Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America

Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America

Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America

Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America


Farewell to Prosperity is a provocative, in-depth study of the Liberal and Conservative forces that fought each other to shape American political culture and character during the nation’s most prosperous years. The tome’s central theme is the bitter struggle to fashion post–World War II society between a historic Protestant Ethic that equated free-market economics and money-making with Godliness and a new, secular Liberal temperament that emerged from the twin ordeals of depression and world war to stress social justice and security.

Liberal policies and programs after 1945 proved key to the creation of mass affluence while encouraging disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and social groups to seek equal access to power. But liberalism proved a zero-sum game to millions of others who felt their sense of place and self progressively unhinged. Where it did not overturn traditional social relationships and assumptions, liberalism threatened and, in the late sixties and early seventies, fostered new forces of expression at radical odds with the mindset and customs that had previously defined the nation without much question.

When the forces of liberalism overreached, the Protestant Ethic and its millions of estranged religious and economic proponents staged a massive comeback under the aegis of Ronald Reagan and a revived Republican Party. The financial hubris, miscalculations, and follies that followed ultimately created a conservative overreach from which the nation is still recovering. Post–World War II America was thus marked by what writer Salman Rushdie labeled in another context “thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics.” This “politics” and its meaning form the core of the narrative.

Farewell to Prosperity is no partisan screed enlisting recent history to support one side or another. Although absurdity abounds, it knows no home, affecting Conservative and Liberal actors and thinkers alike.


Money and race have composed the master narratives of American history. But the civil rights impulse of the past fifty years with its vigorous supporting scholarship has elevated the importance of the latter while unwarrantedly eclipsing the central place of the former. Yet it was the demands of a capitalist order grounded in a money economy run by white male Protestants that until quite recently made racial (and many would argue gender) oppression so attractive and, in some cases—and in one region—imperative. From the outset, life in the United States has been defined by a blind embrace of business and commerce, a rabid quest for wealth, and a persistent economic overreach enveloped in a widespread obsession with evangelical religion and personal salvation. Now as in all our yesterdays a Protestant ethic equating material success with godly favor exerts a powerful hold over the national psyche. Needless to say, not all free-market practitioners have been active churchgoing Christians; not every churchgoing Christian has been preoccupied with moneymaking in a free-market environment. But each commitment has more or less sanctified the other, blending into a powerful if informal ideology that shaped American thought and practice through three centuries of continental and industrial expansion. Not until the unprecedented domestic and foreign upheavals of the 1930s and ‘40s did a powerful competing impulse emerge, secular in nature and emphasizing social justice, welfare, and, above all, security. a subsequent postwar prosperity almost effortlessly achieved ultimately crashed in ruins because of the frantic efforts of first liberal and then conservative extremists to impose their visions of the proper life upon America. As a harder era has come upon the land, they remain in often fruitless deadlock.

In the following pages I have attempted to recover what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger in another context called the “form, motion and color” of a distinct era in our past that is now beginning to recede into perspective, while seeking to tie its trends and events into some sort of coherent whole. I have presumed to approach the task from the broadest considerations of political culture, looking at those dynamic and interlocking forces that in the words of Charles E. Rosenberg create “the emotional coherence of a … generation. Those ideas . . .

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