The Pendulum Swings Back

Americans love the center, and are also fond of gridlock.

/images1I recently ended a decade on the Board of Trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation, which funds research in various branches of social science and psychology that bear on issues like race, immigration, poverty, and inequality in all its forms. It was endowed in 1907 by Margaret Olivia Sage in memory of her husband Russell Sage, and she specified that she wanted her legacy to be used toward “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” My farewell remarks were made at an annual dinner two days after the election, and it being a foundation with traditionally liberal concerns, many present were worried about the direction of the country. I said this:

A couple of years ago at this event I was seated next to Barbara Solow, a respected economic historian and at eighty-something a charming and lively dinner companion. We were in the depths of the economic crisis, two wars were not going well, and some people were saying they had never seen worse times. I asked Bobbi, a child of the Depression and a Radcliffe student during the war, how worried she was.

She thought for a few seconds and said, “The country has a lot of ruin in it.” This, I would learn, is an expression dating back at least to Adam Smith, but it took me another conversational turn to see what she meant: that the country is not that easy to ruin; that she had seen worse times, and the country was not ruined yet.

Smith was referring to a country’s riches, but I think Barbara meant a broader kind of wealth, the kind that has allowed us to bear psychological, social and spiritual costs as well as economic ones. I grew up just after World War II, in the shadow of nuclear brinkmanship that could have destroyed the earth not in decades but hours. When I started college I had been to the “I have a dream speech” and many other protests, but I was not by nature optimistic.

There was no Civil Rights Act, no affirmative action, no Medicare or Medicaid. Young women I knew had back alley abortions because there weren’t any other kind, and the number of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, or women with real power in any walk of life was not significantly different from zero.

I saw all that change, and also the end of the Cold War, the spread of democracy, the lifting of two billion people out of the worst kind of poverty. You might say I’m a pessimist who was ambushed by progress. Not that there aren’t setbacks and a huge amount left to be done-just that I now have little doubt it is doable.

The people can be fooled, but not all of the time. They did not believe that Ike was a Communist or that JFK would take orders from the Pope, and they won’t believe all they hear about Obama. They did not really lurch to the right on Tuesday, any more than they lurched to the left four years ago. They moved center-right, restoring the gridlock they often favor. But over time, they are center-left: in each generation they accept as centrist things that seemed left-wing a generation earlier.

If one of the younger people here is standing where I am many years hence, I’m guessing you will find that this has happened again. Not because it is inevitable, but because it is right, and because people like those in the Russell Sage community will be working hard to fulfill Mrs. Sage’s mandate and Dr. King’s dream.

Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be  posted there.


  1. Jack Davis says:

    Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, somehow your blog survived my absence:-) I disagree with your statement that over time we move center-left. In fact, we’re moving quite a bit right in politics. For example, for years the individual mandate was considered a center-right idea (just 2 yrs ago a Republican governor signed a health care law with one), now it’s being invalidated by a Republican judge. Requiring people to carry private insurance is now called frequently socialism. The Tea Party is calling for basically a return to the government of 1789, where (as one on CNN said “There should be no government involvement in the private sector.”) Ronald Reagan, who signed amnesty for illegal immigrants and signed the EITC into a law would not survive a primary under this dogma.

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Jack,

    Welcome back! The blog will survive even better if you visit : )

    I think the difference in our ages may be relevant here. I remember that when Ronald Reagan was elected I thought it could be the end of much that I cared about. But instead of overturning “socialist” programs like social security and Medicare he never tampered with them. Instead of turning the clock back on minority and women’s rights, they held their own or moved forward during the years he was president. You may be right that as a Republican he would today have trouble being elected, because the primary election process is so distorting—almost nobody votes. There are no more moderate Republicans or centrist Democrats. But the good news is that independents are more numerous and powerful than ever, and they just don’t seem to go to extremes in either direction. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think much of what has been passed or instituted under Obama will be reversed. I hope we both live long enough to see whether I was right!

    Happy New Year,


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