Daniel T. Rodgers

 

On his book Age of Fracture

Cover Interview of March 30, 2011

A close-up

Each chapter of Age of Fracture brings its readers into a different facet of the age’s great debates.

The opening chapter shows how the social vocabulary of the Cold War slipped out of Ronald Reagan’s speeches.  Sacrifice disappeared, struggle was minimized, and his very images of the nation disaggregated into stories and individual cameos.

Other chapters tell how Keynesian macroeconomics, which still dominated economic thought and policy when the age began, broke up unexpectedly into smaller, microeconomic models during the economic uncertainties of the 1970s, and how those new models of human behavior raced through the social sciences.  Structures moved out of the center of the vocabulary; ideas of power thinned out.  The world was flat, a spate of best-selling books asserted; the economic hierarchies of the past were being eclipsed by new democracies of market choice.

Identities fractured in a different way.  But they, too, broke up into smaller, more fluid categories. Nothing seemed deeper or more essential when the period began than the structures of race and gender.  Race could be mapped in a book like Alex Haley’s Roots as a continuous tale of memory and collective experience.  Sisterhood, too, was real: its consciousness was just beginning to be tapped in the new feminist movement.  But under pressure from within, the categories began to crack.  Identities were patchworks, progressive theorists began to write. They were multiple, messy, and often contradictory.

In conservative circles, too, the politics of identity seethed with anxiety and anger.  “Color blind” conservatives rushed into the fray to declare the illusory nature of race.  Gender conservatives insisted on the essential stability of men’s and women’s nature.  The “culture wars” which erupted in the 1980s sprang in part out a dramatic reconstitution of the organizational landscape of religion, as Protestants spilled out of older denominations and into new churches.  But the “culture wars” were also, and even more dramatically, battles on the terrain of certainty, sex, and gender.

The last chapters of Age of Fracture turn from the fields of culture to show how the breakup of ideas of power, structure, and society transformed the era’s battles over society and politics.  As ideas of collective identity and responsibility shrank, obligations to the poor unraveled.  Rights talk spread to new groups and shifted ground.  Agreement on the public character of public schools came apart.  Demands for equality had once dominated the civil rights movement; now it was more often said that the true measure of justice was choice.

As social thought fragmented into smaller, disaggregated pieces, even history came to be seen as fluid and almost infinitely malleable.  Constitutional lawyers dreamed of short-circuiting time to discover the Constitution’s “original intent”; economists rushed into Eastern Europe with dreams of shocking the Communist society, overnight, into capitalism.