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Thursday, December 29, 2011

A similar era?

At long last I have acted on my intention to investigate the Gilded Age, in order to find exactly how similar politics 140 years ago were to our own. My text has been a remarkable book, Twenty Years in Congress, 1861-1881, written by a distinguished participant, James G. Blaine of Maine, who came within an ace of becoming President himself in 1884 but lost by the votes of a few thousand New Yorkers and retired to write this most interesting history. There is no substitute, I have found, for investigating an era through the eyes of a participant, and Blaine combined an eye for character with a respect for primary sources, quoting the Congressional Globe and presidential addresses at great length. My read has tended to confirm that the similarities in the two eras are rather striking, largely because both are dominated by a mixture of partisanship and corruption.

I have skipped volume I for the moment and began in the wake of the Civil War, during the Presidency of Andrew Johnson, one which bears an uncomfortable similarity in some respects to the time we are passing through now. Johnson, a poor white from East Tennessee, was one of the greatest accidents in American history. A loyal union man and a "War Democrat," as they were known, he joined Abraham Lincoln on the "Unionist" (not Republican) ticket in 1864 to appeal to loyal Democrats and the border states. Like many upcountry southerners, he hated the planter class, but it turned out that he hated the newly freed slaves more. The large Republican majority in Congress was determined to preserve the results of the war by either reducing the representation of the Southern states, or by enfranchising the freedmen. The 14th amendment was written to do the first: it did not require Negro suffrage, as it was then called, but specifically promised to reduce the Congressional representation of states so as to reflect the number of voters they enfranchised. When the southern states, supported by President Johnson, refused to ratify the amendment, the Republican Congressional majority--which grew even larger in the 1866 elections--passed its own Reconstruction plan, putting the South under military rule and insisting that the southern states enfranchise Negroes in new Constitutions before they could send representatives to Congress again. Negro suffrage, sadly, was a measure well in advance of even northern opinion, and the radicals realized by 1867 that it had to be put into the Constitution in order to impose it upon the South. This the 15th Amendment did.

Johnson's dogged resistance to these measures was fully shared by the Democratic Party, northern as well as southern. In an odd echo of what we have been through for the last three years, not a single Democrat in Congress voted for either the 14th or 15th Amendments, nor did any Democratic-controlled legislatures ratify them. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress, with good reason, did not trust Johnson to use the executive branch's powers to carry out their policies, and in 1867 they passed the Tenure of Office Act, taking advantage of a Constitutional ambiguity to make the approval of the Senate mandatory to remove, as well as to appoint, federal officers. Utterly contrary to tradition and precedent, this measure was clearly unconstitutional, but the Republicans forced it through nonetheless, and it became the basis for Johnson's impeachment when he removed Secretary of War Stanton from office. The Republicans would have done much better to have impeached him for clearly attempting to subvert the laws that they had passed, but they preferred to rest their case on a technicality instead. Blaine by the time he wrote his book clearly recognized that the impeachment was a mistake, although he had voted for it as a member of the House at the time. In the end, thanks to some courageous Republicans, Johnson was acquitted by the Senate by the narrowest of margins. The Tenure of Office act controversy now parallels the battle over President Obama's recess appointments, which the Senate used parliamentary subterfuge to try to prevent.

Partisanship dominated nearly every major issue in this period. The Democrats, many of whom had never believed in the Civil War, wanted to pay off the enormous war debt in depreciated paper currency; this the Republicans refused to do, and they made impressive progress in paying it off even under Johnson. Even the admission of new western states was now pushed or rejected on partisan grounds, because they were thought to be likely to send more Republicans to the Senate and the House. Republicans often referred to "the Democracy," as it was then called, as the party of treason (another call they have taken up again), while Democrats referred to Republicans as the party of dictatorship and racial equality. It was probably fortunate that the nation had General Grant to turn to, since he could command some bipartisan support at least in the North. We have no such figure on the horizon today.

