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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University, and Us

The new round of campus protests that I blogged about two weeks ago has spread to Princeton University, where black students want to erase the public legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a one-time President both of the University and of the United States.  They specifically want to take his name away both from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs and from a residence hall, on the grounds that Wilson as President proved himself one of the worst racists to occupy the White House.   I often wonder nowadays how I would fare were I still teaching at a major campus, forced to take a position on controversies like these.  Because I cannot agree with this demand, I might become the target of a campaign myself, but I prefer to think that that would not be the case. Throughout my life it has been my experience that most black people respect any white who is willing to tell them frankly how he feels about race.  Many years ago I coined my own definition of a racist: some one who won't say what he thinks because there's a black person in the room.  

I have not yet done a book about Woodrow Wilson, but I hope to do so some time in the future.   Having written accounts of the origins of two of the three biggest American wars of the 20th century, I would be delighted to fill out the trilogy with a work on Wilson and the First World War, in which his role was truly tragic.  Almost alone among the statesmen of the world, he realized that the only sane way to bring that conflict to a close was a "peace without victory," in his memorable phrase, and from across the Atlantic he challenged the European states to make one.  Sadly for him and for them, he was drawn into the war instead by German submarine warfare, and as it turned out, that ironically doomed any chance of a real compromise, since the allies now had even more reason to fight on until Germany was completely defeated.  The result was the one he had predicted in January 1917: a victors' peace, endless recriminations, and, twenty years later, another even bigger war.

Wilson was a key figure both in the history of American education and American politics.  A pioneer in the new discipline of political science, he had written prolifically on American history at Johns Hopkins before becoming President of Princeton.  There he sought to transform American higher education, which was in the midst of one of its most creative periods.  He also tried to democratize Princeton somewhat, by doing away with the socially prominent eating clubs patronized by the undergraduate elite.  In that he was unsuccessful.  In 1910, the New Jersey Democratic machine tapped him to run for Governor, and he emerged as an advocate of all the great reforms of the Progressive era, including the direct election of Senators, primaries, and some restrictions on economic concentration.   But yes, Wilson, a child of Virginia, was a hopeless racist who believed in the inferiority of the Negro race (as it was then called) and in segregation.  In 1912 he managed to conceal this sufficiently during his campaign for President and secured the active support of the young NAACP, led by W. E. B. DuBois.  Helped by a split in the Republican Party between Theodore Roosevelt's Progressives and William Howard Taft's establishment, he won a huge victory, and began implementing a big program of domestic reforms, including lower tariffs, the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, and new antitrust legislation.

But the Princeton students are right: Wilson utterly betrayed the NAACP's support, drawing a furious blast form DuBois.  Wilson was only the second Democratic President elected since the Civil War, and the first, Grover Cleveland, had been a New Yorker who held office when the Jim Crow era was just getting under way.  The white southern counterattack against Negro rights had grown in strength during the 1890s and 1900s, and Wilson entirely sympathized with it.  Washington, D. C. had been a center of Negro employment and patronage under successive Republican Presidents. Wilson segregated government offices, the first time this had ever been done, and took other discriminatory steps. Many black civil servants lost their jobs, as a recent op-ed stating the case for the Princeton students has movingly described.  He essentially refused to reply to Negro critics when they tried to call him to account.  For that, the Princeton students want to erase the most obvious symbols of his legacy from their campus.

What is at stake here, it seems to me, are two views of American history.  The first--which has become more and more fashionable over the last half century--holds that American history has been hopelessly blighted by racism since colonial times, and that attempts to expunge the legacy of racism must take precedence over every other priority in our national life, and determine our attitudes towards the past.  But a second view emphasizes the contradictions in American history and sees our past and our present as one long attempt to overcome them.  Yes, many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution owned slaves, but the documents they wrote never endorsed slavery and used universal language that was bound to call that institution into question.  That eventually resulted in the Civil War, because the southern whites knew they had to secede to give slavery the protection they wanted for it.   The freeing of the slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment led inevitably to full citizenship, because the Constitution never provided for any intermediate status between citizens and aliens.  And yes, white southerners like Wilson went to work in the decades after the Civil War to undo those gains, but in the long run, their efforts were doomed.  Whatever Wilson's views on race, the American people fought both wars for ideals of liberty and democracy--ideas which, as the European colonial powers also discovered, simply could not be limited in their application to white people.  As an American and a progressive on every issue but race, Wilson was at war with himself, and the racist elements within him were destined to lose.   That was true even at Princeton, the South's biggest bastion within the Ivy League, which did not have a single Negro student during his presidency but which is now the alma mater of, among many others, Michelle Robinson Obama, the first black First Lady of the United States.

