Kurt Andersen Asks: What Is the Future of America?

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Now, Mayer and others — Robert Reich, George Packer, Jacob S. Hacker — have told versions of this story before. And at first, while reading “Evil Geniuses,” that annoyed me. Until I understood what this book really is: Andersen’s retrospective on the bigger themes and trend lines and power grabs that he, and so many others, missed, even as he was writing magazine stories about the people and institutions in question. The book is an intellectual double take, a rereporting of the great neoliberal conquest, by a writer who kicks himself for missing it at the time.

At one point, he says, revealingly, that he admires Elizabeth Warren “because I identify with her middle-aged illumination concerning the political economy.” Warren was famously a Republican until she became a vocal progressive. Andersen also seems to see himself in Walter Lippmann, the early-20th-century writer who was “pragmatic, in many ways conservative, in no way a utopian,” but came, through reporting, to plead with gusto for social reform.

Andersen’s sense of culpability and his permeability to new facts give his book its particular power. It is a radicalized moderate’s moderate case for radical change. Andersen is unambiguous about where America needs to go; he is honest about what it took to get him to his current views; and he writes not as a haranguer who presumes you’re with him but as a journalist who presumes you’re not, that you might even think as he once did. So, carefully, meticulously, overwhelmingly, he argues through facts.

And with his own complicity in mind, one place Andersen does break some new ground is in the portrayal of the shameful liberal complicity that was essential to the long plutocratic hijacking. For someone of my age, gray but elder-millennial, for whom polarization has been the oxygen in the air, it is head-spinning to be reminded how much of the nation’s turn to the right and to the rich the Democrats enabled. The Democrat-controlled House voted to cut taxes on the richest Americans, to a rate lower than at any time in the previous half century. Ronald Reagan couldn’t do it without them and, in the Senate, one Joe Biden voted for the cuts, too. As the tide turned against antitrust regulation, writers in The New York Times (oh yeah, this newspaper) and Newsweek cheered. When Gary Hart sought the Democratic nomination for president for the second time in 1988, he actually enlisted as a tax policy adviser Arthur Laffer, the clownish economist who invented the hokum of supply-side economics (and who once asked me, before a television debate, if “the Indians” still brush teeth with twigs).

Voting for cable deregulation? Hiring Goldman Sachs bankers as advisers? Praising Charles Murray’s advocacy of punishing mothers on welfare? Each time, Democrats were #OnIt. With Democrats like these, do we even need a second party representing the plutes?

As he makes this wide-ranging case, Andersen never loses the texture of actual human beings. He flies his plane over vast territory, but he flies at low altitude so you’re always able to see real people sowing this future, going down these roads. He is a graceful, authoritative guide, and he has a Writer-with-a-capital-W’s ability to defamiliarize the known. He also isn’t afraid to play around. He even manages to work in the word “wankerish,” on Page 69 — nice.

“Evil Geniuses” is not a perfect book. At certain moments, more than a few times, there is a broad-brush characterization of the American spirit or temperament or enjoyment of liberty that clearly did not apply to Black Americans, a caveat Andersen omits. (“Almost anybody was unusually free to give any business (or religion) a go”; “Ours was a nation built from scratch meant to embody the best Enlightenment principles and habits of mind.”) It is also a long book that occasionally loops back on itself. And, to my taste at least, it didn’t need the brief history of Covid at the end. I like my books like I like my exes: at a remove from my current situation.

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