In 1950, several U.S. manufacturers joined with the American Economic Foundation to produce In Our Hands, a public service film intended to dramatize how democracy is threatened when American citizens look to government to provide “full security.” After voting in a national referendum for a planned economy with the promise of full employment, one American family quickly learns they have lost control of their lives. State officials transfer the father to another job and seize their home and their car. It is intimated that their baby, too, might be lost: she has not been baptized and may never be, as the new government turns its (presumed malevolent) attention to religion. The “real security” that communists had promised was a chimera, and the essentials of the American dream—freedom to work, a secure home sheltering a secure family, a plethora of consumer choices—were imperiled by the “Master State with the Master Plan.” Fast forward to 2012, when entrepreneur Larry Hall opened Survival Condo, a twelve-unit luxury development built inside a decommissioned missile silo in Kansas, a leftover from the Cold War. Survival Condo includes a swimming pool, dog park, theater, and energy and food production facilities, as well as an indoor shooting range, an armory, “military grade security” and walls up to 9 feet thick. While the Survival Condo website cites the global economy, natural disasters, and climate change as reasons why purchasers might wish to “provide care and protection for their families,” one man who paid $3 million for his home explained that he was motivated by worries about domestic conflict and his mistrust of government. “Ten years ago,” he said in 2017, “this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.” Hall hinted at similar reasons for the high demand for his product: “seventy percent of the country doesn’t like the direction that things are going.” From 1950 to 2012, the fears were slightly different, but the perception of real security in a domestic space in which the patriarch defends his family was the same. In Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy, Elaine Tyler May cites examples such as these, from the mundane to the extreme, to show that “fear in America has come full circle,” creating a spiral of perceived threat and over-reaction that itself endangers the nation (179).
From 1950 to 2012, the fears were slightly different, but the perception of real security in a domestic space in which the patriarch defends his family was the same.
May, perhaps best known for her 1988 book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, looks back to that era to explain the formation of a security culture that imperils American democracy. In the current study she aims to demonstrate that, over the past fifty years or more, there has emerged a “new consensus” that Americans have everything to fear—especially from each other—despite the fact that in very many ways their world has grown safer (5). May explores a series of moments that illustrate the growing sense that Americans (or at least members of the white middle class who constitute the normative citizen) are endangered by rampant crime and social disorder. The effect of these exaggerated, misdirected and often baseless fears is twofold: to distract attention from real threats to our quality of life and to produce disinvestment from any concept of the public good. So we have come to the present political moment: the election of Donald Trump, May suggests, marks “the triumph of Fortress America” (189).
“Fortress America” is a term most often used to describe an isolationist foreign policy, especially associated with the America First movement of the 1930s and with former president Herbert Hoover’s 1950 speech criticizing American commitments to European defense. Just as May’s earlier work on the Cold War era applied diplomat George F. Kennan’s rhetoric regarding the “containment” of the Soviet Union to an analysis of domestic politics, in this book she productively employs foreign policy rhetoric to understand the development of a sort of domestic isolationism. Extending the central insight of Homeward Bound—that in the immediate postwar years, many Americans turned to the home and the private sphere to attain a (false) sense of security in an insecure world—May illustrates how these ideas morphed to shape more recent U.S. history and politics. Cold War anti-communism had consolidated a redefinition of security away from New Deal policies that sought to provide some citizens with at least a modicum of “social security” towards the “national security” founded in fear of strangers, both foreign and domestic. But, “once the fear of communist subversives took hold,” she contends, “it could readily spread to encompass other perceived dangers” (57). The familiar semantics of national security made way for the rise of a rhetoric of personal safety, allegedly necessitated by a rising tide of crime and violence every bit as dangerous to the American way of life as were Soviet spies and Communist Party members.
The belief that government had failed to protect U.S. soldiers combined with continuing perceptions of out-of-control urban crime and violence to spur an emerging ethic of citizen self-protection, epitomized in the popular support for Bernard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four black teens on the New York City subway when they asked him for (or demanded) five dollars.
May emphasizes that, in large part, the concern with safety expressed anxieties about ruptures in the nation’s racial and gender orders. The use of anti-crime rhetoric and legislation to articulate many white Americans’ resistance to African Americans’ demands for full citizenship is one of her main themes. The rise of law-and-order politics in the 1960s, for example, translated opposition to the assault on white supremacy into anti-crime and anti-drug initiatives that produced mass incarceration, even after crime rates began to drop in the 1970s, and despite the reality that only a minuscule number of Americans were victims of violent crime. Similar dynamics were at work in the growth of what May calls a “vigilante spirit” in the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam (98). The belief that government had failed to protect U.S. soldiers combined with continuing perceptions of out-of-control urban crime and violence to spur an emerging ethic of citizen self-protection, epitomized in the popular support for Bernard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four black teens on the New York City subway when they asked him for (or demanded) five dollars. Goetz served eight months in jail for possession of an illegal firearm, but many people viewed him as a vigilante hero. His story is a harbinger of a cultural shift from “the mythic gunslinger vigilante outlaw to the law-abiding vigilante citizen” (110). This trend fueled the late twentieth-century expansion of gun rights, an accompanying erosion of popular support for gun control, and the more recent upsurge of concealed carry and stand-your-ground laws. The combination of investment in white privilege, loss of faith in government, and a distorted sense of the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime led to “the acceptance of fear as a rational state of mind in almost any situation” (123).