Today's students would be equally well advised to study the career of W. E. B. DuBois, a great activist and historian whose life also took a tragic turn in his last decades.  After undergoing a disgraceful (and unsuccessful) prosecution by the federal government for supposedly failing to register as a foreign agent, DuBois turned to Communism and died in exile just as the civil rights movement was achieving what had been his life's work.  But in 1917, despite his anger at Wilson's betrayal four years earlier, DuBois, in a famous editorial, asked his fellow Negroes to "close ranks" behind Wilson and the war and do their part in a struggle for freedom.  Like Wilson, he was disappointed by the results of the war, but he had refused to allow his personal feelings towards the President to determine his stance on a great national issue.  That is part of the price of citizenship in a democracy, which by definition forces us to work within the whole society in which we live, and ultimately dooms any attempt to recast society according to a particular Utopian vision.

Woodrow Wilson did much to create Princeton University as it is today--and in the long run, he could do nothing to hold back changes that he never would have accepted.  His name, in my opinion, should remain on the school of public policy and the residence center he created as a symbol of progress in American history--progress to which he contributed in crucial ways, even as he held it back in others.  None of us, black, white, brown or yellow, should reduce ourselves simply to our racial essence. To do so is to turn our backs on our common legacy of equally as citizens, and to risk the disintegration of our nation along racial lines.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Spectator in Chief

While I am sure that every regular reader expects my response to the events in Paris and the escalating controversy that has resulted, I have decided to wait a week before thinking about it all in detail.  My old friend Andrew Bacevich immediately wrote a characteristically sensible piece for the Boston Globe, which I recommend--I hope the link is accessible.  Essentially he believes that the application of western military power cannot solve the problem, and that we therefore have to play defense, not offense, and try to quarantine what is happening in the Middle East and keep it out of the West to the maximum extent possible.  While this will not stop further terrorist attacks, I cannot suggest anything better.  But instead, I want to keep the promise I made a couple of weeks ago, and discuss part II of a conversation between President Obama and the novelist Marilynne Robinson which appeared recently in the New York Review of Books.

The conversation was remarkable to me for the extent to which the President revealed not simply his view of where American history has been going--which accords very well both with my own, and with the vision that William Strauss and Neil Howe laid out more than twenty  years ago--but his apparent view of his own relationship towards it.  Although the President is not old enough to remember the last era of genuine consensus in American history (1946-64), he knows what has changed.  Although many people are still reading, they are not reading the same books: they are reading books that reinforce their own views and their own vision.   "When I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country," he says,"there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story."  Sensational stories, he says, now dominate the news, and "all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they're not heard."  Talking about taking his family to see the musical Hamilton, the President talks about the need to teach American history more creatively, and about the need to understand how contemporary issues like religion in politics and civil rights reflect struggles in the earlier critical periods of American history.  (I am more convinced than ever that the President has not read Strauss and Howe, but it is striking how often the American Revolution and the Civil War come up in this conversation.)  Obama also understands that we are going through "a spasm of fear" and "looking for firm footing," both here and in Europe, and that in that situation, "one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame."  He talks about economic insecurity, and says, "What's frustrating to me is just that it wouldn't take tha tmuch for us to make the system work for ordinary people again."  And he adds, convincingly in my view, that he is frustrated to hear candidates talk about how terrible the country is today because of the economic progress of the last seven years.  At the same time, he recognizes that working people simply no longer make enough money to build families and give their children a better chance.

