Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Are We in a New Era?

In 1995 I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and it changed my life.  Two amateur historians had identified an 80-year cycle in American history--a cycle that also applied, as I realized fairly quickly, to modern Europe and East Asia as well.  Three great crises: the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the 1933-45 period--had each created a new order, a new set of allegiances, and a new consensus about political and even social values.  That was almost 25 years ago and there has not been a week in all that time that I did not think about this view of history and what it meant for the future--since the next crisis was due to arrive by 2010 or so, if not sooner.  I now think, as I have said here many times, that began in 2000-1, marked by two key events: the election of 2000, in which a partisan Supreme Court and an inept Gore campaign did not allow us to discover who had actually won the presidency, and 9/11, which started a new era in American foreign policy that continues to this day.  Yet it now seems clear that this crisis will not end like any of the others, and that it will have weakened our institutions to the point that I am wondering if they will begin to function effectively any time soon, and even if they will survive at all.

We tend to assume in the United States that the excellent design of our institutions guarantee that they will survive, but that has never really been the case.  In 1860-1 secession would have destroyed the Union had not Lincoln refused to recognize it and undertaken a war to prove that a democratic nation could preserve itself.  The victorious Republican Party, which remained in power for another 20 years, abolished slavery, paid off most of the national debt, established high tariffs, and turned loose a gigantic wave of industrialization.  The Civil War experience effectively assimilated Irish and German  minorities whose presence had been quite controversial as late as the 1850s, and new immigrants flooded in at a rapid rate.  In 1932 the Depression threatened the economic and possibly the political collapse of the nation, but Franklin Roosevelt restored confidence in the government, found ways to put many of the unemployed back to work, and changed the whole relationship of the federal government to the economy.  Confronted by the rise of aggressive dictatorships in Europe and Asia, he warned the people that the western hemisphere was threatened, won an unprecedented third term, and prepared the nation not merely to fight, but to win, the greatest war in history.  That war assimilated new waves of immigrants and created a bond between the government and the men who had fought it and their families.  After the the war, the US embraced a new world role.  The postwar consensus, however, did not really survive the Vietnam catastrophe, and by the 1980s, the Republican Party had embarked, slowly but surely, on the destruction of the New Deal legacy.

We easily forget, now, that George W. Bush and Karl Rove--whether or not they ever read Strauss and Howe, which I suspect that Rove did--wanted to build a new Republican consensus around another great foreign crusade.  After 9/11 they embarked upon the conquest and transformation of key parts o the Middle East.  Yet their new crusade proved disastrous both in the targeted area and here at home.  While they could destroy organized enemy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, they could not govern them effectively, and they created power vacuums in which chaos and extremist movements thrived.  Meanwhile, at home, they remained true to Republican principles, and cut taxes instead of raising them while piling up trillions of dollars of debts to fight these wars.  The failure of their wars, in my opinion, has destroyed the national consensus on behalf of an activist foreign policy--something which Donald Trump does seem to have understood.  Yet while cutting back on the Iraq war, the Obama Administration continued the crusade to democratize the region in Libya and Syria--both times, with disastrous results.

In 2008 the financial crisis swept the Republicans out of power and gave President Obama a chance to reverse course domestically and re institute a New Deal--but he did not take it.  Relying on centrist economic advisers, he restored the deregulated financial system that had emerged in the last two decades rather than replacing it.  Losing the Congress, he had to accept big cuts in government spending, and the Affordable Care Act was his only important domestic achievement.  Then, in 2016, a huckster who had survived repeated bankruptcies and become a reality tv star decided to run for President, and neither major party could produce a candidate that could beat him.   Three years later the Republican Party is completely in thrall to him, and cares nothing about his clear unfitness for office.

I think the chances are somewhat better than 50-50 that Trump will be defeated next fall, but I have no confidence that the election of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or even Elizabeth Warren will restore a vigorous and effective national government.  Voters under 60--the vast majority of them--have literally never seen the government do anything big and effective over a sustained period of time.  Partisanship has paralyzed the Congress and will probably continue to do so no matter who wins.  Under our system as it has evolved, many key decisions are now the province of the Supreme Court.  Worst of all, as this election shows, it has apparently become impossible to become a national political figure by making an impressive record of public service.  As I write, the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic polls shows Joe Biden with 27.8%, Bernie Sanders with 15.6, Elizabeth Warren with 14.2, and Pete Buttigieg with 11.4   Biden leads for one reason: he was Vice President for 8 years, giving him name recognition and a reflected glow from Barack Obama.  Sanders is second because he has won the allegiance of some millions of voters by bluntly speaking his mind, and Warren has established herself as a genuine heir to the New Deal tradition.  Buttigieg, like Barack Obama in 2008, is drawing on general personal qualities and the novelty of his candidacy.  Three other Senators have a total of 7.8%, and none of them (Harris, no longer in the race, Klobuchar and Booker) has any legislative accomplishments to their name--largely because the whole Congress doesn't.

