August 2, 2012

"We unfortunately have a lot of people, who not only don't know history but don't think they need to know."

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

Daniel Rodgers, the Princeton historian, and his Age of Fracture put a striking new frame around our nagging Tony Judt question: “How Fares the Land?” No, he’s telling me, you’re not crazy: the country changed! Profoundly. But the break came in theory before it showed up in practice, he demonstrates. It’s about our culture as much as our politics. And the deep shift is traceable through everyday words — choice, time, self, responsibility, desire — across a wide terrain of ideas about markets, law, power, identity, gender, race, and history.

It’s too simple to say: we fell apart. But “disaggregation” is the recurring word for the remapping of our minds. The progress has been from grand to granular; from macro to micro not only in economics, from Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman, but in literary theory and our sense of who has “agency”, from coalitions to invididuals. Our flag waves over a social landscape shrunken in every dimension, as Rodgers writes: “diminished, thinner, smaller, more fragmented, more voluntary, fractured, easier to exit, more guarded from others.” It feels in this 2012 campaign like a society desperate for a larger sense of itself.

How Market Metaphors Seized the American Brain is one thread of the story, and it’s not entirely new. But Rodgers makes delicate and original connections with care and clarity — when he speaks, for example, of the implications of Francis Fukuyama‘s catchy essay title from 1989: The End of History:

One of the interesting things about our current time is a loss of being able to think sequentially, to think slowly, to think about things happening over a relatively gradual, incremental sense of time. How does this happen? In part it’s about market ideas that move into our everyday language. We think of satisfaction coming instantly, of people making choices very very quickly. Fukuyama’s notion [was] that Marx, Hegel, the great 19th Century historians and the long march of History, the inertia of the past, the shaping power of institutions — all that could be assigned to the past and we could now do what we wanted; we live in a world of freedom, and of choice. The notion of turning Iraq around on a dime comes straight out of this. And our impatience with the current recession as if it should have turned around on a dime, because we want it to end! … We unfortunately have a lot of people who not only don’t know history but don’t think they need to know, or would be hindered by too much knowledge of history… And of course within U.S. history there’s a long strain of imagining that Americans will avoid the mistakes of others; therefore that they don’t really need to know too much about the past. We’ve lost a certain realism about history that was stronger in the middle of the last century — much stronger.

Daniel Rodgers with Chris Lydon at Princeton, July 27, 2012

I find Rodgers fresh and fascinating on presidents and their language. Ronald Reagan is clearly the pivot of the era and a final-cut master of phrasing and delivery — a light-hearted guy who made the turn from JFK’s “long twilight struggle” to “morning in America.” As he actually said: “Here it’s a sunrise every day.” Reagan was an anti-Communist who in fact drained the Cold War vocabulary and substituted “self-doubt” as the nation’s worst enemy. But he was not a prime mover, Rodgers is telling me. His gift was “not to shape but to gather up and articulate this new way of understanding the nation, as a place that didn’t really need to worry about limits, didn’t need to worry about structures. It needed to feel better about itself. It needed to get on with it. It needed to recognize the heroes in its ranks. And that would do it. Have a nice day. God bless America.”

Under George Bush’s fumbling stewardship, Rodgers says, 911 was the turning point that “didn’t turn.” The word “sacrifice” made a fleeting comeback in the moment of shock, but it was dissipated by a credit-card war. Barack Obama made his great debut in 2004 with an anti-fracture speech — we’re not Red States and Blue States, we’re the United States; and his “Yes, We Can” had the ring of old social movements. But Obama has been timid in office, Rodgers observes. The economic catastrophe that brought Democrats back to power has packed “an emotional wallop, but only a policy whimper. The movement in ideas has been barely discernible,” particularly in contrast to the ferment and experimentation of FDR’s New Deal.

And still Rodgers’ final note is cheerful. In our “Citizens United” context of auction-block democracy, I am wondering: could the spirit of the Progressive Era reforms in the early 20th Century get traction again? “Yes,” Dan Rodgers insists. “In fact the Progressives were up against a plutocracy, as they called it, that was just as striking, just as self-confident, just as aggressive as the one we have now. They didn’t work in the same media climate, but one of the most important points of the Progressive reforms was to get wealth out of politics. They did it by the direct election of Senators. They enacted our first serious estate taxes and our first progressive income taxes against a very, very well orchestrated and exceedingly well-financed opposition. It can happen.”

