Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discipline and freedom

[Although the pace has slowed, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]

Last week, as often happens, a news item, read in the context of my current research, brought home to me the enormous changes in American life that have taken place during my adult life--changes that have involved significant steps forward at the individual level, but huge steps backward at the political and national economic level. The question now before us, in many ways, is whether we can manage to combine the far greater personal liberty we have achieved over the last forty years with the capacity to subordinate some of our personal beliefs to the greater good and establish some new and friendlier centers of authority.

My current research, as I have mentioned, focuses on the US preparation for, and decisions leading to, our entry into the Second World War. One cannot read very far into the archives of that era without realizing that the United States was then an entirely different country. The organizational effort that was involved in mobilization was altogether beyond anything that we would be capable of today. To go within three years from a military force of less than one million men to one of ten million was only one aspect of this. During the same period--from late 1940 to 1944--huge new industrial enterprises were built, tens of thousands of workers moved around the country to make them run, the Navy doubled in size, and the country built hundreds of merchant ships as well. Such an effort required organizational skill, which in turn depended, in large measure, on respect for authority. We understood in those days that a great undertaking required chiefs and Indians, and I frequently encounter men of all political persuasions, from Harold Ickes of the Interior Department to Frank Knudsen of General Motors (who contributed his services as one of the heads of Roosevelt's War Production Board), that no enterprise could function if a single man were not in charge. This did not mean that authority was either arbitrary or unrestrained. FDR insisted that war mobilization not involve any erosion of workers' rights and New Deal benefits, and except for voluntary no-strike pledges during the war,it did not. The same spirit continued, in many ways, through the 1950s and into the 1960s.

The great rebellion of the 1960s fought against the moral authority of a dying civilization, really the remnants of the Victorian era (and we should keep in mind that the grandparents of many Boomers were born when Victoria was still very much alive. It began as a rebellion against sexual taboos for young adults, quickly led to an explosion of divorce rates throughout society, and eventually became the most effective movement in history for women's rights, and the first for gay rights. Along with all this came a demystification of family life, acknowledging that parental influences could be very harmful, and encouraging people of all ages to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about those around them. All these changes have transformed our society. Because they have not been universally accepted, they have also become critical political issues--a most unfortunate development, in my opinion, which has diverted attention from the real business of government. But along with them, sadly, went a loss of respect for tradition and authority of all kinds. Boomer academics threw out a century of gradually acquired knowledge in the humanities and started over. Eventually Boomer bankers successfully agitated for the repeal of the New Deal legislation that their grandparents had put in place to restrain their parents. The individual, rather than the group, became our focus--a very important correction, undoubtedly, to the excesses of an era that had indeed become too standardized, too militarily threatening, and too mistrustful of human feeling. But like so many of such corrections, it has now destroyed much of the intellectual framework we need to cope with great national problems. The substitution of sound bites for any systematic analysis of them is in my opinion another manifestation of the same kind of problem.

The hook which got me thinking about all this was a story from the New York Times last Thursday about Claudette Colvin, a woman of 70 who has now been the subject of an award-winning children's book. In 1955 Ms. Colvin was a black teen-ager in Montgomery, Alabama, and it turns out that she had been arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white woman on a city bus some months before Rosa Parks's more famous arrest, which ignited the bus boycott. According to the book about her by Philip House, however, the local NAACP decided not to make her a test case, partly because (although it is not clear from the whole story why) they did not think of her as a suitable symbol. Later, after the boycott began, Ms. Colvin's own mother, Colvin now says, told her that Rosa Parks would garner more white sympathy because her skin was lighter. I have not seen Mr. House's book, but the Times story, I can say confidently, leaves a very misleading impression about how the bus boycott actually got going and, more importantly, why it was successful.

