The Unmaking of America

A new history asks: Has all the progress of the past 100 years come undone?

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff.

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff

Not too long ago, you could write a general history of the United States in the previous century as a story of ever-increasing wealth, power, and equality. Quite a few historians did. Even after the dot-com bust and Sept. 11, it seemed that at least since the Second World War, America was moving inexorably toward greater prosperity, healing its racial wounds, and exporting its brand of democracy all across the globe. Many assumed the nation’s upward trajectory would continue unabated. But that story has been much harder to justify since the Great Recession, the debacle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the renewed attention given to our racial disparities. Fifteen years into this new century, the narrative of progress seems much more difficult to sustain.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue, prominent historians at Yale and NYU respectively, don’t even try. In their timely, remarkable new survey of America since 1890, These United States, they argue that in many ways we are back to where we started. They begin in the 1890s, when Gilded Age tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller controlled much of the nation’s wealth and an enfeebled federal government seemed incapable if not unwilling to stop them. And despite the tremendous strides made during the New Deal and Great Society era, in many ways we find the U.S. facing those exact same problems. Provocatively, Gilmore and Sugrue ask whether the greater equalities of the immediate postwar years, when seen in light of the “long” 20th century, seems less like an inevitability and more like an “historical accident.” That they make a compelling case that they do makes this book required reading.

The curtain opens on the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893. The city’s wealthy elite paid for an extravagant complex complete with enormous neoclassical columns, the world’s first Ferris wheel, and a giant statue of Christopher Columbus riding, oddly, a Roman chariot. All this masked the nation’s jarring inequalities: Jim Crow laws were spreading throughout the South; women had not yet received the right to vote; and millions of new immigrants were living in urban slums. Indeed, economic inequality had become the nation’s defining feature at the turn of the century. In 1900, the wealthiest 10 percent pocketed 41 percent of the nation’s income—a number that would only be surpassed in 2010, when the top 10 percent took home 48 percent of the national income. That number only fell between 1950 and 1970, to 33 percent. Even more shocking was the wealthiest 1 percent, who by 1910 had controlled 18 percent of the nation’s wealth, but 8 percent in 1970. Only in 2010 did the top 1 percent again control 18 percent.

None of this prevented Chicago’s elite from presenting their nation as both the inheritor of Western civilization’s great past (cue the columns and Columbus) and the only hope for its future. Nor was it with any irony that they dubbed the main exposition space the “White City.” Yet just outside the main halls, a young black woman named Ida B. Wells worked to expose the city’s myths. Wells distributed pamphlets protesting the fact that blacks were given only the most menial jobs. A 75-year-old Frederick Douglass joined her, delivering a stinging speech that challenged anyone who dared to blame blacks for their inability to achieve parity with whites. “There is no Negro problem,” he said bluntly. “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

But it would take more than any individual, however determined, to overturn segregation. By the 1910s, the progressives emerged as the most likely saviors. To be sure, progressives were not an organized group so much as an informal set of mostly educated men and women who shared a common outlook: that the only way to alleviate poverty, corporate corruption, and end racial and gender discrimination was to expose these problems through rigorous research and translate that data into public policy. In essence, they were technocrats who believed only the government had the power to affect meaningful change.

Glenda Gilmore.
Glenda Gilmore.

Photo by Harold Shapiro

They succeeded in empowering the government, but only to a point. Sugrue and Gilmore suggest that one of their great failures was in foreign policy. Setting a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the century, many progressives naively believed that the United States could bring democracy to the undeveloped world. Between 1898 and 1912, the United States established a small empire throughout the Western hemisphere, taking control of Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, among others. Gilmore and Sugrue dismiss historians who have overemphasized the role of business elites in backing these imperialist ventures and instead underscore that many liberal-minded progressives supported these wars, too. Take the U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898: “To attribute the motivation for intervening in Cuba simply to commerce and markets overlooks the more altruistic thinking of vast swaths of the American public.” The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union believed that education and democracy would elevate the uncivilized while “some African Americans had originally supported the war because of the terrible things that Butcher Weyler”—the Cuban dictator—“had done to Cubans, many of whom were people of color.” Perhaps more importantly, many blacks believed that a democracy established in a nonwhite nation would become a model for what America might yet become: a postracial democracy.

Here as elsewhere, Gilmore and Sugrue brook no liberal pieties. To their great credit, they lay bare the many ways that campaigns we tend to see as either entirely just or immoral were far more complex. The women’s suffrage campaign provides an excellent example. In the early 1900s, feminists divided over what they should prioritize. The most radical believed that women not only needed the right to vote, but laws that protected women in the workplace and paid them an equal wage. But mainstream feminists believed they should focus on accessing the ballot first. The differences were not only tactical; they revealed a deeper intellectual divide that resonates to this day. Radicals believed no fundamental difference separated men and women, and women should be treated equally in all aspects of society because of it. Mainstream feminists prioritized getting the right to vote in part because they accepted women’s separate, matronly role. Indeed, highlighting women’s matronly role was critical to their argument: As nurturing mothers and wives, they were imbued with a moral authority that would translate into responsible political citizenship. To accept the radicals’ premise would undercut the basis of their whole argument. With the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, mainstream feminists won the debate—but not without leaving unresolved women’s inequality in the workplace.

