Lawrence, KA, University Press of Kansas, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-7006-2010-4 ; 264pp.; Price: £29.95
St. Clare's, Oxford
Date accessed: 25 September, 2023
The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America’s Raucous Political Culture brings together a fine selection of James A. Morone’s essays combining the two areas to which he has devoted the last 25 years of his career: American political thought and American political development. Although certain of these writings have been published before, Morone has revised and extended his analysis, and also penned three new chapters specifically for this collection.
Morone’s long-standing personal and academic interest in understanding what brings Americans together, and what keeps them apart, forms the intellectual rationale for this volume. At the most fundamental level, he asks whether there is a distinctive American culture, and if so, what does it look like? In answering, Morone offers up a persuasive vision of a consistently conflicted nation, one born of constant cultural quarrels. As new immigrants periodically arrive to contest the cultural status quo, these challengers – the memorable ‘devils we know’ of the title – serve to reinvent and reinvigorate the American nation.
The book begins with a preface and acknowledgments that provide an insight into Morone’s background and interest in questions of American community, culture, and constructions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The introduction, ‘Who are we?’ then offers a taste of Morone’s central argument, an insight into the main themes of the book, and an overview of its structure. The 14 essays that make up the body of the book are subsequently arranged into four separate sections: part one: ‘Is there an American political culture?’; part two: ‘Wealth and power’; part three: ‘Morals and politics’; and part four: ‘Us and them in action’.
Part one thus comprises four diverse and wide-ranging essays on culture and politics. In the first chapter, ‘Is there an American political culture?’, Morone lays out his central argument that America’s political culture is vibrant, but almost constantly contested, ‘a brawling, complicated work in progress’ (p. 18). He carefully considers competing conceptions of the American creed, from the individualism of Alexis de Tocqueville (and later Louis Hartz), to the civic visions of Robert Putnam via the influential Puritan trope of America as a ‘city on a hill’, and the ascriptive vision of scholars such as Rogers Smith, who emphasises the ways in which defining an American ‘us’, also results in singling out a problematic ‘them’. Morone critiques each of these interpretations in turn, whilst leaving the reader in no doubt as to his own intellectual preference for the latter.
Morone’s second chapter, ‘John Stuart Mill and American liberalism’, appears here for the first time in print. It measures how Americans have responded to four key problems derived from Mill’s classic On Liberty: the harm principle, the tyranny of public opinion, racial limitations, and the need for vigorous social debate in a free society. Morone offers not only a cogent explanation for the schizophrenic nature of the American project itself, but also argues that continued national debates over ‘common values and purpose and identity’ are central to a vital American discourse (p. 44).
Next, in ‘The bias in American politics: rationing health care in a weak state’, Morone analyses three key forces that shape American health care policy, namely a sceptical view of the beneficence of the state, the fragmentation of the American system of government, and the problem of hyperpluralism. Morone carefully explains how the typically American policy pattern of fragmented, hidden, and private federal decisions has resulted in contradictions in the ways health care is rationed, limits to the potential to frame alterative visions, and ultimately, a systemic bias towards the status quo.
Lastly in this section, Morone provides a complete change of pace, tone, and topic, with a new essay on ‘Huckleberry Finn’s hard racial lesson’, wherein he uses Mark Twain’s difficult ending as a metaphor: just as Huck has gained his redemption, but realises he is unable to change the corrupt society he lives in, so too, the moral American is today faced with the same problem.
Part two also showcases four essays, this time centred around the theme of wealth and poverty. Although these chapters are all quite different from one another, each one focuses in some way on the problems of the populist tradition and the future of the American left. In his fifth chapter, ‘What happened to populism: the lost causes of William Jennings Bryan’, Morone uses the figure of ‘The Great Commoner’ as a lens through which to assess the reasons why populism became a more powerful force on the right of the political spectrum than on the left in the later half of the 20th century. Rather than examining simply one part of Bryan’s legacy (the negative aspects of populist resentment and the exploitative politics of promulgating racial difference), Morone follows Michael Kazin’s line of argument in A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, and recovers Bryan’s worthy egalitarian passions and ability to keep fighting for ‘a moral republic where federal power would honour and protect working people’ (p. 79).(1)
The sixth chapter, ‘Good for nothing: failure in America’, sees Morone explore the other side of the American Dream – the desire to locate failure purely within the realm of individual action. Here, with reference to Scott A. Sandage’s Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Morone critiques the myth that anyone might succeed in America, if only they work hard: the result is a trenchant indictment of the functioning of neoliberal capitalism.(2)
In the seventh essay ‘An empire of greed’, Morone asks firstly, whether the American republic has transformed into an empire, and secondly, why there has been no left-wing populist uprising against the dominance of the marketplace. In answering these questions, Morone refers to Steve Fraser’s Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life and Charles S. Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, to conclude that the two phenomena are intricately related.(3) The free market challenge arose at the exact same time as the civil rights revolution began to spread, in the 1950s, and although it would be too simplistic to suggest that racism simply resulted in attacks on the welfare state, the two did mutually reinforce one another (p. 100).
Finally for this section, Morone’s policy-oriented ‘The wages of inequality’ (written with Lawrence Jacobs) showcases one of the author’s specialisms – the politics of health. This essay carefully explains how inequality, poverty, and the organisation of the American health care system results in Americans being poorly served in contrast to other (particularly European) nations. The solution to this problem, Morone suggests, is not incremental reform, but instead moral vision and ‘a new kind of populist politics’ (p. 106).
For part three, Morone presents three essays, all focussing in some way or another on morals and politics. Chapter nine, ‘The corrosive politics of virtue’, takes contemporary moralising as its subject matter and assesses the effects of jeremiads on American politics. Using examples drawn from the sweep of American history, Morone demonstrates the ways in which tales of spiritual decline serve to undermine an alternative moral tradition that promulgates social justice (p. 111).
