Big changes come with such profound simplicity, you don't realize they are happening until there is that eerie calm afterward. On election night, November 8, I sat in my chair with a glass of wine untouched, a reading lamp that seemed to grow dimmer as I sat there. The electoral numbers kept mounting on the TV screen, and the announcers on MSNBC spoke with a certain rasping dryness after it was clear something had emerged all at once that had not been predicted. Hillary was going to lose the election. It felt like an immense wind had rolled against the house out of the dark, and that it went on in ponderous force across the land. What remained behind was the unthinkable immensity of the unknown.
I had no idea I had just witnessed the collapse of liberal ideology, the comforting old shoe of Democratic thought itself. While a popular majority had sided with Hillary, it was concentrated in all those coastal and urban terrains where progressivism had long been rooted. The rest of the country was a vast unknown of discontented voices, many of them invisible, unheard for such a long time that no one really thought they were there. It was as if America was a well-tended garden of familiar flowers that stood for everything we cared about, considered worthy. And around this garden grew a thorny, twisted landscape of weeds and scrub, a forest looming with night animals that had no name. Somehow the Democratic Party had come to believe that its obligations extended no further than the part of society that had adjusted to the new economic forces set in motion at the close of the Second World War.
The G.I. Bill may have been the first sign that the old America was dead, or had disappeared politically into oblivion. It gave returning vets the opportunity to learn new skills and enter a work force transformed by military rules into a vast new bureaucracy. Movies and novels of the 1950s fully documented this change of the ordinary male into an "organization man," a figure who seemed to step out of a civilian boot camp with a buzz cut, a uniform composed of a gray flannel suit, and a set of attitudes that had suppressed doubt and self-interest for loyalty to a company. It was this group that moved into the suburbs and started families, bought Ford sedans, and put out a flag on Memorial Day. My father was among them.
We went to movies that idolized male courage, male bravery, male companionship, and we saw the victories over Germany and Japan reenacted over and over again in Westerns, FBI films, sci-fi plots in which aliens were routed and destroyed by the army and civil guard. The American Indian stood for the anarchy, violence, and mayhem of those who lived outside the new order. Men who believed in the system and carried out orders were the only heroes. Dissidents in the ranks were ostracized or killed. Women accepted their second-class status and raised families, monitored each other in the transparent world of suburban enclaves.
It was an artificial world of simple ideas and manufactured manners meant to include only the evolving part of American society. Everyone else was kept out of the circle, and as a political philosophy began to construct a system to represent this newly minted Atlantis, the rest of America went slowly dark and disappeared. I saw it happening before my eyes when I was attending high school in the mid-1950s. Before that time, there was only one group of students, the young, the unshaped, and we trudged through the quasi-industrial rigors of bells and cafeteria rules, of watered down courses and strict discipline. It didn't matter who you were, you were subject to the doctrines of an authoritarian system invented in the 19th century to purge youth of the habits and whims of an ancient agricultural way of life. But by 1956 or so, two tracks were established that divided the population into "college-bound" and "vocational." You instantly saw a change sweep over the social life, with one side beginning to wear more formal clothes and the other coming to school in t-shirts and jeans. Groups formed and identified their members by their new social identity. Chess clubs and after-school choirs drew the academic types; shop classes began to draw students who had elected not to join the snobs, the pretenders. They made gun cabinets and worked on cars in the mechanic courses. Their music was harsher, their manners deliberately uncouth, their attitude one of barely suppressed anger and resentment. They were the losers and their lives were dependent upon a rapidly disappearing world of manual skills and factory labor. They would slowly subside into that oblivion that only religion and conservative politics would exploit in the decades ahead.
While some of us were already talking about Yale and Harvard, others were dropping out to get married to pregnant girlfriends. I often saw my old friends standing in front of the drug store in town on a cold, sleety day, smoking and passing a bottle of beer around. They were hardened and cynical at seventeen. They would be unemployed later on and drift, or find menial work that didn't last more than a year or two. When Vietnam broke out, they would be the first to go to war, the first to die in the trenches or come home maimed or twisted up with PTSD. They would form their allegiances to outsiders, to the alienated, and look upon the educated elites as their enemies, or at least as strangers living among them with whom they shared nothing in common. The educated were in towers plotting the sale of manufacturers to Asia that were once the bedrock of blue collar economic life.
The Democratic Party saw its future with the part of society that had adapted early and was quick to seize opportunities in the white-collar world. Its philosophy was built on such opportunism and aggression and its more charitable side felt an obligation to help minorities denied the same access to work as whites. Wealth and prestige were at the core of Democratic vision, but so was the right to compete for a place in this glittering center by blacks and Hispanics, by women in general, eventually by gays and lesbians. The American Dream was open to all who wished to aspire to its material paradise. What it couldn't reach out to were those who had opted out of the competition, who had refused to budge from traditions that had been handed down to them from father to son for generations. The kids growing up on farms and in rural communities stayed put, or didn't know how to leave the tight fold of family and friends. They rejected the city and the dislocating influences of college that threatened to leave them stranded far from everything they once knew. To enter college was to give up some fundamental sense of belonging. They couldn't let go the old religion or the old America of the family and the mores of the small town. They were repelled by the abstractness of modernity.
It was not until Bernie Sanders raised the issue of inequality and the plight of the white working poor that anyone was aware there was such a hidden world. Hillary's campaign was an uncritical exercise of old, entrenched Democratic values that no longer resonated after the great sell off of factories and assembly plants to the rest of the world. Thirty years of relocation of American manufacture had empowered and enriched third world states into a bloc of emerging new super powers. The evidence of self-destruction was everywhere in America, among rust-belt towns and dead coal hubs, of collapsed fishing industries and dying family farms. Poverty was rife and had spread like cancer through all the once thriving river towns that had built the capitalist system of the 19th and 20th centuries. Vast parts of the society had been left behind, and conventional Democratic thinking was blind to it. No one thought it was a subject of politics until Sanders came along and began to harp at a single message -- rebuild the working poor, subsidize college students burdened with huge debts, improve the medical system to serve the ordinary. His populism struck many as out of date, irrelevant to a society that lived on the raw energy of competition and aggression.
The Democratic imagination feasted on the brilliance of a technological elite and the galaxy of service industries where the college educated thrived. But there was no story there -- nothing for film and music and literature to write about it. It was a stifling world of monotony and repetition, of drug abuse and family disintegration. All the conveniences of a dissolving social structure were in place, from routine abortions to doctors peddling prescription drugs to chronically depressed over-achievers. Meanwhile the darkness that began in the 1950s slowly spread out from centers of starkest unemployment to grip the edges of the suburbs, and to submerge whole parts of inner cities in violence and gangs.
The Democratic Party had become weak and ineffectual and no longer had the tools or the will to address an America fragmenting and drifting apart. It had a glossy, upbeat philosophy of the joys of competing and winning, and the gates leading into such a world were painted with bright colors. When Hillary spoke at her rallies, she chanted such optimism and universal love but no one was listening. The gospel was worn out; one believed in it out of desperation and fear of the other party's dogmatic and radical conservatism, which threatened to take down the whole edifice of Rooseveltian liberalism.
But in the gloom of election night, the numbers climbed and the party of God and authoritarian rule was slowly emerging as the new power base. The towers of liberal thought built out of Jeffersonian secularism and expanded under the procession of liberal visionaries all through the machine age, fell noiselessly in the dark and exposed the terrible wound at the heart of America, a neglected and insulted people who had languished without consolation for almost a century.