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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...

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Investigations and elections

I am withholding any comment on the Mueller report in the hope that we will in fact get to see it.  In the meantime I could speculate a great deal about what it might and might not say, and I could return to things I have said previously about what available evidence seems to show about relations between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, but I think that would be irresponsible, since nothing I said would be based upon the best evidence that may become available.  The end of the Mueller investigation, however, may in any case mark a very significant milestone in US history, as do many of the steps being taken by the Republican Administration and the court system.  The age of government by bureaucracies established to serve the public good may be coming to an end.

The Mueller investigation was the fifth in a series of prosecutorial investigations of sitting Presidents and their administrations or campaigns, following those of Watergate (1973-4), Iran-Contra (1986-93),  Whitewater (1994-2000), and the leak of a CIA operative's name (2003-7).  While Congress had probed wrongdoing within earlier or current administrations on a number of occasions in the past, I cannot at the moment recall any cases of the federal criminal justice system investigating the administrations, campaigns, or personal and financial behavior of sitting Presidents that compare to those four.  The government, in the person of Attorney General Elliot Richardson, handled Watergate in 1973 like the unprecedented event that it was, appointing the first Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after the initial round of Watergate convictions and investigations led to revelations of wrongdoing at the highest levels of the Nixon campaign, the Justice Department, and the White House.  In October 1973 Nixon arranged for the firing of Cox after Richardson and his deputy resigned, but public pressure forced him to replace him with Leon Jaworski, who eventually convicted a number of the President's closest advisers of various kinds, and would have moved to indict Nixon himself after his resignation had President Ford not pardoned him.  The Watergate controversy also led to the passage of a law providing for the appointment of a special counsel whenever an executive branch official was accused of serious wrongdoing, and numerous investigations resulted for the next thirty years.  Almost fifteen years later, the Iran-Contra investigations also led to some convictions at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration, but President George H. W. Bush eventually pardoned the convicted men, and his own involvement, well documented, in the abuses under investigation did not prevent his being elected President in 1988.  The Whitewater investigation continually broadened its mandate and eventually resulted in the impeachment of President Clinton for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but did not convict any government officials of wrongdoing.  The investigation of the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plume by the George W. Bush Administration led to the conviction of Scooter Libby in  Bad feeling over these various investigations eventually led to the Congress allowing the special counsel law to lapse.   Robert Mueller's investigation has indicted more than a dozen Russians for interference in our election by computer hacking and secured convictions of a number of campaign officials.  Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater also provoked intense and often televised Congressional hearings, but since the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in 2017-8, there has been no parallel investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia yet.  The House Intelligence Committee, now controlled by Democrats, may undertake one.

Beginning with Watergate the continuing through the three subsequent administrations, defenders of the administration under attack have complained that these investigations were fishing expeditions or witch hunts that threatened the legitimate powers of the executive branch, or, as Republicans like to claim, turned policy differences into crimes.  (The case of Whitewater, which did not involve the exercise of governmental authority, was different, but it struck most Democrats as a hopelessly partisan investigation into trivial financial matters and personal matters that were no one else's business.)  Given that these investigations threatened sitting Presidents, the possibility of presidential pardons hung over them, and such pardons did save Nixon from prosecution and eventually wiped out the convictions of several Iran-Contra figures. Donald Trump has now pardoned Scooter Libby, and he may well pardon some of the people whom the Mueller investigation successfully prosecuted.

