This week's post appears here. My thanks to editor Christina Xiao '24. Other editors might not have been interested.
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, May 07, 2022
In an attempt to keep my head while many others are losing theirs in the aftermath of the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, I am going to begin by reposting a long article I wrote about eighteen months ago on the broader issue of the power of the Supreme Court. It anticipated the moment at which we find ourselves, and suggested that over-reliance by both parties on Supreme Court decisions to secure their goals has done very grave harm to American democracy. At the end of the post I will make some more comments about the current situation.
On both sides of the political aisle, Americans see the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court as a potential turning point in our history. A 6-3 majority for the well-organized conservative bloc may overturn the Affordable Care Act, reverse the decision in Roe v. Wade, and possibly (although I think this is less likely), undo federal protection of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Any of these steps would give an anti-democratic Republican Party huge victories in major national issues--but I do not think the situation can be blamed on the Republicans alone. It reflects a long-standing desire of both sides to use the court system in general and the Supreme Court in particular to accomplish goals that the ordinary political process will not allow them to reach. Rather than try to pack the court if the Democratic Party regains control of the government next month--a precedent that could make the whole situation worse, not better--it might be better to reconsider the proper limits of the court's role.
The Supreme Court's power to test both state and federal laws against the text of our Constitution, and to strike down laws it finds in conflict with that text, was, I think, inherent in the text of the Constitution itself. For most of the pre-Civil War era, however, the court used that power very sparingly. The great exception was the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which, as I tried to show in a much earlier post, used an ahistorical reading of precedent to try to stop all regulation of slavery in the territories, and implied that slavery was legal all over the United States. The modern era of legislative jurisprudence, as one might call it, began after the Civil War, when conservative justices (and they were all conservative for much of the late 19th century) began using the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process to outlaw state attempts to regulate their economy, including wages and hours legislation. Such rulings continued through the first four years of the New Deal, when they took down major New Deal laws, and they led to FDR's court packing plan, which failed dismally in Congress but convinced some moderate justices, led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, to help affirm the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act to forestall a greater constitutional crisis.
The broadening of the court's power entered a new phase, however, in Brown vs. Board of Education, when in 1954 the Warren Court ruled that school desegregation was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. While the definitive work on that case, Richard Kluger's Simple Justice, showed pretty clearly that the authors of that amendment had not intended to outlaw segregated schools, the decision certainly reflected the broader purpose of that amendment, namely, to secure truly equal status for former slaves, which it defined specifically as citizens. In addition, Kluger showed that Chief Justice Warren, recognizing the gravity of the decision and the enormous impact that it would have, worked very hard, and successfully, to insure that the decision would be unanimous, even though the court at that time included several white southerners. The subsequent history of school desegregation in this country, however, shows how hard it is to impose such a change by judicial fiat. After decades of litigation, including 1970s decisions that approved school busing in some cases to promote integration, 69% of black children attend schools that are predominantly nonwhite. In parts of the Deep South, integration led almost immediately to the creation of a separate system of private "Christian" schools for white students, leaving the public schools almost completely segregated, and often underfunded as a result.
During the next 15 years, the Warren Court issued a series of decisions that extended the reach of judicial power to try to transform various aspects of American life along more liberal lines. Several were based on the relatively new idea that all state legislation might be tested against the Bill of Rights, and at least one critical decision, on reapportionment, relied on relatively abstract ideas of justice. In the realm of criminal justice, Mapp vs. Ohio (1961) excluded evidence that had been seized without a warrant, Gideon vs. Wainwright guaranteed every defendant a lawyer, and Miranda vs. Arizona forced law enforcement agencies to inform defendants of their right to counsel and protection against self-incrimination. Reynolds vs. Sims and Baker v. Carr ordered states to apportion all their legislative districts according to population, rather than to favor rural districts against urban ones. Engel vs. Vitale (1962) outlawed organized prayer in public schools. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it almost impossible for public figures to win libel suits in state court. While I certainly agree with the goals of all these decisions, every of them aroused considerable resentment against the courts because they bypassed or overruled the political process within states, and started the Republican assault upon the independence of the judiciary. These precedents had another impact. By continuing to test various specific state laws and practices against broad provisions of the U.S. Constitution, they encouraged a whole new style of litigation to which several generations of activist lawyers have devoted their lives. Rather than organize politically or run for office to try to achieve worthy goals, they look for ways to secure them in the federal courts, and thereby weaken our democratic processes.
