot help but bring stronger public language into being.
Metaphors are bridges; they connect ideas and experience. Or at least they should. When both sides are solid—when we say that society is a web, and point out the connections—metaphors help us get from place to place. But when we resort to airy abstractions—when we relate our world to some ideal market or some unbounded freedom—then metaphors become bridges to nowhere. We need to make them grounded again.