Taking a very broad view of this history, I think, hardly anyone could argue that this process has worked well.  It has generated an enormous amount of media coverage and stoked partisan feeling, but it has not resulted in very many convictions for actual wrongdoing related to the offenses charged, at least since Watergate.  The convictions of American citizens secured by Mueller's office almost all relate to other kinds of offenses, not conspiring with a foreign power to affect the election.  It seems to me that these episodes have been confrontations between, on the one hand, our relentless criminal justice system--which, as another author and friend of mine has argued, could convict almost anyone of something, if it devoted substantial resources to doing so--with a highly and increasingly partisan political environment.  The Watergate investigation obviously had the most striking results of these four, and it took place when the GI generation still ruled Washington and partisanship was not nearly as all-encompassing as it later became.  It clearly dealt with serious crimes, including burglary, wiretapping, and obstruction of justice, all deployed to affect an election result.  The most important illegalities in Iran-Contra, while very serious, in my opinion, from a constitutional point of view, were much harder to translate into personal criminal liability.  In Whitewater there were few, if any, real crimes involved at all on the part of anyone but the actual developer of the resort.  Regarding the Mueller investigation, I will remark that while it seems quite clear that several high officials discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with Russian officials, that in itself would not be a crime either.

In general I think these cases (except for Watergate, which, interestingly, also wrapped much more quickly than any of the others) accomplished more harm than good, insofar as they distracted politicians, the press, and the public from the real business of government and increased partisan rancor.  The conclusion of the Mueller probe, managed partly by the President's new Attorney General, has left the Democratic party and its media allies in the position of having brought a knife to a gun fight--they evidently depended on it to destroy the Trump Presidency, which now finds itself in its most powerful position since it came into office.  That however seems similar to the conclusion of Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and the Libby probe, none of which did critical harm, in the end, to the administrations then in power or to their historical reputations.   The mass of the American people did not take Iran-Contra seriously enough to punish George H. W. Bush at the polls in 1988, Bill Clinton survived the impeachment that grew out of Whitewater, and George W. Bush was re-elected in the midst of the Plame investigation in 2004.  Donald Trump may well lose next year's election but if he does, I do not think it will be because of the Mueller investigation or the Congressional probes that may follow this year.

Partisanship and ideology, it seems to me, have led both to the real or imagined abuses of power that led to these investigations, and to their failure to do much good.  The Reagan national security bureaucracy believed so deeply in the support of the Nicaraguan contras that it chose to defy a Congressional ban on it.  Republicans in the mid-1990s were so freaked out by the election of a young Democratic President (just 18 months after it seemed that Bush could not possibly lose) that they moved heaven and earth to continue the special counsel investigation, even when the first special counsel was ready to give it up. (Jesse Helms apparently persuaded a judge face to face to appoint a successor.)  Meanwhile, one legacy of Watergate, it seems, is to have convinced Democrats that disgrace or impeachment is a good way to get rid of a hostile and perhaps dangerous Republican President.  That model has failed both in the case of Reagan and of Trump.  In a remarkable video, Representative Tulsi Gabbard--one of the most independent thinkers in Congress today--suggests that it is time to put the investigation behind us, and turn to the business of governing America, allowing the voters, a mere 18 months down the road, to decide upon the fate of the Trump Presidency.  This would be an important step towards the reinvigoration of our democracy.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Then and now--from the 1880s to the 2020s

I have often remarked that for productive authors, or composers, or artists, the trick to keeping things moving is to get going on one's next project before the last one has appeared.  I have followed my own advice again and am now immersed in the politics of the 1870s and 1880s, envisioning a book on Gilded Age politics that will climax (but not begin) with the very exciting election of 1884.  The book, I am convinced, will resonate among students of our current scene.  The hallmark of politics in those days, as in ours, was extreme partisanship, and both parties argued in every election that their opponents' victory would lead to complete and immediate disaster.  The press was so partisan that one very informed observer could cite only two major newspapers--the New York Herald and the Boston Herald--that simply tried to report the facts. Then as now, partisanship led to numerous attempts at various levels to manipulate the electoral process.  The economy was on an upward course by the late 1870s, although it was subject, like ours, to the periodic panics and crises that we managed to do without from 1933 until 2008 because of the tight regulation of the banking system that the New Deal adopted.  Labor had virtually no rights, there were no income or capital gains taxes, and inequality was growing rapidly.  Political corruption ruled the federal, state, and various local governments.  The race issue remained very heated, and some Republicans had not yet given up on preserving votes for freed slaves despite the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877.   When the Democratic Party took control of Congress in the mid-1870s, it tried to force President Hayes to accept restrictions on federal power by threatening a government shutdown.   In one respect, one could argue, the leaders of that period showed more responsibility than ours:  they were paying off the huge debt accumulated during the civil war at a remarkably quick rate.  Amidst all this, a small group group of journalists and a few maverick office holders such as the German-American Carl Schurz demanded a saner, cleaner politics, actually focused on making the government work better  and meeting some of the nation's needs.  History eventually vindicated them.