The expansion of judicial power took a new step forward in 1973, when the court handed down Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal all around the country. I personally regard that decision as tragic, even though I agree with its goal, because, when it happened, the political process was already attacking this issue with some success. The nation's two most populous states, New York and California, had already legalized abortion. That was beginning to trigger a nationwide political fight over the issue, but I think it's very likely that they would have maintained that right and that other states would have followed suit. Instead, Roe v. Wade made abortion advocates complacent, energized at least three generations of opponents to an extraordinary extent, and turned abortion into a critical national political issue that has distorted our politics ever since. Furthermore, new state laws and new federal court decisions have narrowed the right it decreed to such an extent that in much of the country it is almost impossible to secure a legal abortion, and a market for back-alley abortions has been created once again.
By the time of Roe v. Wade, Richard Nixon, who in 1968 had campaigned explicitly against many of the Warren Court's decisions, had appointed four new members of the Supreme Court. By 1976, a conservative majority was using the Bill of Rights to invalidate major liberal legislation. In that year, Buckley v. Valeo held that the federal government could restrict a candidate's use of his own money in his election campaign, and two years later, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the court struck down a Massachusetts law designed to keep corporate money out of politics. These decisions laid the foundation for even more sweeping ones down the road.
In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the court struck down laws against sexual relations between gay people, and twelve years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, it established a right of gay marriage in every state. The former decision strikes me as a straightforward application of the equal protection clause, allowing consenting adults to choose their sexual partners. The latter, while just in my opinion, remains open to the same criticism as Roe v. Wade. By the time it was handed down the political processes in many states had already legalized gay marriage and that would have continued. As it is, gay marriage, as we shall see, is now under attack from another Constitutional angle.
The appointment of two members of a new generation of conservative justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, by George W. Bush--who was forced by his own party to abandon what would probably have been a more moderate appointment--allowed the court to move three critical areas of policy in a conservative direction, each time by a 5-4 vote. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court overruled more than two centuries of precedent and almost completely eliminated a state's right to regulate the possession of firearms. Citizens United v. FEC (2010) essentially ended any restrictions on corporate spending on election campaigns, overturning a century of federal laws. And in Shelby County v. Holder(2013), the same 5-4 majority invalidated the key preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act--perhaps the most obvious judicial usurpation of legislative power in the history of the Republic. The 15th Amendment explicitly gave Congress the right to enforce itself by appropriate legislation, and the Voting Rights Act had repeatedly been renewed by large Congressional majorities. The court majority threw out the provision simply because they, in contrast to Congress, did not regard as fair or necessary any longer. Numerous states have passed legislation attempting to reduce voting in response.
No one, really, should be surprised that both political parties have tried to bend the enormous power of the Supreme Court as it has evolved since the Second World War to their own purposes. Democrats are especially frustrated at this moment, first, because luck as well as electoral politics have given Republicans so many more court appointments than Democrats over the last 50 years, and secondly, because the Republican Senate majority shamelessly used its power four years ago to deny President Obama an appointment that rightfully belonged to him, and having made sure then that Justice Scalia would be replaced by another conservative, they are making sure now that Justice Ginsburg will be, as well. The situation we are in, however--in which the appointment and confirmation of federal justices may well have become the single most important thing that the President and the Senate do--reflects a long deterioration of American democracy, which has taken so many decisions out of the voters' hands.
