Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "The New Mood in Politics" (1960)

from The Politics of Hope (Boston: Riverside Press, 1962)

  • Another essay from this book is "Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans".
    At periodic moments in our history, our country has paused on the threshold of a new epoch in our national life, unable for a moment to open the door, but aware that it must advance if it is to preserve its national vitality and identity. One feels that we are approaching such a moment now -- that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant; that it no longer interprets our desires and needs as a people; that new forces, new energies, new values are straining for expression and for release. The Eisenhower epoch -- the present period of passivity and acquiescence in our national life -- is drawing to a natural end.

    As yet, the feeling is inchoate and elusive. But it is beginning to manifest itself in a multitude of ways: in freshening attitudes in politics; in a new acerbity in criticism; in stirrings, often tinged with desperation, among the youth; in a spreading contempt everywhere for reigning cliches. There is evident a widening restlessness, dangerous tendencies toward satire and idealism, a mounting dissatisfaction with the official priorities, a deepening concern with our character and objectives as a nation.

    Let me list some expressions of the discontent, the desire for reappraisal, the groping for something better:

    The rise of the Beat Generation is plainly in part the result of the failure of our present society to provide ideals capable of inspiring the youth of the nation.

    The revival in the last two or three years of satire (not altogether to be dismissed by the appellation "sick humor") is another expression, as in the '20's, of contempt for the way things currently are going.

    The religious boom (Billy Graham, etc.) suggests the wide-spread yearning for spiritual purpose of some sort in life.

    The top book on the fiction best-seller list for many months was Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago -- again a symptom of the felt need for some kind of spiritual affirmation.

    A book like J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society sells fifty thousand copies in hard cover; David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and W.H. Whyte's The Organization Man sell hundreds of thousands in paper-back -- all this means that our intellectuals are beginning to draw the new portrait of America out of which new political initiatives will in due course come, and that people are responding to their portrayal.

    Somehow the wind is beginning to change. People -- not everyone by a long way, but enough to disturb the prevailing mood -- seem to seek a renewal of conviction, a new sense of national purpose. More and more of us, I think, are looking for a feeling of dedication, for a faith that what we are doing is deeply worthwhile -- the kind of inspiration and lift we had for a while in the '30's and again during the Second World War.

    The threats of communism and nuclear catastrophe ought perhaps to be enough to give us this sense of purpose, but they don't seem to. Certainly the goal of adding to our material comforts and our leisure time has not filled our lives. Are we not beginning to yearn for something beyond ourselves? We are uncertain but expectant, dismayed but hopeful, troubled but sanguine. It is an odd and baffled moment in our history -- a moment of doubt and suspense and anticipation. It is as if increasing numbers of Americans were waiting for a trumpet to sound.

    At bottom, perhaps, we are seeking a new articulation of our national values in the belief that this will bring about a new effectiveness in our national action. For national purpose is not something that is enshrined in monuments or preserved in historic documents. It acquires meaning as part of an ongoing process; its certification lies not in rhetoric but in performance. The values of the '50's have been, to a great degree, self-indulgent values. People have been largely absorbed in themselves -- in their own careers, their own lives, their own interests. We tend to cover up our self-absorption by saying that what is good for our own interests is good for the country; but this is a gesture of piety. In fact, we start from our own concerns and work outward, rather than start from the national needs and work inward....

    Our situation would be troubling enough if there were no world civil war. But the existence of the world civil war trebles every bet. We are coming to realize that we need a new conviction of national purpose not only as a matter of taste but as a matter of desperate necessity. And so the time is drawing near for a revision of our national priorities, a revaluation of our national values, a renewal of our national purpose. This process of reorientation will be the mainspring of the politics of the '60's. As we commit ourselves to this vast challenge, we will cross the threshold into what promises to be one of the exciting and creative epochs in our history.

    Now there is little to be gained in denouncing the values of the '50's as meager and mean. It is important rather to understand why we have dallied with such values -- why our nation, in a time of danger, should have lowered its sights, renounced older concepts of high national purpose, and elevated private consumer satisfaction into a controlling national ethic. There is, I believe, no insoluble mystery here. Nor can we properly shift the blame for our condition from ourselves to our leaders. Certainly our leadership has failed in this decade to develop our potentialities of national power and to meet the onward rush of national needs. But it has just as certainly succeeded in expressing the moods and wishes of the electorate.