In at least one sense, however, those nineteenth-century men and women had a healthier political system than we.  They took politics far more seriously than the average American does today, and it filled up incomparably more of their time.  The daily and weekly press shows that American citizens followed public affairs far more intensely and knew much more about them than they do today.

In the wake of the Civil War, Republicans in particular felt keenly that they were living in a great progressive era of history, marked by the development of democratic government, which was also making progress across the Atlantic.  They had fought and won a gigantic struggle--still the most costly conflict, in absolute terms, in American history--to preserve the Constitution and eliminate slavery.  They saw themselves in the forefront of history, and Democrats did not disagree with that.  Observers of all stripes customarily remarked in those days that they were not living in an era of great political leaders such as Adams and Jefferson, Webster and Clay, and Lincoln and Seward.  The characteristic political figure of the time was a boss such as Roscoe Conkling of New York, or Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, or James G. Blaine of Maine, not a great and courageous thinker with new ideas for the future of the nation.  Meanwhile, the world of 1880 had no television, broadcast or cable; no radio; and no social media.  Newspapers, which proliferated like web sites today, provided all the news and much of the nation's entertainment.  And they covered politics with astonishing detail.

No one, I often say, is entirely lucky or entirely unlucky.  I have spent my adult life watching serious history go out of fashion, but at the same time, advances in information technology have made my work easier and easier to do.  Thanks to various newspaper databases and magazine archives, I can bring virtually any publication to life right on this computer screen within a minute or less.  And reading the newspapers of the Gilded Age is a remarkable experience.

Without word processors or even typewriters (until the mid-1880s at least), newspapers could commit remarkable amounts of information into print in one 24-hour news cycle.  And politicians provided most of their copy.  They constantly printed whole speeches, either on the campaign trail or in Congress.  They also printed interviews.  The very words of politicians, delivered at great length, were the stuff of politics, in a way that the rants of cable news people are today.  Carl Schurz, the leader of the reform Republicans, had immigrated from Germany as a young man and made his name by speaking to German-Americans for the Republican Party.  As late as 1880, he often spoke in German, but the papers managed to get translations of his remarks before the public within 24 hours.  The political leaders themselves set the tone of public discussion in a way that they have now ceased to do.  They talked at length, and often quite technically, about financial issues, civil service reform, the status of black Americans in the South, and much more. The public took them seriously precisely because they saw them as the heirs of the great men of the previous 100 years--even if they generally agreed that they did not deserve that legacy.  We no longer see our politicians that way, partly because so many activists on both the right and the left do not view the history of the last 100 years as an inspiring story which it is our job to continue. Nor do we seem to have very many political leaders who consciously identify with any of the greats of the twentieth century, including the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, or even Reagan.

The political leaders of the late 19th century did little to arrest some alarming trends in American life.  Fueled by a cruel process of industrialization, inequality grew apace, and money played an increasing role in politics.  Black Americans lost most of the rights they had been granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.  A bipartisan consensus did take some small steps towards replacing a politicized civil service with a professional one, laying the foundation for the great achievements of the twentieth century.  Still, the nation took the American experiment, the attempt to make democratic government work and serve the needs of the people, seriously, to an extent that I am not sure that it does today. 