The article mentions that Rosa Parks was, in fact, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, in those days by far the leading civil rights organization in the country and already a significant political power in Washington, D. C., and, though its legal defense fund, in the courts, where it had carried on a successful twenty-year campaign against segregated education culminating in Brown v. Board of Education a year before. But it doesn't mention the real difference between Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat and that of both Claudette Colvin and another teen-ager, May Louise Smith, in the months before the crisis erupted. Colvin and Smith acted spontaneously. Rosa Parks did not. Her move was a planned first step designed to lead to controversy and to an immediate black boycott of the bus system, organized by the NAACP and by the young local pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP had learned from the world it lived in over the previous twenty years, becoming a formidable oganization under the leadership of Walter White and Roy Wilkins. They planned this campaign the way John L. Lewis or Walter and Victor Reuther planned union organizing campaigns. And it was a good thing that they did, because it took a full year for the boycott to lead to the negotiated end of segregated transportation in Montgomoery. The black community had to organize and maintain its own transportation network to get its people to and from work without the buses--and they did. And they very possibly did pick Rosa Parks to trigger the boycott and become its symbol because they knew and trusted her, because she was clearly a responsible middle-aged adult, and yes, conceivably, even because of her skin color. While that last factor may today make us all cringe, it would have been quite in character, in those days, for the NAACP to make such a decision based on the need to attract as much white sympathy as possible. That was how they had managed to accomplish as much as they had in the previous decades.

Indeed, it is fair to say that among no part of American society was the generational revolt more profound during the 1960s than among the black community. That was brought home to me again glancing through the autobiographies of Arthur Ashe, the great black tennis player and activist. A first-wave Boomer or last-wave Silent, born in 1943, Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond and was taught, as he explained again and again, that the only hope for black people to be successful in a white world--and in his case, that meant breaking in to the all-white world of professional tennis--was to be more accomplished, more courteous, and more dedicated to American ideals than whites. That kind of behavior had many tragic costs. In Ashe's case, I suspect, 36 years of continually suppressed rage--worsened by the trauma of losing his own mother when he was a small child--probably contributed to his early onset of heart disease, which in turn led to his contracting tranfusion AIDS and dying in his early 50s. The black rebellion of the 1960s--like the white--was above all a rebellion against the older generation's values. For young black Boomers that meant rejecting their parents' deference and respect for society's institutions. It also meant exalting spontaneity over organization. In the last forty years individual black people have advanced enormously, but the great civil rights organizations are a thing of the past.

Certain institutions within our society are still well-organized, if not always disciplined--including the new mega-banks, the drug companies, the gun lobby, evangelical Christian political groups, and the health insurance industry. There are, as far as I can see, no comparable organizations among the disadvantaged. That is the world with which President Obama and his Administration must now cope, and it is not surprising that they have so far made little impact upon it. And beyond this lies a broader question: will some future generations eventually learn to combine personal and emotional freedom on the one hand, with economic restraint on behalf of the general good on the other? Perhaps even to ask that question betrays, on my part, a somewhat naive faith in a future utopia that can combine the best of different eras from the past. Perhaps it would be better to accept that different eras inevitably highlight different aspects of human nature, both better and worse.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Living Through History

The great crises of American history, from the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution through the Civil War and onward to the Depression and Second World War, look very different in retrospect than they did at the time. We experience them over days or weeks of reading or, in the case of historians like myself, intermittent years of study, but even then, they go much more quickly in one's office or study than they did at the time. We now know what would endure and what would not, what achievements would have the greatest long-term impact, and what new problems would be left behind for future generations. Those like myself who expected the crisis may be even more disappointed than others because so many of our fellow countrymen have not yet grasped how deep our problems are--not to speak of an angry minority who, if history can be trusted, never will. Tonight marks another milestone in the Obama Administration. The Senate has voted on strict party lines to allow the health care reform bill to come to the floor, allowing us to hope that some version of it will indeed be passed. Yet during this same week, other evidence has suggested how far we have to go--and the events of the past year have also made clear how much this crisis differs from the last one.

