Age of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers (Harvard University Press, 360 pp., $29.95)
The centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth has brought with it a series of reflections on the 40th president and the era that he helped define. In Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, attempts to explain the major intellectual currents of the last quarter of the twentieth century.
His history begins a few years before Reagan’s election in 1980, and extends in an epilogue beyond the events of September 11. The age was “fractured,” Rodgers argues, because the certainties of the postwar period—relative economic stability and the dominance of culture by mainline institutions (including the WASP establishment) and of politics by what Arthur Schlesinger called “the vital center”—were broken. New intellectual and political terms emerged. One heard less about society, history, and power and more about individuals, contingency, and choice. The importance of monolithic economic institutions, including large corporations, gave way to notions of flexible and instantly acting markets. History seemed to accelerate, opening a multitude of almost instantaneously accessible possibilities.
Rodgers points out that the term “market,” which Reagan seized on with relish, differed from the older conservative concept of “free enterprise,” at least as it was used in the 1940s and 1950s. That older formulation suggested a relatively stable “system” that mediated between state and private associations, particularly large corporations. But the market, Rodgers writes, was something different, based not so much on a system as on a series of abstract propositions about the efficiency of the movement of goods and services, and driven less by institutions than by the choices of atomistic individual consumers. The turn to the market made sense, as Rodgers notes, given the failure of Keynesian economists to predict the stagflation and economic malaise (to use the Jimmy Carter–era term) of the 1970s. The market idea quickly “fractured” beyond its boundaries and became operative in any number of social and policy areas, Rodgers argues. Law schools, for example, quickly became enamored of the market model and used it to analyze everything from property law to constitutional rights. The adoption of a simplistic “market” convention, however, had limits: in post-Communist Eastern Europe, neoliberal economists such as Jeffrey Sachs recommended large-scale, rapid policy changes to transform the former Communist bloc into free-market zones, a productive but often painful transition.
As with the transition from free enterprise to “market,” so too with the other intellectual themes Rodgers explores. “Gender,” once seen as a triumph of a united sisterhood, fractured along racial, class, and sexuality lines, and each of these lines, in turn, ramified into more individualized and fluid classifications. “Every solidarity,” Rodgers writes, “the period showed, was open to fissuring.” In our own time, aided by information technology, fragmentation and customization are the norm—whether through “narrowcasting,” highly individualized marketing, or the endless electronic niches by which we define ourselves.
In many ways, Age of Fracture is a study of conservatism, and not always a favorable one. The greatest fracture of the age was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its concomitant Marxist ideology, which had been for decades the ideological base of the American and European left. Yet to Rodgers, the most salient point of the story is that conservatives failed to see the collapse coming, and he asserts, implausibly, that “there is not a shred of evidence” that Reagan helped bring about the Soviet demise. In condemning the belief among some conservatives that the Soviet Union would never change but had to be resisted, Rodgers ignores the parallel idea on the Left—that the Soviet Union would never change, and had to be accepted. That one side triumphed and the other was embarrassed for its complicity is apparently an historical nuance not worth observing. Rodgers also ignores the destabilizing effect the collapse of Communism had on American liberalism, an event from which it has not yet fully recovered.
Conservative legal theory gets similarly short shrift. Supreme Court justices Scalia and Thomas, and a cadre of legal scholars who uncovered the rich history of the Founding era as an aid to interpreting the Constitution, were merely engaged in “nostalgia” both “selective and sentimental.” Rodgers is right to point out the gaps in conservative constitutional theory, from its sometimes ahistorical absolutism to its somewhat tortured relationship with landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education. But his conclusion, that conservative constitutionalism reflected not a real jurisprudence but only a desire to escape into a presumably more innocent time, is simplistic and unfair.
Age of Fracture has been widely and justifiably praised. Rodgers has poured a lifetime of work into his subject, and his analysis helps to make sense of the intellectual and social currents that defined a generation. Yet his analysis of our fractured age is not without intellectual holes of its own.