Class and Race: Driving American Politics Since Revolutionary Times
Disagreements over income inequality are always present in democracies, but at times the topic submerges. Today, the topic has reemerged and is driving the next presidential election.
Sean Wilentz is one of the nation’s most prominent historians. His books and commentary on music, politics, and the arts have gained a wide reputation for their force, originality, and elegance. He is currently the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979.
Wilentz’s historical scholarship has concentrated on the political and social history of the United States from the American Revolution to recent times. His best-known books of history are: The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), winner of the Bancroft Prize among other honors, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008). His latest book, The Politicians & The Egalitarians (2016) traces the long history of anti-partisan and egalitarian sentiment in American political culture.
Wilentz’s writings on music have focused on folk traditions and contemporary rock and roll, especially the work of Bob Dylan. His liner notes for Dylan’s album, The Bootleg Series, Volume 6, Bob Dylan Live, 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall were honored with a Grammy® nomination for musical commentary. Since 2001, he has served as historian-in-residence at Dylan’s official Website, www.bobdylan.com. In September 2010, Doubleday published Wilentz’s new book, Bob Dylan in America.
Sean Wilentz: I think a lot of people think the party is no longer serving their interests or their desires. It happens. It's happened before in American history plenty of times. Parties are always coalitions anyway so there's always somebody who's feeling as if they're not getting, you know, not being served well by the party, but it's gotten to be a real cleavage these days. One of the big reasons, this is 2008, which was a big, big year looking back on it. I mean not only the financial crash but Obama's election. Obama's election really signaled the end of the culture war that had been gotten Republican politics for a very long time and it was going to go over over, continued but really we were going to actions but that was it. And then the crash, in American history the question of inequality has been a perennial. We think of it now as something that has suddenly come up, but it's been a perennial; it's always there the idea that somehow vast inequalities of the wealth in particular are dangerous for democracy. That's nothing new. But the idea can submerge for a very long time and it did some submerge for a very long time and 2008 brought it right back up again with a ferocity that we're seeing on the campaign trail today.
The very beginning of American history, American politics, the question of slavery and race was there from the very beginning and it was actually being agitated with the margins at first, it later become more mainstream. So that's always an aspect of American politics. The question of slavery and it's legacy in American political history. The economics, I mean from the very beginning Washington's administration arguments about how the country should - questions about where the country should be headed? What kind of country we were supposed to be. There was some who thought that by bringing in a moneyed class, by building a moneyed class to consolidate the economy as to how. There were others who thought that power and economics really ought to be decentralized more than just the Jeffersonian view; more spread around. That's putting it very crudely but that's kind of what it was.
It was an issue from the very start and you could see that issue playing itself out. We've seen in American history there have been divergences and convergences. The period in American history, for example, after World War II, historians and economist call it The Great Compression, The Great Convergence where vast inequalities left over from the 1910s, 1920s actually began to narrow. And that continued right until the 1970s. So American politics, and it's about politics primarily, has had the and the ways to flatten those differences, to make them less garish to make them less severe than they’ve normally been.
Since the 1970s there's been a pressure towards divergence. It really began to take off during the 1980s and Reagan's policies made a big, big difference in terms of not only tax policy but in terms of the regulation as well. We're seeing the fruits of all that, the bitter fruits of all that in the 2000s, and of the deregulation and the financial collapse in 2008 only made it worse. So political decisions that the country made and the policies that followed after that have enormous consequences.
In George Washington’s "Farewell Address," he warned against political parties, saying they were toxic to a people’s government, and could well ruin the carefully plotted new American government. We didn’t listen.
Now, we may be facing the end of the Republican Party. According to historian Sean Wilentz, people don’t think of the Republican Party as a party that serves the people anymore. Currently led by Donald Trump, the GOP seems to have lost touch with the large classes of people who once vote for it. It all started in 2008, says Wilentz, Obama’s election year and the year of the financial crash.
Throughout history, America dealt with conflicts over class and race: there was the Great Depression, and the more recent recession. Wilentz mentions the Great Compression and Great Convergence, times when wealth inequality was extremely high and relatively low. Currently in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the death of Freddie Gray, and the shooting in Orlando, race has once again become a landmark on our political landscape.
The question of inequality comes up every year, especially one that’s an election year. But policy carries us back to President Reagan’s tax plans, including the flat tax rate. These changes have had big consequences, and as Wilentz points out, these consequences are still affecting our view of the government. While America as a country has tried lessen class difference, many feel that today's political parties do not earnestly prioritize returning the country a more egalitarian time.
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