Thus, in 1932 and in 2008, a series of catastrophes led to a change of Administration, in each case from a laissez-faire Republican to an activist Democrat. In both cases this result had been foreshadowed by the Congressional elections of two years previously, which had given the Democrats control of at least one house of Congress. Yet the timing was in many ways profoundly different. The economic crisis had lasted for three horrible years when FDR won election, but less than one when Obama won his. That has had two very different, but serious, impacts upon the Administration, the Republican opposition, and the country.

To begin with, Obama, unlike Roosevelt, did not come to power in the midst of a crisis so serious that no even halfway reasonable person could deny the need for drastic, unprecedented action. Even now unemployement is only about half what it was in March 1933. Our banking system has been threatened with collapse; theirs was collapsing, and without the backing of the FDIC. The initial New Deal measures, including the NRA--which actually gave the government the kind of coordinating power over the private sector that today's "conservatives" claim that Obama wants--sailed through with large majorities, and the country was at least as unified during 1933 as it was on the eve of war in 1941, if not more so. Things had not gone half so far in January 2009, and the Republican Party decided it could rely on a stance of total opposition, one that has gotten worse, not better, as the year has gone on. Two Republican Senators from Maine voted for the stimulus. Neither voted to allow debate on the health care reform measure tonight. In addition, as many observers (led by the excellent website fivethirtyeight.com ) have pointed out, Democrats from districts and states that rejected Obama are terribly frightened of voting for his major initiatives.

Health care reform, while desperately necessary, will do no immediate political good--it will take years to implement even the relatively modest reforms we are now talking about, and a lot longer to control costs. Jobs are even more necessary, both for the health of the nation and the political health of the President and his party. Here the Administration has been too cautious and the voters of New Jersey, in particular, seem to have taken their anger out on the Democrats. There are, however, signs that the Congress, whose rear ends are on the line, is taking note, and talk of another stimulus package. Perhaps this time it should frankly take the form of large grants to state and local governments, who are cutting back education and other services at a truly alarming rate, and therefore increasing unemployment and slowing recovery. The Administration needs to make the voters feel that it is acting on their behalf, and by the time Obama runs for re-election he will have to have presented a coherent long-term plan for the economy.

Another problem was highlighted Friday by Paul Krugman in one of his scariest columns. It explained to me, for the first time, why the big banks--apparently on the verge of collapse only a year ago--have rebounded so dramatically (although there are still big questions about Bank of America in particular.) Prominent among their worthless assets were the collateralized debt obligations and other exotic instruments they had bought from AIG--their supposed protection against an economic downturn (yes, that's right!) on which AIG could not pay off. The AIG rescue, arranged by the Bush Administration last year, it turns out, actually committed the Federal Government to pay off those obligations, rather than force the big banks to take some responsibility for their own folly and take a substantial loss. Timothy Geithner, then head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, was apparently on board with this, and there is no sign that he wants to see the superbanks take a big hit--much less bring back something like the late, lamented Glass-Steagall Act and put them out of business. In my opinion, this leaves us with at least a 50-50 chance of another major financial crisis during the next three years or so. Meanwhile, as Krugman has pointed out, the federal government has used up an enormous amount of its resources and its political capital without bringing about any real change in a dysfunctional system. The powers that be, led by Geithner and Larry Summers, were not yet ready to acknowledge that it was necessary. Sadly, almost every other available distinguished economic policy maker would have done the same. It takes more than one year of crisis, however frightening, to bring truly new ideas into the policy arena.

And as if that were not enough, the sectional divisions within the country, while not yet quite as bad as in the 1860s when they led to actual war, are actually far worse than they were in the 1930s. The South in the 1930s was sufficiently devastated by the Depression to welcome the New Deal, and indeed, for three decades certain areas of the region--especially those served by the Tennessee Valley Authority, including both Tennessee and large parts of Alabama--sent men to Washington who were economic liberals. But politics in most of the South--including that new electoral giant, Texas--have now been dominated by social issues, race, and anti-government feeling (much of it of racial origin) for decades, and much, though not all, of the region is so far quite immune to President Obama's appeal.