Yet I could not help noticing that despite the equally partisan divide, the Congress functioned infinitely more efficiently than it does now. The House routinely suspended its rules to rush through legislation (this required a 2/3 vote, which the Republicans could usually, but not always, get), and the filibuster seems to have been unknown even in the Senate. Committees worked quickly and efficiently--without any staff at all. The level of oratory was incomparably higher than it is today. And one senses, in speeches on all side, an acute sense that the United States was still a relatively young democratic experiment--many of the legislators, after all, would have known in their youth men and women old enough to remember the adoption of the Constitution--and an instinctive, continual resort to the first principles of Republican government. The average legislator today would find himself intellectually overmatched, should a time machine take him back 150 years.

The real issue in this period, as in the war itself, was the question of federal authority. Having strengthened it beyond imagination to win the war, the Republicans, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate, one of the few real heroes of the era, knew they must keep it strong to complete the work of the war. Only the continued occupation of the South by federal troops, even after states were re-admitted to the Union, gave the black citizenry and white Republicans (of which there were some!) any chance of exercising their franchise and securing their lives and property. The Ku Klux Klan was, very simply, a terrorist organization dedicated to re-imposing white rule by force, something it gradually managed to do. Meanwhile, Democrats North and South, and even some dissenting Republicans, argued that the Republican majority, and, after 1869, the Grant Administration, was maintaining a wartime despotism long after the time had come to restore peace. Grant won a big electoral victory in 1868, but Blaine points out that his margin was somewhat deceptive. Both New York and New Jersey voted for Horatio Seymour, the Democratic candidate, and Grant's margins in several other Democratic states were quite small. Although Grant remained personally committed to reconstruction, he was a much weaker President than he had been a general, and his Administration's corruption so undermined the confidence of many concerned citizens that he faced a liberal Republican revolt in 1872. The liberals nominated a titan of the Republican Party, the editor Horace Greeley, and the Democrats decided they had best support him. Greeley could not win their loyalty, however, and he went down to a much worse defeat than Seymour.

Turning back for a moment to the present day, the Republicans in the last four years have treated Barack Obama in the same way their ancestors treated Andrew Johnson--and, I would suggest, for the same two reasons. First, they see him as attempting to maintain an old order which they detest--the remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society. They prefer, of course, to argue that he is trying to impose a new order, socialism, but I suspect that in their hearts they know the truth. There is some truth in this, just as Andrew Johnson and the defeated white Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies meant to restore the supremacy both of the white race and the Democratic Party. But secondly, neither set of Republicans viewed, or views, the President as legitimate. Johnson they regarded as an apostate; Obama they regard as unfit, for various reasons, to sit in the White House. Having opposed everything he did for two years, and having been rewarded with control of the House of Representatives, they are now obstructing him at every turn, and doing their best, too, to deny the Presidential appointing power by refusing to confirm his nominees, regardless of their impact upon the ability of the federal government even to function. George Will, who evidently realizes that Obama has a good chance of being re-elected, calls for four more years of total obstructionism in his last column of the year.

It has now become clear to me that the United States has enjoyed only two eras of genuine political consensus in its history: from 1800 to 1824 (although in some respects that consensus persisted into the 1830s), and from about 1941 until about 1968 (although in some respects that consensus lasted at least until the 1980s.) The earlier consensus was built around white manhood suffrage, expansion into the Northwest, and attempts to keep slavery where it was. The second was based upon the New Deal and the United States' new world role. The Civil War and Reconstruction proved that the nation could pass through one of its periodic crises without creating a real consensus or even strengthening the federal government. The executive branch did not recover from the Presidency of Johnson until Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson. There is every reason to think that those of us in our sixties will not live to see a genuine consensus established again, and that the executive will continue to grow weaker for at least the next decade.

The issue of corruption at all levels of government, combined with serious economic inequality, eventually brought about the Progressive era, more than thirty years after the end of the Civil War. We too may have to wait for decades before we set about fixing government and, perhaps, restoring some of the role it played in the economy in the middle of the twentieth century. In any case, the trends of that era were clearly not fated to continue indefinitely. We have moved into a new era, one sadly reminiscent of the Gilded Age, few of whose politicians have gone down as heroic figures.