    What accounted for the torpor of the '50's? The answer, I think, is plain enough. The basic cause was the state of national exhaustion produced by the two preceding decades of continuous crisis. During the '30's, '40's and into the '50's the American went through the worst depression of their history, the worst war of their history, the worst cold war of their history, the most frustrating limited war of their history. During these decades, two aggressive Presidents kept demanding from us a lively interest in public policy and kept confronting us with tough problems of national decision. But no nation can live in tension indefinitely. By the early '50's, the American people had had it. We were weary and drained. We were tired of subordinating the reality of our daily lives to remote and abstract national objectives. We wanted a vacation from public responsibilities. We wanted to take up the private strands of existence, to bury ourselves in family, home, career.

    The politics of the '50's were, in consequence, the politics of fatigue. Twenty years of intense public activity, first at home, then abroad, had left the nation in a state of moral and emotional exhaustion. Lull was the natural and predictable result. President Eisenhower was the perfect man for the new mood. Where his predecessors had roused the people, he soothed them; where they had defined issues sharply, he blurred them over; where they had called for effort and action, he counseled patience and hoped things would work themselves out. Perhaps his particular contribution to the art of politics was to make politics boring at a time when the people wanted any excuse to forget public affairs. The nation needed an interval of repose in order to restore its physiological balance, and repose was what President Eisenhower gave them.

    In so doing, he was playing his part in the larger rhythm of our politics. For the national life has always alternated between epochs of advance and epochs of consolidation, between times of action and times of passivity. We began the 20th century with two decades of active and insistent leadership under the dominating Presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. These Presidents raised the national sights. They stood for a crusading fervor in politics, directed first to reform at home and then to carrying the gospel of democracy to the world. After two decades of this, the people could stand it no longer: 1920 was like 1952. They wanted "normalcy," and that is what they got from Warren G. Harding and his successors.

    And so the '20's were the decade of "normalcy." The politics of purpose gave way to the politics of lassitude. The nation swung from affirmative government to negative government. But, after a time, negative government began to seem insufficient. As the national energies began to be replenished, people started to tire of the official mood of aimlessness and complacency. Moreover, new problems, nurtured by the years of indifference, began to emerge -- problems which required direction and vigor in their solution. The Wall Street crash and its aftermath provided dramatic evidence that drift was not enough as a national policy. The time had come for the reconquest of purpose.

    And so the cyclical rhythm has continued. In the '30's and '40's we had decades of purpose until we were tired again; in the '50's, quiescence and respite until problems heaped up and batteries began to be recharged. If this rhythm continues according to schedule, the '60's and '70's should be decades of affirmation until we fall back into drift in the '80's. The pattern of American politics has been an alternation between periods of furious performance which accomplish a lot of things but finally wear the people out to periods of stagnation which go on until new issues accumulate, flagging national energies revive, and forward motion can be resumed. There is no reason to suppose now that this pendular motion has suddenly come to a full stop.

    The question remains whether the nation could afford that holiday from responsibility in the '50's which its every nerve demanded -- whether it was wise to choose this point to rest on its oars. No doubt the condition of national weariness made it hard to exercise vigorous leadership in any case; but this scarcely excuses our leaders from not having tried harder. When America "took five," so to speak, in the 1880's or the 1920's, it didn't much matter. But the 1950's were fatal years for us to relax on the sidelines. The grim and unending contest with communism was the central international fact of the decade, and the Communists took no time out to flop in the hammock. We did, and we have paid a cruel price for it....

    This is the challenge of the '60's: the reorganization of American values. If we are going to hold our own against communism in the world, if we are going to build a satisfying life at home for ourselves and our children, the production of consumer goods will have to be made subordinate to some larger national purpose. As more and more people perceive the nature of our dilemma, they will demand the revival of public leadership, until in time the gathering discontent will find a national voice, like Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and there will be a breakthrough into a new political epoch.

    The hallmark of the '50's has been the belief that what is good for one's own private interest is good for all. Charles E. Wilson gave this idea its classic formulation when he suggested that what was good for General Motors was good for the country. And many critics of Wilson have seemed to object less to the principle of Wilson's law than to his choice of beneficiary. Too many tend to assume that what is good for what we care about is good for the country; if we don't like business, then we suppose, if government would only cater to labor or to the farmers, everything would be all right.