Even though the two sides had fought the civil war out to a final conclusion at Appomattox, the divisions that had led to it created the intense partisanship of the post-crisis era.  Today, as we slowly move towards a most uncertain outcome of our own crisis, it seems pretty sure that partisanship will persist for a long time as well.  The election of 1884, in which a Democrat won the White House for the first time since 1856, and Grover Cleveland's first term that followed it, marked a step towards the reconciliation of the two sides, and the progressive movement that began to emerge in the next decade was bipartisan.  Perhaps we too must look forward to a new era in which the two parties can genuinely work together to solve at least a few problems--even if many of the biggest ones remain unsolved.  To do so we must all maintain some faith in the processes and institutions we have inherited from our forbears.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Meaning of "Economic Mobility"

High-level college admissions are in the news this week thanks to an infuriating scandal. They were in the news last fall thanks to the lawsuit against Harvard and how it selects its freshman class.  I followed that case very closely and have been planning to write something about it for quite a while, but I have not yet done so.  The new controversy has provoked a lot of revealing discussion about how people see the role of our top institutions in our society, and one remark, from an article this morning in the New York Times, especially caught my eye.

The article asks, essentially, whether the very rich parents who bribed their kids into Yale, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown got their money's worth with respect to their children's economic future.  (Whether they got their money's worth with respect to bragging rights among their friends, or their parental self-esteem, would of course be harder to measure, although I suspect those motives were equally important.)  The answer, according to some studies that researchers have done, is probably no.  The children of very rich parents are likely (though not certain) to wind up well-off themselves whether they attend an elite school or not.  The article cites evidence, however, that for low-income students, top institutions can have a dramatic effect.  This paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:

"At the same time, research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20 percent of the income distribution from the bottom 20 percent, moving to the top 1 percent from the bottom 20 percent almost always requires a highly selective institution. If you’re at all concerned about economic mobility, this underscores the waste of unfairly displacing qualified low-income students from top colleges and universities."

I have two comments here.  To begin with, I honestly believe that that this paragraph captures the real motivation for affirmative action programs for poorer minorities at Harvard and other elite schools.  They understand perfectly well that they are admitting (or retaining) young people into, or in, the topmost ranks of our society, and they want those top strata to be integrated, or, to use the current term, "diverse."  And they are succeeding.  There isn't any evidence that Barack Obama needed affirmative action to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard Law School.  Attending the elite Punaho school in Hawaii was enough to get him onto the top track, and his own achievements kept him there. But his accession to the White House represented the ultimate success of the strategy these schools are pursuing.

Yet that paragraph--and the pride top institutions take in their affirmative action programs--disturbs me a great deal, because it expresses a remarkably obtuse vision of what "economic mobility" means.  Yes, it's inspiring when some one moves from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to the top 1%, and those who managed to do so have been the stuff of American legend from the beginning of the Republic onward.  But a view that measures mobility by the ability of people to move into the top 1% is rather narrow, insofar as it totally ignores the fate of the 99% who will never get there. And these policies are doing nothing for most of them.

Yes, a diverse elite is better than a narrow one, but neither is much good to the bulk of the population within an economy that is trending steadily towards more and more inequality. They can only benefit by returning to the kind of income distribution and society that we enjoyed half a century ago, in which top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91% to 70%, workers' wages were still rising in absolute terms, and executive salaries were a fraction of what they are today.  Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the huge expansion in their own personnel, universities today need the much richer 1% of 2019 much more than they did in the 1950s.  Their admission strategies, we have learned, put a high priority on cultivating the wealthiest donors on whom they must rely for their economic future.  And with respect to income inequality--to use a phrase from half a century ago--that makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no matter how many disadvantaged people they manage to funnel into the top 1%.