What began to redress that problem was not a concerted progressive effort but the urgency of war. During World War II, millions of jobs opened for women as men left to fight overseas. In fact, the importance the authors give to war in redressing so many of America’s inequalities points to one of the book’s more problematic aspects. Gilmore and Sugrue celebrate the moments when inequality lessened, yet recoil at one of the key ways by which it was achieved: through war. One could argue—and not with pride, but deep unease—that global dominance was, if not the only, then an essential ingredient to reducing domestic inequality.

After all, as Gilmore and Sugrue note, entry into the Second World War did more to end the Great Depression and redress racial inequality than any of the New Deal reforms adopted prior to it. It was during the war and its aftermath that the United States emerged as the world’s global power and simultaneously experienced the greatest racial and economic advancements it had ever known. As the authors point out, the first two decades of the Cold War not only created millions of jobs through the growth of a massive military-industrial complex; they gave civil rights activists one of their most powerful arguments. Immediately after the Second World War, black activists successfully began “recasting racial tolerance as a democratic imperative.” It would be an embarrassment for the United States to defend democracy abroad while curtailing it domestically. And Congress listened. It was no coincidence that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed just as the United States ramped up the war in Vietnam.

Thomas J. Sugrue.
Thomas Sugrue.

Photo by Laurie Beck Peterson

The authors are at their best when they tease out these unexpected connections. If Vietnam’s role in advancing civil rights provides one example, the way Vietnam simultaneously created new means of police brutality provides another. In the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson funneled millions of dollars to local police departments, training police in military techniques developed in Southeast Asia. And as the authors make clear, many of the policies we associate with modern conservatism, from “law and order” policies to deregulation, found key liberal sympathizers. The crackdown on urban black citizens began under Johnson while deregulation found a hero in Jimmy Carter.

Of course, Gilmore and Sugrue make clear that Reagan, above all, enshrined the idea of trickle-down economics and market-based solutions. But they are at pains to show how much Clinton and Obama shifted the Democratic Party rightward. Indeed, These United States becomes most riveting, and will likely arouse most debate, over its judgment of Democrats in the Age of Reagan, which many historians contend is the era we still live in. For all Clinton’s professed empathy for the black community, the authors highlight how his gutting of welfare played to the public’s false, racist image of lazy black “welfare queens.” Clinton gets plenty of blame for abetting the Great Recession too. The 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act—a critical piece of New Deal legislation that prevented banks from making risky investments with depositors’ money—unleashed a speculative torrent.

The authors are only the slightest bit sympathetic to Obama. They concede that he operated under conditions not of his own making. But he “was not a transformational president.” He caved to Wall Street in bailing out the banks without demanding any meaningful reform; the Affordable Care Act may have insured millions, but countless others have been forced to pay more because its biggest beneficiaries were insurance and drug companies. And his foreign policy effectively continued to do by stealth what George W. Bush barely kept secret at all: drone strikes, secret wiretaps. Other fundamental problems that began at the start of the 20th century have re-emerged under Obama: racial segregation abetted by a criminal justice system that is the New Jim Crow; anti-immigration nativism, which has hardly been helped by an immigration policy whose only achievement is a record number of deportations. Meanwhile, as of 2012, a woman still made 81 cents for every dollar a man earned.

These United States cannot cover everything. In a history that underscores persistent racial inequality, some mention in the sections on the 1990s of the beating of Rodney King and the O.J. trials, and less focus on Monica Lewinsky, would have been welcome. In a book devoted to economic inequality, more on the rise of today’s most powerful corporations, Apple and Google, might have been justified. But every comprehensive survey must make sacrifices, and even at more than 700 pages you’ll still be impressed with how much they cover.

More importantly, Gilmore and Sugrue never succumb to defeatism. They highlight the many profound changes over the past century, from women winning the right to vote to the election of a black president. In doing so, they forcefully resist the notion that a narrative centered on the idea that we’ve returned to where we started means that we have achieved nothing in between. The book’s fundamental premise is that America’s history isn’t the product of uncontrollable forces or even a handful of powerful elites. It’s shaped by the “connections between grassroots actions and elite power,” by “individual lives, well known and unknown, who join together to make history.” In short, we’ve arrived at our present moment because people, conservatives as much as liberals, have organized, protested, and engaged in politics in order to make the country what they felt it ought to be. Though this history wears its leftist politics on its sleeve, you don’t need to share them to feel a little inspired by that crucial point.

These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue. W.W. Norton.

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