Karl Rove's bookshelf

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I am reliably informed that Karl Rove's latest reading is historian Robert Wiebe's 1975 book The Segmented Society: An Introduction to the Meaning of America. It's a carefully written book, and every sentence is chock-full of meaning and the result of Wiebe's wide-ranging scholarship. You can't doze off in the middle of a paragraph without getting totally lost.

It's interesting that the president's chief political and policy adviser can find the time and the mental energy to read such a demanding book. (Though not demanding financially: You can buy a copy on amazon.com for as little as $1.24.)

I read The Segmented Society quite a few years ago and can't summarize it easily now. But here's an excerpt (from Page 41 of my paperback edition) that I think presents the central argument:

These five fundamental conditions [the expanse of the land, cultural diversity, military security, the lack of an extensive institutional framework, economic abundance] created a society of segments, each presuming autonomy in its domain, each requiring homogeneity in its membership, and each demanding the right to fulfill its destiny without interference. . . . What these five strands did produce was a broad foundation delimiting the kind of system that Americans could construct.

Today we're voting as a segmented society, with sharp divisions between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives pretty much matching the sharp divisions between the political parties. Many commentators lament that this is something new. Wiebe makes it plain that it's something old, and something deeply rooted in American history.

The aberration, in retrospect, was the period from the 1940s to the middle 1960s, when we seemed to have one popular culture with universal appeal (first in radio and movies, then in television), when conformity seemed to be the prevailing cultural attitude, when most Americans passed through the same set of institutions (the comprehensive high school, the military–"the service," as people said then–early marriage and childbearing in middle-income suburbs).

By the late 1960s, people started living more in niches, each with its own popular culture, mores and morals, and political attitudes. I've drawn on Wiebe's writing before, here, here, here, and here.

Some years ago, on a trip to Chicago, I went up to Northwestern to talk to him. It was a cold winter day, with the wind blowing off Lake Michigan onto the Northwestern campus, and we chatted for most of an hour in a student cafeteria. He was a very nice and humble man, puzzled as to why a political writer would want to talk with him. He died in 2000, but his work remains very much worth reading.

Hey, if Karl Rove can find time for it, so can you.