The excellent book Winners Take All, which I reviewed here a few months ago, analyzed the moral dilemma of the new superrich: how to feel progressive while remaining solidly within the 1%.  Affirmative action as it is practiced today by elite schools is one "solution" to that problem.  I have thought a lot about who is benefiting and who isn't from the Harvard admissions policies that were laid bare last fall, and I will eventually getting around to sharing my views about that.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The space program and its era

Over the years I have made a number of posts here about the misrepresentation of the world of my childhood.  Today's writers and producers have a lot of trouble grasping how different the 1950s-early 1960s were--how there were so many issues in life that people simply didn't talk about, and how generally accepted the norms of those era really were.  I have noticed that the post, Truth, Fiction and Masters and Johnson draws a dozen or two hits almost every week.   About a year ago I posted about The Shape of Water, which caricatured 1962 to a remarkable extent.  This week I discovered not only another symptom of this disease, but an antidote.  The subject was another iconic aspect of that era, the space program.

First Man, focusing on Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling, clearly had big aspirations for box office success and rewards, but sank like a stone.  It closed before I could see it in theaters and I just watched it on DVD.  It was the third major motion picture about the space program in the last 35-40 years.  The first, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's best-seller, came out in 1983, only 14 years after the Apollo moon landing, and dealt with the original Mercury program.  Its writer/director, Philip Kaufman, came from the same generation as many of the astronauts.  The second and by far the best was Apollo 13, the dramatic story of a nearly disastrous 1970 mission, appeared in 1995, and its director, Ron Howard, had seen the space program from the beginning as a small child and was already a national icon himself at the same time that the astronauts were.  Now, a full 24 years later, comes First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle,  who was born in 1985 and is therefore much too young to remember the Challenger disaster, much less any of the moon shots--or, more significantly, to have any real sense of what that era was like.

Chazelle's film focuses almost obsessively on Armstrong the man, and I must apologize for not having looked at the biography that he claims to have relied on, to see how it described his personality.  Gosling's Armstrong appears to be--there is no other way to put it--clinically depressed.  The film focuses on his loss of a baby daughter to cancer, and portrays a man who even by the standards of the 1950s-1960s is almost entirely without emotion, speaks as rarely and briefly as possible, and has a great deal of difficulty showing any emotional connection with anyone.  The film showed him flying what I took to be an X-15  in the 1950s but spent no time explaining that Armstrong, unlike nearly all the other astronauts, was not a military man, but a civilian test pilot.  I did, however, find a BBC interview on youtube which Armstrong did in 1970, if either Gosling or Chazelle saw it, they didn't allow it to influence them very much.  Armstrong clearly is quiet and reserved, but he shows plenty of emotion, and he also shows a quick intelligence and a very observant, engaged mind, responding in detail and without hesitation to all his interviewers' questions, confident that he is part of a great enterprise which will continue, and expand, throughout the rest of his life--in ways that it did not.

The bigger historical problem with First Man, however, is that it extends the image of Armstrong the loner to the entire program and the environment of all the astronauts.  They are portrayed, astonishingly to those of us who remember those times, as an isolated group who don't seem to enjoy much public support, who cope alone with terrible dangers, and who have to beg the public and the authorities to even keep their program going.  The opposite was true.  The whole program was a national drama from 1961, when Alan Shephard made the first suborbital flight, through the first Apollo landing in 1969, and most of the classroom instruction in the United States came to a halt whenever a launch took place during the day.  I don't think Chazelle can imagine what a world with just 3 tv channels, all of whom would tune in to major events like NASA mentions, was like.  There is nothing today--literally nothing--that commands the kind of attention that those launches did as it happens, not even, probably, the annual Super Bowl.  Our media, like our politics, are now fragmented and tribal, and we don't experience things as a nation the way that we did then.

A central episode in the movie led me to the primary source I was looking for to put the film in perspective.  That was the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, when the three astronauts who had bee assigned to the first Apollo launch--Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee--burned to death in their capsule after an electrical malfunction created a spark and set the oxygen atmosphere of the capsule on fire.  The accident took place around dinner time, but I remember that I didn't hear about it, for some reason, and learned it when I saw the front page of the New York Times that was delivered to me dormitory room the next morning.  It was a terrible shock because no astronaut had died before; despite some problems (including one that figures earlier in the film) the Mercury and Gemini programs had been completed without any catastrophes.  But I found on youtube what I missed then: a CBS special report, hosted by Mike Wallace, that probably ran about 11:30 PM that night.  It should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand what masculinity really meant 50  years ago. It was not toxic.