If racial inequity enabled law-and-order politics, mass incarceration, a militant gun culture and the normalization of vigilante citizenship, disruptions to the gender order gave rise to new fears about the safety of women and children and the security of the home. As the “idealized middle-class suburban family began to unravel” (162) in the wake of the feminist movement and economic transformations that made two salaries a necessity for many American households, the domestic spaces that had symbolized safety for many Cold War era Americans seemed to be endangered in new ways. Women who “resisted or abandoned their prescribed maternal role” were condemned as “murderous mothers” who destroyed their babies by aborting them or using drugs while pregnant (127). The very existence of working mothers invoked the specter of children vulnerable to a multitude of threats—the pedophile, the kidnapper, the Satan-worshipping daycare worker. These mostly fictitious dangers gave rise to Amber Alerts and missing children ads on milk cartons, to nanny-cams and, above all, to restrictions on children’s mobility and independence. Such efforts actually endangered children by masking the fact that the home, with its accidents and child abuse, posed the greatest danger to kids.
The combination of investment in white privilege, loss of faith in government, and a distorted sense of the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime led to “the acceptance of fear as a rational state of mind in almost any situation.”
Yet fetuses and children were not the only ones threatened by changing gender systems. The imagined trek of American women from the safety of the nuclear family to the public sphere of work aroused new fears about their own vulnerability to violence from strangers. May acknowledges that women needed to be able to defend themselves, but she is critical of the manufacturing of misplaced fear through the sale of books, gadgets, training, and eventually guns, all of which taught women the danger of sexual assault lurked in every parking lot or dark alley. Controversially, she suggests that the feminist self-defense movement of the 1970s and beyond had the unintended consequence of bolstering women’s fears of violence from strangers. These fears justified constraints on their mobility (warnings against jogging alone or venturing out after dark), directed attention away from women’s much more common experience of violence by intimate partners, and contributed to the expansion of a gun culture among some American women. Here, as elsewhere, fears were constructed by the media, by commerce, and even by well-meaning activists, and their sculpting posed more problems than it solved.
Even as normative gender roles gave way, the home maintained its symbolic significance as a place of safety and security, but as early as the 1960s it came to require “external fortification,” in the form of alarm systems, gates, and other methods of surveillance and boundary maintenance. By the beginning of the twenty-first century gated communities had become the most rapidly growing type of housing in the United States, touted for their security even as social scientists disagreed over whether they kept inhabitants safer at all. May cites evidence that such enclaves create a false sense of security and, indeed, breed new dangers for their residents such as wide streets with speeding cars. They also tend to isolate inhabitants “from public life, from government infrastructure, from commercial businesses and from people who are different from themselves,” and heighten feelings of vulnerability as every “outsider” becomes someone to surveil and suspect (167). They have a parallel in the SUV, a “gated community on wheels” that promises safety but actually increases death rates from vehicular accidents (173). May provocatively labels these responses to fictive fears as “self-incarceration.” Providing the illusion of safety through privatization, such strategies sustain a bunker mentality that purports to value individual freedom while in fact diminishing it. They may have reached their apogee in the election of Donald Trump who, with his promise to build a border wall, sought “to turn the entire country into a gated community” (186).
The late-twentieth century version of security culture creates new problems while exacerbating old ones. It is not simply that the misplaced fixation on crime yields wrong-headed solutions that mask the inequalities giving rise to fear and distrust, contributing to “profound insecurity for millions of Americans” grappling with unchecked capitalism and a rapidly growing wealth gap (190). May warns that the present-day security obsession presents “a serious risk that our democracy could be totally destroyed” (11). Her definition of democracy remains unclear through much of the book, but it seems to come down to a commitment to the notion of a commonweal and support of government’s role in protecting it. These are severely diminished when fear sows distrust of fellow citizens and retreating to the private sphere becomes the favored means of self-protection. May does identify reasons for hope that the nation may choose another path forward—the election of Barack Obama, advances in LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and citizen efforts to hold elected officials responsible among them. If we do not, she fears, we will be unable “to build a truly safe and secure society” (194).
