American Interest

The Fifties Were Awful, But Not the Way You Think

The 1950s weren’t an age of conservative bourgeois culture. They were the destructor of that culture

Former Senior Fellow
(Photo credit: Frank Martin/BIPs/Getty Images)
(Photo credit: Frank Martin/BIPs/Getty Images)

p(firstLetter). Conventional wisdom says there was a period in American life called the “1950s,”—or colloquially the Fifties—organized around family values, continence, and thrift. Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, recently got into trouble for praising the values of this supposedly lost decade when she argued that we are “paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”

According to the same conventional wisdom there was also a period in American life called the “1960s”—a.k.a. the Sixties—when the bourgeois values of the 1950s were replaced with self-absorption and impulsiveness. These two decades are so fixed in people’s minds that how people think politically often starts with which decade they prefer.

Quite aside from the inherent artificiality of decadal thinking, the narrative is simply false.

First, the “1950s” did not start in the 1950s. The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny’s classic study of so-called 1950s culture, was actually first published in 1950, meaning it was researched and written in the 1940s. The same goes for C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, a study of the new class of office workers published in 1951. Because a lag typically exists between a new culture and its identification by social scientists, at least some of what The Lonely Crowd observed in the 1940s probably dates back to the 1930s. The uptick in people’s consumption of non-necessities, for example, and the rapid expansion of credit—both hallmarks of the new consumer culture—actually began in 1920.

Second, 1950s culture was not a conservative bourgeois culture, at least not in the spirit of Self-Help, the 19th-century bestseller by Samuel Smiles that preached continence, thrift, and temperance. It was just the opposite for most people. So eagerly did 1950s Americans act on taste signals from advertisers, and fuss over which neighbors had what amenity, that thrift often went by the wayside. The advent of television, above all, was the shaper and accelerator of this shift. If the idealized American of the 19th century was provident and sensible, the idealized mid-20th-century American was a buy-now, pay-later, status-craving climber unmoored from most traditional values. To the degree this new American didrefrain from buying too much, it was not out of piety or prudence, but to avoid exciting a neighbor’s envy, just as buying too little was checked by his or her own envy of others.1

Third, 1950s culture has never really ended. It remains foundational because it is not and never was what Professor Wax claims it was. Confusion over this point most likely stems from a common foible—the assumption of equal opposites. Since so many proud Baby Boomers like to assume that the Sixties were a great turning point, it follows that what it turned away from (the Fifties) was diametrically opposed to what was new. But this is simply false.

Middle-class Americans at mid-century—which includes most Americans both by self-definition and by statistics—belonged to tight-knit peer groups that told members what kind of furniture to buy, what kind of car to drive, what kind of music to like, what kind of political opinions to have, and so on—in other words, how to live and think. They were, in Riesman’s terminology, other-directed as opposed to inner-directed. The peer groups in those days were suburban “court cliques” and corporate “teams”; today, corporate teams still exist, but peer groups have expanded in type and number to include lifestyle enclaves and virtual communities on social media. These peer groups give members the same feeling of belonging as the old ones did, while also shaping their tastes and opinions. Riesman et al. argued that other-directed types were necessary to the functioning of modern society, but that other-directedness came at a cost to personal autonomy. In other words, the peer group was both a friend and a tyrant. Little has changed.

Americans at mid-century exploited small differences in product lines to boost their status, what Riesman, Glazer, and Denny called “marginal differentiation.” They fussed over whether a pair of jeans had one pocket or two, or whether a host had served a tossed salad or a salad with dressing on the side, all in accordance with the status rules of their particular peer group. Little has changed, except now there are more consumer brands and options to choose from when trying to shine among others.

Americans at mid-century embraced a youth culture controlled by advertisers and mass marketing. They obsessed over student self-esteem, and focused more on a child’s social and psychological adjustment than on his or her intellectual performance.2 Little has changed.

They viewed politics as entertainment. As Riesman et al. note, politics became just another consumption good. It embraced glamour; it needed to conform to people’s tastes; the candidate had to be “packaged”; he or she needed to “appeal.” Eisenhower supporters, the authors observed, found in their candidate someone who “has everything”—whom one could wholeheartedly like.3 Little has changed except people’s tastes, especially with the recent election of the first reality television President.

