Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, August 07, 2010


A Fourth Turning or Crisis inevitably has a large emotional component. We cannot say exactly why accumulated anger seems to burst forth every eighty years or so in modern societies, but we have seen it happen again and again, beginning with the American and especially the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and continuing through episodes like the Paris Commune and its violent suppression in 1870-1, the American Civil War, and even, perhaps, the great Indian Mutiny of 1857. In crises like the French and Russian Revolutions the violence becomes organized terror, leaving a terrible legacy behind. In the American Civil War and the much briefer German wars of the 1860s and 1870-1 the violence generally remained organized and military. One of Franklin Roosevelt's many great achievements was to channel American anger in productive directions between 1933 and 1945--first, against poverty and distress itself, then against the corporate interests that stood in his way, and finally against violently expansionist regimes abroad. Unfortunately we have not found such useful outlets during our current crisis.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were certainly three very angry individuals indeed, and they intuitively seem to have sensed the anger in the country at large into which they could tap. 9/11 allowed Bush to mobilize the country to undertake vast imperial adventures in South Asia and the Middle East, even though the logic behind them clearly left a great deal to be desired--and even though he never caught the man actually responsible for the deaths of 3000 Americans on that day. Rove and Bush also cleverly mobilized peoples' anger over abortion and gay rights, while at the same time Fox News and Clear Channel stirred anger against bicoastal elites 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All that was enough to increase Bush's popular vote significantly and win a narrow re-election in 2004. Then, however, a series of disasters, culminating in the economic crash of 2007-8, turned the nation's anger largely against him, and swept Democratic majorities and Barack Obama into office. Still, the anger against Muslims persists, as illustrated by the disgraceful controversy over the mosque near ground zero. Republicans now talking about amending the 14th Amendment to do away with birthright citizenship may eventually propose inserting "except Islam" into the 1st Amendment.

I have now come to believe that Barack Obama, that calm, measured, intelligent man who never loses his temper, would have been a much more effective President in fifteen or twenty years' time, after the crisis was over. He had every opportunity to mobilize anger on his own behalf when he came into office--against bankers and the regulators who failed to restrain them; against officials from the previous Administration who had tortured prisoners in violation of US and international law; against the Bush Administration for leading us into endless wars of highly dubious utility; and against the Republican Party that refused, in effect, to work with him on anything from the word go. But he did not, trusting the American public to appreciate a measured and unemotional approach and seeking to leave painful controversies like torture behind. Perhaps all this might have worked had the economic crisis not been so serious--but as it turns out, it hasn't.

The President and the Democratic Congress are feeling the heat not only about the economy--which would have been much worse without the stimulus package, but which, as some pointed out at the time, needed and still needs even more drastic action--but also about another emotional issue, immigration. Illegal immigrants have become another focus of outrage, and the Administration seems to be taking their side. The Republicans, of course, are making the situation worse by refusing even to hear of immigration reform that would allow some people to stay, but the President has gone out on a limb by asking the Justice Department to challenge the Arizona law. Numerous reports tell us that the White House's political strategists are convinced that that law will accelerate the movement of the Hispanic vote into the Democratic Party, but I am not so sure. A lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that Hispanic citizens resent illegals just as much or more than mainstream whites. In any case, the lawsuit certainly looks like an attempt by a relatively weak federal government to prevent states from responding to their peoples' will. I doubt that the White House's strategy will pay dividends this fall.

The combination of our first black President, widespread economic distress, and a relatively interventionist economic policy has also revived the kind of white racist anger that helped bring Ronald Reagan into the White House. Millions of white Americans still believe that government entitlements keep minorities in clover while the deserving middle class suffers. In fact, federal welfare has practically disappeared, but much of the population was already accustomed to regarding Democrats as the giveaway party. They may have voted Republican in any case, but they are making more noise now.

