WELL INTO THE 2010S, American political elites of both parties shared a common vision. They remained gripped by a cold-war imagination that saw the ascendancy of American liberalism not as a unique confluence of events generated by the combination of the Depression, war, and Soviet competition, but rather as the country’s natural and permanent progression. Men like John McCain and Obama believed so deeply in this story because they had worked and suffered for it, and it had given their lives a larger meaning. And for periods in American life, if one kept to the proper circles, it could actually feel true: wealth was indeed generated, excluded groups were included, and threatening adversaries were defeated.
The problem turned out to be that neither the ideals nor the institutions were up to the challenges to come. Structural economic problems had been mounting for decades, and new problems had been created in the meantime. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were international adventures larger than any since the Vietnam war. The global financial crisis underscored the precariousness of middle- and working-class economic security and exposed the scale of the divide between haves and have-nots. As the country reeled from near-economic collapse, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and black communities led to mass protest and social rebellion. The years 2014–16 saw more civil unrest than any time since the early 1970s.