Arising from the shadows of the American repressed, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been sending chills through the corridors of establishment power. Who would have thunk it? Two men, both outliers, though in starkly different ways, seem to be leading rebellions against the masters of our fate in both parties; this, after decades in which even imagining such a possibility would have been seen as naïve at best, delusional at worst. Their larger-than-life presence on the national stage may be the most improbable political development of the last American half-century. It suggests that we are entering a new phase in our public life.
A year ago, in my book The Age of Acquiescence, I attempted to resolve a mystery hinted at in its subtitle: “The rise and fall of American resistance to organized wealth and power.” Simply stated, that mystery was: Why do people rebel at certain moments and acquiesce in others?
Resisting all the hurts, insults, threats to material well-being, exclusions, degradations, systematic inequalities, overlordship, indignities, and powerlessness that are the essence of everyday life for millions would seem natural enough, even inescapable, if not inevitable. Why put up with all that?
Historically speaking, however, the impulse to give in has proven no less natural. After all, to resist is often to risk yourself, your means of livelihood, and your way of life. To rise up means to silence those intimidating internal voices warning that the overlords have the right to rule by virtue of their wisdom, wealth, and everything that immemorial custom decrees. Fear naturally closes in.
In our context, then, why at certain historical moments have Americans shown a striking ability to rise up, at other times to submit?
To answer that question, I explored those years in the first gilded age of the 19th century when millions of Americans took to the streets to protest, often in the face of the armed might of the state, and the period in the latter part of the 20th century and the first years of this one when the label “the age of acquiescence” seemed eminently reasonable—until, in 2016, it suddenly didn’t.
So consider this essay a postscript to that work, my perhaps belated realization that the age of acquiescence has indeed come to an end. Millions are now, of course, feeling the Bern and cheering The Donald. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the first signs of what was to come as I was finishing my book: the Tea Party on the right, and on the left Occupy Wall Street, strikes by low-wage workers, minimum- and living-wage movements, electoral victories for urban progressives, a surge of environmental activism, and the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement just on the eve of publication.
But when you live for so long in the shade of acquiescence where hope goes to die or at least grows sickly, you miss such things. After all, if history has a logic, it can remain so deeply hidden as to be indecipherable… until it bites. So, for example, if someone had X-rayed American society in 1932, in the depth of the Great Depression, that image would have revealed a body politic overrun with despair, cynicism, fatalism, and fear—in a word, acquiescence, a mood that had shadowed the land since “Black Tuesday” and the collapse of the stock market in 1929.