Americans at mid-century often used psychoactive drugs to get through the day. In the 1950s the drug of choice was Miltown; in the 1960s it was Valium; today, it is Zoloft.

Even the mid-century swap in the symbolic meanings of food and sex persists. Riesman, Glazer, and Denny noted that 19th-century Americans looked on food as an unexciting means of nourishment; sex, on the other hand, was glamorous and exotic. In mid-20th century, an inversion occurred, with food becoming a source of glamour, even titillation, as people aspired to become gourmets, while sex became a mechanical, toneless, and hygienic subject, replete with how-to manuals. Sex became just another product for consumption. Little has changed.

The culture of the 1950s remains foundational because it was actually not a conservative bourgeois culture; it was the destructor of that culture. It was a culture of other-directed people who used external cues to shape their personalities, rather than of inner-directed people drawing from a character implanted early within life. As the Lonely Crowd authors noted, mid-century Americans had radars, not gyroscopes. We live in a similar culture today.

What then is the legacy of so-called 1960s culture? Not much, considering that the true origins of greater tolerance for diversity and non-traditional gender roles—two advances often associated with the Sixties—are actually found much earlier than that. The sexual revolution it spawned seems to be on the wane. Young men today have about the same chance of getting thrown out of college for inappropriate sexual behavior as they did in the 1950s. The 1960s mostly built on the blueprint of the previous era by expanding the variety of peer groups, albeit with same tendency toward “groupthink.” It is no surprise that in a hip Manhattan bar filled with social rebels almost everyone wears the same styles of clothes, or that in a deep blue-state neighborhood most people share the same opinions. Despite the iconic status of “diversity,” Americans today are at least as conformist as they ever were.

The Sixties seem different in retrospect because the political context changed. The Fifties showcased no obvious large-scale social and political movements, while the Sixties had desegregation and the Vietnam War protests. But these were changes in context, not social essence. Still, the confusion endures.

p(firstLetter). The mid-century moment is important because it shapes the political ideologies of our day, and therefore the debates of our day. Broadly speaking, our debates draw on four ideologies: social conservatism, feminism, economic conservatism, and identity politics. According to Marx, the purpose of ideology is to portray society as cohesive rather than riven by conflicts of interest. In fact it is mainly the latter, but people conceal the social and economic contradictions with ideas. This, Marx observed, is why all ideologies distort reality (without acknowledging that his own, which he considered a “science,” did so as well). Because we conduct our debates through the prism of four ideologies that distort reality, they never seem to go anywhere. The mid-century moment is the origin of the distortions—and our paralysis.

Take social conservatism. Professor Wax builds on a distorted version of the 1950s to promote conservative bourgeois values. As noted above, the 1950s did not actually embrace such values; if anything, those values were on the defensive during that period. Professor Wax is correct that bourgeois values go hand in hand with a stable society, and that a stable society once existed alongside bourgeois values. But whatever made the 1950s stable, insofar as they actually were stable, it was not bourgeois values.

Yet her error goes beyond simply misdating the past. One can’t just resurrect values from any time period, be it the 1950s or the 19th century, and apply them to the present. This is what Professor Wax wants to do when arguing for bourgeois values as a solution to today’s problems of family breakdown, opioid abuse, and rampant inner-city violence among low-wage earners. Bourgeois values, like all values, are merely links in a chain that must connect to something real. In the 19th century that chain connected to a very real socio-economic circumstance: an economy based largely on family farms and small businesses. But it was the circumstance that anchored the chain and lent value to all the links. It made bourgeois values possible. Without something tangible in the world of work and life to connect to, bourgeois values themselves have become abstract theories profoundly misaligned with social facts; they are, in effect, rosy bits of unreality. There is nothing real in 21st-century America for bourgeois values to connect to in the world of low-wage earners. For Professor Wax to use bourgeois values to try to reach a stable society is like throwing a rope’s end into the sky and trying to climb up it. If anything, pleading bourgeois values becomes just a means to ignore, or an excuse to explain away, today’s noxious conditions of working-class life.