Wallace and the other correspondents--including both Walter Cronkite, whose involvement in the whole program was particularly intense, and Dan Rather, who reports from Washington--are obviously deeply affected by the tragedy, but they speak calmly, factually, and in full grammatical sentences.  So does Gus Grissom, the oldest and most experienced of the three dead men, in a previously taped interview in which he is asked whether, preparing for his third trip into space, he fears that the "law of averages" might catch up to him.  "There's always the possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, it can happen as well on the last one as on the first one," he says, but one can't do anything but prepare as well as possible.  "You have to understand the feeling.  .that a test pilot has," Ed White says, "that I look forward a great deal to a first flight, there's a great deal of pride involved in making a first flight."  "Our business," said Roger Chaffee, "is to find our if this thing will work for us."  Like the nation they represented, they had confidence, and like professionals who deal with life and death in any era, they accepted the risks they faced as part of their job.  In another moving clip, White suggests that the example of the moon program will inspire young people to set, and achieve, difficult goals."I think if a civilization, if our country, becomes so obsessed with making our country easy to live in, and making our surroundings so comfortable, that we are in an ever-descending spiraling-in spiral right within ourselves, and if we don't look out and continue to expand ourselves and expand our horizons. . .we're not going to progress as a nation."  The even keel with which he delivers those words makes it quite clear that he was not in any way posturing; he believed every word.  In another clip, John Glenn, our first orbiter, had stated in response to a question that "we" fully expected to lose a man sooner or later.

I am often struck as I listen to NPR nowadays that broadcasts are based on emotions, that they are the basis of the "stories" the reporters chose to tell.  The CBS broadcast reeks with tragedy, but it is secondary to the inexorable march of the facts, of what had  happened, of how the men had died, and of what was known and not known about why the disaster had taken place.  NASA, including its chief scientist Werner von Braun, spoke very frankly even that evening.  Another astronaut, Walter Schirra, speculated that the mission would be delayed for only a few months. As it turned out, it took longer than that, but the program, of course, met John F. Kennedy's original goal of reaching the moon during the decade of the 1960s.

When the Apollo I disaster took place, the greater disaster that would destroy the ethos of that era--the Vietnam War--was already in full swing.  Within just a few more years, our government and many of our other institutions would be presumed guilty by much of the citizenry whenever anything went wrong, and responsible authorities were learning to react defensively and to start spinning from the word go.  In January 1967 that was not the case, and Walter Cronkite, in his last words on the program  also emphasized, "this is a test program," that many test pilots had died in conventional aircraft, and that while this would delay the program to 1969 or 1970, it "shouldn't, in any way, damage our national resolve to press on with the program for which these men gave their lives."

That era will not come back in any of our lifetimes.  It had taken a century, I now think, to create its ethos, and for half a century we have been tearing it down.  We have made social progress in areas that that time had neglected--but politically, we have regressed in ways that Wallace, Cronkhite and the rest could never even have imagined.  One cannot, I think, watch that CBS special--as I hope many readers will take a half an hour to do--without realizing that it embodied virtues that we lack, and that we can try at least to revive in our own environment and our own lives.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

What we are missing

Since the election of Donald Trump, more and more people have come to realize that something is deeply wrong with the United States, and that the nation has indeed lost certain things that allowed the political system and society more generally to work.  Those things include a certain measure of consensus about what society should look like and what government should do, as well as the capacity to put resources to work solving important problems.  We have instead sunk rapidly into ideological, political and racial tribalism, our politicians unable to agree on even the simplest truths.  Anyone who, like me, thought that the evident parallel of an utter incompetent in the White House might draw us together got a rude shock watching the Republicans during the Cohen hearings.  A great many people still remember the America of the last High (1946-64), when economic equality was rising, we built interstate highways and went to the moon, and large bipartisan majorities passed civil rights laws.  But very few of us have any sense of how we got there, which is the real key to understanding how we might regain some lost ground.  And all sides of the political spectrum, I would argue, are making it harder, in one way or another, to get there.