The American people have lost a sense of citizenship based on participation in a great common enterprise that serves us all.  The Republican Party wants nothing but to set private capital and private enterprise free; the Democratic Party is making some noises about equality, but focuses more on social issues, including gun control and minority rights, and pays lip service to the very serious crisis of climate change.  We also desperately need a huge common enterprise to integrate our millions of now-illegal immigrants into our polity, rather than continuing to rely upon a large working class that cannot vote.  But a common enterprise would require a common view of certain problems facing us and a broad faith that we can use our brains and energy to solve them, and these things are lacking as well.  Our faith in rational solutions to problems peaked quite some time ago, and only effective action can restore it--but where will this come from?   

A Democratic victory would at least temporarily restore some respect for our institutions, and Democratic appointees, unlike Trump's, would make a real effort to make the federal government function.  That alone would represent a significant gain from our catastrophic state under Trump.  But it will not solve the crisis of democracy that has struck not only the United States, but Europe and some Asian nations as well.  Of all the major nations, only France at this moment appears to have a leader with a strong majority behind him and a definite course of action.  Inevitably he has aroused a great deal of opposition, as de Gaulle did before him in the last stage of the previous great crisis, but if he can prevail against it he will have shown that democracy can still work.

In the 1990s Strauss and Howe showed how disunity and strife had threatened the nation and, crucially, how we had overcome them.  That is what we have failed to do this time.  Perhaps historians in a century or two will conclude that the United States of our time--by which I mean the nation of the last 50 years or so--was too spoiled and too self-confident, and came to believe, in many different ways, that old rules no longer applied to it, and that, like Athens in the 5th century BCE, we could have whatever we wanted by wishing for it.  We couldn't.  No one, I think, really knows where this will lead.

6 comments:

Unknown said...

Many of us thought that we were on the brink of a new era when a charismatic and fairly young, but pragmatic, smart, articulate, learned, and decent new politician had a rapid and unlikely rise to the Presidency and started to shake things up. Liberals thought America ready. The problem was that the moneyed elites were not ready for such and knew exactly what to do. They created a reactionary ideology with a populist cover (the Tea Party) that would steadily establish a political norm as reactionary as possible: one in which nothing matters except the enrichment, indulgence, and power of those elites.

If Obama is the apotheosis of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights struggle, the Hard Right exemplifies another pair of traditions: the feudal attitudes of slave-owning planters and their successors who turned farm laborers into serfs in all but name, and the Gilded ethos that the only meaning of progress is profit, or at least executive compensation. Eight years after Obama supplanted Dubya, the United States became the purest plutocracy in the world short of those countries in which a royal family owns the oil resources and spends those as that family sees fit.

It's easy for any liberal to see Donald Trump as an unmitigated disaster, but his cause goes back to the Awakening Era of the 1960's, when people went on the Voyage to the Interior and either found it a rich delight of discovery -- or the moral equivalent of an abyss. In Donald Trump's case it is an abyss, and morally-empty people who have the chance gravitate to pathological narcissism, if not outright sociopathy. Also note well: until the 1960's the Southern racist agrarians were on the side of Northern workers who shared a similar disgust of Big Business. Northern industrial workers took the side of Southern blacks... and the Southern agrarian racists had to go somewhere.

The hope that I see for progress is in the political rise of the Millennial Generation. If about half the electorate is 55+ (which now includes the remaining Silent, Boomers, and the first wave of Generation X) and about half is under 55, then the people dying off (death rates start to take off rapidly for people in their late 50's if they have bad genes or bad habits) are about 5% more Republican than Democratic and they younger, newer voters (practically all Millennial) are about 20% more Democratic than Republican, then one can see as about 1.5% of the population (largely over 55) "retires" from the electorate due to death and debility, then the general public becomes about 2.5% more liberal and 2.5% less fascist in absolute terms.

Yes, the word fascist is shocking, but the Republican Party has largely gone that way. The Republican Party that I used to know used to be the 'cloth coat' sector of America, heavily small savers who had a stake in both price stability so that their assets would keep value but also a vibrant economy so that one need not eat into savings and other low-yield investments. Small savers are the cornerstone of the center-right, once a big part of the GOP. Such people are largely gone. What passes for the middle class is in hock to lenders and is paying exorbitant rents. Small savers are center-right; rentiers are Hard Right, and they want others' obligations to sting. (Part 1)

Unknown said...

The rentiers rule, and Donald Trump is above all else a landlord, the definitive rentier. Aside from making some schlock entertainment that I have found easy to "fire" with my remote control, his sole reliable source of income has been property rents. Perhaps the American dream has gone from owning one's own business to being a well-paid professional such as a software engineer or financial analyst, and such may reflect technological change that nobody can prevent. This said, if one owns very ordinary rental properties and has a captive clientele of well-paid professionals, then one can live like a sultan off the well-honed skill and imagination of others without having to innovate or do investment other than maintenance.