Eleven years ago, the political scientist James MacGregor Burns--then 92 years old--published a remarkable history of the politics of the Supreme Court, Packing the Court, which I reviewed at the time. Burns as a college student had lived through the battle between the Court and the New Deal, and that had left him with a firm belief that the Court should not be allowed to invalidate acts of Congress. That book railed against the enormous role of the Court in our political life, and looked forward to the day when a President might defy its attempt to invalidate a law. That, it seems to me, might be a more effective step for a new President Biden to take than a new attempt to add justices to the Court, if the Roberts Court, as seems fairly likely, does confirm the argument that Roberts himself made when the ACA first came before it, and tries to invalidate the ACA on the grounds that without the tax that went along with the individual mandate, it is now unconstitutional. [end old post].
The history of abortion rights over the last 50 years, it seems to me, resembles the history of civil rights for black Americans in the South after reconstruction. Just as the Republican Congress declared equal rights for former slaves during Reconstruction, the Supreme Court in 1973 declared abortion in the first trimester (and potentially in the second) legal throughout the United States. In the first case, most of the white South simply refused to accept equal rights for black citizens, and began undoing the Reconstruction acts as soon as they could. Fifty years later--that is, around 1920--most black people in the southern states could not vote or enter into hotels, restaurants, schools and railroad cars reserved for whites. In the half century since Roe v. Wade red states have severely cut back access to abortion in quite a few states, and abortion rates in some blue states are at least five times higher than in some red ones. A Supreme Court majority can find a right in the Constitution--be it abortion or an individual right to bear arms--but it cannot compel a large majority of all Americans to agree.
A poll reported today shows that while only 9 percent of Americans think that abortion should be illegal in all cases, just 19 percent think that it should be legal in all cases. Although one would not know it from a lot of the liberal rhetoric flying around this week, Alito's opinion will not ban abortion in the United States. Based on maps that have been published I have found that it would leave abortion rights in place in states containing slightly more than 1/3 of our population, that it would lead to a ban or near-ban in states with a little less than 1/3, and that the status of abortion would be at least temporarily unclear in the rest. I continue to believe, as I wrote 18 months ago, that both abortion rights and American politics generally would be in much better shape today had the court not handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973 and left the issue to the political process within states. A number of them, including the two largest, had already legalized abortion then, and I think many more would have. The issue would not have become such a big part of the glue that holds both our political parties together. If the court hands down the Alito opinion or a similar one, we will face a new test of our democratic process in much of the country. Meeting that test successfully could help get the country back on track.
Sunday, May 01, 2022
Yesterday I listened to this very interesting conversation between Glenn Loury (who has become a friend of mine) and Jordan Peterson. Peterson, as many will know, is another centrist-iconoclast who has drawn a lot of criticism for unwoke positions on varoius topics. Until now, I had never enjoyed listening to him as much as I had hoped to. He was in top form in this interview, and Loury does very well too. Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has become something of a social psychologist, and he tried to use some psychological insights to explain our growing inequality and its political consequences.
I cannot do justice to the full range of their discussion here, and will confine myself to a few of their most salient points. Peterson talked about the G factor, a general measure of intelligence that was developed more than 100 years ago. Tests have shown that it correlates very significantly with educational achievement, job performance, and income. This means that since we no longer use high marginal tax rates to limit individual income, the rewards of high performance have become enormous. He also talked about the low IQ population and its problems. The US Army, he noted, decided long ago not to take anyone (including draftees) with an IQ of 80 or lower, because such people, they found, could not be trained to perform any military task effectively. According to this chart, that cohort includes 8 percent of the population, and a full 25 percent of the population have IQs of 90 or less. 8 percent of the US population includes about 26 million people--people who simply cannot perform effectively in today's economy. Many of them, Loury speculated, are either homeless or prison inmates. Most academics who study these questions, Peterson noted aptly, have never had any contact with such a person. And such people will benefit neither from the left wing view that anyone can be trained and educated, or the right wing view that anyone willing to work hard will do just fine in our society. And the additional 60 million people with IQs of 90 or less are surely having more and more trouble finding renumerative work as well.
