A politics of self-determination is also, and not coincidentally, a politics of self-definition. Some shared purpose or identity is needed to transform a mere assemblage of individuals into a self-governing “We the People,” and in order to sustain that shared life, our commonalities require maintenance. There is no shortage of worry about the loss of common things in American politics—some of it is sanctimonious, but much of it sharply observed and deeply serious. And in acrimonious moments like these, when politics seems an unlikely source of common purpose or shared values, it’s understandable that many look instead to culture.
Grim news from the Huffington Post: Quad Partners, a private equity firm deeply invested in for-profit colleges, purchased a controlling stake in the trade publication Inside Higher Ed last November, and didn’t make any public announcement of it. (Word appears to have gotten out when somebody noticed the new acquisition listed on their website.) Inside Higher Ed, which regularly covers the massive scam of for-profit colleges, is now mostly owned by a firm with a huge financial stake in making sure those colleges remain profitable and under-regulated. Freddie deBoer states the simple truth: “That’s about as direct a conflict of interest as you can get.”
There are plenty of good reasons to approach Tuesday’s State of the Union with skepticism. First, the format itself is ill-suited for great oratory: There are too many applause breaks, too many requisite thank-yous, and too many scattered items on the standard presidential wishlist, which tends to obscure whatever unifying theme the speech might have had to begin with. Second, the speech is usually more pageantry than policy. That’s especially true this year, since most of President Obama’s agenda will be dead on arrival in a GOP Congress. These complaints might explain recent low ratings for the speech, but in spite of everything, there is at least one excellent reason to pay close attention this year.
From a purely intellectual perspective, one of the fascinating things about the emergence of inequality as a top-tier political issue is the relatively inchoate nature of the debate. It’s not that inequality is a new problem in American life, or that American thinkers have had nothing to say about it. Rather, it’s that our accumulated thinking on inequality can now be paired with detailed, reliable data on income and social mobility, in a political climate where these issues are suddenly prominent. Just take a look at the newest political terms to surface in the last few years: the 1 percent, the 99 percent, the 47 percent; Occupy; r > g. Income and social mobility in post-2008 America is an extreme and distinctive twist on an old problem—and so the contours of the debate are not wholly formed.
New York magazine asked 53 historians—many of the country’s most distinguished among them—to weigh in on President Obama’s legacy. They also reached out, for a negative take on the last six years, to The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell. Caldwell, perhaps concerned that his views might not stand out alongside the opinions of over 50 prominent scholars, decided to pen an especially distinctive contribution to the symposium.
When late December comes around, the minds of writers on deadline often turn to the year just past, or perhaps the one about to come. I won’t be joining in this year—not because I dislike the practice, which can inspire great writing—but because recent headlines bring to mind neither 2014 nor 2015, but rather 2002.
The Nieman Journalism Lab has assembled a list of predictions for journalism in 2015 that will someday prove a useful resource for historians and anybody else attempting to reconstruct the industry’s mindset at this uncertain moment. It will not, I think, reflect well on many of us.