Michael Barone has a good piece today in the Wall Street Journal discussing and wondering at liberal nostalgia for the post-World War II "Midcentury Moment." Excerpt:
Americans in the Midcentury Moment were unusually conformist, content to be very small cogs in very large machines: They married and bore children at record rates for an advanced society; they worked as organization men and flocked to mass-produced suburbs; they worshipped in seemingly interchangeable churches. This was an America that celebrated the average, the normal, the regular. The liberals who long to return to the Midcentury Moment seem to forget that it was a time of enormous cultural uniformity that stigmatized being unmarried or unchurched or gay. The huge menu of lifestyle choices from which we can choose today was a very short menu with very few choices then.
It could not last. Baby-boom children, raised in prosperity, were not content with being small units in large machines. The Berkeley student activists in 1964, before the major escalations in Vietnam, held signs reading, "Do not bend, staple, fold or mutilate"—I am not just another IBM card. The military draft, which more than anything else initiated the Midcentury Moment and was supposed to apply equally to everyone, was by 1965 so riddled with exceptions and loopholes that the sons of the well-to-do were largely exempt from military service in time of war. Similarly, the tax code in the early 1960s had enough exceptions and loopholes that high tax rates on high earners were eminently avoidable.
Vietnam, urban riots, Watergate, stagflation—all undermined confidence in big government, big business and big labor, and by the late 1970s the Midcentury Moment was long gone. It has not returned and it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which it could. Big labor is no longer big, except for the public-employee unions. Big business has been subject to enormous change to the point that the Fortune 500, fairly stable during the Midcentury Moment, has seen new firms enter and old ones disappear at record rates. As for big government, its prestige has never fully recovered, leaving the military as one of our few respected institutions and the civilian government largely concerned with transferring money from current earners to the elderly at rates that are economically unsustainable but politically difficult to alter. […]
[T]here is a more fundamental contradiction here, for the Midcentury Moment's confidence in big institutions was inextricably connected with an acceptance of a cultural uniformity that almost all of today's liberals, and probably most non-liberals, would find unacceptable.
For more on the subject, read Brink Lindsey's great Reason essay "Nostalgianomics." Or buy our new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America, which features a chapter titled "The Disorganization Man" that examines this and similar themes. The ongoing left-of-center brainscrub of its own 20th century anti-authoritarianism remains one of the great curiosities of our time.