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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, How the Age of Acquiescence Came to an End

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We have a special offer today. A new book by TomDispatchregular Steve Fraser, whom we consider one of the cannier observers of the American scene, is just out: The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America. It's a blazing account of the subject we may most need to understand these days, the rise of the populist right, and it's done through the history of a single slogan. As Barbara Ehrenreich has aptly put it, Fraser's book "is necessary background reading for anyone seeking to understand -- or just endure -- 2016." I second that. Any TD reader willing to donate $100 or more ($125 if you live outside the United States) can get a signed, personalized copy of it with our thanks for helping keep this site's voice strong in this strange moment. Just check our donation page for the details. Tom]

Someday, these may be seen as the decades when the United States started hollowing out. First, good working-class jobs fled the country, while the "rust" spread through belts of industrial production, towns emptied, and the good times headed elsewhere. Then, infrastructure -- from bridges and highways to subways and dams -- began to fray. More recently, something else hollowed out, too: American politics. That may seem less than obvious in a season in which the political process has become a 24/7 media obsession. But think again. One of the country's two parties managed to cough up 17 of the strangest candidates ever paraded on a stage, evidence of an organization that had clearly stumbled off a cliff, even as its voters elevated the P.T. Barnum of the twenty-first century to presidential status. The other party was so dead in the water that, as its leading candidate for the presidency, it could only cough up a former first lady and secretary of state who had lost her previous presidential run ignominiously and was dragging a caravan of rotten baggage behind her -- oh, yes, and one forgettable governor, as well as a senator who proclaimed himself a "democratic socialist," but not (until late the other night) a capital "D" Democrat. And if that isn't the definition of a political organization that seems to be rusting from the inside out, what is?

When it comes to hollow, don't forget the election news, which has been inflated to monstrous proportions even as it's emptied of content. Donald Trump, the man who creates endless news cycles out of the gossamer of insults and half-thoughts, has been the perfect vehicle for such a process, which is being mined for gold by the media equivalent of the 1%. Take the great debate-to-be that, for a single day's news cycle, grabbed the headlines, the one that talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel suggested to The Donald. He accepted on the spot, followed with alacrity by his prospective opponent Bernie Sanders, only to promptly extinguish the possibility in another blast of headlines, news reports, and talking heads a day or so later. In doing so, Trump used the "i" word -- "inappropriate" -- to declare the proposal out of bounds. The man for whom nothing is inappropriate issued a statement so name-callingly eloquent that it might have come from any sixth grade classroom. It began: "Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second-place finisher."

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And oh, yes, among the undoubted casualties of the hollowing-out process: the Democratic Party's version of liberalism, which has in recent years become the credo of the other party of the 1%. Today, TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, who has covered the rise of a new Gilded Age in America (and the fall of just about everything else) from The Street to the streets, considers the fate of liberalism in a potential new era of right- and left-wing populism. Think of this post as a launching pad as well for his new book, The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America, a striking history of the 1% and the rest of us, all summed up in a single political image. Tom

Bernie, The Donald, and the Sins of Liberalism
An American Version of Class Struggle
By Steve Fraser

Arising from the shadows of the American repressed, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been sending chills through the corridors of establishment power. Who would have thunk it? Two men, both outliers, though in starkly different ways, seem to be leading rebellions against the masters of our fate in both parties; this, after decades in which even imagining such a possibility would have been seen as naïve at best, delusional at worst. Their larger-than-life presence on the national stage may be the most improbable political development of the last American half-century. It suggests that we are entering a new phase in our public life.

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A year ago, in my book The Age of Acquiescence, I attempted to resolve a mystery hinted at in its subtitle: "The rise and fall of American resistance to organized wealth and power." Simply stated, that mystery was: Why do people rebel at certain moments and acquiesce in others?

Resisting all the hurts, insults, threats to material well-being, exclusions, degradations, systematic inequalities, over-lordship, indignities, and powerlessness that are the essence of everyday life for millions would seem natural enough, even inescapable, if not inevitable. Why put up with all that?

Historically speaking, however, the impulse to give in has proven no less natural. After all, to resist is often to risk yourself, your means of livelihood, and your way of life. To rise up means to silence those intimidating internal voices warning that the overlords have the right to rule by virtue of their wisdom, wealth, and everything that immemorial custom decrees. Fear naturally closes in.

In our context, then, why at certain historical moments have Americans shown a striking ability to rise up, at other times to submit?

To answer that question, I explored those years in the first gilded age of the nineteenth century when millions of Americans took to the streets to protest, often in the face of the armed might of the state, and the period in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first years of this one when the label "the age of acquiescence" seemed eminently reasonable -- until, in 2016, it suddenly didn't.

So consider this essay a postscript to that work, my perhaps belated realization that the age of acquiescence has indeed come to an end. Millions are now, of course, feeling the Bern and cheering The Donald. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the first signs of what was to come as I was finishing my book: the Tea Party on the right, and on the left Occupy Wall Street, strikes by low-wage workers, minimum and living wage movements, electoral victories for urban progressives, a surge of environmental activism, and the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement just on the eve of publication.

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But when you live for so long in the shade of acquiescence where hope goes to die or at least grows sickly, you miss such things. After all, if history has a logic, it can remain so deeply hidden as to be indecipherable... until it bites. So, for example, if someone had X-rayed American society in 1932, in the depth of the Great Depression, that image would have revealed a body politic overrun with despair, cynicism, fatalism, and fear -- in a word, acquiescence, a mood that had shadowed the land since "black Tuesday" and the collapse of the stock market in 1929.

Yet that same X-ray taken in 1934, just two years later, would have revealed a firestorm of mass strikes, general strikes, sit-down strikes, rent strikes, seizures of shuttered coal mines and utilities by people who were cold and lightless, marches of the unemployed, and a general urge to unseat the ancien regime; in a word, rebellion. In this way, the equilibrium of a society can shift phases in the blink of an eye and without apparent warning (although in hindsight historians and others will explore all the reasons everybody should have seen it coming).

Liberalism vs. Liberalism

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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