The President's response to all these problems over the last seven years, I think, shows what a product he is of his life experience.  He had an extremely difficult childhood and learned to control his emotions.  He is an intelligent and sensible man, and he expects others to think and act intelligently and sensibly.  He does not tend to question the more powerful institutions of American society, largely, I am convinced, because they have been good to him.  All these qualities would have made him a fine President in a time like the 1950s (with which he clearly feels some affinity), or, perhaps, in another 10-15 years.  But they left him unable to deal effectively with the situation he describes so well.

Fear, anger, and a sense of dislocation characterize periods of crisis, the "fourth turnings" that create a new order out of the collapse of an old one--1774-1794, 1860-68, 1929-45.  Leaders in such periods cannot simply try to dismiss such dysfunctional emotions: they must channel them in a popular and productive direction.  The Administration's decision not to try to break up the big banks or prosecute any of their executives allowed the Tea Party, not the Democratic Party, to mobilize all the anger abroad in the land.  Obama, who months ago told David Remnick that he did not think a President could change the direction of the country--and that that was "a good thing"--has left the field clear for others to try to do so.  His failure to seize the initiative more effectively in his first year in office cost him the control of the Congress.  With respect to the economy, he has assumed that we were on the right course.  He has not been able to enlist the nation in a great cause, to create a news story that would dominate our media--with him playing a leading role--and to make the nation feel that he has changed our lives.  He feels, in short, that he and his contemporaries inherited a relatively just world, and he cannot understand why so many of his countrymen seem determined to destroy it.

Here the President shares the flaw of the whole liberal establishment, the heirs of the New Deal and the Great Society: the belief that because what they want is right, it should automatically come to pass, and vice versa. (This is also showing up in his denial that ISIS is a state.  It does in fact exercise authority over a substantial territory with a substantial population.) Yet the values of the mid-twentieth century--the concern for the common man and woman, the belief in economic growth as an engine of progress for all, and even the faith in science as a solution to economic and political problems--were simply products of a specific historical time and place.  They cannot be assumed to last forever: they had to be renewed.  This is what Obama, for a brief moment, might have been able to do in 2009, as FDR had done in 1933--but he did not really try to.  And this is still what Benire Sanders would like to do--but he seems unlikely to get the chance.

The world crisis is escalating since I wrote the first draft of this post, and the President is aggressively asserting himself to try to prevent a large ground campaign in Syria and Iraq.  I think that he is right, and that in this case he seems willing to stand up for his beliefs.  It will however be difficult, because the pressure to revert to the policies of George W. Bush is growing, and in Russia and France as well as here.  This is the drama of our great crisis--the crisis which, abroad, the President has not been able to escape.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Credit and blame for eight years

An interesting picture is circulating around social media, a quick statistical summary of changes between 2008--"the last Bush year"--and today.  Rather than simply reproduce it, I'm going to discuss its data.  The essential point of it is that the country is much better off now than it was then--that the hysterical Republican jeremiads about how Obama has led us down the road to hell, and that another four years of the same policies would complete the destruction of America, are simply ridiculous.  That is true, but there are other subtler implications buried in the data--and in data that does not appear--that put a more broadly historical slant on the data.

Let us begin, as the poster does, with raw macroeconomic data.  The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.2% to 5.1% (and dropped another .1% in the last month.)  GDP growth was -.3% in 2008 and is #.7% now.  The Dow has risen from 10,355 to 16,271.  And although the designers of the poster--"Occupy Democrats--declined for some reason to mention it, the fiscal 2009 deficit was $1.4 trillion, and the fiscal 2015 deficit was $412 billion, less than 1/3 as much--and I suspect the fiscal 2016 deficit, the real comparison, will be even lower.

This data is playing a role in the Republican primary campaign.  Chris Christie, John Kasich,and Scott Walker (while he was still in the race)  all give themselves and their policies credit for the economic recoveries and consequent budget improvements in their individual states.  Meanwhile, Jeb Bush gives himself credit for even faster growth during his term (1996-2004) as governor of Florida, even though that growth was obviously fueled by the worst housing bubble in the nation, and he escaped blame only because of his fortuitous departure from office three years before the bust.  In three debates, not a single moderator, much less a rival candidate, has challenged any of these men's economic claims.  The truth is that President Obama has presided over a relatively austere Administration, cooperating with Congress in a series of cuts in the federal discretionary budget, while allowing tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to lapse in 2009.  He has pursued moderate Republican economic policy, with good, though hardly spectacular, results.  It was not so long ago that 5% unemployment was cause for concern, not rejoicing.  Still, it is rather sad to see him get so much less than no credit for getting us back to our new normal.