Bozon said...


Great synoptic, and comparative, short essay.

Unfortunately, forces moving events will give no one decades of political leisure to progressivize once again.

The days when drift was feasible are gone; and unfortunately, we are still less politically prepared for the consequences of it than in the past.

Many thanks,

Anonymous said...

I think the reason for the consensus and for the nonconsensus periods is relatively obvious, Balance of Power.

In the first period mentioned 1800-30s there was a northern and a southern agricultural system, one based on slavery for cotton and the other on yeoman farmers with similar numbers of states and population and therefore of production and economic (and therefore military) power(you have more exact knowledge but I bet I'm not too far off). As time progressed the northern model proved more profitable and created a lot of capital which was further invested drawing immigrants and creating industry from the newly invented industrial machines. As the country expanded westward the competition between the models became the problem. As the north had before the war 10 times the industrial production of the south and a larger population they had to win if it came to a fight.

After the war there was still no consensus with the south but the direction of the country changed as inudstrialization got going strong (railroads, telegraph, oil, steel) and the new nonconsensus was that the Dickensian exploitation of the cheap labour coming in droves form Europe and from farms provided endless slaves for industry. So the balance of power until end of depression was for industry, i.e. in favor of capital formation. Compare this to current Chinese phenomena of 120 million migratory workers coming from farms and massive exports. In 1929 depression USA lost its export markets (like China could lose today) as the Europeans were perhaps overindebted from overconsumption and people driven from work like US citizens today by China. Also US farm workers had been mostly absorbed and population growth had subsided and imigration had been stopped. So capital did not have a huge leverage over labour anymore. So we have the second period of consensus. Technology was relatively stable, i.e. nondisruptive, new markets were not appearing and Europe and Japan became integrated inot US asystem with Communist bloc separated but industrialized. Growth over a certain percentage then meant inflation, i.e. classical economics.

The big unions UAW, USW, etc. were by the time the Japanese and NICs (Korea, Taiwan,etc.) hindering effective production and the companies themselves were making poor products. The competition was actually helpful in terms of product quality and a healthy relationship between management and labour but it was not enough to destroy labour as a political power. (Japanese factories were brought to America, Wal Mart had not yet appeared). However the balance was beginnning to tilt in capital’s favour. Once China, India and then the East bloc appeared in the international marketplace applying Japanese production method in combination with Wal-Mart type marketing the end of the power of US (and European) labour and their accompanying leftwing parties was at hand. Computers did the same to office workers what Chinese production did to factory workers, decimating the ranks of middle management, the organization man of the 1950s.

Currently we see that the leverage is in the hands of capital and workers have no power to demand anything. Offshoring of factories, illegal immigrants, call centers in India, architects, engineers, accountants in Asia sending back work over internet, etc. But now the same problem is occurring as in the 1930s. Europe was overindebted and had imported too much cheap American goods making own production untenable. Now China is taking America’s place. America and Europe cannot not afford the imports, China and remainder of Asia like Japan will go bust on this export-mercantilist system. So in the Western countries the social welfare system is hollowed out as the left wing parties have no economic power base anymore.

Anonymous said...

(comment was too long -2nd part here)

How dose this swing back to consensus, i.e. to a balance of power between two sides? Remember that in the first case it was between two regional manual production models and in the second case it took 75 years after the Civil War to balance out the industrial system with the population, geography and demographics. First of all the modern social consensus system developed with much difficulty and only came out of balance after several decades of destructive bahaviour, bubbles, speculation, massive technology change, globalizaion. So if Asian production costs go up and American -European falls due to mass unemployment then labour has a chance again to assert its authority. Once Asians, particulalrly Chinese have fewer people in working age, i.e peak worker, which occurs in year 2013 and higher energy bills, i.e peak coal, occuring now, then growth will slow and fall like elsewhere to a very low number, equal to annual inflation, real zero in a number of years. Also constant technological change puts labour at a constant disadvantage, always being displaced and needding retraining although most people are getting older on average.

