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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...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Recurring Themes in American history

Over the last week I read most of a book that has been sitting on my shelf for about 4 decades, The Era of Good Feelings, by a British historian, George Dangerfield.  It appeared in the early 1950s and dealt with the years 1812-1828.  I skipped the sections of the War of 1812 because I was already sufficiently familiar with that period thanks to Henry Adams's magisterial History of the United States under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which ranks with Allen Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union as one of the two greatest grand scale works of US history.  Dangerfield, let it be said, was not nearly as good a historian as Adams or Nevins.  He spends much too much time putting everything in his own words, and far too little quoting his subjects. He spends a lot of time talking about Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and John Quincy Adams, but I didn't feel I got to know any of them.   Much of the book is about complicated trade questions involving the U.S. and the British Empire, and he makes a complete mess them which I often could not follow.  But still, the book provided a lot of food for thought, because the great issues of the day--the role of the banking system, economic inequality, and the United States' relationship to the wider world--have changed much less than you might think.

The Era of Good Feelings--which Dangerfield actually declares to have been a misnomer--has been so called because,. for the only time in its history, the US essentially had only one political party.  The Federalists had disappeared nationally and did not even field a candidate in 1820, and the Whigs only emerged during the subsequent presidency of Andrew Jackson.  But the great fights between Democratic Republicans (by 1820, Democrats) and Federalists in the 1790s were still alive within the Democratic Party.  They turned on economic institutions and the role of government.

The banking system, led by the second US Bank--chartered under the Madison Administration--was a source of great controversy.  Banks, those magical institutions with the power to create money, supplied U.S. paper currency in those days, and of course they were almost completely unregulated.  Hamilton had persuaded Washington that the US needed a national bank back in the 1790s, and Madison had agreed late in his own Administration, after the original institution had disappeared. Many orthodox Republicans, however, especially in the South and West, still disliked banks, whom they thought took advantage of the common man.  And lo and behold, what should bring about economic ruin to much of the country in the late 1810s, culminating in the panic of 1819?  Nothing more nor less than the 19th century equivalent of a housing bubble: a boom in land speculation, fueled by the issuance of bank notes, which led to a crash and a widespread loss of fortunes.  What occurred to me as I read all this was that the orthodox Republicans, men like the half crazy John Randolph of Roanoke, who had viewed even Jefferson as a hopeless apostate, had grasped an essential truth.  Banks, we now know thanks to Thomas Piketty, are the mechanism through which the law of capital accumulation--the tendency of capital to increase faster than economic growth--works itself out in practice.  It took the United States another 100 years or so to realize that because banks are also an economic necessity, the only way to moderate their natural economic role of promoting inequality was to regulate them.  It took 65 years after that, until the Clinton Administration, to forget that lesson once again.  And by 2007, it was 1819 all over again--only much worse.  

There was, meanwhile, another economic issue about which the orthodox Republicans were less sophisticated.  "Internal improvements"--mainly roads and canals in those pre-railroad days--were advocated strongly by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams (who together swung the indecisive election of 1824 to Adams over Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives) as a means to develop the nation's economy and unify it.  Adams even hoped that they might integrate the South into the national economy, convert southerners to industry and commerce, and promote the abolition of slavery.  But Andrew Jackson and many other Democrats opposed them as likely to concentrate economic power and make the rich richer.  They did not understand, in short, that infrastructure projects could stimulate the economy, and divert economic surpluses from bank profits to public goods.  We must not feel too superior about this: we seem to have forgotten that, too.

The other theme of the book involves the role of the US in a hemispheric battle over the political future.  On the one side was the fledgling United States and the new Latin American Republics, who had rebelled against Spanish rule; on the other side was the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, which had intervened to stop several revolutions in southern Europe and wanted to do the same in Latin America.  In the middle was Great Britain, and more specifically its foreign minister, George Canning.  Canning and his Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, were not liberals even by the standards of 1820s Britain.  They opposed Parliamentary reform or broadening the franchise and cared nothing about the condition of the new industrial masses.  But largely for economic reasons, Canning wanted to confine the influence of the Holy Alliance to Central and Eastern Europe, and at a critical moment, he declared that Britain could not stand aside if that alliance sent troops to Latin America.  Canning's declaration was the real force behind the Monroe Doctrine, in which our own President announced that the United States would oppose any further attempts by Europeans to colonize the Americas.  This was an era in which Americans thought they were leading the way to a new world.  Only a few years later, in Democracy in America, Tocqueville endorsed that view, warning Europeans that their aristocratic societies could not survive much longer.  That did not mean, however, that he expected them all to become electoral democracies on the US model, but only that their legal social distinctions would disappear.