But has anything other than the slow, steady drop in unemployment helped the average American?  Yes. As the poster informs us, the rate of medically uninsured Americans has dropped from 15% to 9.2%.  It could have dropped further had not nearly every red state governor refused to undertake medicaid expansion.  Oddly, however, Democratic politicians are still too frightened to take any credit for this publicly.  Paul Krugman recently pointed out that the Republicans have stopped running ads about people claiming to have been hurt by Obamacare, because their stories have not held up.  I expect such ads to return next fall.  And I am not aware of a single ad that any Democratic candidate has run featuring some of the many Americans--of all races--who have been helped by Obamacare.  Republican propaganda has very effectively skewed the public debate.  Meanwhile, the fall in the deficit reflects a sad, simple fact: Obama's measures to stimulate the economy were brief and relatively modest, and since 2011 he has been going along with the Republicans in the House, and now the Senate, and steadily cutting back desperately needed federal discretionary spending.

Meanwhile, the poster has nothing to say about income distribution, because, of course there is no good news to report. Inequality was bad in 2008, and it is worse now.  The new GDP brought about by the recovery of the last six years or so has gone entirely to the top few per cent of our society.  That in turn has increased their political influence still further.  In that sense, Barack Obama and his administration have failed to reverse the most important long-term trend of the last 40 years, the shift from a relatively egalitarian society to a new Gilded Age.

The poster's next two data points refer to energy.  The cost of a gallon of gas has fallen from $3.24 to $2.31, and our oil imports have been cut by more than half, from 11 million barrels to 4.5 million.  That, I believe, is the fruit of the energy policy Dick Cheney's task force adopted way back in 2001, out of sight of the public--an attempt to use fracking to create an energy-independent United States.  It has had stunning results and has made life easier for millions of Americans, including yours truly, who is looking forward to lower heating oil bills this winter.  But like income inequality, this is in area in which the President has gone with the flow that had built up over the years before he became President.  We shall find out later whether it has been a good thing or not.

Lastly, in its one foray into foreign policy, the poster reports that Iran had 19,000 centrifuges in 2008 and has 6000 today.  I agree that the Iranian nuclear agreement is a remarkable achievement--although the Supreme Leader is not making its implementation any easier by ratcheting up his anti-American rhetoric to compensate for it.  The poster might also have compared the number of American troops in Afghanistan Iraq then to now, which would have flattered the Administration, in a sense, as well.  But policy toward the Middle East is another area, like energy, in which Obama has gone with the flow.  Bush overthrew one Middle Eastern dictator; Obama has encouraged or actively brought about the overthrow of three others, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and he has called for the overthrow of a fourth, Hafez Assad, with disastrous results.  ISIS, which did not exist in 2009, now rules a good chunk of Iraq and Syria, partly as a result of these policies.  The worst refugee crisis since the Second World War has also resulted.   The Bush Administration fantasy that democracy would follow dictatorship has continued to influence American foreign policy, and it has mainly produced more chaos.  The number of American troops in the region, while still small, is increasing again.

In its only foray into social issues, the poster points out that teen pregnancies are also done, from 40.2 per thousand to 26.5.   That's very good news too, of course, but it may be threatened by the Republican attempt to put Planned Parenthood out of business.  Gay marriages, of course, have also enormously increased, and will continue to do so.  I welcome all this, but on the economic and foreign policy front, Barack Obama has missed the chance to reverse the trends of the previous years, because he did not want to.  (I shall have more to say about him personally, based on new evidence from the public domain, next week.)  Hillary Clinton is his most likely successor, and her whole record tells me that she will do nothing to reverse those trends either.   The persistence of Republican control of Congress will stop her from doing much on the domestic front in any case.  And if a Republican is elected, Obama will go down in history like Louis XVI or James Buchanan--the last, marginally ineffective defender of an old order destined for the dustbin of history.