A month or so before the planet went on lockdown I happened to spot a copy of Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer’s 2019 book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 during one of my Saturday visits to the public library. With a big stack of library books by my bed vying for my attention I declined to borrow it, even though the book looked promising. Then, not long ago I found myself in the mood for a little Fault Lines so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. A wise move on my part because Fault Lines provides an insightful explanation of how America became such a divided nation.
Kruse and Zelizer begin their book with a study in contrast. When Barack Obama bid farewell in early 2017 he warned our deeply divided nation was on the cusp of being irreparably ripped apart along economic, racial and political lines. On the other hand, from day one his successor Donald Trump his done everything in his power to exacerbate these deep fractures, as shown by his toxic rhetoric, questionable political appointments and polarizing policy moves. How, the authors of Fault Lines ask, did we as a country become so divided?
Like many answers to complex questions it’s a long story. According to Princeton professors Kruse and Zelizer these “fault lines” aren’t anything new and have been around for decades but a “robust federal government, a thriving middle-class economy and a powerful union movement” provided enough upward mobility and material well-being to ameliorate the harmfulness of these divisions. But then, by the early 1970s things started to change. An oil shock led to economic stagnation, or “stagflation” associated by a decline in purchasing power and real wages. America’s industrial workers faced increased competition from both overseas factories as well as automation resulting in layoffs and lower wages. Service sector jobs began filling the void, but these tended to be lower paying, and more importantly non-union, with fewer and fewer workers enjoying generous benefits and protections.
After yet another oil shock and recession (on top of the Iranian Hostage Crises), in 1980 Ronald Reagan would take the Presidency from Jimmy Carter. Chanting the mantra that government *is* the problem Reagan would embark on a cascade of Neo-liberal moves promoting anti-regulation, anti-union, and anti-working class policies. Eight years of Reaganism would shift the American political landscape to the right, leading Bill Clinton to further dismantle the social welfare net or as he called it “end welfare as we know it.”
Up to the 1980s, as divided as the nation was, ironically, the world of radio, television and print media was surprisingly homogenous. For decades Americans got their national and international news from just three major TV networks, local newspaper, small handful of newsweeklies and to a much lesser degree newspaper of record like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. With a relatively small assortment of news providers catering to a broad audience politically moderate viewpoints prevailed. Since radio and TV stations were seen as operating “for the public good” the FCC’s long-enshrined “Fairness Doctrine” mandated stations devote coverage to “controversial issues of public importance.” While not required to give equal time for opposing views, nevertheless stations had to present “contrasting viewpoints.”
As the middle class shrank and the divide widened between rich and poor technological advances and regulatory developments revolutionized the media landscape. The break-up of AT and T meant an end to the sweetheart deal which allowed ABC, CBS and NBC to transmit content to their respective affiliates for local rebroadcast while at the same time blocking new rivals from entering the market. But even larger changes lay ahead as a growing constellation of communication satellites began circling the earth, allowing a multitude of upstart TV networks to entry the fray utilizing the new medium of cable TV, made possible by advances in fiber optic technology. In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, allowing broadcasters to supply highly partisan programming without contrasting viewpoints. This would lead to right wing talk radio by the 1990s and Fox News a decade later. By the 2000s the nation’s polarization would be complete as the Internet revolution allowed Americans to get their news, and perhaps more importantly opinion from tons of sources. However, with no shortage of news sources and social media platforms, individual Americans now had the ability to exist in a bubble, devoid of all contrary views. When reality, or perhaps more accurately, realities become tailor-made it’s hard to dialog, let-alone compromise with your political rivals.
I have a fondness for what I call recent history, that is the period from roughly the 1970s to the present. With that in mind Fault Lines didn’t disappoint me. It’s well-written, accessible and does a fine job showing in detail how America got in this horrible mess. In short, why we’re so divided.