Under the circumstances, we should not perhaps be surprised that things have moved so slowly. As I have already said many times and will undoubtedly have occasion to repeat again, northern abolitionists saw little to praise in the first year of Lincoln's Administration, and during 1862, many Republicans saw General McClellan--and not without reason--the same way that many liberal Democrats today see Secretary Geithner, that is, as a man with too much sympathy for the enemy. President Obama's handling of Afghanistan--still in progress as I write--suggests that he wants to base decisions upon real data. That encourages me to believe that he will look both for new measures and new men and women as things continue to get worse. But meanwhile, he also needs to put his own magic to work to change the way the country is thinking about its problems. He is not, in my opinion, making enough speeches or holding enough press conferences, particularly on domestic affairs. He has not put forth a New Deal, New Frontier or Great Society, thus giving his enemies too much power to define him. I believe that this crisis will still be continuing not just three, but eight years from now, but that gives him enough time to put the nation on a new path. Meanwhile, if anything is to be done anytime soon, the Democrats need his political magic to avoid serious losses next fall.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Echoes of Vietnam

As the Administration struggles over Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam multiply. Two relate the country itself: the third, to developments within Washington, D.C. None of them holds out much hope of avoiding another setback, albeit on a lesser scale.

In Afghanistan since 2001, as in Vietnam after 1954, we have put our trust in one local leader: Hamid Karzai now, and Ngo Dinh Diem then. Neither one has lived up to our expectations as a worthy, modernizing third-world leader, although Diem managed to put up a better front in those more innocent days. I was reminded of the comparison a week or two ago when the New York Times ran a long story about Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. It revealed, first that brother Ahmed is almost universally believed to be deeply involved in the poppy trade, and secondly, that he has been on a regular retainer from the Central Intelligence Agency. A bell rang in my head.

Ngo Dinh Diem's right-hand man was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, his "counselor," minister of the interior, and head of various security services. Nhu did not traffic in drugs, although he was widely rumored to consume them. His beautiful wife, Madame Nhu, had political ambitions, a very sharp tongue, and an unfortunate facility with the English language, which enabled her directly to address the American people with frequently disastrous results. Nhu thought of himself as an intellectual and promulgated a philosophy called personalism, which stressed the duties of Vietnamese citizens to the state. He despised all political opposition and within a few years of 1954 had become easily the most hated man in Vietnam. With rare but critical exceptions, most Americans in Vietnam regarded him as the regime's biggest liability. Elbridge Durbrow, Eisenhower's last Ambassador there, suggested bluntly to Diem that Nhu should be appointed an Ambassador elsewhere. Even Ed Lansdale, the Air Force General and one-time CIA operative who did so much to put Diem in power in 1954-5, thought Diem would be better off without him. What Americans never seemed to realize was that Nhu was far more critical to his President/brother than Robert F. Kennedy was to his. While Diem was trotting around the globe (and visiting the US) in 1954, making friends and influencing people, Nhu was setting up the Ngo family machine (which included two other brothers as well.) Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge renewed the demand for Nhu's departure in the fall of 1963, during the Buddhist crisis, but Diem told him it was "out of the question."

Nhu had patrons, however, within the CIA, which funded many of his operations. Two stattion chiefs, William Colby (from 1959 to 1962) and John Richardson (1962-3) met with Nhu once or twice a week, developing relationships at least as important as those between Diem and successive Ambassadors. Recognizing their importance, I in 1992, when I was beginning work on American Tragedy, asked the Agency to release the accounts of all the conversations between Colby and Richardson on the one hand and Nhu on the other. The Agency replied that their records could not be searched for those documents. Imagine my surprise, earlier this year, when I discovered that the CIA had published some internally commissioned histories of its role in Vietnam, including one, "The CIA and the Ngo family," which drew on almost every page upon the exact documents that I had requested. In a somewhat testy conversation with a CIA FOIA officer, I received the distinct impression that the Agency has constructed a separate database of its files for the sole purpose of responding to FOIA requests, and that it does not include anything that they are determined not to release.

