Walter Russell Mead on “The Crisis of the Great Society”

In a perceptive essay, Mead discusses the rise of urban “flash mobs” and the racial tensions that they point to. While he believes (and I agree) that race relations are better now than in the past, he argues that both white and black people have a reduced connection with and trust in the elites. He points to three potential problems that our society is facing:

  1. “The unaffordable nature of the entitlement structure that has emerged from the Great Society and been much added to (and don’t forget the GOP role in the prescription drug benefit) is at the bottom of the bitter budget battles we’ve seen.”
  2. An unpopular immigration policy that will increasingly attract anger: “Our current immigration policy is a prescription for social change of vast proportions.  Since the 1960s, the US has tried an unprecedented and little discussed experiment in social engineering.  In stages over the last fifty years we have combined three bold policies.  First, a race-blind immigration policy with a visa lottery as a kind of affirmative action — so to speak — for people from countries which historically had not sent many immigrants to the US has dramatically changed the mix of people coming to the US as immigrants and over time will shift the ethnic and cultural composition of the population.  Second, the “immigration holiday” under the tight quota system from 1923 (when public concern over unrestricted immigration led to a sharp decrease) through the 1960s was ended, and the number of legal immigrants increased.  Today the US has levels of legal immigration not seen since the World War One era.  Third, for many years immigration laws have been laxly or irregularly enforced leading to the presence of something like 11 million illegal workers and residents in the country.”
  3. A sharp divide in the way that whites and blacks evaluate the impact of racial policies: “The races are very far apart today; many whites believe that by electing a Black president the country has demonstrated its commitment to post racial politics and they expect Blacks to stop complaining about the past and start thriving in the glorious, racism-free paradise of America today.  Many whites look at this Black success, and they think it is time to take down the affirmative action scaffolding that assisted the Black rise.  Why, they ask, should the children of presidents and cabinet officers — to say nothing of celebrity offspring — benefit from racial preference in hiring and admissions?

    “For Blacks, especially those who haven’t made it into the elite, unemployment and the staggering losses in Black wealth during the Great Recession are far more consequential than the success of the Black upper crust.  Much of White America thinks it has done all anyone could reasonably expect by opening the White House doors to a Black politician; much of Black America thinks little has changed.  Many whites think Blacks have effectively used politics to win themselves jobs and preferences; many Blacks think that Black poverty in the age of Obama reveals how pitiful the results of political action really are.”



  1. I agree, that is a perceptive essay. It’s also fascinating to see Mead mix a historian’s detachment with his predictions and leanings.

    Regarding his closing, I’m curious if Obama’s election will be viewed as a tipping point on Affirmative Action, as Mead uses it. I’m not aware of anyone actually switching positions because of Obama, but historians seem inclined to pick such specific markers in hindsight. Not that I have any sort of prescience on the matter; Affirmative Action still seems quite entrenched to me. So many things seem entrenched, though, and I’ve only seen government expansion in my lifetime, so I will be astounded to see any such major changes.

    IMHO, the direction Mead is looking entails a different way of thinking about the government and social problems. So much of the way we try to solve problems is derived from how we frame them. For example, following Mead’s link to Dick Simpson’s piece in the Chicago Journal reveals the same data Mead presents but with remarkably opposite implied solutions, starting with race percentages and statements like “Under these circumstances, white supremacy and a wealth “color gap” cannot continue” and particularly Simpson’s poetic closing. Mead would chip away at the Great Society; Simpson would magnify it.

  2. Very interesting article by Mead, Scott. I believe the media perpetuates a racism that has long ceased to exist in America. I fault them greatly for constantly playing up the minor incidents involving blacks and whites. The article also stimulates a great concern I have for the the lack of progress we’ve made due to the sensitivity of the subject across racial lines. It seems rather difficult to tell it like it is when the concern seems to be racially offensive. I accredit the cloud of racism hanging over most biracial relationships to the mainstream media. My experience (for at least the last 35 years) with other races, whites in particular, has proved to be the antithesis of what is claimed to be our current state. This, I believe to be a strategic part of that social engineering. The question is, what do you the anticipated result of these engineers is?

  3. Kevin, I agree: framing is everything. Right now, the approach from the Democrats tends to be that we can manage our way to prosperity with more programs and regulations. With the right set of policies, we can grow exactly the way that we want to. Entitlements are sacred rights, and altering them would be a human rights violation. The benefits of the free market system will keep coming no matter what kind of regulations and taxes we have. I wouldn’t have expressed it this way, but unfortunately this is what I voted for because I shared at least some of those assumptions from about 2004-2009.

    On the other hand, the Republicans tend to both campaign to the entitlement culture (trying to make the entitlements work, as Doug Wilson says) and present only the benefits of free market policies, perhaps because talking about the dislocation and challenges that markets bring doesn’t play well in the polls. (Of course there are more voices than just the two parties, but they get the most attention.) I don’t know what the right balance between regulation and freedom is. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out.

    I appreciate Mead’s analysis because while it’s optimistic about markets and reduced government influence, he doesn’t ignore the challenges to the economy. Similarly, he believes that race relations are getting better, but that we may see rough times ahead. It’s this kind of nuance that is nearly impossible in the political system.

    Aaron, I too believe that personal racism has greatly decreased. It does hang on in more private spaces, I think, but it probably does greatly reduced harm there because that’s where it usually stays because it’s not acceptable for it to come out in public.

    I wonder if the great victories of the civil rights movement in advancing equality have resulted in the civil rights movement as an institution that always encourage finding the next great civil rights battle. We talked about this a bit at book group the other week.

    Also, I wonder if part of the frustration for poor and working class black people is the sense that they should have come further by now, but they always seem to be at the bottom. For about 150 years, other immigrant groups have tended to do better than blacks, at first because of discrimination and later because some of the opportunities seemed to dry up just as black people got a chance at them, like manufacturing jobs.

    I think that the media do encourage people to look for racism. But I think it’s much more a problem of social class now.

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