The question of how far the American model will spread remains critical today,. of course, 200 years later.  Russia, China, and various regimes in the Middle East have put forth alternative models.  Authoritarianism is gaining ground in Eastern Europe, which the West thought had been secured in its camp twenty years ago, but whose allegiance is much less certain now.   And the current election will largely be dominated, it seems, by the issue of intervening on behalf of American interests and values in the Middle East.   Paradoxically, while we are infinitely stronger militarily today than in 1824, we do not have the political momentum on our side in the contested areas of the world.  President Obama, for all his faults, seems to realize that.  It is not clear that any of his likely successors do.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Issues in Crisis in the 19th and 21st centuries

For the second time in American history, a legally defined form of property has become the source of intense political conflict. To illustrate the remarkable similarities between a current controversy and another one nearly two centuries old, let us follow the example of first-year economics textbooks and describe a generic form of property: widgets.

A political crisis has arisen over widgets because different regions of the United States see them completely differently. In one, an almost unanimous opinion holds that widgets are sacred private property guaranteed by the Constitution, in which the federal government has no right to interfere. In the other, widgets are regarded as a danger to life, health and morality. As the conflict over widgets escalates, the two sides take more and more extreme positions. The pro side begins to argue that widgets are not only convenient, but necessary; the cons claim that they are a stain upon the nation. Both regions pass state laws reflecting their points of view, but the permeability of borders within the United States means it’s hard to make these laws fully effective. And because both sides want their view of widgets to prevail nationwide, the issue eventually reaches the Supreme Court.

In the 21st century, widgets are guns. In the 19th century—with due respect to those involved, who were people, not things—widgets were slaves.  To be sure, the issues are not entirely comparable.  Although guns kill more than 30,000 Americans a year, according to the CDC, they are not doing the harm that slavery did. But, while we all agree now that slavery was evil, we violently disagree about guns.  The history of the two issues has many parallels, and points to the terrible difficulty of reaching a consensus.

The history of slavery from 1789 to 1862 is much more complex than most people realize. The Constitution effectively permitted slavery, though it never referred to the institution by name and included a provision allowing the regulation of the slave trade after 20 years had passed. Many states in the North abolished slavery in the wake of the revolution, and many southerners, including slaveholders, expected it to disappear. But the picture changed after the advent of the cotton gin, the technology that shifted the economics of slavery by creating incentive to expand the institution rather than letting it fade. The new shape of the conflict was clarified in 1820, when Missouri sought admission to the Union as a slave state.

In the debate on Missouri, southerners for the first time began to argue that slavery was a positive good reflecting a true superiority of the white race and that the federal government had no power to prevent its spread. They were not altogether successful. Missouri was admitted with slavery, but the Missouri Compromise banned any new slave states north of Missouri’s southern border. During the next 40 years, southern claims steadily escalated. By the 1850s southern politicians were arguing that slave property must be protected not only in new territories, but even within states that had abolished it. And when Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived with his master for several years in a free state, the Supreme Court in 1857 not only refused his claim, but endorsed the idea that Congress had no right to restrict slavery anywhere.

Meanwhile, abolition was gaining ground in the North. The Dred Scott decision spurred the movement forward precisely because it suggested that the free states might not have the power to remain free. And that, in turn, moved an Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln, to argue in the next year, 1858, that a house divided against itself could not stand, and that the nation would have to become all one thing or all the other.