Peterson is not afraid of data showing differences between men and women--to put it mildly--and he said a good deal about the consequences of poor economic prospects for young men. Most of them want to attract young women, and income and status remain critical variables for success in that enterprise. Without them, some of them will become violent. That could eventually have major political consequences, as it might well have had in France in 1792, Russia in 1917-18, Italy in the early 1920s, Germany in 1930-33, and China in the late 1940s. I think it is having some consequences in US politics today.
Peterson and Loury did not talk about an important political development in the western world that I think is making this problem much worse: the collapse of the economic left. During the mid-century crisis of the western world, the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany, France, and elsewhere, and the Democratic Party in the US formed alliances with organized labor and became spokesmen for the working class. The generation of young adults during the Depression and the Second World War produced a number of very effective leaders for those parties. The postwar generations, however--American Boomers and their European counterparts--struck up new alliances with the economic elite. Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in Britain led the way, and the German Social Democrats weren't far behind. Organized labor lost most of its power in the English-speaking nations although it still retains a great deal in Germany. That left the working class without effective political representation, and large segments of it have turned against the political establishment altogether in the US, Britain, and France. Five years ago Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine LePen by 66 percent to 34 percent. Last week his margin fell to 58-42. LePen's party has firmly established itself as one half of a modified-two party systems, and sooner or later such parties have a way of getting into power. That already happened in the United States in 2016 and it may happen again in 2022 and 2024--and today's Republican Party is just as right wing as LePen's National Front is.
The failure of any western nation to experience a successful fourth turning is also playing a huge role in all this. The mid-century crisis forced all the western nations to mobilize enormous resources on behalf of common national objectives, including war and economic reconstruction. Those great enterprises required high taxes on the wealthy, and the less well-off collected some of the benefits of mobilization. They also gave whole nations a common purpose and with it, a common identity. Elites now rule us--elites whose economic status is so exalted that they have trouble realizing how badly many of us are dong. Tribal loyalties have replaced national loyalty among many Americans. Anything is possible now.
Saturday, April 23, 2022
Thomas Friedman no longer enjoys the influence that he did twenty years or so ago, but he is still turning out two or three columns a week. He has not mellowed at age 68. For decades he has pontificated on foreign policy and the consequences of globalization. His full-scale endorsement of the war in Iraq did nothing to reduce his eminence within the establishment, which is chronically forgiving of its own mistakes. Theodore Draper pointed out around 1980 that no leading official had suffered for advocating the Vietnam War or benefited from having opposed it, and that pattern has repeated itself with respect to our Middle Eastern adventures. Friedman interests me in particular, however, because he exemplifies the approach of the modern op-ed writer--a species that takes up about three times as much space in our newspapers as it did half a century ago. In the age of James Reston, Roland Evans and Robert Novak, and Marquis Childs, op-ed writers essentially reflected in a more relaxed fashion on the news of the day, or provided scoops of their own about who thought what. Now they see themselves as moral arbiters who instruct political leaders about what they should do, regardless of how well their advice turned out in the past.
Friedman's most recent column--"China and Russia are giving authoritarianism a bad name"--extends his judicial reach well beyond the United States. While expressing concern over Putin's war in Ukraine--a theme of most of his recent columns--he is more interested in using that war to make a broader point about the course of history. He is not worried that we have entered an era in which powerful states will use force to conquer their neighbors--rather he argues that Putin undertook this war because he runs an authoritarian regime, and authoritarian regimes are on the wrong side of history. They do not understand, as Friedman does, that only the free flow of information leads to progress. Putin got himself into this mess because his subordinates feared telling him the truth. The underlying tone of the column--which has become very common in op-eds in general--is that if Putin were only as smart as Thomas Friedman, the world would be a better place. The same thing, meanwhile, has happened to historians, most of whom now discuss the past merely to show how benighted earlier generations were, how much their values differed from those of a 21st century faculty lounge. I am increasingly convinced that good history and good journalism require a certain degree of humility. Journalists and historians should try to chronicle the present and the past, not to try to determine what they should be. An understanding of things as they are is the first step towards thinking about how they might be improved.
