The Age of Betrayal: A Comment
In his rewarding book, The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, Jack Beatty asks the question: “Why, if politics ignored their needs, did roughly 30% more Americans than now vote then?” And his answer is: “the politics of distraction.” That is, “the parties exploited sectional, racial, cultural, and religious cleavages to win office, then turned government over to the corporations.” [p. 221]
Well, although not an uncommon explanation, this is not an answer. That is, this just restates the issues: Why didn’t voters catch on? What did people think they were doing by voting? What was their political psychology? They didn’t see themselves as fools or as being fooled and, hence, they went on voting – as many still do today. What was the appeal of voting?
The appeal came and comes from what I call the “triumphant nationalism” that Americans embrace. That is, people see themselves as participating in a grand, nationalistic ritual, one that is as sacred to our politics as the mass is for Catholics, as sacred as pilgrimages are for Moslems, or as sacred as Passover is for Jews. It is this triumphant nationalism that underlays, that supports oligarchy, the great power and authority of the few. In those times that Beatty is assessisng, this nationalism took different forms: pensions for Northern Civil War veterans and their families, the tariff meant to support American industries, even or especially white, Protestant supremacy which was thought to underlay American purity and greatness.
So, in order to fortify the prevailing oligarchy, this triumphant nationalism had to be fed and fed it was by the creation and maintenance of great economic institutions, the corporations; fed also by expansion, meaning the creation of more states as well as expansion overseas; and by crusades meant to project American values throughout the world, in Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.
More generally, triumphant nationalism is the trump card of our politics, no pun intended. It overrides self-interest, because making or keeping America great, maintaining its supremacy is the most important thing. Other issues are viewed through the lens of this triumphant nationalism, of American supremacy, of its right and capacity to rule the world, to create a “new world order.” Culture war battles are waged in the shadow of this triumphant nationalism and, so, issues like abortion or gun control are not decisive issues for most Americans. They do not distract; rather, they are distracted from by the appeal of triumphant nationalism. The real war isn’t cultural; it’s political and it’s waged over how to keep America great, triumphant, supreme because both the Republicans and the Democrats strive for greatness, for triumphs, for US supremacy.
Beatty cites Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” as illustrating that the same phenomenon is ongoing in the United States now, the people being blinded by what Ross Perot called “the ‘gorilla dust’ of ‘social issues’ like abortion and gun control.” [p. 222] But Frank and Perot are mistaken. Conservatives haven’t won the heart of America; oligarchs have. And these oligarchs have won America’s heart not by appealing to issues like abortion or gun control. Rather, they have fortified their power by appealing to the triumphant nationalism that the American people so readily embrace and rally around. And it isn’t money that triumphed from 1865 to 1900 – although the wealthy certainly did benefit – it was nationalism. It is not money; it is not conservatism that lie at the root of our current situation. It is triumphant nationalism. Until we get this straight, we will be controlled by an oligarchy that looks after itself at the expense of the rest of us.