While the gun issue has taken much longer to mature, its outlines are extraordinarily similar. The Bill of Rights, in the Second Amendment, did protect a right to bear arms, although it did so within the context of the perceived need for “well-regulated” militias. Just as it was once reasonable to expect slavery to fade away, it once seemed likely, as militias were replaced by the organized national guard, that widespread private gun ownership would be increasingly restricted. Both states and the federal government passed numerous restrictions on firearm ownership, some of which were approved by the Supreme Court. Marshalls in the late 1800s forced cowboys to check their guns when they came to town, and Tommy guns were banned in many particularly violent regions in the 1920s. By the time the 1950s rolled around, guns were not a hot-button political issue in the U.S.

A series of events in the 1960s served as the stakes-raising cotton gin of the gun controversy. A succession of political assassinations, of figures including John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., led to calls for even tighter control, which in turn provoked a more powerful backlash from the NRA. That organization widened its role from a defender of hunters to an advocate for the right to own firearms. And while the gun controversy does not divide on regional lines as rigidly as the slavery one, it does have a powerful regional dimension. Both sides are also escalating the fight, with some arguing that the nation must become all one thing or the other: no restrictions anywhere or extremely strong ones everywhere. On Dec. 4, in response to new waves of mass shootings, the New York Times put the NRA’s fantasies into print, arguing in a front-page editorial not only that sales of assault weapons had to be banned, but that the many thousands of them already in private hands had to be given up. On the other side, at least one Congressman has already argued that his open-carry right should automatically extend throughout the United States as well, and such a case may reach the Supreme Court sooner or later. 

The gun question is one of several huge issues, including immigration, global warming and the role of the federal government, that have divided us into two nations with very different views of how we should live. That is what has made this  the fourth great crisis of American national life, parallel to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Depression and the Second World War, as I discussed last week. And now the question, once again, is whether we can find a way out of this conflict that does not involve a new civil war. Finding a peaceful way forward will be an enormous task for whichever candidate wins in 2016. Any President who could do so would earn a place alongside Lincoln and FDR.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life

In 1991 and 1997, two amateur historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, published two books presenting a new scheme of American history, Generations: The History of America’s Future, and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.  Strauss was a lawyer who had worked in Congress and become a very successful entertainer as producer of the Capitol Steps comedy troop; Howe had abandoned graduate study in history and become a speechwriter for the Concord Coalition think tank. No contemporary professional academic would ever have attempted, much less completed, books like these.  They divided the American people into generations and American history into eras of approximately 80 years in length, what they called a saeculum.  Each saeculum concluded with a great crisis, what they called a Fourth Turning, which marked the death of an old order, the triumph of a new set of beliefs, and the creation of a very different America.  These crises had indeed occurred at regular intervals: the Revolution and the Constitution (1774-1794), the Civil War and its immediate aftermath (about 1861-8), and the Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War (1929-45).  Doing the math in the early 1990s, they predicted a fourth one beginning sometime between 2005 and 2015.  That prediction--that the United States would in the early years of the 21st century find itself in another great crisis that would reshape American life at home and our role abroad—has now come true.  It has not, however, turned out in the manner that they had hoped, for reasons which they could not foresee.

The reception of Strauss and Howe’s ideas has varied widely.  The reviews of their books were decidedly mixed.  Their most enduring contribution will apparently be the term the Millennial generation, which they coined in the early 1990s to describe children born since 1982, and whom they expected, quite correctly, to be very different from Generation X.  With the exception of myself, one other now-retired professional historian and a few social scientists, professional academics have taken almost no notice of them.   I have incorporated their insights into two books on different eras of recent history, and have also applied their model to Western Europe.[1] The corporate world, on the other hand, became very interested in their generational analyses, and Strauss (who died of cancer in 2007) and Howe have been much in demand as corporate speakers, discussing the managerial and marketing implications of their views of different generations.  And meanwhile, thanks to social media, a nationwide network of acolytes has grown up, continually exploring the implications of their theories for history, literature, films, education, and just about everything else.  