Regarding China, Friedman isn't concerned that the Ukraine war might encourage Beijing to invade Taiwan (a possibility that increased, in my opinion, when the sinking of the Moskva showed how vulnerable surface ships have become.) He merely wants to point out that China, at this moment, is having a harder time with the pandemic than the West is, because its vaccines have been less effective against new variants. That is true, but it's equally true that China did much better than we did against COVID earlier on, because it could impose much more significant restrictions on its populace.
Friedman's real problem is his certainty that history is moving in the direction that he has marked out. The Ukraine war has shocked a great many westerners because we thought we had outgrown the era in which such a war could take place--even though the US began a new era of military imperialism back in 2001 in response to 9/11. We should have learned in the last 30 years that history is not linear, and that movements towards democracy or authoritarianism still depend on a host of circumstances. Friedman concludes by arguing, in effect, that while democracy has problems, they are not nearly so great. "I am worried sick about our own democratic system," he says.. "But as long as we can still vote out incompetent leaders and maintain information ecosystems that will expose systemic lying and defy censorship, we can adapt in an age of rapid change — and that is the single most important competitive advantage a country can have today." Given the failure of our own government to deal seriously with immigration, climate change, inequality, and a host of other issues, that strikes me as a most optimistic reading of our own situation.
More broadly, the growth of the op-ed page has been a catastrophe for journalism. It usually takes me less than an hour to write these posts--it wouldn't take me a day to write three of them a week. For a comparable amount of labor, Friedman and his ilk make at least $200,000 a year these days. Some of them write from a much more ideological perspective than he does--especially those hired to provide a particular demographic viewpoint. The decline of newspapers--like the decline of history and serious publishing--has a great deal to do with the product that it is putting out.
Sunday, April 17, 2022
In Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997), William Strauss (1947-2007) and Neil Howe laid out an 80-year cycle in American history, punctuated by great crises. These included the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution (1774-1794), the Civil War (1861-65), and the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45). Doing the math, they predicted another such crisis in the first 15 years of the 21st century. In the closing section of The Fourth Turning they made a remarkable list of events that might trigger the crisis, including a terrorist attack and conflicts between state and federal authority. To get us out of the crisis they counted on their own (and my) Boom generation, whom they expected to produce a leader comparable to Lincoln in the Civil War crisis or FDR in the last one. Such a person would define a new path for the nation and mobilize resources and young people to create it. They counted on the Millennial generation (born 1982-1996, it now seems) to play the role of the GI or "Greatest" generation in the Second World War, both as the foot soldiers of the crises and the founders of a different United States after it was over. They expected the experience of the crisis to unite the country and create a new set of values, just as the previous crises had done.
Two events--9/11 in 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008--did briefly galvanize the nation and offered our leadership the chance to put us on a new path and create a new consensus. Unfortunately, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations--which in many ways marked a single new period in US history--failed to grasp the opportunity to do so. The three earlier crises in our national life, I now believe, renewed the bonds that held us together and revitalized our democracy. Because the new crisis failed to solve any big problems in foreign affairs, domestic affairs, or within our political system, we are now sailing in uncharted waters with no idea what the next twenty years have in store. I am now inclined to believe that the whole period of 1774-1964 may, like the Roman Empire, have marked a great exception in human history in which, for various reasons, civic virtue was unusually widespread and civic achievements unusually striking. And because this crisis was a failure, we may have left that era behind, not to return for a very long time.
The book The Fourth Turning also gave birth to an internet forum for the discussion of its ideas--one of the most exciting intellectual arenas, in its early years, that I was ever part of. It has now been archived. In this thread, Bill Strauss, two days after 9/11, suggested that the attack on the trade towers might well begin the Crisis, depending on the response to it. In my opinion, George W. Bush, Karl Rove (who may well have read Strauss and Howe himself), and other figures in their administration wanted to use the aftermath of the crisis in this way. In the eighteen months that followed they laid out sweeping new foreign policy goals, including the democratization of the Middle East and the destruction of hostile regimes that in their view were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Neoconservatives talked of "World War IV" (World War III, to them, was the struggle against Communism), a generational crusade to extend western values further. And although we may forget it, the country, led by a bipartisan elite, rallied enthusiastically behind Bush in those months. Nearly everyone supported the invasion of Afghanistan and every few Senators and Congressmen opposed the invasion of Iraq. For two major reasons, however, 9/11 failed to become the new Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor.