    But people can't fool themselves indefinitely into supposing that the national interest is only the extension of whatever serves their own power and pocketbook. I believe that millions already feel that the road to national salvation no longer lies in pushing their own claims to the uttermost. Farmers dislike the excesses of the farm program. Workers begin to wonder whether higher wages are the answer to everything. Businessmen know that everything else in society cannot be sacrificed to their own profits.

    If the hallmark of the '50's has been the belief in the sanctity of private interests, the hallmark of the '60's, I suggest, may well be the revival of a sense of the supremacy of the public interest --along with the realization that private interests and the public interest often come into harsh conflict. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require." If unlimited private indulgence means that there are not enough resources left for national defense or for education or medical care or decent housing or intelligent community planning, then in a sane society private indulgence can no longer be unlimited.

    The new attitude toward the public interest will bring in its wake a host of changes. There will be a change, for example, in the attitude toward government. One of the singular developments of the last decade was the rise of the notion that government was somehow the enemy. This was not George Washington's attitude toward government, nor Alexander Hamilton's, nor Andrew Jackson's, nor Abraham Lincoln's. The great American statesmen have all seen government as one means by which a free people achieves its purposes. But in the '50's we tended to suppose that a man engaged in making money for himself was in nobler work than a man serving the community (and that the more money he made, the greater his wisdom and virtue). That attitude will diminish in the '60's. Young men will go into public service with devotion and hope as they did in the days of T.R., Wilson and F.D.R. Government will gain strength and vitality from these fresh people and new ideas.

    Of course, affirmative government per se can no more be a sufficient end for a good society than consumer goods per se. The object of strengthening government is to give force to the idea of public interest and to make possible the allocation of resources to necessary public purposes. There is no other way to meet the competition of communism. There is no other way to bring about a higher quality of life and opportunity for ordinary men and women.

    This point -- the quality of life -- suggests the great difference between the politics of the '60's and the politics of the '30's. The New Deal arose in response to economic breakdown. It had to meet immediate problems of subsistence and survival. Its emphasis was essentially quantitative -- an emphasis inevitable in an age of scarcity. But the '60's will confront an economy of abundance. There still are pools of poverty which have to be mopped up; but the central problem will be increasingly that of fighting for individual dignity, identity, and fulfillment in an affluent mass society. The issues of the new period will not be those involved with refueling the economic machine, putting floors under wages, and farm prices, establishing systems of social security. The new issues will be rather those of education, health, equal opportunity, community planning -- the issues which make the difference between defeat and opportunity, between frustration and fulfillment, in the everyday lives of average persons. These issues will determine the quality of civilization to which our nation aspires in an age of ever-increasing wealth and leisure. A guiding aim, I believe, will be the insistence that every American boy and girl have access to the career proportionate to his or her talents and characters, regardless of birth, fortune, creed, or color.

    The beginning of a new political epoch is like the breaking of a dam. Problems which have collected in the years of indifference, values which have suffered neglect, energies which have been denied full employment -- all suddenly tumble as in a hopeless, swirling flood onto an arid plain. The chaos of the breakthrough offends those who like everything neatly ordered and controlled; but it is likely to be a creative confusion, bringing a ferment of ideas and innovations into the national life. Thus the '60's will probably be spirited, articulate, inventive, incoherent, turbulent, with energy shooting off wildly in all directions. Above all, there will be a sense of motion, of leadership, and of hope.

    When this happens, America will be herself again. She will deal affirmatively and imaginatively with her problems at home. More than that, she will justify once again her claim to leadership of free peoples -- a claim which cannot be founded on wealth and power alone, but only on wealth and power held within a framework of purpose and ideals.

    Very little in history is inevitable. The cyclical rhythm we have identified in our national affairs offers no guarantee of national salvation. It will work only as men and women rise to a towering challenge. But nothing is stronger than the aspiration of a free people. If the energy now bottled up in American society can win its release in the decade ahead, we will reverse the downward curve of American power and charge the promise of American life with new meaning. From the vantage point of the '60's, the '50's, instead of marking a stage in the decline and fall of the American republic, will seem simply a listless interlude, quickly forgotten, in which the American people collected itself for greater exertions and higher splendors in the future.

  • See Schlesinger's The Vital Center.


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    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:48 EDT