Again and again in American history, new generations have destroyed an old order.  In the second half of the 18th century, a new King, George III, tried to impose larger burdens on his American colonies. They disputed his right to do so, fought a war against him, and eventually won their independence and wrote a new Constitution.  The Founders generally viewed slavery as an unfortunate evil, confined it to where it already existed, and expected it to die off, carefully omitting any explicit mention of it from the Constitution.  But the generation born after the birth of the new Republic—the Transcendental generation, as Strauss and Howe called them—put slavery at the center of our political life.  While northern abolitionists demanded its extinction, southern fire-eaters praised it as a positive good and demanded that it be extended both to the west and to the south.  The Webster and Clay generation, the Compromise generation, had been born early enough to remember Washington in the White House.  They fought valiantly to keep the Union together, but when they died the civil war became inevitable.  One key American who had foreseen this was Abraham Lincoln, who anticipated Strauss and Howe’s theory very accurately in a speech he gave in Springfield, Illinois when he was not yet 30 years old.[2]  In 1861, Lincoln defined the secession crisis as a test of whether a democratic government could maintain itself against a rebellion. Thanks to him, the war ended with the reunion of the nation and the end of slavery. Unfortunately, determined white southerners restored white supremacy within another decade, while corporations and urban machines took over politics in the north.

Corporate America ruled the world left behind by the Civil War.  The Gilded Age saw the growth of huge fortunes, frequent booms and busts, and widespread poverty.  Two new generations, the Progressives (children during the Civil War) and the Missionaries (born in its wake) reacted by arguing that science and reason could reorder modern life and create a better world.  When economic catastrophe struck the country in 1929, the leading member of the Missionary Generation, Franklin Roosevelt, led a crusade to remake our economic life based upon moral principles, rather than the pure pursuit of private gain.  Banking was tightly restricted, labor unions won federal protection, the New Deal built new roads, bridges and schools, and Congress passed social security.  Then, when the world war broke out, Roosevelt, as I showed in my last book, recognized it as a struggle to define not only the future of the United States, but of the whole planet.  We prevailed.[3]  Roosevelt had an even more acute sense of the 80-year rhythm of American history than Lincoln, and more than once he compared his own era to the period of the Revolution and that of the Civil War.

In the wake of the victorious war—and especially in the early 1960s—another generation, the GI or “greatest” generation (Strauss and Howe used GI), extended Roosevelt’s work still further.  They built interstate highways, ended legal segregation, and vastly expanded public education.  They also put American troops on the borders of Communism around the world.  They had numerous progeny—the Boom generation—whom they simply assumed, as parents so often do, would follow in their footsteps.  But that was not to be, largely, but not solely, because of the GIs’ catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War.  The Boom generation was questioning by nature, and eagerly sought out the flaws in their parents’ edifice.  They argued that women enjoyed inferior status, that civil rights legislation was not enough, and that, as one of their most famous members argued in a valedictory address in 1969, we needed “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”[4]  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they insisted on defining good and evil according to their own lights.  In academia, they rapidly concluded that no one had had a truly important idea before about 1968.  While the Missionaries and the GIs had tried to organize society and the world, the Boomers focused above all on individual self-expression.  They also led a religious revival and an unprecedented growth of religious influence within politics.  Meanwhile, they took their parents’ and grandparents’ economic and social achievements for granted.  In 1993, a Boomer reached the White House.

It was at this point that Strauss and Howe—two Boomers who had grasped that history had not begun with their own generation--stumbled upon the overarching pattern of American history and predicted another coming crisis.  The Fourth Turning in particular focused on the immediate future.  Written in the midst of the economic boom of the 1990s, after two decades of sexual license and bitter conflict over social issues, it anticipated that some striking event, a catalyst, would force the nation to organize to save itself.  Once again, they expected a leader like Lincoln or FDR to emerge, and once again they thought the heroic virtues of courage and sacrifice would become crucial to the nation’s survival.  In the concluding chapter of The Fourth Turning, which appeared in 1997, the authors tentatively listed five possible scenarios that might trigger the crisis.  In the first, one or more states laid claim to federal revenues and defied the federal government.  In the second, terrorists threatened American cities with nuclear weapons.  In the third, an impasse between the Congress and the White House led to a government shutdown.  Their fourth scenario turned on an epidemic of a new virus, and in the last, Russian attempts to regain former Soviet territories brought Russia and the United States to the brink of war.  Perhaps at this point, even skeptical readers will have to agree that Strauss and Howe were on to something.