Like Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was assassinated along with his brother on November 2, 1963, Ahmed Wali Karzai seems to be both a presumed US asset and a liability to his brother, another ineffective leader. The denouement of the Afghan presidential election debacle last month also recalls Vietnam. There, too, the United States insisted after Diem's overthrow in establishing a new constitution and, eventually in 1967, a presidential election designed to ratify the rule of General Nguyen van Thieu, who had supplanted another general, Nguyen Cao Ky, as the US favorite. The CIA provided get-out-the-vote money for Thieu, but his minions apparently were lax in distributing it, and in the election, Thieu won with an embarrassing plurality of only 38%. Second in a multi-candidate field was a peace candidate, Truong Dinh Dzu, whom Thieu managed to jail a few years later. The real parallel to the recent election, however, occurred four years later, when Thieu ran for re-election. Both Nguyen Cao Ky and Duong Van Minh, the Buddhist General who had led the coup against Diem, had hopes of defeating Thieu in a three-way race, and the North Vietnamese reportedly let Henry Kissinger know that a change of president would make it much easier to conclude a peace agreement. Thieu however found a legal stratagem to bar Ky from the race, and Big Minh, as he was known, realized that he had no chance in a two-man race and withdrew himself. According to recent reports, U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker offered Minh $1 million to run in order to give the election some legitimacy, but he refused. None of this could have helped Thieu much in the struggle that really counted, the long-term battle against the Viet Cong.

Viewed from across the ocean, the election in Afghanistan seems to have turned out even worse. To begin with, the Taliban successfully prevented voters in large parts of the country from taking part. In addition, Karzai evidently defeated his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with the help of massive vote fraud. An international inquiry resulted, and the Americans--replaying, in a sense, the role of Ellsworth Bunker--managed to insist upon holding the election again. But Abdullah Abdullah, arguing that the second election would be just as bad as the first, withdrew--for reasons about which we can as yet only speculate. Once again the United States retains the local leader it thinks it wants--but at an obvious cost in that leader's legitimacy which cannot bode well for his future.

The other parallel relates to those two externally very similar Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Kennedy did not inherit an ongoing war in Southeast Asia, but he did, as I showed clearly in American Tragedy, inherit a policy. The Eisenhower Administration had committed the US to fight for either Laos or South Vietnam in internal policy statements, and Kennedy as a result faced a flurry of recommendations to intervene in both countries--supported by his entire senior foreign policy team--almost as soon as he came into office. I shall leave aside the details regrading Laos today, but here are some of the key facts about Vietnam.

On July 28, Secretary of State Rusk, in a White House meeting, suggested that the United States prepare for ground intervention in Laos, an air attack on North Vietnam in retaliation for Viet Cong activity in South Vietnam, and a troop intervention in South Vietnam, if necessary, to deal with the consequences. Kennedy made it clear that he had no intention of intervening in Laos and that he doubted the wisdom of the attack on Hanoi. A new series of meetings a month later, also focusing on plans for intervention in Laos, had the same result. But Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow continued to beat the drum for military intervention during September, and in early October, the Joint Chiefs called for sending more than 20,000 men to South Vietnam right away. The State Department endorsed these plans on October 11. Kennedy replied by agreeing to send his special military representative, General Maxwell Taylor, to South Vietnam--along with Rostow--to look into the situation--and he himself revised Taylor's instructions to make it clear that he did not want the United States to take over military responsibility in South Vietnam. Nonetheless, Taylor returned with a recommendation for a small token force that could be expanded if necessary. This, however, was quickly overtaken by a new Pentagon recommendation for a larger intervention, eventually endorsed by Rusk, Secretary McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. After more meetings, Kennedy on November 15 finally made clear in no uncertain terms that he did not intend to put American forces in Southeast Asia. Such a war, he said, would draw little or no allied support and would be most difficult to explain to the American people. After that meeting he apparently had a talk with McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Adviser, in which he complained that none of his team seemed to understand what he wanted in Southest Asia. Bundy responded with the suggestion of making Averell Harriman--who was bringing negotiations on Laos to a successful conclusion--the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, while moving Rostow out of the White House. Kennedy agreed.