The mid-century effect on feminism offers another example of ideology covering up reality’s contradictions. Nineteenth-century (or “first-wave”) feminism demanded basic freedoms such as the right to vote. To follow in the spirit of Marx, that aspiration made first-wave feminism a sub-genre of capitalist ideology—meaning, the feminist ideology of freedom and rights concealed the exploitation and inequality inherent in capitalism. I disagree with Marx on the value of the vote, but to continue his line of thought, second-wave feminism represents a new kind of cover up.

Notice that second-wave feminism did not begin until Betty Friedan’s publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963—after the 1950s. Second-wave feminism was not a criticism of the status of women; it was a criticism of the status of women in the suburbs. It arose because of a new reality facing women, caused to a high degree by government at mid-century. Had government skipped insuring housing mortgages in the 1930s and declined to create the interstate highway system in the 1950s, it’s hard to say whether the suburbs would have come into being the way they did—isolated and in the middle of nowhere. During this same period, government pushed housewives out of their traditional roles as the organizers of orphanages, museums, hospitals, old people’s homes, and fundraising, and awarded these duties to credentialed professionals.4 Stuck in the suburbs and now with nothing much socially useful to do beyond their own nuclear family, no wonder educated women grew dissatisfied.

This mid-century experience shaped the feminism that followed. Feminism became focused on getting women into the workforce and disparaging the role of housewife—not surprisingly, given what the housewife role in the 1950s had become. But as Marx would say, feminism was again concealing the exploitation of women (and men) inherent in capitalism—for example, by deceiving young women into thinking they would have exciting careers, when most women (like most men) have boring jobs in the division of labor; forcing two spouses to work for nearly the same family income that previously one spouse could earn alone; and dissuading women from thinking of motherhood as something on par with paid work. The mid-century moment pushed feminism toward new ideals, yet those ideals hid reality from women no less than before.

The mid-century’s effect on economic conservatism is another example of ideology covering up reality’s contradictions. Adam Smith may have been the intellectual founder of capitalism, but he would have rejected the “free market” ideology that arose at mid-century and sanctified businesspeople. Smith remained suspicious of the grasping industrialists of his time, warning that they “generally have an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.”5 Although Smith is considered the patron saint of contemporary economic conservatism, he was actually more hostile to the motives of businesspeople than many Bernie Sanders supporters are today.

This healthy skepticism was lost at mid-century when corporations seemed to befriend workers—for example, swearing loyalty to veteran workers, hiring “people-minded” personnel managers to boost morale, and building human resources departments to help workers “fulfill” themselves.6 Corporate downsizing and offshoring eventually exposed much of this as manipulation for profit rather than sincere expression of kindness, but free market ideology overlooked the truth, arguing that corporate restructuring led to a wealthier society over all. Adam Smith would have agreed on the wealth point, but not with the elevation of businesspeople to sainthood that followed in the train of the mid-century public relations juggernaut, which free-market ideology subsequently incorporated.

One can readily observe the resultant blather when talking to free-market ideologues about economic policy. Suddenly their minds flip into a protocol; they emphasize the positive aspects of business and businesspeople at all points; they wince when they hear that what they love might be flawed. Smith, on the other hand, was never a proponent of the class of businesspeople.7 His suspicion of businesspeople caused him to be more supportive of government intervention for humanitarian needs than many contemporary free market ideologues are—for example, on behalf of public education, or in rescuing workers from the stultifying effects of mass production.

Smith understood capitalism’s defects because he understood capitalists. He recognized their tendency to form monopolies and exploit the consumer. While free-market ideologues praise private health insurance companies over government regulated or controlled medicine, a true Smith disciple would zero in on why and how it has come to be that consumers of health care do not dictate price. The ideologues have turned support for capitalism and capitalists into a form of idolatry. An example would be their effort to “privatize” most services based on the assumption that businesspeople are uniformly more worthy of trust than are government bureaucrats. The mid-century moment has so distorted the reality of how businesspeople actually operate when allowed to do so that free-market ideologues have all but lost their sense of caution and prudence when entrusting them with public responsibilities.