[May’s] definition of democracy remains unclear through much of the book, but it seems to come down to a commitment to the notion of a commonweal and support of government’s role in protecting it. These are severely diminished when fear sows distrust of fellow citizens and retreating to the private sphere becomes the favored means of self-protection.
Fortress America is a work of synthesis, deeply reliant on the research of other scholars but enlivened by the insightful analyses of popular culture on which May has built her reputation as a scholar. The sweeping, synthetic nature of Fortress America yields its strengths and weaknesses alike. May’s overall frame for thinking about the origins and changing parameters of security culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is compelling and thought-provoking. She examines a wide array of episodes and debates that, at first glance, have little to do with each other, and successfully explores their deep connections as well as the many contradictions they bring to the surface. For example, her discussion of the relationships between the anti-abortion movement, feminist self-defense efforts, “milk carton kids” and the 2011 book Chicks with Guns results in a novel and cogent analysis of the visceral attractions of anti-crime rhetoric, its harms to individual freedom and security, and the ways it suppresses attention to structural forms of violence and inequality. In addition, the book is peppered with intriguing analyses of films, advertising, news stories, and polling data. Throughout, May has a fine eye for stories that bring alive the ubiquity of American fear and highlight the creepiness of the obsession with security. Such vignettes make fascinating reading for the book’s intended educated popular audience.
Yet, syntheses necessarily sacrifice a certain amount of nuance and depth, and Fortress America is no exception to this rule. Other scholars, including this one, have noted the parallels between the establishment of a modern national security regime in the Cold War era and recent efforts to restrict immigration, expand government surveillance of citizens and non-citizens alike, limit civil liberties and suppress dissent. Yet concerns about security and crime have waxed and waned over the course of the nation’s existence, and May’s claims about the plasticity of anti-communism might be tempered in light of that longer history, which has its roots in the creation of a settler colonialist and white supremacist society. Similarly, while May is attentive to the negative impacts of a culture of fear on the nation’s ability to reckon with structural inequalities, she seems less attuned to the ways existing disparities have shaped, or even forestalled, any “new consensus” about fear. Certain Americans—less empowered, more endangered by systemic oppression and legal barriers—have more reasons to fear, and different reasons to fear, than others, and these dynamics are masked by the assertion that there is one culture of fear shared by all of the nation’s residents. Finally, May’s argument about the impact of fear on American democracy—particularly the turn to self-protection and a consequent detachment from any notion of the public good—is less developed than it might be. Surely diminishing belief in government efficacy to protect Americans has more multiplex roots than are recognized in this book. Among them we might number corruption and political scandals, unbridled partisanship and the role of “dark money,” and globalization and the economic disruption that comes with it.
While May is attentive to the negative impacts of a culture of fear on the nation’s ability to reckon with structural inequalities, she seems less attuned to the ways existing disparities have shaped, or even forestalled, any “new consensus” about fear. Certain Americans—less empowered, more endangered by systemic oppression and legal barriers—have more reasons to fear, and different reasons to fear, than others, and these dynamics are masked by the assertion that there is one culture of fear shared by all of the nation’s residents.
The subtitle of Fortress America—“How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy”—alerts its readers that this will be a story of national decline, even if glimmers of hope are offered at the end. In this sense, it matches the mood of the nation in the Trump Era, which might be understood as a theater for competing stories about national decline. Indeed, declension narratives are compelling. Even if they sacrifice some complexity, they offer a story that often rings true. I read Fortress America in the days after seventeen people were slaughtered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the wake of that horrific event, the continuing debate about gun control flared up again, with the National Rifle Association and some state legislators arguing that the solution to school shootings was to arm teachers, while young people and their allies organized for effective gun control legislation behind the hashtag #NeverAgain. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will result in any sort of lasting change in America’s gun culture and the relatively high rates of violence that it supports. But the response to Parkland certainly has advanced the notion that students are endangered by an “epidemic of mass school shootings,” despite the fact that mass shootings (defined as four or more individuals killed), other forms of gun violence, and student victimization rates have dropped in American K-12 schools since the 1990s. Further, the focus on mass shootings distracts attention from, perhaps even enables, the more common modes of violence—corporal punishment, suspensions and expulsions, and lack of equal access to educational opportunity—disproportionately experienced on a daily basis by students of color and students with disabilities. This is the sort of contradictory moment that Fortress America explains so well. Student leadership on the issue of gun control appears vital to the revitalization of a democratic defense of the public good at a moment when a powerful lobbying organization has manipulated fear (of racial, ethnic or religious others, of uncontrolled government) to forestall real debate. Yet, this student activism too is based on fears that may be misplaced or distorted, and, therefore, create new dangers. Fear, as May warns us, tends to come full circle. How to escape that trap is, indeed, a problem for American democracy.