Thursday, May 2, 2013

Solon Simmons' "The Eclipse of Equality"

Solon Simmons is Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He makes frequent appearances on radio, television, and in print media, discussing issues of politics and group conflict, and his work has been discussed on most of the major national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Good Morning America, National Public Radio, and Meet the Press itself. He blogs about U.S. politics and culture on Confrontations.

Simmons applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Eclipse of Equality enters the arc of the larger story of the book at an oblique angle. The streamlined argument of the book is that American elites have become progressively less concerned with moral arguments about property and equality on both left and right, supplanted with a focus on prejudice and diversity on the left and personal freedom and anti-statism on the right. Eclipse of equality in this sense represents a temporary (perhaps) atrophy of a canonical category of the moral imagination. How I demonstrate this process of elite opinion change is by analyzing their Sunday morning conversations on Meet the Press—thought of as an extended collection of interviews and focus groups on the dominant topics of the day from 1945 to the our own time.

Page 99 picks up this story with an extended excerpt from a Meet the Press interview from October 18, 1959 with a corporate leader and then rising star of the Republican Party named Charles Percy. As with all the excerpts in the book, this extended passage says less about Percy and the mid-century Republican Party than it does about the arguments that were circulating in elite circles at the time and the ideals they embodied.

The work Percy does for the argument is to highlight the moment of transition in political party emphases when Democrats and Republicans were far closer in their economic arguments than they are today. What I wanted the reader to see was John Kennedy represented in the words of this idea man of “dynamic conservatism.” This would make it easier to see how important the Kennedy moment was in initiating the flight in moral emphasis in Democratic Party rhetoric from class to culture. Among other things, Percy calls for a moon landing by 1970, missile superiority and a “strong, efficient central government.” If you close your eyes and ignore the Midwestern accent, Percy sounds a lot like Jack Kennedy. From our vantage, Kennedy comes off, in context, as a progressive Republican.

This ideological convergence in 1959 is relevant for us in 2013 in that it marks the beginning of the end of the rhetoric of class struggle and the vilification of wealth. It also marks the last days before the return to Republican vilification of the federal bureaucracy that had emerged with the rise of professional corporate management prior to the Great Depression and the New Deal.

As Democrats after Kennedy came to recognize the electoral force of the anti-supremacist arguments given dramatic form in the Civil Rights Movement and Republicans exploited the racial anxieties of once loyally Democratic white ethnics to fuel their neoliberal rocket, the economic red lines of the New Deal faded into pink. Today, even to flirt with the virulent language of a Senator Paul Douglas, the Fair Deal economist and Senator who would lose his Illinois seat to Percy in 1966, is to mark one’s self as outside of the rhetorical mainstream. This is what it means to have lived through the eclipse of equality and helps explain why we have seen so little in the way of aggressive class politics from the Democratic administration that governed through this lesser depression we suffer through today.
Learn more about the book and author at Solon Simmons's website.

--Marshal Zeringue