Reconsidering the American Consensus–and Rehabilitating the 1950s

The Mering thesis and the roots of consensus history
At the University of Arizona in the mid-1970s, John V. Mering inculcated his disciples with a devotion to the consensus historiography whose bedrock was The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It by Richard Hofstadter (1948). As a reaction against the economic interpretation of progressives Charles and Mary Beard, the consensus school minimized class conflict as a motive force in American history and found in its place a startling lack of any sort of conflict:

The fierceness of the political struggles has often been misleading: for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man (Hofstadter op. cit., pp. xxxvi-xxxvii). 

Another book in the consensus gospel according to John V. was The Liberal Tradition in America by Louis Hartz (1955), who similarly discovered a lack of ideological conflict in American politics resulting from agreement about the values of Lockean liberal capitalism. This seminal work attributed American exceptionalism to its foundation by a largely middle-class group of Europeans motivated by the values of the Enlightenment. Professor Mering also included in the canon both volumes of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), whose observations of the fledgling United States predated the consensus historians by over a century. His most significant contribution to the discussion was his prescient argument about the tyranny of the majority, the possibly inevitable result of consensus politics. Mering also included race as an essential element in the American consensus, so his required readings included works as disparate as U. B. Phillips’s “The Central Theme of Southern History” (1928), Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), and Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968). In his and their view, the consensus about Lockean liberal capitalism had relied heavily on the institution of chattel slavery.

As a diligent and loyal disciple, I carried the Mering thesis and canon with me to graduate school 2,000 miles away, making few friends among the denizens of Chapel Hill, who reacted with horror to my mentor’s quip that “Southern liberals are always more Southern than liberal,” a quote with which I liberally peppered my debates about intellectual history. We Mering disciples proudly saw ourselves as more radical than even the Marxist/New Left historians of the 1960s and 1970s because we realized that American exceptionalism could never be fixed.

Almost fifty years later, I retain my intellectual purity as a consensus historian of the Mering stripe. I have not kept current with the developments in historiography, but even if I had, I doubt whether I would have found any overarching thesis to better explain the history of the United States for its first two centuries.

The consensus shatters
However, we are now well into the third century of American history–which began, coincidentally, just after I received my bachelor’s degree. The South is no longer solid–or at least it’s no longer the solid South that began with the election of 1876 and was still going fairly strong 100 years later. The two major parties, formerly–and accurately–characterized as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, move further apart with each biennial election. And to match the current polarization of Democrats and Republicans, society itself has become balkanized into increasingly divisive factions of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, class, religion, education, and geography. We identify ourselves according to belief in or opposition to a variety of -isms whose slippery definitions offer as much clarity as Orwellian Newspeak–and with the same obscurantist motivations. The proponents of identity politics focus single-mindedly on what divides us instead of what unites us, and we can seldom even communicate across clearly demarcated lines of separation.

Rehabilitating the 1950s one American childhood at a time
In the face of this overwhelming sense of division and even hatred across once invisible boundaries, my enthusiasm for intellectual debates about the motive forces of history has begun to pale in comparison with my nostalgia for a time when there was an American culture, when we believed in the melting pot, and when “E pluribus unum” was more than unintelligible gobbledygook printed on our money.

Other than the 1860s, when our country was actually split into two warring factions, I’m not sure any decade has been more vilified than the 1950s. A brief Google search reveals titles so expressive of their content that reading the articles becomes superfluous:

However, with one notable exception, I have come to believe that what we have lost since the decade of my birth was worth at least as much as what we have gained. And I have realized that aspects of my own small-town American childhood in the 1950s–which began in the same postwar decade as the consensus theory of American history–can offer a brief object lesson about the sacrifices we have made in our efforts to become a multicultural salad bowl instead of a unified society of shared beliefs and values, traditions of a common heritage, and dreams of an even brighter future.

Those who malign the 1950s make one persuasive point–and that point conforms exactly with the ideology I learned at the feet of John V. Mering. In short, they point out that the 1950s were a still benighted time in the long and dark history of American race relations. No one can deny these claims. Jim Crow still ruled the South. Schools, public venues, and neighborhoods were segregated–de facto if not de jure–and many of these conditions obtained in the North as well as the South. All-white juries were the norm. Blacks were disfranchised by literacy tests and poll taxes and white intimidation. Significantly, though, Brown v. Board of Education, declaring separate schools inherently unequal, was decided in 1954, and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. These harbingers of radical change in the next decade had their beginnings in the 1950s. Clearly, the legislative and judicial changes in racial justice that began in the 1960s still have not come to full fruition as a colorblind society. However, I believe that the insistent public focus on racial politics for the intervening half century has actually encouraged the further fragmentation of our country according to other fault lines besides those of race and color.