The first reason was strategic. The war in Afghanistan as it evolved, and the war in Iraq from the beginning, sought to achieve the impossible: the creation of US client states that would use democratic procedures in those nations. In Afghanistan, 20 years of war and $2.3 trillion led last year to the restoration of the Taliban, whom we had invaded to overthrow. In Iraq our invasion triggered a brutal civil war between newly liberated Shi'ites and hitherto dominant Sunnis, culminating in the mid-2010s in the rise of ISIS. The Obama administration did initially withdraw from Iraq but returned when the government faced a threatened collapse. More importantly, at the time of the Arab Spring, it too adopted the Bush policy of spreading democracy, disastrously in Libya, where the overthrow of Qaddafi started another civil war, and with no success at all in Syria, where the Assad regime was too strong to overthrow. Nor was this all. The emphasis on the "war on terror"--really, a new era of imperialism in the Third World--led our leadership to discount any threat of great power war. That threat has just re-emerged with a vengeance with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The second, equally important reason for the Bush II administration's failure was its failure to mobilize human and material resources for civic goals. The Boom and Silent generations that dominated that administration had enjoyed the benefits of the world their parents and grandparents created for the whole of their adult lives. Their better-off members--who dominated that administration--had also benefited enormously from the Reagan tax cuts and economic deregulation. They saw no need for sacrifice to meet their big new worldwide goals. Instead of raising taxes, they cut them twice. They did not reinstate a draft. While FDR had demanded of Americans that they save, Bush exhorted them to spend. Bush in his second term even tried to dismantle one of the key civic legacies of the previous crisis, the Social Security system. That turned out to be a bridge too far, but he never built a new domestic consensus--winning re-election by a very narrow margin--and, as it turned out, presided over the growth of a most unstable economy. Meanwhile, Karl Rove in 2004 relied on social issues like gay marriage and abortion to hold Republicans in line, preferring divisive issues to unifying ones. By 2006 his dream of a Republican majority was clearly fading anyway, as the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress.
The 2008 financial crisis hit all Americans in a way that 9/11 did not. Six million people lost their homes and the stock market collapse cut net worth all across the country. The irresponsibility of our new deregulated financial system became clear. The crisis allowed Barack Obama to win a big victory in the elections and bring a larger majority in the House and a filibuster-proof one into the Senate with him. The media in 2009 filled with comparisons between him and Franklin Roosevelt. Yet the 47-year old Obama turned out to be a child of the system as it had evolved over the last 20 years. His senior economic advisers taught him, in effect, that the crisis did not mean that the new economic order was fundamentally unsound--but only that it needed trillions of dollars of liquidity from the Fed. In contrast to FDR, Obama neither did very much for the ordinary Americans most affected by the crisis--the ones that had lost their homes--nor mobilized the nation's anger against "the money changers in the temple," whom FDR had attacked in his first inaugural address. His stimulus package was not big enough to reverse the economic trend in his first year in office, and he spent the rest of his political capital on a health care plan that would not come into practice for years. Meanwhile, the Tea Party managed to mobilize the nation's rage in the way that he had decided not to attempt. In November 2010 the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, and any possibility of a second New Deal evaporated. Prodded, like Bill Clinton, by a Republican Congress, Obama had to focus for most of his term on cutting the budget deficit. In 2014 he lost the Senate as well as the House.
The nomination and election of Donald Trump, as I have written many times, documented the bankruptcy of our political system and our political elite. Neither party could produce a candidate who could defeat him. Although Trump failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he did put through another huge round of tax cuts and the deficit ballooned again during an expanding economy. Trump used the presidency for his personal gain in unprecedented ways, and tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He failed.
