Fortress America How we embraced fear and abandoned democracy

Elaine Tyler May

Book - 2017

"Fear has seeped into every area of American life: Americans own more guns than citizens of any other country, sequester themselves in barricaded houses and gated communities, and retreat from public spaces. And yet, since the 1990s crime rates have plummeted. Why then, are Americans so afraid? In Fortress America, award-winning historian Elaine Tyler May demonstrates how our obsession with security has made citizens fear each other and distrust the government, eroding American democracy. T...his trend is not merely an aftershock of 9/11--indeed, it dates back to the end of World War II. Cold War anxieties resulted in widespread nuclear panic. Officials encouraged Americans to build bunkers in their backyards and shun anyone they suspected of communist sympathies. In the 1960s and 1970s, Atomic Age anxieties gave way to misplaced fear of crime, leading to a preoccupation with "law and order." The media pointed to black men as dangerous and women as vulnerable, inaccurate claims that nevertheless led to mass incarceration of African Americans and women's exaggerated distrust of strangers. The threat of terrorism is only the most recent in a series of overblown fears that set Americans against each other. With fear on the rise, the concept of citizenship has deteriorated and concern for the common good has all but disappeared. In this remarkable work of history May charts the rise of a muscular national culture grounded in fear. Instead of a thriving democracy of engaged citizens, we have become a paranoid, bunkered, militarized, and divided vigilante nation."--Dust jacket flap.

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Subjects
Published
New York : Basic Books 2017.
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
vii, 247 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 199-236) and index.
ISBN
9780465055920
0465055923
Main Author
Elaine Tyler May (author)
  • Introduction: The bunker mentality
  • Gimme shelter : security in the Atomic Age
  • The color of danger : from red to black
  • Vigilante virtue : fantasy, reality, and the law
  • Women : victims or villains?
  • Locked-up America : self-incarceration and the illusion of security
  • Epilogue: Back to the future : the twenty-first century.
Review by Choice Reviews

In places Fortress America reads like a dystopian novel. According to May (American studies and history, Univ. of Minnesota), many Americans—in their quest to feel secure from external and internal threats to their families—have unwittingly abandoned democratic values. From the late 1940s to the present, politicians have exaggerated and manipulated the fears of voters, and this has led at times to bad public policy, further eroding the faith and confidence Americans have placed in the democratic traditions that have defined the nation. Fear of nuclear attacks from the Soviets eventually gave way to fears about urban race riots spreading to predominantly white suburbs. More affluent Americans adopted a bunker mentality, fleeing the suburbs to even more insulated gated communities. May argues that many of the hallmarks of the US's current, hyper-partisan climate—growing distrust of government, unresolved racial and ethnic tensions, concerns about immigration, and questions about changing gender roles that have impacted the family and workplace—can be traced to the early days of the Cold War Era. When political and presidential scholars begin to unpack the results of the tumultuous election of 2016, they would do well to consult this book. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.--B. Miller, University of Cincinnati-ClermontBob MillerUniversity of Cincinnati-Clermont Bob Miller Choice Reviews 56:02 October 2018 Copyright 2018 American Library Association.

Review by Choice Reviews

In places Fortress America reads like a dystopian novel. According to May (American studies and history, Univ. of Minnesota), many Americans—in their quest to feel secure from external and internal threats to their families—have unwittingly abandoned democratic values. From the late 1940s to the present, politicians have exaggerated and manipulated the fears of voters, and this has led at times to bad public policy, further eroding the faith and confidence Americans have placed in the democratic traditions that have defined the nation. Fear of nuclear attacks from the Soviets eventually gave way to fears about urban race riots spreading to predominantly white suburbs. More affluent Americans adopted a bunker mentality, fleeing the suburbs to even more insulated gated communities. May argues that many of the hallmarks of the US's current, hyper-partisan climate—growing distrust of government, unresolved racial and ethnic tensions, concerns about immigration, and questions about changing gender roles that have impacted the family and workplace—can be traced to the early days of the Cold War Era. When political and presidential scholars begin to unpack the results of the tumultuous election of 2016, they would do well to consult this book. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.--B. Miller, University of Cincinnati-ClermontBob MillerUniversity of Cincinnati-Clermont Bob Miller Choice Reviews 56:02 October 2018 Copyright 2018 American Library Association.