So, what will be the new paradigm of a more liberal era -- Marxism? No. To be sure, we are at the end of the road in which we simply make more stuff and are happier for having it. If anything, proof of one's status will more likely be (by 2030) the aesthetic (if not technological) simplicity that better suggests a Shinto temple or a Victorian-era farmhouse than a hoarder's nest. As we approach the end of scarcity in all things except real estate and vocational opportunity we will find easy targets for taxation: easy money from economic rents and executive compensation. That is Henry George, and not Karl Marx.

Even so -- we are approaching the end of the age of scarcity, something people (Marx first!) saw as the human dream -- but it now is a dream with nightmares attached. (Part 2, and the end)

Bozon said...

Professor
Enjoyable if not uplifting post to read through.

Here's a thumbnail sketch of where this malaise came from, way back:
How to put this?

Divisive and devolutionary forces, religious and secular, from the Reformation heritage, in 1776 and 1789 then infected later 19th Century old European Order, liberal, socialist, fascist, nationalist, and communist regimes, essentially all regimes whatsoever.

The World Wars, and the lengthy and unresolvable clashes of these crippled ideologies and civilizations, made this obvious.

Inherent problems of authority and social order now permanently dog all regimes, all civilizations, regardless of type.

All the best

Energyflow said...

A new era sort of creeps up on you. Like with technology, young people or outsiders adapt to it and older, more established people, companies or bureaucracies are left outside. Still success seems uncertain for the new till later and stragglers only jump on the bandwagon very late. 5 stages of denial need going trough here. For some the old system is practically religion so separation is that much more difficult. The old testament for example made man king of creation. Evoution subconsciously adopted that stance. Rationalism assumes the same principal. Mind is supreme. Christianity was the basis of our Eiuropean roots. Brotherly love, human rights, equality were modern adaptations by atheists on this theme. Essentially we deny our old religion but maintain its fundamental principles. So new eras are hardly really that new. We tend to invent a crisis atmosphere to rally the nation to a goal, renewal. Before that we walk blindly in the direction dictated by hhe logic of the last crisis. In our current case we play global protector. Global institutions and power were all custom fitted to USA needs and demands after the War but now everything is shifting like quicksand under our feet. Manifest Destiny, conquering the wilderness and imposing civilization in West European way has been transposed onto the globe. Like it or not. Ebb and flow of history suggests that cultural values, like greek, Roman, British, Persian have certain endurace, positivve sides but decline with their home countries, become adapted by others, changed and used against them to topple them. Such is occurring now. Ossification from within, weakness from the outside forces change. Power centers believe they have an absolute right. So recession is deliberately delayed permanently, allowing zombie banks and companies, socialism for the rich in effect. Mass media is undermined by internet, continues to deny uncomfortable realities as propaganda. Infrastructure crumbles while we continue occupying, 'democratizing', destroying countries, regime changing globally. Obvious weaknesses can be exploited easily. Civil war atmosphere in America due to elite control over impoverished population confirms and encourages competing systems and ideologies which reject post war status quo. Much the same is happening to our post war allies. Perhaps 9/11 was like WWI to WWII. It set the ball in motion for a new ra, which will dawn once some final straw forces a ttal breakdown, which almost occured 11 years ago.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

I think the new Crisis began this year, on schedule, exactly eighty years after the start of WWII in Europe, which ended the GD Crisis and enabled the postwar High.

The new Crisis is another Civil War. The War presently takes the form of a series of skirmishes initiated by putative heroes whose intentions are to stir the public to action and to receive the credit for doing so (in the manner of John Brown).

As in all American wars, combatants in this War are related closely. In the Revolution, we sons fought our fathers. In the first Civil War, we brothers fought our brothers. In WWII we cousins fought our cousins in the Old Countries. And now, we neighbors shall fight one another.

On the positive side, some new High awaits, after some requisite pain and suffering.

Jude Hammerle






Bozon said...

Professor

On the question of whether we are in a New Era, here is another perspective, another thought:

PHENOMENOLOGICAL TIME HAS BEEN ACCELERATING FOR A LONG TIME NOW

I am not a phenomenologist, but this term captures something of what I mean. One could use other terms.

The S&H so called 80 year cycles, Hegel's dialectic, Marx's dialectical materialism, etc, were never true, except perhaps 'phenomenologically', or temporarily persuasive, or whatever else one wants to say about such things.

But the acceleration of what I call, for lack of a better term, phenomenological time is "true", or at least, more true......

Think of this statement as a metaphor rather than an objective fact in the world.

While I personally still believe in objective facts, this is not one of them.

All the best