Now, nearly twenty years after The Fourth Turning appeared, students of generational theory agree that we are in the crisis they predicted, but they differ over when it began, how far along it is, and how it is going to turn out.  Neil Howe dates the beginning of the crisis only to 2007, and until July 2010, I agreed.  But at that point, I decided that he and I had been mistaken.[5]  It was suddenly clear that Barack Obama was not going to reverse any of the major changes in American domestic and foreign policy that had been undertaken by his predecessor, George W. Bush.  Bush was, in fact, the Lincoln or FDR of our time, however much he may have differed from them in values, vision, and ability.  He, not Obama, created the new order that replaced New Deal America, and the changes his Administration implemented will define American life and our role in the world for decades to come.

When 9/11 occurred it was tempting to believe that it was the catalyst for the new crisis.  Both Strauss and Howe speculated about this possibility, but when 9/11 failed to lead to the kind of changes they had in mind—specifically, a more civic spirit and a decline in the importance of social issues—they both decided that it had not. So did I.  Now I would date the beginning of the Fourth Turning not on September 11, 2001, but in November and December of 2000, when the Republican Party, taking advantage of its control of the government of the key state of Florida and the conservative majority that it had put in place on the Supreme Court, managed to thwart the expressed will of the voters of Florida and the nation and get George W. Bush into the White House.[6]  That, like the prior impeachment of President Clinton on truly laughable grounds, confirmed that the Republicans had no respect whatever for competing views, the law, or the traditions of the nation, and that they would do whatever was necessary to get what they wanted.  Our fourth great crisis, it turns out, has been a second, non-violent civil war, in which Republicans have fought to undo the history of the twentieth century with far more zeal than Democrats have fought to preserve it.   That is why they, rather than the Democrats, will emerge as the victors in the current crisis—whether they regain the White House in 2016 or not.  

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their extragovernmental allies such as Grover Norquist did not wait for 9/11 to begin implementing their agenda.  Cheney’s energy task force, which met in secret, evidently laid out the strategy for US energy independence, partly with the help of fracking, that we have been pursuing ever since.  In 2003 the Republican Congress slipped an amendment to the Clean Water Act into a larger bill that made fracking exempt from regulation by the EPA.  Inheriting a budget surplus, Bush immediately put through the first of several rounds of tax cuts, most of which remain in place, and created a permanent federal deficit.   His Administration, as is well documented, began planning the invasion of Iraq.  Then came 9/11, a shock probably without parallel in American history—and George W. Bush knew what to do with it.

Bush himself may never have read Generations or The Fourth Turning, but I would not be at all surprised if Karl Rove had.  A Texas friend of mine has pointed out that John Sharp, a Texas politician close to Bush who is now the Chancellor of Texas A & M, frequently mentioned Strauss and Howe on his website.   When I personally queried Rove’s administrative assistant as to whether Rove had read the books, she said his schedule was too full to respond.  Certainly Bush’s response to 9/11—to declare a generational struggle, a global battle against terrorism that might last for decades—was very much in the spirit of Lincoln and FDR.  More importantly, Bush immediately and explicitly repudiated some of the key foreign policy principles of earlier generations.  He approved the torture of prisoners in violation of the Geneva Convention, his Administration kidnapped and incarcerated people, some of them completely innocent, from all over the world, and he decided to invade Iraq on a flimsy pretext which the UN, crucially, would not endorse.   That was why his own father, acting through Brent Scowcroft, tried to head off the war, and several Foreign Service officers resigned in protest.  But in the post-9/11 wartime mood, the opposition to the Iraq war was limited to a tiny minority of the House and Senate.  Bush evidently saw himself as the new Franklin Roosevelt in at least one respect: he honestly believed that he need only topple a few dictators, and democracy would spread through the Middle East.  High-ranking Administration officials spoke freely of impending wars against Iran and North Korea, after Iraq was taken care of.  Bush lined up behind Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party in Israel, publicly repudiating the traditional American support for the 1967 borders. A new national security strategy replaced the philosophy of the old nonproliferation treaty with a declaration that the United States would unilaterally decide who could possess certain weapons and who could not.    

