As a new year begins, I see signs all around us that we have lived through one of the most profound changes in modern history. The last three centuries have been a profoundly transitional period, moving one part of the world after another into a new age of literacy, science, and political struggle. I am beginning to think that that age is coming to an end. One could examine these questions from many different angles, but I shall do so from the standpoint of the related fields of politics and history.
The eighteenth century--to which I was seriously introduced in my very first semester of college--gave birth to the great age of rationalism in western thought. Its great thinkers included David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was not at all the utopian many believe him to have been), and our own Founding Fathers. They did not, like various nineteenth and twentieth century successors, dream of utopias, but they believed that reason and science could improve human life. They also conceived of the idea of equal political rights, which the revolutions and wars of the eighteenth century crisis and its aftermath spread through most of Europe and the Americas. Thanks to European science, European civilization now had a critical technological lead over the rest of the world, and that helped spread European rule, and aspects of European civilization, around the globe. But within western civilization, domestic institutions remained the most consuming focus of interest. The North American democratic experiment in the United States faced and in one way or another overcame a long series of challenges, including slavery and, later, the consequences of industrialization. In Europe, the entire first two-thirds of the nineteenth century revolved around the intermittent struggle for democracy from the Elbe River west. By 1880 or so every major European nation enjoyed some kind of representative government, and socialism had become the issue of the future. Even all of Eastern Europe, where emperors still ruled, had some kind of constitution by 1905. Japan had adopted much of the western model in 1867 and some Chinese hoped to do the same. Educated youth were imbibing the essential texts and principles of western civilization in India, in Dakar, and in Indochina.
The First World War interrupted this pattern of relatively smooth progress forward with a vengeance. Originating in southeastern Europe, where Serbia, among other new nations, sought the overthrow of Austria-Hungary, it spread around the world when the German government decided to use this occasion for a bid for European dominance and world power. The war destroyed the Russian Empire and brought a new and terrible utopianism, Soviet Communism, into power. It also crippled representative institutions in Germany and brought Nazism into power. Democracy had already disappeared in Italy in 1922 and also vanished from Eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula during the interwar period. Japan retained democratic forms but became in effect a military dictatorship. It seemed moribund in France and relatively ineffective even in Britain. Only in the Americas did democracy seem to be governing effectively by the mid-1930s, and even there it could not overcome the economic crisis.
Yet--and this seems to me now the key point--the struggle among different forms of government defined the first half of the twentieth century, just as it became the organizing principle of the Second World War. The issue in 1940-1, the period I am now researching, was whether Fascist totalitarianism or democracy would become the leading ideology of the world, and a German victory in Europe was expected to have profound consequences even in the Americas. In the end democracy as represented by the US and Soviet Communism were the victors in the war, and those two nations promptly embarked upon a new ideological struggle. And thus, the world in which I grew up was focused upon issues of political change and competing political systems. I never took Government 1A at Harvard but hundreds of my classmates did, and it intensely examined the differences among the the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The whole Third World was now a battleground between two competing ideologies. And within the United States the issues of the first half the twentieth century still dominated public life: issues of economic organization and economic, civil rights for minorities, and poverty. The ruling generation thought they were all on the verge of a solution. They were wrong.
Two key developments, it seems to me, mark the last 45 years. The first is an erosion both of the role of government, especially in the United States and in Russia, the antagonists in the Cold War, and its increasing weakness relative to economic institutions in particular. In Russia the collapse of the Soviet Union has led within twenty years to the emergence of extraordinarily powerful oligarchs, backed by a highly authoritarian state that uses isolated acts of state terror to intimidate its opposition. In the United States, both parties are largely in thrall to corporate interests, whose lobbyists not only finance political campaigns but actually write the legislation that passes in response to public outrage. More importantly, we are entering a new phase of a nearly 40-year struggle to defund and cripple government at virtually every level. It is no coincidence, as I have suggested several times here, that the so-called "base" of the Republican Party and its propaganda arm have adopted Theodore Roosevelt as their new arch-villain, because they aim to undo the entire political work of the twentieth century. And on the world scene, western civilization is being directly challenged by traditional religious belief in ways that would have seemed unthinkable 50 or 100 years ago.
The second development, an intellectual one, is even more interesting: a loss of interest in history as it was understood from the eighteenth century until the last third of the twentieth. This began in the academy, in the midst of the Vietnam War, which taught a whole generation of young academics--my own--to regard authority as inevitably oppressive and corrupt, and to look for virtue and inspiration among the oppressed. Initially in the 1970s the oppressed were defined in economic terms, but in the next two decades race and gender became far more important categories. And interestingly enough, the academic focus on race, gender and sexuality as, it would seem, had important political consequences. Black and female Americans have gained enormously in power, and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, signals at long last the end of formal legal discrimination against gays in America. These are important achievements--but they have come at a gigantic price. The interest in those issues has led to a nearly total eclipse--really--of interest in the kind of great political struggles that I learned about, and wrote about, in college and graduate school. Virtually no one makes a career in history or political science any more by doing detailed research into politics and government. The courses they teach reflect this bias as well, and their students graduate with little or no knowledge of how the world they live in came to be, and by implication, how it might be changed. And that in turn has affected the reading public. Once again this morning I found just one work on history, as opposed to current events, on the hardcover New York Times best seller list: the third volume of Edmund Morris's biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which is rather low on the list and not likely to remain there very long. There are no such works on the paperback list. A parallel change has occurred in our print media. Not only are they far less influential, but they contain much less hard news about national, and especially international, politics. The internet can be and extraordinary resource for the collection of data, but it functions mainly as an outlet for the expression of personal opinion in practice.
And all this in turn is affecting our response to the current crisis in American economic life, which which history has become irrelevant. I have pointed out here repeatedly that both Lincoln and FDR understood that they were presiding, respectively, over the second and third great turning points in American political life, and specifically compared and related the issues they faced to those of the revolutionary period and, in Roosevelt's case, to the Civil War. But neither Barack Obama nor George Bush has done anything like that. George Bush, it is true, presented his foreign policy as the next step in the advance of democracy--but the results have inevitably been disappointing at best, largely because democracy has lost so much of its vitality even here in the United States. Barack Obama confines his rhetoric almost exclusively to the present or the very recent past. He did not take the opportunity to suggest that the economic crisis of 2008-9 grew out of the repeal of various New Deal regulations and reforms, because he and his team did not want to put the key ones back in place. He seems to think that he need only improve the operation of the current system.
Americans today, and particularly young Americans, are constantly distracted by their nonstop contact with their friends and by electronic media. University education was designed to give young people time to think, but it is no longer very successful at doing so now. Literacy and history enabled mankind to see itself in a broader context and to relate contemporary political struggles to the past. They were key elements, for this reason, in creating the 80-year cycle that Strauss and Howe developed. But both are now undergoing a severe decline, and this has already had, and will have, consequences.
Partly because so few of us have a real sense of the distant past, I no longer believe that any great and beneficial transformations of American life--particularly economic life--can be expected in the next decade or two. It is too early to declare that our great crisis is over, and indeed, international events may yet give it a whole new dimension. But there seems to be no real political constituency sufficiently dedicated to any kind of rebirth of the New Deal--not only money, but also organization and enthusiasm, are on the other side. As for history, I know myself that there are plenty of Americans who can still be moved by detailed historical narrative, and I am proud to have reached a few tens of thousands of them myself, in defiance of all the prevailing trends inside my profession. For the time being, however, its great era is over as well. I feel very lucky to have lived through enough of it to develop both the passion and the skills necessary to do what I could to keep it alive, and I plan to go on doing so for a long time.