It is however unlikely in light of Peak Energy (oil, gas, coal) that technological change, based mostly on mass production of energy absorbing cheap gadgets to manipulate data (Smart Phones, etc.) will keep pace. In the next few years exports from OPEC and Russia will continue to fall as production stays flat and internal usage grows so that the industrial state in the West as in China will fall in significance. Manual labour and internal production will grow in signifcance and conseuqently in political power. Massive overproduction will at first have to be eliminated but without energy for factories this should be no problem. Indebtedness reduces demand for such product as well. People won’t pay their credit cards and houses and large banks will declare bankruptcy, perhaps whole countries and states like California and provinces in China as well.

So Peak energy is like the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages creating a need for labour and changing the political equation. A balance or power then was that the lord protected them and they worked. A system of chivalry and duties of servant ot lord was complicated and wellunderstood by all. Nowadays the consensus system of state social system is being destroyed as the banks, industry and government are corrupted by the money available by destroying the national systems with social balances through side channels (offshoring of production, banking in the Carribean, hedge funds, uncontrolled derivatives, impoerial adventures for military). Once the global system absorbs the Asians into industrial production with a demographic transition and transition form agricultural to urban and once the energy resources are used up-peak and decline slowly- then we have a totally new situation. I suspect a war will occur over energy and as nobody thinks they have much to lose, staring into the abyss of totally bankruptcy like 3 men in a boat with one piece of bread left, someone has to die. After this war then the technological consumption orgie will be over and for example in America there will be a consensus built around neofeudalism or yeoman farmer with manual factories and alternate energy sources. Imbalance comes only when cheap energy makes technology and capital formation easy, eliminating need for labour, or due to coming on line of massive production (US farm belt in 19th century displacing European farmers, Chinese industrial production now displacing Western labour).

Publion said...

First, I am in agreement with “Pogo” creator Walt Kelly: I am not comfortable with the extreme Right, the extreme Left, or the extreme Middle.

Second, I would place great emphasis on the following difference between the two Eras: the current Era has been driven by – though not yet widely recognized and characterized as – a Marxist-Leninist gameplan adopted by the radical-feminists in the very early 1970s (when Eurocommunism was so sure that there could be a Westernized Marxism) and – even more importantly – admitted overnight into the castle’s keep by the erstwhile sworn defenders of the outer walls, the Dems (desperate for fresh demographics after the breaking of the old New Deal coalition of Northern labor and Jim Crow South).

This gamplan had as its objective the de-legitimizing of an American Culture and polity envisioned with ruthlessly reductionistic fatuity as merely another ‘oppressive hegemonic’ entity, which had to be infiltrated, destroyed, and a new ‘counter-hegemony’ erected.

All of which claptrap was taken by the radical-feminists straight from the works of – waittt forrrrr itttttt! – two classic Dead White European Males, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci. Three if you count Vladimir Ilyich whats-his-name.

Sometime on or about January 1st, 1973, this country’s reigning political elites decided that the Framing Vision and the Constitution were not the way forward and adopted what was for all practical purposes the agitations and illuminations of Marxist-Leninist vanguard elitism, with all the secrecy and arrogant impositions appertaining thereto.

I develop these thoughts in my latest Post on the Chez Odysseus site, nor do I say this lightly: the United States, after the last forty Biblical years, must be considered as not merely the victor over Marxism-Leninism, but the heir to it.

Lastly, I think We could do well to consider Ourselves not as the Union in 1865, but rather as the Confederacy: a polity facing a hardly unforeseeable catastrophe, whose government had adopted a fatuous and lethal course on the basis of best-case scenario illusions that passed for ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’. (I say this with all due respect for the Southern brethren and sistern.)

I deal with this at further length in my second-most-recent Post, about radical-feminist light Catharine MacKinnon.

What I most certainly do not embrace at this point, as Our rendezvous with destiny is almost upon Us, is that old ditty from 20 or so years ago: “Donn’t vorrrrry! Be hapski!”