Chapter ten, ‘Enemies of the people: the moral dimension to public health’, explores the extent to which constructions of morality – most often based on racial politics – define national problems and policy solutions. In analysing historical efforts to resolve problems surrounding drinking, drugs, and sex, Morone outlines an alternative, cooperative approach to health care, one based on finding shared solutions to common troubles.
The last essay in this section, ‘How the personal becomes the political: prohibitions, public health, and obesity’, sees Morone (with Rogan Kersh) use a framework of seven triggers (social disapproval, advancements in medical knowledge, the emergence of self-help movements, demonisation of those who refuse to conform, attacks on the industry to blame, resultant mass movements, and the framing of an issue and proposition of solutions by interest groups and policy entrepreneurs) to explore the ways in which the obesity epidemic might one day become a potent political issue, one deserving of state intervention. Although fat still only meets the first three criteria for political action as of the mid 2010s, Morone and Kersh convincingly suggest that it is by no means beyond the realms of imagination to envisage that one day, obesity might touch all of these seven triggers and result in a broader national debate about the pros and cons of federal intervention in American eating habits.
For his final section, Morone focuses on contemporary cultural politics in context. In a new essay entitled ‘The curious role of argument in the history of health reform’, Morone uses the quest for national health insurance to evaluate when and how ideas matter, across the administrations of Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Surprisingly, rather than ideas inspiring the political process, Morone demonstrates that it happened the other way around – powerful arguments over health care reform sprang from legislative intricacies and grew and grew until the debate became one over the very meaning of America itself.
In ‘A bipartisan surprise? Obamacare in the states’, Morone analyses the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. Away from the virulent ideological debates of the Beltway, Morone discerns the rise of a new health care regime, the ‘mixed’ or ‘purple’ ACA, because on a state-by-state basis both Republicans and Democrats are pragmatically reaching compromises, and although neither side gets exactly what it wants (to utilise the forces of market capitalism on the one hand, and to develop a Great Society-esque liberal programme on the other), each gets something. The longer-term result, Morone persuasively suggests, is that health insurance coverage will most likely expand, as a new health care system is forged at the state level.
Lastly, in the new essay, ‘Who are we? Us and them and the Boston Marathon bombing’, Morone uses this 2013 incident to return to his central argument and to emphasise the ways in which America has sometimes been open and munificent, and at other times, closed and distrustful. Written from personal experience as a Bostonian, Morone ends on a fairly hopeful note, with the apposite image of each new generation of American immigrants, the once-feared ‘them’, becoming the next ‘us’, and in turn, ruminating on the future of the American nation.
Throughout all of Morone’s individual essays, race runs strong and central, as the author emphasises the extent to which politics grows most strong around the colour line. Morone focuses firmly on the forces of immigration and the politics of wealth and poverty, but he spends little time analysing the activities and experiences of those other liminal groups (based on sexuality, for instance) who have also struggled for legitimacy in a contest about what it truly means to be American. An assessment of HIV-AIDS policy would also have been most welcome, especially given the historical controversies that have surrounded this issue.
Morone’s most substantive contribution however, is to the still-growing body of literature on the origins, trajectory, and meanings of the Culture Wars that rocked American political discourse in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Early scholarly works on these phenomena tended to view such debates in theoretical terms, as being based on conflicting systems of moral understanding, or as unusual exceptions to an underlying consensus, whilst more recent works have begun to locate their historical origins in the 1960s.(4) In contrast, Morone offers solid public policy analyses of these cultural disturbances, and demonstrates the ways in which such squabbles constantly enliven and refresh the American nation. There is considerable mileage in his approach, and it is one that ought to be more widely practiced if we are ever to understand how and why Culture Wars debates continue to play out in American political culture into the early 21st century.
One of the most interesting aspects of the collection for this reviewer is to be found in considering how Morone’s writing changes over time: his earlier essays are frequently combative in tone, whilst his recent writings are noticeably more moderated. Chapter nine, for instance, ‘The corrosive politics of virtue’, offers a strong rebuttal to what Morone views as the simplistic, black-and-white moral narratives promulgated by those conservative and religious crusaders on the other side of the political aisle who he terms the ‘vice squad’ (p. 114). This antagonistic language is perhaps not unsurprising, given that the article was first written for the liberal American Prospect in 1996, at the height of the Culture Wars. In sharp contrast, Morone’s newly penned chapter on the Boston Marathon bombing, offers a much more optimistic vision for the future, and pictures America as a country that would welcome newcomers and value their contributions to the nation’s ‘raucous, vibrant, and evolving culture’ (p. 208). The Devils We Know thus offers not only an insight into the development of Morone’s scholarly interests, ideas, and interpretations, but also illuminates the changing problems and priorities of the public intellectual, the rights and responsibilities of the engaged scholar, and indeed, the hopes and fears of the moral American during those very same years under consideration.
Taken together, these powerful writings will make a major contribution to our understandings of American political thought, American political development, and American political culture. Morone’s informative collection will be indispensible for any scholar concerned with American health politics and policy, populism, wealth, power, the left, morality, the Culture Wars, and contemporary social and political issues. It deserves a broad audience, and it is accessible enough to appeal to both students and the general reader.
- Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York, NY, 2006).Back to (1)
- Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA, 2005).Back to (2)
- Steve Fraser, Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life (New York, NY, 2005) and Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA, 2006).Back to (3)
- See respectively, the seminal James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America: Making Sense of the Battles Over the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics (New York, NY, 1991), Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About: God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left, and Each Other (New York, NY, 1998) Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy Pope, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York, NY, 2005), and Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, IL, 2015).Back to (4)