What lingers with me, finally, is that Daniel Rodgers has introduced an Alternative Villain into his revelatory account of our times, Age of Fracture. It’s none of the usual suspects in politics. No, it’s 30 years of the “small is beautiful” post-modern university-based Theory Class that so sliced and diced our identities, and seems to have missed many big forests (plutocracy!) for the little trees (“rational choice”), and devalued the deeper human connections among all of us lonely shoppers. And then they wiped out History, which is to say memory. How strange that while we were entertaining ourselves with the End of History theory, we may have stumbled, with that blindfold on, into the merciless historical fate of empires, and never saw our comeuppance coming.

Related Content

  • Sean McElroy

    Lately I’m wondering if being No. 1, being all you can be, being the best, is nothing more than some subtle gambit, praying on our impulsive, maybe innovative, nature, leading us into wearying, frustrating, grinding play with no realistic view of fulfillment.

    Compare that to being, say, No. 18 – hey, it’s still pretty good but without all the angst. And do we really need to be the sap in seat front and center of the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Aren’t the reruns funnier anyhow? Why the jokes have been tested and passed muster or they wouldn’t get a reprise.

    Granted you don’t go down in history for being in the middle of the heap. No one puts perpetual markers on the graves of the somwhat unknown or at least if they do, no one notices.

    What if there was an election and noone came? If we lowered our expectations, perhaps even the candidates themselves would not manage to turn themselves out of bed for yet one more round in the endless, meaningless pursuit of weariness?

    Anyone recall that the great sin of the Clinton presidency was that the job wasn’t taken all that seriously? While that was playing out, something in the back of my mind was saying, “This guy really is a genius.” I mean, imagine being a cigar chomping ten star general in a time of deafening, tumultous, wracking peace – nowhere to go, nothing to do except send the soldiers home.

    And isn’t that the real Morning in America? Popping open the front door, laying the duffle bag in the hall and joining the rest of the family on the couch in front of a bowl of chips? Hey, we can’t all be No. 1 anyway.

    • The Parrot

      Awesome show Mr. Lydon & Mr. Rodgers. And Sean, this is a wonderful comment. I describe it myself as the robert mitchum + ken kesey + joseph heller zeitgeist salad. Sean you have my full support, though I’ll bring pu-erh tea to the couch in lieu of chips. I offer one suggestion: Morning in America should begin roughly at 1pm or 2pm. Just in time for Siesta in America ™. BTW, No. 18 would be quite an improvement in terms of u.s. health care.

      • Sean McElroy

        Thank you Parrot, of course you’re welcome to bring whatever you want, there’s plenty of room on the couch.

        What I left out is what you might see from the vantage point of the couch. This seems to be the thing we’re grappling with. I guess, like a lot of people, I haven’t quite figured that out yet and am hoping somehow that with some help, it might become clearer. But if it doesn’t, I still happy to have shared the couch.

  • First, this excellent review (headline and link) is in the Open Culture section of the free online daily Open Source Everything Headlines, short URL to the stack is twitter hash #openall

    Second, I disagree with his fundamental premise, but will buy the book and review it at Amazon, where I read in 98 categories (see my reviews by category at, Amazon refuses to make this possible on their own site). I believe that the loss of integrity within the Republican and Democratic parties, and consequently the loss of integrity in all three branches of the federal government, is what has killed American the Beautiful. My views and solutions as a brief candidate for the Reform Party nomination are at I actually believe we could still trash the two-party tyranny and elect a coalition team to the White House and to Congress in November 2012, but only if we can get an Electoral Reform Summit going in September and then Occupy every House and Senate home office and stick it to them hard until the pass the Electoral Reform Act of 2012 in early October. I know how to make it work. I do NOT know how to get the 300 citizens to pay attention–imagine 100 million voters giving $10 each in September to clean up Washington and flush the two-party tyranny and the corrupt Congress down the toilet. That is $1 billion. Combined with social media, it would be “game over.” But I doubt it will happen.

    Yes we are fractured. No, this is not the underlying problem, the greatest enemy of the USA today is the two-party tyranny and the corruption in all three branches of the federal government. IMHO.

  • Geoff DeWan

    I was surprised at how unconvincing and uncompelling this discussion was. The whole idea of “fracture”, the way it was “explained” (and I put those annoying quotes there to convey the full post-modern, meta, self-recursive utter meaninglessness of the terms as used) was, well, let’s just say, unsatisfying.