The pandemic that struck in early 2020 confirmed the collapse of our civic order. Trump, not surprisingly, insisted on pretending that it was not happening. The private sector rose nobly to the occasion, developing two vaccines within a year, but the American people could not agree on the simplest precautions to prevent COVID's spread, costing us tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. The government's relief efforts kept the economy alive, but also--like the post-2008 bailouts--made gigantic gifts to corporate America again. President Biden came into office with narrow Congressional majorities and passed on infrastructure bill, period. That is not all.
The three great challenges to our international, economic and medical well-being--9/11, the 2008 collapse, and the pandemic--have left Americans frustrated and angry. That happened in the earlier more successful crises as well. The John Adams administration (1797-1801) introduced hyper-partisanship to young America, with Federalists and Republicans accusing one another of treacherous subservience to foreign powers. The bitterness of reconstruction was at least as bad as the bitterness of the Civil War, and took thousands of additional lives. 1946-54 was an era of domestic reaction led by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, practicing their own form of cancel culture. This time, however, we do not have a very widely respected figure such as Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, or Dwight D. Eisenhower to rally around, and no great national achievements or tasks to focus on and divert attention from partisan resentments. It is a very long time since any politician really made a national name for himself by solving problems. Two opposing ideologies have filled the vacuum--both dating from the 1960s when the challenge to the postwar order began.
On the right, the Republicans oppose any effective government at the federal and state level. (They do not control any major cities and thus have not been able to use them as laboratories for their free market paradise.) The Federalist Society incubates, identifies and lobbies for conservative appointments to the federal judiciary, and now dominates the Supreme Court. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, provides hundreds of draft bills to Republican state legislatures to roll back regulations, promote fossil fuels, chip away at public education, and alter election rules to suit Republicans. Donald Trump, who insists that our political system was rigged to deny him a second term, remains by far the most powerful person in the Republican Party and stands an excellent chance of being nominated again if he decides to run. The Republicans argue, in effect, that American history was a terrible mistake from the Progressive Era through the age of Reagan, and they are still busy trying to correct it without regard for democratic norms.
The views of many Democratic activists are equally destructive for civic virtue and real civic action. They originated in embryonic form on campuses in the late 1960s, and had taken over most campuses by 2000. Rather then attempting to draw upon the positive traditions in the US historical experience, they argue in effect that American society and government have been an instrument of oppression from the very beginning, founded on genocide, slavery, and patriarchy. As a result, many young people now believe that no black Americans had any rights before 1964 and that relations between the sexes until the 1970s are fairly represented by The Handmaid's Tale. US history, they feel, has always been dominated by a conspiracy of straight white males determined to oppress and exploit the rest of the population and the world. "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" are code words for accepting this view, while placing as many nonstraightwhite males in positions of power as possible, since only they can be trusted to pursue justice. I do not believe any real civic virtue or civic action can be built on this foundation ever. Instead, I think it has triggered a kind of nuclear chain reaction within our society, turning the powerful energy that held us together in earlier years against one another.
The era of 1870-1965 (roughly) might be a unique one in western history, marked by an unprecedented faith in reason and government which allowed governments to mobilize their nation's resources on an undreamed of scale. That enabled different governments to achieve great benefits for their people, and also to perpetrate disasters like the holocaust and the area bombing of cities in the Second World War. Its net effects, in my opinion, were very beneficial. It was an era of consensus thinking in which many outside the consensus faced severe hardships, and opportunities were not equally distributed. The revolt of the late 1960s, I see now, targeted the whole system of loyalties and constraints that had kept society and government growing. It obviously drew on profound currents in human nature and its effects continue to grow. At bottom, the individual rather than the family has become the basic unit of society, and the right of self-definition is becoming the most prized right on earth. Probably an actual majority of Americans on both the left and the right would now oppose the degree of authority that a successful fourth turning requires. The real question before us is whether modern society can survive and prosper without the degree of consensus that has held us together in the past. I do not know. Strauss and Howe understood what kind of crisis we needed to renew our national identity. We didn't get it, and we aren't going to get it now.