Thomas B. Edsall’s craft is the Old Mole’s, which is one of the several useful vocations that fell out of style long ago. The New Politics of Inequality has the effect of the patient laying of a mine and its bold detonation of the ground where most of us franchised to assess American politics have until now set our assumptions.
The force of the explosion may be most accurately, if discomfitingly, gauged by listing the axioms substantially taken for granted whose pretensions to substance Edsall has all but blown away.
Axiom 1: Ronald Reagan has created a revolution.
Instead, Edsall argues, he only rode a wind already raised to bear him forward. The breezes blew friendliest for social liberalism under Richard Nixon, but had already begun to wither under Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s first four years were defined by the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and steady, even heady, increases in Social Security and food stamp allotments. Carter’s only term was exemplified in Congress’s enactment of the 1978 Internal Revenue Act, “the first major tax bill since the 1930s that did not skew benefits toward those at the bottom and middle of the income spectrum.” In the last year the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, they had exercised their authority to abandon the root principle of the New Deal before Reagan had his chance to fall upon it.
Axiom 2: The politics most serviceable to the general welfare is the kind most infused with the abstract spirit of moral uplift.
Instead, the procedural reforms inspired by Watergate appear to have piled their plates highest for the engorgement of the greedy. At least to my own knowledge, Edsall is the first observer to chronicle the triumph of this paradox, and we may credit his insight as much to a minor weakness as to his several major strengths. There are in his prose intimations of certain deficiencies in the area of the winsome. He seems somehow to fall short of those genialities of manner that are often worth more than mere enterprise for commending the journalist to his superiors as candidate for assignment to major politicians—assignments that are at least as ambassadorial as inspectional.
Edsall has progressed from the Providence Journal, the Baltimore Sun, and at last to The Washington Post. We can be sure that he was valued everywhere and still hear the affectionate but not untrusting general verdict of his editors: “Edsall…a dour fellow. Give him the budget hearings; he can take it.” If he was judged a trifle prickly as companion for those who sell the sausage, he was condemned, we may surmise, to the factory floor with the sausage makers, a humble precinct but unbeatable as a point of vantage. “The genesis of this book,” he tells us, “lies, in part, in the experience of spending four long days and much of each of those nights covering the proceedings of the Senate Budget Committee in March 1981.”
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