Since the election of Donald Trump, more and more people have come to realize that something is deeply wrong with the United States, and that the nation has indeed lost certain things that allowed the political system and society more generally to work. Those things include a certain measure of consensus about what society should look like and what government should do, as well as the capacity to put resources to work solving important problems. We have instead sunk rapidly into ideological, political and racial tribalism, our politicians unable to agree on even the simplest truths. Anyone who, like me, thought that the evident parallel of an utter incompetent in the White House might draw us together got a rude shock watching the Republicans during the Cohen hearings. A great many people still remember the America of the last High (1946-64), when economic equality was rising, we built interstate highways and went to the moon, and large bipartisan majorities passed civil rights laws. But very few of us have any sense of how we got there, which is the real key to understanding how we might regain some lost ground. And all sides of the political spectrum, I would argue, are making it harder, in one way or another, to get there.
I have written many times that our current crisis has three precedents in the last three centuries: the era of the Revolution and the Constitution (about 1774-1794), of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath (1860-1868), and of the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45). 28 years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe noticed that pattern and thus managed to predict that a new crisis would begin in the first 10-15 years of the 21st century. They were right, but the new crisis has so far failed to achieve anything similar to the results of its predecessors. Let us look for a moment at each of them.
The struggles of the years 1774-94 revolved around the questions of who would govern the British colonies in the United States and how they would do so. Everyone in the region had to take sides on those questions, and they did. The decision to fight for independence forced the colonies to raise and provide for armies and to issue their own currency, and to make foreign alliances and write new state Constitutions. That led eventually to the defeat of the British and the recognition of independence in 1783. The weak national government established by the Articles of Confederation could not however carry out the terms of the peace treaty, establish a stable currency, or defend the nation against foreign enemies, and the new Constitution was therefore written and adopted in 1787. The states debated ratification vigorously, and it passed. Political conflicts remained very heated during the first 12 years after the election of Washington as President, but in March 1801, after a contested election, Thomas Jefferson could declare, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." The nation had agreed on its new form of government and was making it work, while settlers moved into the midwest--the former Northwest Territories--and began creating new states. Slavery was generally abolished in the northern states and many hoped that it would disappear in the South. And Jefferson's Democratic Republican party established a national hegemony that lasted, in one way or another, until 1841.
When the slavery question first erupted on the national stage in the 1820 debates over the admission of Missouri, the aged Jefferson wrote that the younger generation was clearly going to throw away the achievements of their elders. The new, post-revolutionary generation did not regard slavery as an unfortunate evil that would disappear with time. Its southern members increasingly saw it as a positive good that needed to be extended, while an increasing number of northern abolitionists saw it as irredeemably evil and in need of extinction. In 1860-1 that issue split the country and led to civil war. Lincoln argued from the beginning that democracy, not slavery, was the critical issue in the war, which the central government had to fight to prove that it, and other governments like it, could survive. In 1862, of course, he also turned it into a war of abolition, but it remained a conflict between northern democracy and southern aristocracy as well. The conflict involved an utterly unprecedented mobilization of resources on both sides, and established new party loyalties that lasted for decades. Superior resources and superior stategy enabled the north to win the war. The conflict continued in the southern states for another 12 years in an attempt to reshape their politics. In the end the North wearied of that struggle and white southerners returned to local political power, even in the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where whites were in a minority, and only terror and intimidation could secure their rule. Because the war was fought on political lines--Republican vs. Democratic, for the most part--as well as sectional ones, the northern victory established the Republican party as the ruling party for the next 20 years (1865-85) and 36 out of the next 44. That party also instituted policies of high tariffs, relatively sound currency, payments on the public debt, and the unrestrained growth of corporate power. Once again, only a new generation, the generation born after the Civil War, came forward to challenge those consensus principles of the new era. And only when the old order had clearly broken down in the midst of the Great Depression did they get their chance actually to replace it.