The mid-century influence on the civil rights movement provides a final example of ideology covering up reality’s contradictions. The movement originally preached a kind of universalism: All people, independent of race or ethnicity, should be treated with fairness and respect. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the movement morphed into the black identity movement, which then expanded into the path of wider multiculturalist ideology. Today, identity politics ideologues see the world in the form of closed groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and ability that presumably exist beyond any capacity for outsiders to comprehend. The therapeutic sensibility of the mid-century moment is largely responsible for this course deflection.

America at mid-century was enthralled with psychotherapy. Freudian ideas had been popular with intellectuals and artists in the 1920s, but by the 1950s they had widely penetrated the public consciousness. Journalists of the time wrote about infatuation and subliminal influences. Probation officers would discuss a juvenile delinquent’s family background in the context of aggression and compensation. By one estimate, 14 percent of the American population had undergone some form of psychotherapy by 1957.8 This therapeutic sensibility gradually penetrated the civil rights movement. Notions of self-esteem, the emotional life, and personal identity grew central to the movement’s worldview. Racism became both a conscious and subconscious phenomenon. In turn, psychotherapy came to be seen as a tool of political change. It is not too much to say that the civil rights movement fused race and therapy.9

When low-wage earners express their anguish, causing the subject of immigration to sometimes arise, speech codes and rules against micro-aggressions shut them down. Speech codes are the natural consequence of the civil rights-psychotherapy alliance, as therapy deals with sensitivity and hurt feelings, which leads to notions of “hate speech,” which leads to restrictions on speech. It should not surprise anyone that many affluent white progressives at elite colleges have glommed onto identity politics to conceal their own privileged position in the economy, while also easing their consciences. It is the contemporary version of the once radical urge, from the Sixties, of those ashamed of their white-skin privilege to support the Black Panthers. The worker may complain of suffering, but that complaint can be dismissed by the privileged if the worker is deemed a racist.

p(firstLetter). The real 1950s culture, not the funhouse mirror version concocted to elevate the importance and virtue of the 1960s, has thus given rise to four ideologies that dominate our politics today, all of which have become irrelevant to the material reality of average Americans. Worse, rather than just ignore reality they distort reality.

That so many average Americans reject these ideologies sometimes confuses the ideologues. Social conservatives scratch their heads when they see religious people vote for the libertine Trump. Feminists scratch their heads when they see so few women willing to call themselves feminists, and a majority of white women voting for Trump. Free market ideologues scratch their heads when they see that almost half of Americans distrust capitalism and that working people voted for Trump’s protectionist and big spending agenda. Identity politics ideologues scratch their heads when they see 20 percent of black males and 30 percent of Hispanics voting for Trump, and even some progressives recoil at “political correctness.” The common denominator in all this is that a large portion of the electorate feels unrepresented by the four major ideologies of our day. The other common denominator is a President Trump who seems to have won the election by rejecting, to one degree or another, all four ideologies.

This is where the real 1950s culture has brought us, and the recognition of it shines a light backwards on The Lonely Crowd’s warning of what a massively other-directed society could be like. One may still disparage and even hate the 1950s, but one should get the reasons straight. We live in an era when a significant portion of the American population observes various ideological rules and maxims only outwardly, while in fact living a semi-underground mental life. People go to work and vote on whatever is being voted on, but on the sly they tell jokes against political correctness, roll their eyes when lectured to by social conservatives, feel anxious about feminism, and scoff at capitalism’s defenders. They are glad to read literature that the establishment condemns if any comes their way on the internet, as it increasingly does. They rarely challenge social and political authorities openly, and they observe the accepted rituals of the four ideologies, if only halfheartedly. Perhaps their only heroic political act in life was to vote for Donald Trump, even knowing that he would burn down the outhouse without any confidence that he could also build a better one. Their existence, and now their political clout, attests to the tremendous fissure between leaders and the led in this country.

Because the social changes of the 1950s are the origins for much of this mess, perhaps it’s time to retire that decade from its place of honor among some conservatives; progressives can continue to despise it if they like, but only if it’s for the right reasons.