Living History

By James I. Lader
Julian E. Zelizer Meg Jacobs

“Fault Lines”
Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
W.W. Norton, $28.95

When I was in high school in the 1960s, studying World War II in American history class, my mother, born in 1921, enjoyed reminding me, “You have to study this in school; I actually lived through it.” I took her meaning to be that I had it harder.

The distinction between living in a historical period and studying it after the fact was constantly on my mind as I read “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer. For the first time that I can recall, I was doing both. It was not an uncomplicated undertaking.

Ordinarily, one reads history in order to access a remote period; there is a journey of discovery. It’s relatively easy to measure what one has learned. Reading recent history — the story of a time that comprised one’s own everyday life — is something different. This, by contrast, is a journey of reacquaintance. One seeks less learning and more understanding. And the latter can be more difficult to discern.

The authors are both highly respected scholars of history and professors at Princeton University. This book, which grew out of a course they co-taught there, represents first-rate nonfiction writing. It is clear and straightforward. There is a consistent, single authorial voice — something not always easily achieved when there are multiple bylines. And every so often that voice even exhibits a smattering of wit. “While these fault lines in America were important, so too were the lines Americans were fed about who was at fault.”

This book represents something of a resurgence in political history. It covers the period that begins with Richard M. Nixon’s resignation of the presidency in 1974 and proceeds in straightforward chronological order through the election of Donald J. Trump.

As is evident from the title, Mr. Kruse and Mr. Zelizer’s unifying idea is that, beginning with Watergate, the American people’s confidence in the country’s political system has been so corroded as to create profound divisions among segments of the population that only become worse and seemingly more permanent. “At the local level, meanwhile, countless examples reinforced the growing belief that public officials were ineffective across the board. In 1975, reports from New York described a city on the brink.”

In the absence of sufficient faith in “the system” to bind Americans together in spite of their differences, the authors find no shortage of areas around which fault lines could form. In the course of their investigation, they examine feminism, race, gay rights and the AIDS crisis, the Republican Revolution and the resurgence of the political right, and mounting economic inequality, among other matters. They are skilled at bringing understanding to their subjects. “Many Americans assume that feminism inspired more women to move into the workplace, but in truth the reverse was true. It was the movement of women into the workplace, where they confronted chronic gender discrimination and widespread sexual harassment, that fueled feminism.”

This book is especially good in reminding us how great an impact there has been on our lives by advances in technology, and particularly how those affected the world of communications. The advent of cable television networks, for example, had the widest ranging effect on how Americans obtained their news. Amusingly, there is a chapter titled “Changing Channels.”

The authors are skilled at making connections. “Part of the New World Order came in how Americans understood their world. Indeed, in retrospect, the most notable aspect of the 1991 Gulf War was the outsized role that cable television played in it.”

As I have indicated, the period covered by this book overlaps with my own adult life. I have been blessed with a good memory. Even so, it was satisfying to be reminded of events and details I had not thought of in a long time. In remembering things such as ABSCAM, the Health Care Task Force chaired by Hillary Clinton, and TARP, I could not help but wonder whether, in another 25 years, these will even appear as footnotes in history books.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of “Fault Lines” is its essential neutrality about its subject matter. A variety of scandals — Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Monica Lewinsky affair — are described factually, rather than judgmentally. How refreshing! By and large, this is a book that reports, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. “The first year of the Trump presidency revealed the tremendous wear and tear that forty years of bitter division has inflicted on the republic. Yet a divided nation did not mean a broken nation.”

In an era when practically everything written about American politics promotes a particular point of view, and seems to run the gamut from polemic to screed, it is more than refreshing to encounter a work that merely reports, though fairly comprehensively. The proximity in time to the subject at hand — the polarization of America along a multitude of axes — does not allow for deeper synthesis. When the time eventually comes for American political history from 1974 to 2016 to be reconsidered from a more distant perspective, it will be Mr. Kruse and Mr. Zelizer whose thoughts I shall seek out.

A weekend resident of East Hampton, James I. Lader regularly contributes book reviews to The Star. 

Julian E. Zelizer is a longtime summer visitor to Sag Harbor, where his family formerly had a house.

Kevin M. KruseEtta Recke