The United States has indeed entered a crisis, one that has been building for decades--really, for the whole of my adult life. At first glance the crisis seems to be largely economic. Not only do we have more long-term unemployment than at any time since the 1930s, but the lower half of our society has been losing ground for about 40 years, and our economy no longer provides adequate jobs. But beneath this, I think, is an even deeper crisis--a crisis of values. A new consensus is indeed forming--one that will be solidified, I suspect, if Mitt Romney and the Republicans win in November. It will be disastrous for decades to come--but it may happen nonetheless.
The single most striking aspect of our values crisis, I would suggest, is our growing obsession with private wealth as a good in itself--indeed, as virtually the only good. The free-market dream of Milton Friedman, that unrestrained private enrichment does the most for the general good, as been decisively proven false over the last four decades. As marginal tax rates have fallen and private fortunes have grown, inequality and structural unemployment have gotten worse. Yet Barack Obama and his campaign are torn, evidently, by the temptation to attack Mitt Romney's record at Bain capital and the need both to respect economic orthodoxy (as their policies have) and to secure their own hefty campaign contributions from Wall Street. The idea that what private equity firms do--reducing work forces and incurring debt to secure greater profits--might be socially destructive, as indeed it is, is too dangerous to discuss out loud. Thanks in part to Citizens United, greed has become politically self-sustaining. Great wealth can buy both political parties and make its own views orthodox.
Thus, virtually no one seems to be asking the obvious questions about the American economy: where will the capacity to put the American people to work come from? Is anyone really trying to put the bulk of the unemployed back to work? Is there the slightest interest in doing what the Germans do, that is, to trade maximum productivity for employment in pursuit of social justice? It was not so long ago that some leading businessmen could make a distinction between their own bank accounts and the national welfare. There do not seem to be any now. Profit maximization has become our new god--sometimes, it seems, the only one.
Corporate America's ability to buy 90% of the Democratic Party, as well as 100% of the Republicans, has of course a great deal to do with this, but sadly, I have realized that the Left bears a lot of the blame too. The Boomer Left has foresaken our parents' interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole in favor of the pursuit of various forms of individual liberty and individual gratification. They have deified minority rights, women's rights, and gay rights--all important causes, but all pursued within an individual framework, rather than as part of a broader attempt to secure justice for all. The emphasis on group entitlement, which seduced Elizabeth Warren in the course of her academic career, is now bidding fair to doom her Senate candidacy. Having failed, in the course of a long interview with a Boston Globe reporter last February about her childhood and early life, to mention anything about native American ancestry, she now insists on claiming that it has always been part of "who I am." The great mass of comments on the controversy are negative, not only in conservative Boston Herald but also in the liberal Globe. The mass of the American people do not share the values of academia, even if they favor minority, women's and gay rights.
Over the last thirty years at least, democracy has become increasingly identified with individual freedom and economic freedom. That is why Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History twenty years ago after the collapse of Communism. But the western world had learned the hard way during the twentieth century that unrestrained economic liberty could destroy democracy and make life almost impossible for millions of citizens. The great adventure of the twentieth century, pursued by leaders and political parties of all stripes, was the attempt to organize relatively just societies. It is ironic that Russia, the scene of the most sweeping and draconian experiment, has now sunk the furthest into an almost medieval rule of economic oligarchs supported by a weak state. But at the same time, the United States, which had to organize itself in the 1930s and 1940s to cope with the threats of economic collapse and totalitarian regimes, seems to be headed down the same road. Republican Superpacs are trying to buy this election as no election has been bought since 1896, and they may succeed. That could mean an unprecedented undoing of government.
I have said again and again that I see no totalitarian threat on the horizon because we live in such an unorganized age. For the time being I still believe that. Yet more weakening of government at every level could produce chaos, and chaos, as in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1932 (or Egypt in 2012!) can open up opportunities for any well-organized minority. None is on the horizon now, but one could emerge.
I have compared our current crisis many times to the Civil War crisis--not because of its nature but because of its impact. Even though hundreds of thousands of men gave their lives to preserve the union, civic authority never really recovered after that war. But if things get even worse, we may relive another form of the Revolutionary War crisis. That war was relatively small by modern standards, but it bankrupted the authorities, debased the currency, and left the new nation with a hopelessly weak central government. By 1786 the nation was literally sinking into anarchy and the Constitutional convention was the result. The Constitution remains in place and is not the problem. The current paralysis of our government reflects our values today. The question is whether another descent into near anarchy would lead to a rebirth of better values--and I do not know the answer.