The results have, of course, been very different from what Bush anticipated.  When things began to go badly, beginning with the failure to find a WMD program in Iraq, the Bush Administration undertook vendettas against troublesome domestic opponents like Joseph Wilson.  Bush’s response to the opening stages of his great crusade makes an interesting contrast with both Lincoln and FDR.  In 1861 both the North and the South confidently expected the war to be over by Christmas, but when things went badly, Lincoln set about mobilizing armies of unprecedented size.  Roosevelt, as I have shown, asked in July 1941—five months before the United States entered the Second World War—for an estimate of what it would require to defeat all our potential enemies, and that estimate was ready by September and became the basis for our war plans and our victory.  Bush, confronted with the inadequacy of our forces to achieve the results he had in mind, did nothing and continued cutting taxes.  Convinced, like so many of his contemporaries all across the political spectrum, of his own moral rectitude, he apparently believed that he could have anything he wanted just by wishing for it.  Meanwhile, in response to the “global war on terror,” a new military-intelligence complex grew up in the Washington suburbs, draining away money from domestic needs and creating a permanent lobby for a permanent war.

After winning re-election in 2004 by quite a narrow margin, Bush hoped to privatize Social Security.  He could not however do so, and meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina exposed the inability of the federal government to function effectively.  The war in Iraq reached its most critical stage in 2006-7, but General Petraeus managed to bring the Sunni areas under control.   Still, the Bush Administration was so unpopular that it lost control of Congress in the 2006 elections, and some of us looked forward to a New Deal-style Fourth Turning under a Democratic president.  Then, in 2007-8 came the Great Recession.

The collapse of our major financial institutions was also, of course, a very generationally inspired event.  Roosevelt and the Congress had separated investment and commercial banking with the Glass-Steagall Act and had imposed such strict regulations on banking that for several decades, banking was no longer a good way to get rich in America.  But those regulations had begun to loosen in the 1980s, and the Clinton Administration, itself utterly in thrall to Wall Street, had overseen the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Since then we have entered a new era of booms and busts, of which 2007-9 was of course the worst.  Meanwhile, income inequality has reached staggering proportions.  To many of us, in 2009, when Barack Obama entered office with 60 votes in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House, it seemed time for him to revive the spirit and some of the measures of the New Deal.  That, as it turned out, was not to be.

Several important factors kept the nation going in essentially the same direction in economics and foreign policy.  To begin with, the combination of Bush’s tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had created a permanent deficit of about $500 billion a year even before the crash, and the government therefore lacked the available resources needed for a successful countercyclical policy that would do more than simply stop the economic bleeding, as the stimulus did.  Secondly—in sharp contrast to 1933—there was a great shortage of even moderately left-wing economists, reformers and politicians who would provide the advocacy for real institutional change, and the energy to make it work.  The New Deal had begun approximately 40 years after the dawn of the Progressive Era, but liberalism, and especially government regulation, has been on the decline since the late 1960s.  The Republican Party, meanwhile, decided to do everything it could to make Obama fail, and completely opposed everything he did, making it much harder for him to accomplish very much even in the first two years of his Administration, when he controlled Congress.  It was impossible in any event to undo many of the Republican achievements of the previous 40 years, such as the re-shaping of the judiciary, and thus, the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision, with fateful consequences, during Obama’s first term.

 Last and hardly least, there was Barack Obama himself—a man, it rapidly became clear, who trusts the system which has been so good to him for the whole of his adult life.  The appointments of Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury and Larry Summers as his chief White House economic adviser told us all we needed to know about his plans.  Obama agreed, in effect, that the system that they had created under Clinton merely needed a bit of tinkering and a huge bail-out from the Federal Reserve.  As a result, and despite Dodd-Frank, that system remains in place today.  That was not all.  Obama, temperamentally, is not a crisis President.  Both Lincoln and especially FDR knew how to arouse the nation’s anger against enemies foreign and domestic.  That is not Obama’s style.  He is not a Boomer, and has made clear that he wanted to put Boomer conflicts behind us.[7]  Because he wanted to put an end to the partisan divisions of the 1990s, he allowed the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party, to turn most of the nation’s anger at the big banks and mortgage holders against his own Administration.  Obama never wanted to be FDR.  He wanted to be a combination of Eisenhower and JFK, as shown, very revealingly, by his declaration some years ago that we faced a “Sputnik moment.” “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” he declared early in 2015.    He would have been a fine President in an era of consensus—but that is not the nature of our times. 

