Evan Thomas Author of The Very Best Men With verve and sweep and a very shrewd eye, Michael Elliott tells us why we're doing pretty well yet feel so bad.
The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America's Past, Rediscovering the Presentby Michael Elliott
In The Day Before Yesterday, acclaimed journalist Michael Elliott says, "Americans whine. They live in the most prosperous society the world has ever seen. They have a greater level of creature comfort than any nation has ever known before. They enjoy great personal freedom, and their government is systematically constrained in the ways in which it can/i>
In The Day Before Yesterday, acclaimed journalist Michael Elliott says, "Americans whine. They live in the most prosperous society the world has ever seen. They have a greater level of creature comfort than any nation has ever known before. They enjoy great personal freedom, and their government is systematically constrained in the ways in which it can intervene in their private lives. And yet they are convinced that their life is miserable." But Elliott tells us the "decline" we mourn is measured against the false standard of the uniquely prosperous years after World War II. The country's severe problems fall into better perspective when we measure them against our longer history. We then see that we have been a nation of problem solvers and can be again.
Americans have assumed for fifty years that the years after World War II were normal, and that any deviation from that standard is alarming. In fact, the boom period following World War II, the Golden Age, was a historical aberration. Although it had its roots in the American past, much of the prosperity came out of the country's unique position in the world of 1945. Of all the nations on the planet, only the United States emerged unscathed from the three decades of war and revolution that had crippled all the other great industrial powers Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. As a result, in 1945 the U.S. reigned supreme.
Then, between the assassination of JFK and the end of the Cold War in 1989, all the factors that had contributed so much to America's self-image went into reverse. American politics went through a period of murderous instability; the federal government was delegitimized; great divisions grew among races, regions, and classes; a wave of immigration transformed the country's ethnic makeup; and the economy slowed down.
Now the major debate among politicians is how to fix America's decline. Elliott puts that debate in perspective by showing that we're in a natural cycle, not an absolute decline, and reminds us that we won't find the solutions in the shiny model of the Golden Age. Those circumstances will never be repeated. Instead, by looking back to the whole of American history, especially to the period before 1914, Elliott offers explanations and some hopeful answers for our current problems. Then, as now, America was a society of immigrants, messy, ragged at the edges, transfixed by cultural wars and suffering serious social cleavages. America was also home to unprecedented pioneering spirit and extraordinary resourcefulness. America today is still characterized by the same sense of community and entrepreneurial vision that enabled us to overcome our problems a hundred years and more ago and become the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.
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