We are now passing through the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel to the American Revolution and the Constitutional period (1774-94), the Civil War (1860-8) and the Depression and SEcond World War (1929-45.) This was what William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted 25 years ago, and they were right. Like the other crises, this one is cutting us loose from our political moorings and making it very hard--like a battle--to keep a clear head. Let me try to make our predicament, as I see it, just a little clearer.
Each of these crises, it seems to me, has had two different dimensions. To begin with, they all involve a very real struggle over the shape of America's future, and an attempt to replace a dying old order with a new one. In the 1770s and 1780s this drama played out twice, first as the colonies overthrew British rule, and then as they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. In the 1860s we struggled over whether we would remain one nation, and whether it could continue to allow slavery. The New Deal established new and critical roles for the federal government and changed the relations between labor and capital. Now, we are fighting, and have been for some time, to see what, if anything, we shall preserve from the largely vanished New Deal leadership.
Yet each crisis had another even more important dimension as well: the question of whether a national government could either be created, or whether the existing one could continue to function at all. Only barely did the Continental Congress and the state governments manage to keep the revolutionary armies in the field after 1775, and the constitutional convention convened in 1787 because the nation was sinking into anarchy. Federal authority seemed to be disappearing when Lincoln took office, and he used emergency powers to preserve it. A complete economic and political collapse seemed possible when FDR took office in 1933, and three years later the functioning of the federal government seemed to be threatened by a recalcitrant Supreme Court. Because our forefathers overcome all those challenges, the United States still exists today.
Events this week suggest to me that we have been so preoccupied with the first aspect of our own crisis--the struggle over the future of America--that we have lost sight of the second--the possibility that our government might fail to function at all. And for that reason, a relatively promising development--President Trump's deal with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over the debt ceiling--has been attacked by partisan Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now there is no question that this crisis has a third, nearly unprecedented dimension: the personality of Donald Trump, who is manifestly unfit for office. The only parallel from history is Andrew Johnson, the President from 1865 until 1869, who immediately fell into a conflict with the Republican leadership in Congress, did what he could to stop Reconstruction from changing the South, and was nearly removed from office. But Trump did not begin the battle for the future of America that is now waging, nor is he only one on his side waging it now. The Republican Party, after accepting the New deal from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, declared war on it once again in the 1980s, and that war has only escalated ever since. Corporate America and corporate money now dominate our politics and critically influence both of our political parties. Economic inequality has increased steadily for 40 years, the antitrust laws have become almost a dead letter, and most of our state governments are in the hands of politicians dedicated to the free market. While New Deal ideas like single payer health care and free education are gaining ground in the left wing of the Democratic Party, their chances of coming true seem quite slim. In my opinion we will be fortunate if we get out of the crisis with our economic arrangements more or less as they are right now, and real reform will have to wait perhaps another generation.
Meanwhile, however, the government has to keep functioning--and there are very real threats to it as I write. One is a possible constitutional convention called at the behest of state legislatures, many of whom have already asked for it. The Republicans control 32 state legislatures, and only 34 could call such a convention into existence. But the more immediate threat by far would be the Congress's failure to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling, as many of the extreme right wing Republicans in the House have long wanted to do. That would affect not only our government, but the whole world economy. And that was the possibility that President Trump and minority leaders Schumer and Pelosi joined together this week to stop, successfully tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the passage of relief for hurricane Harvey. Many Republicans are furious, and Speaker Ryan felt outmaneuvered. But some Democratic commentators, such as Michael Tomasky, are already worried that this might be the prelude to another deal with Trump, one that gave him some billions of dollars for his wall while reinstating some kind of DACA program to stop the deportation of "dreamers."
Meanwhile, on another front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general are trying to delegitimize the president's authority altogether. Their lawsuit to stop him from ending the (entirely optional) DACA program that President Obama put in place argues, among other things, that the President should not be allowed to stop the program because he expressed hostility towrads Mexican immigrants during the campaign. While I feel very strongly that Dreamers need to be put on a path to citizenship immediately, I think it is entirely unreasonable to expect the courts to rule that our duly elected President is debarred from exercising lawful authority because he has expressed views that many, or even most Americans, find repugnant. The political process is supposed to reflect the views of the American people. It has failed to do so on immigration, but that does not mean that we can count on the courts to stop the executive from functioning the way conservatives counted on them to stop the New Deal in its tracks during Roosevelt's first term.
If we want us to remain one nation--which I for one most certainly do--we must accept that many of the views of those who elected Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will now be put into effect. The only cure for the ills of democracy, as Al Smith said, is more democracy. In a few instances--such as the Education Department's plans to rewrite university guidelines for handling accusations of sexual assault--the Trump Administration might even do some good. (I will be discussing this topic soon, based on Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis's book, Unwelcome Advances.) Those will never be anything more than exceptional, but I am not going to criticize the Democratic congressional leadership for taking steps to allow the government to keep functioning--the kind of steps that their Republican counterparts were so opposed to while Barack Obama was President.