Press reports suggest that President Obama has beene equally dissatisfied by the proposals his team--which does not seem to have questioned the fatal flaw in the Bush Administration strategy of trying to install client regimes in the Muslim world--has been giving him for Afghanistan. Unfortunately we live in a different world, and he, unlike Kennedy, has not managed to keep the argument a secret. Thanks to the McChrystal leak, we all know what the General wants now, while very little of the pressure on Kennedy leaked through during 1961. President Obama also seems to understand that nothing the US does is going to help very much if the Karzai government, which has now been in power almost as long as Diem was before he was overthrown, cannot improve. But whether he, like Kennedy, will overrule his team is unknown. Gary Wills in the current New York Review of Books says that many believe that Obama will be a one-term President if he withdraws from both Iraq and Afghanistan. I personally think the chances are at least as good that he will be a one-term President if he does not.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New Civil Conflict

[People are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.] For an afterword on the hoax, see the bottom of this post.

War, wrote Mao Zedong,is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed. He was right: the advances of our civilization have depended upon finding non-violent substitutes for violent conflict. I first began to understand this in the 1980s, when I was working intermittently on two different books, one on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti (a project I inherited from a dead friend), and the second on European conflict over several centuries, beginning in 1559. As I studied in detail how the lawyers on both sides of that famous murder case tried everything they could get away with to win (the prosecution, in particular, withheld a lot of exculpatory evidence that today they would have to reveal), I realized that contestants in the legal process would be content with no less, since they have, in effect, submitted to it rather than fight the dispute out by force of arms. Meanwhile, as I showed in Politics and War, Europe from 1559 through 1659 was inherently, continually unstable because the rich, rather than the poor, routinely took the law into their own hands and refused to submit to higher authority--a situation that began to change in the latter half the 17th century. The United States was the first modern nation based entirely upon written laws, and Lincoln in the Civil War argued that the real stake in the war was not slavery, but whether a free government could preserve itself against a violent internal threat. The answer was yes.

Today's struggles, like those of early modern Europe, deal with money, prestige, and even religious hatred. Moneyed interests, represented by our leading industries--finance and health care--are perhaps as powerful in Washington today as they were in the late nineteenth century. Today's battles, like those of the civil war, also involve sectional rivalry. Much of the South lives in a different mental universe that the Northeast and the Far West, as illustrated dramatically in a book I have begun reading, Confederates in the Attic, as well as by the behavior of Southern legislators in Congress or the Justice of the Peace who refused to grant a marriage license to a biracial couple. (He has since resigned.) This is the country that Barack Obama wants to take in a new direction. It is not clear how much of a success will be possible.

Thus, as a vote nears in the House of Representatives, today's papers report that Speaker Pelosi has given in to conservative Democrats who insist that neither the public option (which will not be an entitlement program but will be funded by premiums) or any private plan sold through a government-sponsored exchange will cover abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. (It will be interesting to see if that exemption survives.) That is a concession to very strong religious beliefs, which are prevailing against the law as declared (perhaps unwisely, as a I have noted) by the Supreme Court in 1973 and frequently reaffirmed since. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, the Speaker has been attending fundraisers around the country in the company of some of the health care industry's leading lobbyists. For reasons which I do not understand, she has forbidden even a symbolic vote on the House floor on a single-payer plan. The whole process of designing the legislation, indeed, has largely been a matter of figuring out how much reform the insurance industry is willing to tolerate. Since we can save money only at their expense, this does not leave too much room for optimism about how much a new plan will do to ease the crisis in health care costs about which the President has said so much.

