This book chronicles almost two decades of American elections marked by a politics of disappointment. In retrospect, Vietnam and Watergate, those symbols of disillusionment, seem only events in a much longer story. America, in the twenty years after World War II, had pains and oppressions to spare, but compared with our times, it also had a broader sphere of commonality, at least among whites, and a greater assurance that the future held something better. Otherwise very diverse Americans--conservatives such as Governor Kirk Fordice of Mississippi and neoliberals such as Mickey Kaus of the New Republic--treat the 1950s as a kind of standard; millions of others, unexpectedly, found themselves mourning Richard Nixon, a symbol of that decade who had preserved its style and tone like a beetle in amber. 1
There have been good, even triumphant moments since, but most Americans, looking backward, are finding it hard not to see a long, slow slide: real wages declining, society deteriorating, gaps widening between old and young and rich and poor, the hopeful integrationism of the civil rights movement turned into a bitter politics of race. Even victory in the Cold War has resulted in international disorder, new threats, and few visible dividends. 2 Briefly, Carter, Bush, and Clinton roused hopes, and Ronald Reagan had a longer, more disastrous run, but all fell short of America's probably unrealizable expectations.
That experience has helped make Americans more distrustful of government, their leaders, and one another--a part of democracy's curriculum, but one that too many citizens are exag