Tim Naftali: Pays homage to an "excellent new political history of our times" by Sean Wilentz

Historians in the News

Dear Sean,

Congratulations on your excellent new political history of our times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who first made his name with The Age of Jackson, would appreciate the homage implied in your title. And I suspect he might also agree—and I certainly do—that, like it or not, Reagan was the transcendent figure of fin-de-siecle politics in America.

Your first two chapters do a great job laying out the crisis of the old order. In the 1970s the entire American political establishment, which traditionally hewed to the pragmatic center, faced a series of challenges it could not handle. Establishment liberals and small "c" conservatives alike were left, as you say, "philosophically at loose ends."

While noting the lingering effects of Watergate and Vietnam, you point out that Americans had other reasons to question the basic competence of the political establishment. Stagflation confounded the conventional wisdom. Meanwhile, violent crime was on the rise. When Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter six years later, the economic situation was, if anything, worse, and the crime statistics not much better. You don't write this, but I sense you would agree that it was this striking bipartisan leadership failure that made it impossible for successful politicians to lead from the center for a generation.

And so, enter Ronald Reagan, stage right. Although he was mouthing the same nostrums that conservatives had been offering when crime, unemployment, and inflation rates were low in the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1970s, Americans were eager to give this outsider and his followers a chance. Having stressed that he successfully put a smiling, optimistic face on American conservatism, you are also careful to make clear that his election was as much the result of the collapse of liberal Democrats as because of the power of his message...

Read entire article at Tim Naftali dissecting a new book at Slate.com

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