Race, color, and class
I was born in 1953 and grew up in Globe, Arizona, a small copper-mining town of about 7,000 people. On the verge of the Sonoran Desert, Globe is surrounded by mountains that separate it from the larger cities of Tucson and Phoenix and is about 20 miles from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. Demographically, the town is about the same now as I was when I was growing up there–78% white, 1% black, 3% Native American, and 33% Hispanic of any race–as illustrated in the class photos taken at the beginning and end of elementary school.

Noftsger Hill School, morning kindergarten, 1958-1960

Noftsger Hill School, 6th grade, 1964-1965

We were many colors, but we never talked about color. The things that divided us were scholastics and athletics. I was the smart one, but I was always chosen last for the softball team. Someone might be called fat (namely, me) or stinky (Bob Guttry) or stupid (Joe Diaz), but we were not called by ethnic or racial epithets. (Yes, my father and his brothers were called dagos and worse, but that was three decades before we sat in the same classrooms on the hill where we all grew up.) The Apaches rode the bus from the reservation, but so did the white students whose fathers worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In elementary school, we had one black classmate and one black teacher, and in high school, we had a pair of black brothers who were popular because of their prowess on the basketball court. They were not excluded; they were simply the only African-Americans who lived in Globe.

Most of the men in our town, my father included, worked for the local copper mines, so we were solidly blue collar. Some of our classmates had fathers who did other things–managed the J. C. Penney store in town, operated a mortuary, owned a movie theater, or taught school. Two of my classmates had fathers who were doctors; one of those doctors lived across the street from my uncle, who was an automobile mechanic. But we had no cliques based on wealth or class. We went to each other’s birthday parties and slumber parties, played in band together, ate at the same tables in the lunch room.

Those blue-collar fathers of ours were able to afford to buy houses for their families. And they were able to stay at the same job for 30 or 35 years until retirement. We had stable, comfortable lives. We had a television for as long as I can remember, which we watched together in the evenings as a family. We had a brand-new 1957 Ford Fairlane 500, two-tone mint green and white.  Our fathers carpooled before carpooling was invented, and they brought home Mexican food every Friday after cashing their weeks paychecks. We took piano lessons and played in the band. We had all we wanted and more.

Significantly, our mothers did not have to work. Some did, usually at part-time jobs, but most were able to greet us when we got home for lunch and after school. They were in the PTA, and they saw all of our school programs. They prepared our meals, and we sat down to eat as families. They helped with school work, supervised piano practice, drilled us on words for the spelling bee. We didn’t have babysitters or daycare centers because our mothers were able to stay home.

Religion and values
Everyone I knew went to church. In fact, the post-War 1950s actually witnessed an increase in church attendance, which has been falling ever since–most rapidly in the last decade. We Baby Boomers could still be counted on to understand biblical allusions in literature–Abraham and Isaac, the handwriting on the wall, the Prodigal Son, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. More significantly, we learned the values inherent in a Christian upbringing. We were horrified to learn that someone cheated in school. If we didn’t always respect our elders, we certainly didn’t talk back to them.

We learned early and well the importance of responsibility. We did our work, we showed up on time, and we were proud of a job well done. We competed for academic honors, for top spot in spelling and math contests, for the first seat in Mr. Scarborough’s seventh-grade science class, for first chair in the band.  The boys who played in the Little League competed for first place, and only the winners got trophies. We learned self-discipline, and if we didn’t, we learned the other kind, sometimes at the end of a paddle or a switch. That is, we learned that actions have consequences, and sometimes they can be unpleasant.

