Talent pushed us toward Softness. Genius pushed us toward Hardness. John Dewey and the first progressive educators, the apparat of men and women who put together and extended the Social Security program, were people of talent who persistently and effectively Softened the Hard America of Theodore Dreiser.
I read an interview with Michael Barone in World magazine, focused on his latest book on party politics. I’ve wanted to learn more about the shifting history of U.S. political parties. It’s commonly said that Lincoln was a Republican, and the GOP has been holding a stained but righteous banner ever since, that Democrats don’t care for civil rights unless they can make political hay out of it (Bull Connor and his ilk were the ones opposing Martin Luther King way back when).
But it’s also common to hear that the parties have shifted, so I wanted to read a solid overview about some of that history. How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t) sounds like a good bet. I have yet to read yet, however, because my library system doesn’t have it. They had another book that was not about politics but about the character of our nation, which I put on hold many long, COVID-ridden weeks ago.
Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future asks how a country that expects so little from its teenagers can send young men and women who are barely older into battlefields as hardened soldiers. The troops in Iraq, he says, were impressively well-trained and equipped to handle the dangers around them. How could American schools produce people like that?
He explores this idea over 150 pages, describing conditions in twentieth century America and how leaders acted and reacted to make life harder or easier on Their people. The quote above refers to life in Chicago as depicted in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. That was Hard America; eighteen year olds had to get a job and pay the rent or lose themselves in a gutter. There was little margin for idleness. It was arguably too hard. Men who made their fortunes building railroads and industries did so by grinding up men who had few choices. They paid their communities back with great philanthropy from which we still benefit today: medical research, libraries, and museums. “These men felt a responsibility to use a large part of their wealth to benefit their fellow citizens, but they wanted to maintain the Hardness of America, which they believed was responsible for the countries great economic growth and creativity.”
Barone describes hardening or softening of different segments in our society, the intent of these efforts, and whether they paid off. Hardening generally means accountability and potential for achievement, the hard work and risk that goes into the wheel of progress to make a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Softness means the lack of accountability, which may be the security to enjoy simple life but could also mean low standards and few achievements.
For example, at one point, economists believed three big players could drive the U.S. economy forward indefinitely. Business would do the work, Labor would oversee the prosperity of the workers, and Government would regulate and protect the field where all of this could take place. Competition? Who needs it? When the free market eventually found paths to American consumers, the big three were shocked (and slipping into bankruptcy).
With nationwide protests taking over our news channels, you may have seen images of George Romney at a civil rights march in Detroit in 1967. Barone touches on that time in his book; he was an intern with the mayor. Romney was governor of Michigan in July 1967 when Detroit suffered a week of riots. The local police couldn’t handle it, but the mayor feared the National Guard would make things worse. Romney and everyone with him were reluctant to call President Johnson for federal troops. What can of worms would be opened by inviting the U.S. military to handle local problems? So they tried the softer approach, just one act among many at a time when Americans all over the country “no longer felt morally justified in imposing hard penalties on crime.”
“But while the civil rights movement had sought to allow blacks into Hard America, the new public policies actually confined more Americans, black and non-black, into a Soft America where poverty and crime were chronic.”
Now we have much harder responses to crime and in some ways harsh reactions. We’ve condoned the brutal treatment and killing of civilians who have been merely accused minor offenses. The other day four officers stood on the edge of a lawn next to their cars, pistols drawn, confronting a pleading young man who had rolled through a traffic light. George Floyd was killed while being arrested for using a fake 20. Breonna Taylor was killed when officers raided the wrong apartment to conduct a warranted search at 12:30 a.m. These are serious problems, but perhaps more serious is the reluctance to reform from public officials.
Barone’s book shows that time and again methods for handling problems have unintended results, sometimes saving us from bad ideas, sometimes rolling in a new wave of grief.