 Obama in 2009 made a fatal political miscalculation.  When Roosevelt entered office after three years of depression in 1933, he managed to help millions of Americans improve their lot during the next two years, and was rewarded by even larger Congressional majorities after 1934.  Obama had to do something similar, such as providing relief for delinquent mortgage holders—but he did not.  The Republicans swept House elections and took over key state governments in 2010. Any chance of a liberal regeneracy died for the remainder of his term and the foreseeable future, thanks to relentless Republican gerrymandering in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  And the Republican propaganda machine has managed to define the public debate on several important issues, scaring Democratic candidates away even from taking credit for the Administration’s biggest achievement, Obamacare.

Bush’s influence, meanwhile, has been even more enduring in foreign policy.  Obama has ordered that torture cease, although he did so in a way the leaves any future President free to resume it.  He has also reached a nuclear deal with Iran and opened diplomatic relations with Cuba.  But at the same time, he has retained two crucial elements of Bush’s disastrous policies in the Middle East.  During the Arab spring he assumed, like Bush, that the fall of any authoritarian regime must be a good thing and a step towards democracy.  These hopes have been seriously disappointed in Egypt and even more in Libya, where his successful attempt to bring down Qaddafi has led to anarchy.  For years he has advocated the removal of Bashir Assad in Syria, even though this would almost surely be followed by bloodbath comparable to what happened in Iraq.  He has done nothing effective to stop Israel’s move towards the annexation of the West Bank and a one-state solution.  And although he pulled American troops out of Iraq, he has now committed us to war against ISIS.  Make no mistake: George W. Bush is largely to blame for ISIS.  Removing Saddam Hussein ignited a very bloody civil war between the majority Shi’ites and the minority Sunnis, and it is now well documented that Iraqi Sunnis turned to ISIS when the Maliki government continued to persecute them.  ISIS—a direct offshoot of Al Queda in Iraq-- is now a magnet for disaffected young Muslims all over the world, and American attacks only make it more so.  Obama has not come close to acknowledging that the nations of the Middle East will have to work out their political problems on their own.

The nature of today’s Democratic Party has also militated against any fundamental change of course in either economic or foreign policy.  Simply put, those are not the things that Democratic activists care about, and have not been for decades.  They care about climate change and the environment, and the status of women, minorities, immigrants, and gay men and women.  And indeed, this crisis is going to end, apparently, with gay marriage firmly established within our culture, and with the rights of upper-class women very much intact.  As a result, the Democratic Party depends for its victories in presidential elections upon cultivating those communities, and upon young people, the majority of whom also support these positions.  This coalition won Obama a solid re-election victory two years ago, but it is not at all clear that they will do the same for another Democrat in 2016.  

Bernie Sanders’s emergence as a serious candidate has interesting generational implications.  Sanders is nearly old enough to FDR’s death, and like Roosevelt, he is making a moral attack on our economic system which evidently has a good deal of appeal.  But even so, there does not seem to be much chance that next year’s election will undo what has happened in the last fifteen years.   If a Republican wins next year’s election, the dismantling of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era will accelerate.  If either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected, more stalemate is likely, since the Republicans are almost certain to control the House and retain more than 40 votes in the deadlocked Senate.  All-out Republican political warfare has continued during the last three years.  The Benghazi investigation, we now know, was an attempt to once again use subpoena power to embarrass a presidential candidate named Clinton.  Even if Clinton wins, her track record suggests that she will be just as much a free-marketeer and foreign interventionist as Bush or Obama.   Sanders would try for new policies, but he could not do much without a Republican Congress.

