No one, it seems to me, who found their way here now, would disagree that the United States is struggling with a very serious political crisis. Regular readers know that I, influenced by William Strauss and Neil Howe, see this crisis as one in a series of crises, recurring every 80 years or so, that began with the era of the American Revolution and the Constitution (1774-1794 or so), continued with the Civil War (1860-68 approximately), and climaxed with the Depression and Second World War (1929-45.) Each crisis marked the death of an old order and the birth of a new one, and each established new institutions and new beliefs that shaped political and economic life for at least 50 years to come. All of us over 60--that is, all Boomers, Silents, and surviving GIs--lived most of our lives in the world created by the great crisis of the 1930s and 1940s. I have found it useful, from time to time, to compare the nature of our current crisis with the last one by comparing today's New York Times front page--January 18, 2019--with its counterpart from 80 years ago, on January 18, 1939. These were in at least one respect similar moments in history. Franklin Roosevelt was in the middle of his second term, just as Donald Trump is in the middle of his first, and both faced new and far more hostile Congresses. Roosevelt's Democratic Party still had majorities in early 1939, but it had lost heavily in the midterms, and conservative Democrats were starting to align with Republicans to block any further progress for the New Deal. Trump's Republicans have lost the House of representatives. Those wishing to look at the 1939 front page themselves can do so here. Today's is here.
The first thing that will strike any observer is how much more there was on the earlier page. It has 14 different stories (two of them brief sidebars); today's has only six. The shrinkage of the layout from eight columns to six obviously explains only part of that. Five of the 13 1939 stories, four on the left side of the page, are foreign news. Three of them come from Mexico. The first tells of the dispatch of a Mexican general on a diplomatic mission to Berlin, where, it is thought, he may conclude new agreements bartering Mexican oil for German machinery. The second recounts the expulsion of an American journalist from Mexico, and the third brief one talks about the resignation of three generals who are contenders for the Mexican presidency. The fourth is a military update from the Spanish Civil War, which was then entering its final stages. A brief but chilling sidebar reports that a British official has warned housewives to begin storing emergency food. Three other stories involve local and state politics. In the first, District Attorney (and future presidential candidate) Thomas Dewey is feuding with the chairman of the Board of Transportation over the extent of thefts of subway fares from turnstiles. The second speculates about a rift between Police Commissioner Valentine and Mayor LaGuardia, and the third reports progress for a housing program in Albany. The remaining six stories deal with national news.
The lead, in column 8, reports that President Roosevelt and both factions of organized labor--the A.F. of L. and the CIO--are attempting to restore a $150,000,000 cut from the appropriation of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, one of two public works agencies that had been providing jobs for unemployed Americans during the Depression, which had worsened again in the last two years. In a second story, FDR has asked for an end to tax exemptions for income on federal, state and local municipal bonds, which had emerged as a popular tax dodge for wealthy people trying to avoid very high marginal tax rates. A third story prints a letter the President had written to a key Congressman, asking for the construction of a Florida ship canal, and another project to harness power from the extraordinary tides of Passamaquoddy Bay on the Maine-Canada border, where, as it happens, FDR had his summer home. Neither of those projects, clearly, ever came to much. A fourth story quotes an Assistant Secretary of War to the effect that the US can produce 7000 war planes a year, enough to protect the nation in an increasingly dangerous world. The bottom of the page reports a half-million dollar fraud case against certain contractors for the WPA, and another story,based on documents revealed in Vienna, seems to confirm that German agents during the First World War blew up a number of munitions factories inside the United States. All these stories are about things that the government is doing, or might be doing, to employ Americans, raise more money for the government, improve our infrastructure, or make necessary improvements in our national defense.
Today's front page tells a very different story.
The lead story, of course, deals with Donald Trump's childish cancellation of Nancy Pelosi's foreign trip. That leads in turn to the "Washington memo" just below it, entitled, "A Sandbox Where the Adults Need to Be Given a Timeout," dealing with a very different Washington atmosphere. A third story tells about economic help being given by private citizens to furloughed employees. A fourth story reveals that the children separated from their parents at the border were undercounted, a fifth is about the acquittal of cops accused of covering up a police murder in Chicago, and the last is about the teachers' strike in Los Angeles and what it reveals about the economic divide in the city. The contrast provides considerable food for thought.
In one way or another, four of the stories on the front page, including the three growing out of the shutdown, relate to immigration, which was absent not only from the January 18, 1939 front page, but from political controversy in the 1930s generally. The reason was that nativist feeling had been growing against immigration from southern and Eastern Europe since the late 19th century, culminating in 1924 in a very restrictive immigration act that had essentially taken the issue off ot he table before the great crisis began. Freezing our national community in place at that time, I am convinced, made it much easier for Roosevelt to cope with the national emergency he inherited in 1933 and to pull the country together for the Second World War. Donald Trump swept both the major parties before him in 2016 largely because they had failed to heed popular resentment over immigration, and it is quite possible that our nation needs another freeze to regain its political sanity now--while meanwhile fully assimilating the immigrants who are already settled here.
The lack of foreign news on today's front page is also interesting. Now as then, major European nations are in crisis, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but the Times and other newspapers maintain far fewer permanent foreign correspondents overseas. Their readers know much less about what is happening and what it means to the US than they did then.
The specific problems we face today are less serious, I still think, than they were then. Neither in Europe nor in Asia do we find militant powers fighting, or planning to fight, vast wars of expansion. Unemployment, well over 10% in 1939, is at historic lows now. But as the front pages illustrate, our political system--very robust and effective in 1939, at federal, state and local levels, in most of the country at least--is in tatters, and the citizenry is far less informed. The question remaining to be answered in the current crisis is, how long can our society continue without a functioning political system?