Review by Choice Reviews

In places Fortress America reads like a dystopian novel. According to May (American studies and history, Univ. of Minnesota), many Americans—in their quest to feel secure from external and internal threats to their families—have unwittingly abandoned democratic values. From the late 1940s to the present, politicians have exaggerated and manipulated the fears of voters, and this has led at times to bad public policy, further eroding the faith and confidence Americans have placed in the democratic traditions that have defined the nation. Fear of nuclear attacks from the Soviets eventually gave way to fears about urban race riots spreading to predominantly white suburbs. More affluent Americans adopted a bunker mentality, fleeing the suburbs to even more insulated gated communities. May argues that many of the hallmarks of the US's current, hyper-partisan climate—growing distrust of government, unresolved racial and ethnic tensions, concerns about immigration, and questions about changing gender roles that have impacted the family and workplace—can be traced to the early days of the Cold War Era. When political and presidential scholars begin to unpack the results of the tumultuous election of 2016, they would do well to consult this book. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.--B. Miller, University of Cincinnati-ClermontBob MillerUniversity of Cincinnati-Clermont Bob Miller Choice Reviews 56:02 October 2018 Copyright 2018 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

May (Regents Professor of American Studies and History, Univ. of Minnesota) characterizes the years since World War II as perhaps the most fearful in U.S. history, demonstrating how Cold War-era fears of nuclear weapons attacks and communist subversion became a potent motivating force affecting elections, public policy, social models, and everyday American life. May further suggests this reaction expanded and generalized in the late 1960s and 1970s—the era of antiwar and social justice demonstrations—to include a fear of crime and distrust of specific cities and the people found there, even though crime steadily decreased during the period. An isolated culture of retreat resulted, characterized by an abandoning of public spaces, mass incarceration, walled and gated residential communities, private security companies, and a rise in gun ownership. The author's wide research cites popular contemporary journalism, motion pictures, public opinion polls, political speeches, census data, advertising copy, crime statistics, and countless scholarly monographs. VERDICT This thoroughly researched and thoughtfully written social history is recommended to all who seek to understand our divided society.—Paul A. D'Alessandro, Brunswick, ME Copyright 2017 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

May (America and the Pill), a University of Minnesota history professor, provides valuable historical and cultural context for the current political moment with this sweeping and detailed examination of how Americans came to perceive the world as overwhelmingly dangerous. She begins with the Cold War, pinpointing fears of nuclear war as having motivated a shift of responsibility for security away from the government and toward individuals, who were encouraged to transform their private homes into shelters, or "fortresses," capable of withstanding atomic fallout. That mind-set was accompanied by a more general movement away from communal engagement and toward "hunkering down" in isolation. She methodically dissects and debunks the rampant fearmongering, whether by alarmist politicians or violent Hollywood thrillers, that has led to hyperbolic views of the threats Americans actually face. While May is far from the first to question how likely it is that the average citizen will be the victim of a terrorist, few have been as effective at connecting the broad sweep of 20th-century U.S. history to modern-day policies, such as broadly defined gun rights and highly aggressive and punitive law enforcement. This is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the anxieties that occupy American politics. (Dec.) Copyright 2017 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The award-winning social historian and author of America and the Pill untangles the roots of America's culture of national and personal security, arguing that the nation's collective obsession with defense and danger is placing us at risk for the loss of democratic traditions.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

The social historian untangles the roots of America's culture of national and personal security, arguing that the nation's collective obsession with defense and danger is placing the country at risk for the loss of democratic traditions.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

An award-winning historian argues that America's obsession with security imperils our democracy in this "compelling" portrait of cultural anxiety (Mary L. Dudziak, author of War Time). For the last sixty years, fear has seeped into every area of American life: Americans own more guns than citizens of any other country, sequester themselves in gated communities, and retreat from public spaces. And yet, crime rates have plummeted, making life in America safer than ever. Why, then, are Americans so afraid-and where does this fear lead to? In this remarkable work of social history, Elaine Tyler May demonstrates how our obsession with security has made citizens fear each other and distrust the government, making America less safe and less democratic. Fortress America charts the rise of a muscular national culture, undercutting the common good. Instead of a thriving democracy of engaged citizens, we have become a paranoid, bunkered, militarized, and divided vigilante nation.