I have written many times that our current crisis has three precedents in the last three centuries: the era of the Revolution and the Constitution (about 1774-1794), of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath (1860-1868), and of the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45).  28 years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe noticed that pattern and thus managed to predict that a new crisis would begin in the first 10-15 years of the 21st century.  They were right, but the new crisis has so far failed to achieve anything similar to the results of its predecessors.  Let us look for a moment at each of them.

The struggles of the years 1774-94 revolved around the questions of who would govern the British colonies in the United States and how they would do so.  Everyone in the region had to take sides on those questions, and they did.  The decision to fight for independence forced the colonies to raise and provide for armies and to issue their own currency, and to make foreign alliances and write new state Constitutions.  That led eventually to the defeat of the British and the recognition of independence in 1783.  The weak national government established by the Articles of Confederation could not however carry out the terms of the peace treaty, establish a stable currency, or defend the nation against foreign enemies, and the new Constitution was therefore written and adopted in 1787.    The states debated ratification vigorously, and it passed.  Political conflicts remained very heated during the first 12 years after the election of Washington as President, but in March 1801, after a contested election, Thomas Jefferson could declare, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."  The nation had agreed on its new form of government and was making it work, while settlers moved into the midwest--the former Northwest Territories--and began creating new states.  Slavery was generally abolished in the northern states and many hoped that it would disappear in the South.  And Jefferson's Democratic Republican party established a national hegemony that lasted, in one way or another, until 1841. 

When the slavery question first erupted on the national stage in the 1820 debates over the admission of Missouri, the aged Jefferson wrote that the younger generation was clearly going to throw away the achievements of their elders.  The new, post-revolutionary generation did not regard slavery as an unfortunate evil that would disappear with time.  Its southern members increasingly saw it as a positive good that needed to be extended, while an increasing number of northern abolitionists saw it as irredeemably evil and in need of extinction.  In 1860-1 that issue split the country and led to civil war.  Lincoln argued from the beginning that democracy, not slavery, was the critical issue in the war, which the central government had to fight to prove that it, and other governments like it, could survive.  In 1862, of course, he also turned it into a war of abolition, but it remained a conflict between northern democracy and southern aristocracy as well.   The conflict involved an utterly unprecedented mobilization of resources on both sides, and established new party loyalties that lasted for decades. Superior resources and superior stategy enabled the north to win the war.  The conflict continued in the southern states for another 12 years in an attempt to reshape their politics.  In the end the North wearied of that struggle and white southerners returned to local political power, even in the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where whites were in a minority, and only terror and intimidation could secure their rule.  Because the war was fought on political lines--Republican vs. Democratic, for the most part--as well as sectional ones, the northern victory established the Republican party as the ruling party for the next 20 years (1865-85) and 36 out of the next 44.  That party also instituted policies of high tariffs, relatively sound currency, payments on the public debt, and the unrestrained growth of corporate power.  Once again, only a new generation, the generation born after the Civil War, came forward to challenge those consensus principles of the new era.  And only when the old order had clearly broken down in the midst of the Great Depression did they get their chance actually to replace it.