We were mostly innocent of sex. It was something we knew vaguely about, but we didn’t talk about it, and we certainly didn’t emblazon it on billboards or broadcast it on television–those primitive equivalents of today’s social-media platforms. When we were in the fifth grade, the school nurse gathered all the girls for instruction about menstruation, and we were cautioned not to let the boys see the little pink books we received in the bargain. When we were in tenth grade accelerated biology, we had two required readings besides the textbook, The Health Hucksters and one of the books about sex in the school library. We did not report on the latter selection, nor did we talk about it in class. The people with whom I was close were all virgins when we graduated from high school, or if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have told their friends, who would have been horrified. Indeed, when two of our friends were quietly whisked out of school, we only slowly learned the truth–that they were pregnant–nor did we talk about their plight except to note that we were horrified. Miss Rice, the gym teacher, had a gruff voice and a masculine bearing, and some of our parents whispered that she liked other women, but we didn’t really understand what that meant. We had many other things to think about besides today’s twin obsessions, gender and sexuality.

Culture and tradition
Clearly, those values inculcated into us as children of the fifties have been lost in favor of other more politically-correct ones such as diversity and tolerance and open-mindedness. But in my view, the most important thing lost from the time when I was growing up is the idea that there is something known as American culture. We might have had surnames ending in vowels, but we were Americans without hyphens. Although this idea had little to do with patriotism, we were certainly reared to be patriotic. We sang the national anthem and said the Pledge of Allegiance and marched in parades for Veterans’ Day and the Fourth of July.

But “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was as much a part of the national Zeitgeist as was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and both were part of our heritage as Americans. As Louis Hartz argued, the American culture we valued was not one of geographic or ethnic origin, but of a brief but shared history. We understood that the United States is part of Western culture and accepted that our origins are British. We studied American literature in the eleventh grade, beginning somewhere around Hawthorne, and British literature in the twelfth. We knew the same nursery rhymes and fairy tales, we played the same games of jacks and Monopoly, and we watched the same shows on television; in truth, with three channels, we had little choice. We lay on our backs in the grass and watched for satellites on summer evenings; we listed to the city band playing on the courthouse steps; we lowered the flag and wept together when President Kennedy was killed.

We made Valentine cards for our classmates, and we didn’t have to be told to leave no one out; we knew the importance of kindness and generosity. We donned new pastel dresses and bonnets and gloves for church on Easter, and then we hunted for the eggs we had colored the night before. We wore frightful Halloween costumes for the school party and then went trick-or-treating through the neighborhood with groups of friends. We learned about the Pilgrims and Squanto, drew turkeys from our handprints, and filled the cornucopia (with Latin roots, besides) for Thanksgiving. We strung cranberries and popcorn for the school Christmas tree and staged a nativity scene, complete with carols, for the PTA program.

And what was that about the American dream?
In preparation for my grand peroration, I did a quick Google search for novels about the American dream. Whether written in the 1920s or the 1950s or the 1960s, all the novels provided an exceedingly depressing assessment of that dream. Gatsby was the rosiest of the lot, even considering what happened to Gastby’s dream after Daisy drove his yellow car over the body of Myrtle Wilson. The Bell Jar? Revolutionary Road? The Grapes of Wrath? Daniel Horowitz of Culture Trip prefaces his own list of the nine greatest novels about the American dream with this uplifting exposition:

During his 1928 campaign, former President Herbert Hoover claimed that upon election, he would provide prosperity that would allow for “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Less than eight months later, the economy and stock market collapsed. This is the best summation of the American Dream, a promise of prosperity with a differing reality: disillusionment with a healthy dose of misplaced optimism.

In a 2015 piece in The Guardian, Christopher Bollen suggests, “One could argue that the American dream is the subject of every American novel, a sort of blurry-eyed national obsession with having it all and coming out on top, or in the case of most plot-driven literature, the failures and breakdowns in that quasi-noble pursuit.”

Yes, in our smug belief that happy families are all alike, we highbrows love a depressing story. But perhaps we of the older and wiser Baby Boomer generation need to ponder a different plot–the one created out of our own childhoods. Our parents came of age during the Great Depression and lived through the Second World War. My own father was the son of an Italian immigrant, and my mother was the daughter of the Oklahoma Dustbowl. All our parents had similar stories. But out of these humble beginnings, they bought homes and dogs and pianos. They may not have graduated from high school, and few of those who did went to college, but their children did. Our successful lives–and we are mostly successful–are their contribution to the American dream.

I don’t know how or why we squandered that inheritance, but I pray that we can piece it back together from the fragmented society in which we live today. I’ll let Nick Carraway have the last word:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


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