    Rodgers airily dismisses Keynes in the first few minutes under the rubric of “none of the old ideas work anymore” as if we’re supposed to take it on faith that the failure of a too small stimulus that was warned about at the time as being too small somehow disproves the entirely rational, observable and for the most part, quantifiable, predictions at the time of what the effects were and would be. In fact, the “failure” of Keynes in this case is the strongest proof of Keynes we’ve had for over 70 years.

    This utter obtuseness, right out of the gate, set the stage for the rest of the inchoate, unsubstantiated “points” made throughout the next half hour or so culminating in some diagnosis that we have been undone by some shadowy “Theory Class” which somehow holds such sway over the collective unconscious that they can bring down empires by what ultimately seems like dithering on steroids.

    Count me unconvinced…in the extreme.

    As an antidote, count me enthusiastic and engaged, in the extreme, by the person of, and analysis by, Elizabeth Warren. She speaks what she knows clearly, simply, intelligently from her heart with deep feeling. She’s at the essence and epicenter of the real struggle. I surprised myself while I was driving home by bursting in to tears when she pointed out the simple truth that the choice of what type of country we wanted to have was more than an economic decision, it was a moral one.

    Mr. Rodgers would do well to aspire to such clarity- it is the root of the actions we must now undertake, again, in this never-ending struggle.

    • wellbasically

      I knew that would knock you guys out of the loop immediately! Of course for me, that was the only thing that gave him legitimacy, admitting that Keynesian spending didn’t work that well in the New Deal or in any situation since.

      So my reaction was inverted, but the rest of the conclusions drawn were also unconvincing to me. Because I don’t see what “you didn’t build that” boils down to besides: you didn’t build that, so you should allow the government to take 50% of your sales and spend it on more infrastructure as Elizabeth Warren says.

      Perhaps “you didn’t build that” is admitting that Keynesian economics, the multiplier effect of government spending, doesn’t work, but we should be redistributing anyway?

  • Joel Rosenblum

    It seems that the podcast, at least on iTunes, got screwed up. On iTunes its 247 MB, over 4 hours long. The last 3 hours or so are silent. I didn’t see any links for writing about technical issues so I wrote it here.

  • The Parrot

    “I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” — Benjamin Franklin

    Given the crop of leadership from within the scope of my personal lifetime, all presidential, congressional, and consumer laity have lived up (or down) to such prognostications.

    Gore Vidal R.I.P.

  • Potter

    Thank you for fixing the download.

    Rodgers has bitten off more than I can chew here but the conversation makes points similar to others made in this series as it ranges from question to question. I concur with Geoff Dewan above who misses simplicity. As well the rejection of what was said about Keynes ideas, that they have now been disproven. How could this be so when there have been obstacles to their implementation in the current situation?

    That said I would not throw this baby out with the bath water even though I don’t believe we are completely atomized or will be and I don’t know if this fracturing is the not the yin and we will have a yang… maybe Occupy Wall Street’s ideas will bring awareness.

    In the meantime we have the Mars landing of “Curiosity” a government funded “communal” project. And we have so many group efforts, especially in the arts (architecture, dance, music), not to forget the corporate world as well, that exist as examples of people working together to accomplish wonders and wonderful spirit lifting things to improve our lives. ( Let’s not forget families). The examples don’t even have to be here in the USA anymore to make this point.

    I don’t know what “Citizens United” will do to us. Perhaps we will become inured to the nastiness of the ads and the propaganda and become wiser about who we elect.

    George Kennan, who was mentioned in passing, had this idea that we would have wise elders to weigh in (about our foreign policy).

    I blame Reagan even though these conversation pinpoint the changes to before. Reagan lulled us into some dream world that was “morning in America”. Out of which of course we had to awaken…. He said it was okay, patriotic even.

    Obama is too timid about conveying what he knows, or what we think he knows: we live in a global economy and need patience and some boldness (ahem) to come out of this great recession.

    Paul Krugman has not disappointed me.

    The Kennedy’s are a great example of giving back.

    And regarding “exit, voice and loyalty,” I’ll take all three simultaneously as the situation warrants.

    I agree we talked ourselves into the place that we find ourselves in and we could conceivably, with the right leadership, talk ourselves out of it… and get rid of the plague of divisive hate radio in the process (somehow).

  • Pingback: Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now « anagnori()

  • Pingback: HIST 8030- Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers | Gelato Orphans()

  • George Balanchine

    “No one anticipated the plutocracy, the economic crisis[of 2007]” says Daniel Rodgers. What kind of nonsense is this? I can name three or four non-mainstream economists who predicted the crisis. What about Hyman Minsky?
    So…Professor Rodgers is not well-read in these topics.