The crisis of 1933-45 began as a political response to economic collapse, based on the idea that rationality could make the economy work better, restrict greed and speculation through regulation, and secure a decent life for everyone.  Then, beginning in 1940, it involved another unprecedented mobilization to assure the survival of the nation and of democracy around the world.  The new consensus, which was not seriously challenged after the war, recognized the rights of organized labor and took many steps to promote the well-being of the GI generation that had fought the war and of their numerous children.  In the wake of the war, the renewed commitment to democracy also energized the civil rights movement and eventually put an end to legal segregation and gave everyone the right to vote.  The nation also agreed on the need for a huge peacetime military establishment, including a draft, and a system of foreign alliances to defend the world against the Communist threat. The Democratic Party became the majority party as a result of the crisis, particularly in Congress, where it ruled almost without a break from 1948 through 1980, and Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford did not challenge the postwar domestic consensus.  Barry Goldwater, the first presidential candidate explicitly to run against the new consensus, went down to a crushing defeat in 1964.  But once again, at that very moment, a new postwar generation was preparing to challenge much of the consensus that they had inherited.

The most important opposition to the postwar order came from sectors of the Republican Party that had never accepted it.  Billionaires such as the Koch brothers--whose father was in the 1950s a founding member of the fringe, far-right John Birch Society--took advantage of loopholes in the tax laws to shield their fortunes and use them for political purposes, eventually taking over most of the Republican Party and using political power to undo the mid-century regulatory state, roll back the rights of labor, and push for a series of tax cuts--including cuts in the inheritance tax, our only tax on capital--to allow their fortunes to grow at much faster rates.  The alliance of energy barons like the Kochs and the Republican party led in the early 2000s to a decision to make the United States self-sufficient in energy, and it has blocked any attempts to do something about global warming.  Meanwhile, white southerners, dismayed by the victories of the civil rights movement, moved into the Republican column.  Donald Trump in office has essentially functioned on behalf of these interests, while mobilizing the electorate in a way that traditional Republicans no longer could.  On the other side of the political spectrum, the Boomer children of GI Democrats--like the post-Civil War children of victorious Republicans--took their parents' achievements entirely for granted and focused on a new range of issues.  These included more active attempts to improve the economic lot of minorities, the opening of opportunities to women, and greater tolerance for alternative sexual behaviors, including legalized gay marriage.  While these were worthy goals which have opened up various elite sectors of our society, they have not allowed the Democrats to mount any effective resistance to our increasing economic inequality and the growth of corporate power that goes with it.  As a result, the Democrats have lost the support of much of the traditional working class. 

The two sides of our politics now have their own media outlets and their own world views.  To the Republicans the enemy remains government at all levels, which gets in the way of free enterprise and redistributes wealth from deserving "earners" and "job creators" to the undeserving poor, including millions of immigrants.  To Democratic activists the enemy, increasingly, is composed of straight white males, a majority of whom now vote Republican, and who stand in the way of oppressed groups.  The Democratic view rules academia and the mainstream media while the Republican view appears to dominate corporate America--and still will when Donald Trump has left the scene.  Every previous crisis also had to overcome great divisions within the body politic.  A minority of Tories opposed the revolution and anti-federalists fought the Constitution.  The Civil War, by definition, divided the nation into hostile camps who settled their dispute on the battlefield, at enormous cost.  A vocal minority of Republicans regarded the New Deal as the spearhead of totalitarian Communism.  But in each of those cases, one side brought together enough resources to prevail in a struggle that was both political and military, and its victory enshrined its values for decades to come.  That created enough of a consensus for the nation to move forward, solve problems, build infrastructure, and educate its citizenry.  We are failing on all those fronts now.

The kind of mobilization that led us out of our previous crises requires us to put aside our individual concerns and contribute resources for the greater good.  That, I fear, we can no longer do.  Different forms of selfishness drive both sides.  The Republicans oppose, on principle, the diversion of private resources for the public good.  The Democrats tend to stress the needs of specific groups, not those of the nation as a whole.  And critically, both sides at this moment seem to me to be doubling down on their most extreme positions rather than finding a more centrist approach that might break our deadlock.  I think that our hyperpartisan atmosphere will burn itself out within another 10 years at the most, but that in itself will still leave us divided, mistrustful, and without any unifying national identity.