In the Strauss-Howe historical cycle, Crises give way to Highs—consensus periods in which the differences between the two parties shrink, ideology fades into the background, and respect for institutions rises once again.  The Highs of American national history include the period from Jefferson to Monroe, the Gilded Age, and “the fifties,” really the years 1946-64.  The first and third of those eras were relatively prosperous and institutionally creative.  The Gilded Age was much less so—and it is clearly towards the Gilded Age that we seem to heading.  Writing in 1870 about how financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk had nearly brought down the currency of the United States with irresponsible speculation, Henry Adams concluded that their Erie Railway, a typical example of great new corporations, had “shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check.  The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie. . .will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.”[8]   Now we have reached that point once again.

If the Crisis ends sometime between 2016 and 2020, the next twenty years will see America more and more in thrall to its corporations, with inequality increasing still more.  While the upper reaches of society will be open to women, minorities, and gays, the lower reaches will increasingly have to fend for themselves, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual preference.  Undocumented immigrants may well continue to make up a substantial portion of the work force.  The energy industry and the financial sector will essentially control government at every level, just as the “trusts” and railroads did in the late nineteenth century.  The endless war in the Middle East will continue.  Periodic terrorist attacks at home will occupy much too much of our attention, and keep that war going as well.  Protests will be shrill, relatively unorganized, occasionally violent, and generally ineffective, like the Wobblies and Coxey’s Army.  Indeed, the Occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter movement already fit this pattern, as observers such as Oprah Winfrey have noted.  Intellectual life will stagnate, in part because rampant individualism rules the academy as well.  We cannot yet say what the effect of the decline and fall of magazines, newspapers, and even serious films will be, but there is little cause for optimism.  It is possible, of course, that some genuine national catastrophe or even a massive foreign war could still force the nation to pull together, but I will be very surprised if it does.  We lack the capacity for mobilization and organization that earlier generations had—and so, for better or for worse, do the other major states of the world.

There are many broader lessons from what we have been through.  The Republicans have won a series of spectacular victories on the economic front because they have been trying so much harder than the Democrats for the last forty years.  Conservative business interests saw themselves as the losers in the last crisis, and their children have been fighting hard and well to redress the balance since 1964.  Liberals, meanwhile, took their parents’ achievements for granted and focused upon a relatively narrow set of issues.  Strauss and Howe argued that the movement of history is cyclical, but not linear.  The decline of civic culture was very noticeable to older, educated observers after the Civil War, just as it has become obvious to many of us now.  Meanwhile, by the time the new Crisis ends, a new generation of Prophets, parallel to the Transcendentals, the Missionaries, and the Boomers, will have begun to be born.  Growing up an era of inequality and chaos, they will, I predict, grow up to be young adults dedicated to order and justice.  Slowly but surely, they may begin to reverse these trends by about the middle of the century.  That is the way in which man, again and again, has restarted the clock of history, and we owe it to William Strauss and Neil Howe for bringing it to our attention in time at least to understand the troubling times in which we live.

[1] David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War(Cambridge, Mass., 2000); David Kaiser, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War(New York, 2014); and David Kaiser, Neither Marxist nor Whig: The Great Atlantic Crises, 1774--1962, and the Foundations of Domestic and International Order" by David Kaiser, The Monist, vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 325-355.
[3] See Kaiser, No End Save Victory.
[4] This was, of course, Hillary Rodham.

[5] See my blog post, “The Regeneracy may not be televised,” July 5, 2010, http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html.
[6] For the record, it is clear, to begin with, that the government of Florida, led by Jeb Bush, had purged more than enough minority voters from its rolls in the months before the election to have given Al Gore a clear majority.  Secondly, in one of the more influential accidents of history, the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County cost Gore another several hundred votes. Lastly, the most thorough study of the voting, completed well after the election, found that a complete recount of the state would in fact have shown Gore to be the winner.
[7] Before Strauss and Howe the Baby Boom generation was defined demographically, to include those born from 1946 through 1964.  They described the Boom generation based on life experience, and dated it from 1943 through 1960—in other words, anyone who does not remember FDR, but does remember JFK.  Obama, like the vast majority of Americans born in 1961 or later, does not identify as a Boomer, and he had a classic Generation X childhood, raised by a single mother, a stepfather, and his grandparents.
[8] Henry Adams, “The New York Gold Conspiracy,”  in George Hochfield, ed., The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 and other Essays(New York: Sagamore Books, 1958), p. 189.