Another specter looms now, thanks to the federal court decision restoring gay marriage rights in California. I know some readers will be offended by this position, but I wish the judge had not handed that decision down. His legal logic--that a ban on gay marriage is a clear denial of equal protection of the laws--is surely strong, but I would have been willing (not that I have a direct stake in the matter) to wait a few more years for gay marriage in California and other blue states simply for the sake of our political culture. Younger people are far more liberal on this issue than oldsters, and as a result, California voters would almost surely have accepted gay marriage the next time they voted on it. Instead we may have a replay of Roe v. Wade, another bottomless source of conservative resentment. The country may be ready to move beyond this issue--or it may not.

Immigration now seems to be the hottest-button issue, and the President in any case has to get on top of it and tell the country in no uncertain terms what he thinks we should do. He is a good person to explain the obvious--that we cannot simply expel all illegal aliens, who are estimated to make up as much as 1/5 of the population of Arizona, for instance, and thus have no choice but to find a way to legalize some of their status. But clearly tougher measures against illegals are inevitable in any case. One reason, perhaps, that the last Crisis turned out so well for the United States was that this issue had been taken off the table in 1924, by a tough law whose provisions were not loosened until 1965. Meanwhile, whoever actually wins the Congressional elections this fall, they are certain to leave the electorate more polarized than ever. The most reliable political web site shows the Republicans certain to recapture Senate seats in the red states of North Dakota, Arkansas, and Indiana, and has also suggested that Blue Dog Democrats are particularly vulnerable. More paralysis awaits. President Obama has real legislative achievements--the stimulus, health care, and, perhaps, financial reform--but none of them has done anything to cure the emotional ills of the American people, and we shall all pay the price for that.


Bozon said...

Great stuff. Really great commentary. I am going to read it again. Maybe I will get the bound volume!

I doubt whether the President has, yet, had the kind of broad popular backing to come out angry, as FDR was able to do, as you say; but, true enough, he probably should have gambled on it regardless,

given what Americans, including the myriad middle and lower middle class conservative ones ostensibly against him, all face.

Another aspect, from what I recall, was that FDR came from that blue blood background, whose excesses he nevertheless criticized on behalf of the public at large.

The President is not from that ilk.

all the best,

Cheryl Rofer said...

But what are the "the emotional ills of the American people" that you feel the President should cure?

In the other examples you cite, the anger was directed in particular ways. But you also say that we don't entirely know why it emerges at times like this.

Perhaps directing, or redirecting, is all that can be done at a time like this, although it may be useful to consider the sources of the anger as well, which might yield a cure.

tlsparkman said...

I disagree that he (the president) should have "gambled on it" and "come out angry". Much of the anger is that the people feel he is not listening to them, and is bent on moving his own agenda forward in spite of them (Arizona a case in point). Whether this is correct or not will come clear in time, but if he were to show anger towards the nation at this time, it would only confirm their feelings about his arrogance, and turn what is now a heated dispute into a fist fight. And unless things have changed, The People still have the power (upper hand) in this country.
But otherwise, I agree. Great insight and commentary.

Anonymous said...

Please do explain on what criteria have you decided upon and proclaimed "the most reliable web site"?

Anonymous said...

excellent!!!!!saddens me how ignorantly we as a whole led by our emotions and less logic which leads us down the road to a possible troubled future. I wonder if we are evolving or in a circle as a world!!!
I truly hope we bumble and trip into a better informed and just society not led by hatred and corparate profits.

David Kaiser said...

FiveThirtyEight.com is in my judgment the most reliable political web site because Nate Silver and the rest are devoted, above all, to the most careful possible analysis of data. This is refreshing because it's so unusual.

Anonymous said...

God David, your writing is 'good' but why are you so left wing? "Racist" people elected Ronald Reagan?? With a statement like that you show your ignorance and knee jerk "everyone with a capital R behind their name is bad, while everyone with a capital D is good" -ism. Why?
I seem to recall Reagan stealing thousands of Democratic voters, winning two huge landslides (1984's being one of the largest electoral vote totals in history.)
Are you saying all those Reagan Democrats were "racist"?? No, surely not.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mr. Kaiser for so eloquently expressing the feelings that I have had since Obama took office. I only pray that it is not too late for our great USA.