Some weeks ago I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism, A Love Story. It contained some wonderful footage and fascinating material, but I thought it was below his best work (including Sicko) because it was rather frenetic and, actually, contradictory. The movie began with a short love note to the 1950s, including a reference to 90% marginal tax rates, whose proceeds, Moore pointed out, went into schools, hospitals, and interstate highways (although they also went into nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.) But at the end he argued that capitalism needed to be given up and replaced with democracy, a view which I cannot share. Capitalism can be productive economically (although even that is once again in question now), and more important, it seems in the long run to reflect human nature far better than socialism. The best solution is to allow democracy to balance the excesses of capitalism, at which the United States was reasonably successful, I would argue, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The President and much of Congress would now like to restore that balance, but it is not at all clear that they can.

Franklin Roosevelt, to be sure, managed 75 years ago to implement changes far more sweeping than anything Obama is talking about, and in so doing saved democracy, not only in the United States, but ultimately in the rest of the industrialized world. But how did he manage it? Timing is everything, and Roosevelt, unlike Obama, did not reach the White House until our great economic crisis was three years old. Because of that, he initially enjoyed majorities of 318-117 in the House and 61-35 in the Senate--and even some Republicans, in those days, supported many of those reforms. Because the initial burst of New Deal legislation did something to relieve extreme distress, he actually increased those majorities in 1934 to 332-103 in the House and 71-26 in the Senate. (These figures include two left-wing Midwestern third parties, the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota and the Wisconsin Progressives, in FDR's column.) Those majorities allowed him to pass the Wagner Act, assuring union rights, and Social Security. And in 1936, when he carried 46 of 48 states and won 523 out of 531 electoral votes, he increased them yet again, to 347 to 88 in the House and 79-17 in the Senate. Those majorities were torn about, sadly, by his plan to pack the Supreme Court, but they did allow for the passage of the first federal wages and hours legislation before a Republican reaction occurred in the elections of 1938, two years into another new recession. And ironically, those majorities possible because race, for the most part, was not yet an issue in national politics. Because white supremacy still ruled the south, most southern whites unhesitatingly voted for FDR, whose programs literally saved many of their lives (although they also did what they could, in many instances, to prevent New Deal benefits from reaching blacks.) Because white supremacy has now been overturned, while the Democratic Party has been unable to deliver real benefits for southern whites, they now vote monolithically Republican.

This story does not bode well for Barack Obama's attempts to transform America again. Not only did he begin with considerably smaller majorities than Roosevelt, but he entered office when the bottom of the current economic crisis was years away. Now, last week's elections suggest, Democrats will bear much of the voters' anger over the economy next fall, and increases in their majorities do not seem very likely. Much may happen before then. The President may call for, and the Republicans will undoubtedly try to reject, a second stimulus package, on the very Rooseveltian grounds that the first one simply hasn't done enough. But so far his Administration, reflecting his own personality (similar in this respect to Lincoln's), has striven for relatively moderate solutions to our problems. Like Lincoln, he may find himself forced by events to take a new approach.

My mood about the political scene swings a great deal lately, rather like that of fans watching an athletic contest or soldiers in a battle. That, I realize, is altogether natural, since we are in a struggle for the future of the nation, and the outcome is not guaranteed. And to paraphrase Clausewitz, results in politics, as in war, are never final. Should the current crisis end with another Gilded Age, the new Prophet generation--which could start to be born within as little as ten years--will undoubtedly grow up with a keen sense of its injustices and a determination to set things right. I shall not live to see what they can accomplish, but history tells me that we must accept any outcome within our own lifetimes as temporary, certain that the human drama of the struggle over all our futures will continue as long as the human race.