Book Review: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

As soon as I first picked up this volume of modern history, I knew it was going to be important to me. I put my name on the reserve list at the library (still poverty-stricken here, folks) and patiently waited until it became available. It was worth the wait.

The year 1974 was around the time that I left for overseas and then stayed gone for thirty-five years. During those decades, I followed the news as best I could, but it wasn’t always easy. Some countries I lived in had TV news only in the local languages, and English-language magazines and newspapers weren’t always available either. I picked up bits and pieces here and there; I always knew who the current president was and whether the United States was involved in “police action” in some global hot spot. I read books on current events, but because of publishing realities, books are always after-the-fact accounts. I really didn’t have a clear picture of the continuity of modern U.S. history. So Fault Lines was an eye-opener. It’s well written, comprehensive, and the authors have a knack for seeing the main points and patterns in historical events.

The fault lines that the title alludes to are rifts in American unity that have been widening, in the opinion of the authors, since the mid-seventies. These include the widening gap between rich and poor and dissolution of the middle class, ongoing racial divisions, gender inequalities, and the polarization between political parties. Additionally, the media has become fractured and divided along cultural lines so that news stories are for the most part heavily tainted with bias.

The authors begin with the Watergate scandal as the time when Americans began to deeply distrust the government. They move on through the eras of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. As I read, I experienced one revelation after another as to why things are the way they are now. I’ve been of the opinion lately that the inmates have taken over the madhouse, but reading this account of the decades leading up to the present, I can see the logical, if tragic, progression of it all. I hadn’t realized how long this crazy conservative versus liberal thing had been going on. It’s uncanny, for instance, to see how closely Trump’s attitudes and policies mimic those of Reagan’s, and how the Congressional infighting from one administration to the next is so similar that the accounts all but blur into one another. It’s appalling, actually, that the three branches of the U.S. government keep making the same mistakes of partisan warfare over and over again, administration after administration, decade after decade, instead of somehow learning from past errors to better serve the people for whom it’s all supposed to be set up.

An overview like this is frightening, all right, because when you see it all in context, you realize that very little progress has been made. No sooner does one party and administration manage to accomplish something that is actually for the benefit of the people of the United States, than the balance goes the other way and the new party in power tries to tear it down and start again from scratch. There seems to be no end to it. To make matters worse, it’s hard to get an objective grasp on reality because of the way the media slants news this way or that. It’s difficult for common people to find their way through it all – if there are such things as common people anymore. Along with the politicians shaping government policies, individuals are becoming polarized as well, choosing to believe one version of reality rather than another.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that there is such a thing as reality and honesty out there, and we can find it if we diligently search for it. I’m simply expressing my reaction to the all-but-overwhelming insights available in this book. The fault lines that the authors delineate are ripping the country apart culturally and politically, and it is imperative to somehow close the gaps before the rifts are beyond repair. How this can be accomplished I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like fleeing back to Europe where life is in some ways simpler, where people have learned over centuries of travail to reach some compromises with each other. Then again, life wasn’t and isn’t perfect there either. Sometimes the other side of the river or ocean or whatever separates you from somewhere else looks better until you live there awhile, and then you realize that certain problems are common to all humankind.

We struggle on year after year, generation after generation. I hope that someday, somehow, we learn from our mistakes.

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