The crisis of 1933-45 began as a political response to economic collapse, based on the idea that rationality could make the economy work better, restrict greed and speculation through regulation, and secure a decent life for everyone. Then, beginning in 1940, it involved another unprecedented mobilization to assure the survival of the nation and of democracy around the world. The new consensus, which was not seriously challenged after the war, recognized the rights of organized labor and took many steps to promote the well-being of the GI generation that had fought the war and of their numerous children. In the wake of the war, the renewed commitment to democracy also energized the civil rights movement and eventually put an end to legal segregation and gave everyone the right to vote. The nation also agreed on the need for a huge peacetime military establishment, including a draft, and a system of foreign alliances to defend the world against the Communist threat. The Democratic Party became the majority party as a result of the crisis, particularly in Congress, where it ruled almost without a break from 1948 through 1980, and Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford did not challenge the postwar domestic consensus. Barry Goldwater, the first presidential candidate explicitly to run against the new consensus, went down to a crushing defeat in 1964. But once again, at that very moment, a new postwar generation was preparing to challenge much of the consensus that they had inherited.
The most important opposition to the postwar order came from sectors of the Republican Party that had never accepted it. Billionaires such as the Koch brothers--whose father was in the 1950s a founding member of the fringe, far-right John Birch Society--took advantage of loopholes in the tax laws to shield their fortunes and use them for political purposes, eventually taking over most of the Republican Party and using political power to undo the mid-century regulatory state, roll back the rights of labor, and push for a series of tax cuts--including cuts in the inheritance tax, our only tax on capital--to allow their fortunes to grow at much faster rates. The alliance of energy barons like the Kochs and the Republican party led in the early 2000s to a decision to make the United States self-sufficient in energy, and it has blocked any attempts to do something about global warming. Meanwhile, white southerners, dismayed by the victories of the civil rights movement, moved into the Republican column. Donald Trump in office has essentially functioned on behalf of these interests, while mobilizing the electorate in a way that traditional Republicans no longer could. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Boomer children of GI Democrats--like the post-Civil War children of victorious Republicans--took their parents' achievements entirely for granted and focused on a new range of issues. These included more active attempts to improve the economic lot of minorities, the opening of opportunities to women, and greater tolerance for alternative sexual behaviors, including legalized gay marriage. While these were worthy goals which have opened up various elite sectors of our society, they have not allowed the Democrats to mount any effective resistance to our increasing economic inequality and the growth of corporate power that goes with it. As a result, the Democrats have lost the support of much of the traditional working class.
The two sides of our politics now have their own media outlets and their own world views. To the Republicans the enemy remains government at all levels, which gets in the way of free enterprise and redistributes wealth from deserving "earners" and "job creators" to the undeserving poor, including millions of immigrants. To Democratic activists the enemy, increasingly, is composed of straight white males, a majority of whom now vote Republican, and who stand in the way of oppressed groups. The Democratic view rules academia and the mainstream media while the Republican view appears to dominate corporate America--and still will when Donald Trump has left the scene. Every previous crisis also had to overcome great divisions within the body politic. A minority of Tories opposed the revolution and anti-federalists fought the Constitution. The Civil War, by definition, divided the nation into hostile camps who settled their dispute on the battlefield, at enormous cost. A vocal minority of Republicans regarded the New Deal as the spearhead of totalitarian Communism. But in each of those cases, one side brought together enough resources to prevail in a struggle that was both political and military, and its victory enshrined its values for decades to come. That created enough of a consensus for the nation to move forward, solve problems, build infrastructure, and educate its citizenry. We are failing on all those fronts now.
The kind of mobilization that led us out of our previous crises requires us to put aside our individual concerns and contribute resources for the greater good. That, I fear, we can no longer do. Different forms of selfishness drive both sides. The Republicans oppose, on principle, the diversion of private resources for the public good. The Democrats tend to stress the needs of specific groups, not those of the nation as a whole. And critically, both sides at this moment seem to me to be doubling down on their most extreme positions rather than finding a more centrist approach that might break our deadlock. I think that our hyperpartisan atmosphere will burn itself out within another 10 years at the most, but that in itself will still leave us divided, mistrustful, and without any unifying national identity.