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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.


Ed Boyle said...

So a vision of the future might be a hypertechnological future with few jobs except for highest technically educated(total automation in services, manufactures) population falling due to this lack of opportunity, massive emigration, governments, corporations and individuals going bankrupt due to massive indebtedness, USD losing its position, US military withdrawing abroad, disbanding at home as troops are paid in paper not accepted by retailers(see Venezuela), government rules, court decisions, police, IRS, congress all being ignored, flouted, ridiculed as citizens scrape by on self grown food and black market manufacture similar to russia in 1990s. IOW slow systemic suffocation, breakdown due to sclerotic indecisevness. Amazon, Walmart may survive a while but eliminate most jobs then people will in the not be able to shop at cheapest stors eithers due to lack of income. Meantime this conundrum will have caught up with stock markets, money center banksbwho live from QE, low to negative interest rates. The real economy, housing, autos will be stagnant as next generation will be much smaller and older ones indebted, impoverished( boomers overspent, millenials with student debt, wrong education).

About the structural problems in congress. I read that in 1900 or so a senator might serve some time and die. Now they are there for decades live into their 90s. On general population basis this is reflected in 'retired' boomers still at work, crowding out their grandchildren till they are too old to hav families. This also makes medical system expensive as most costs occur last few years of life and that is getting ever longer. Candidates for president are in their 70s. This unprecedented in our history, looks more like papal elections. Congress is similar. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and co. could lead a generational revolution against age prrivilege in office, social security system, general jobs tenure everywhere, and medal system bankrupting youth. At any rate the unnatural longevity is destroying natural historical fluctuation of historical cycle as we discuss here. Maybe it will become 100 year cycle or just burn out on itself without a crisis as the oldters hang on to power, life itself beyond nature's call. This fundamental change due to technology, medicine in modern times on the flow f histr ought to be considered. If the population structure were still pyramidal with succession at all levels taking place, allowing normal experience for all age levels at specific life stages and family formations then a transition could occur with new fresh ideas. If the boomers maintain the ideologicl, financial, powr stranglehold then the postwar order of military policeman, dollar dominance(40s legacy)plus 60s style racial, sexual ustice will all be insisted upon along with 1980s legacy of Reaganomics laissez faire from the right and now 00 years legacy of Bush-permanent global war, withou congressional approval plus debt financing, QE and acceptance of nonfunctioning markets and fake government statistics. So built up legacies are sclerotic to system. We need a clean slate. Crash system. Bankruptcy. How does one get past all the identities one has built up for oneself in so many past identities which contradict one another? We need a sort of reincarnation with a memory hole. Reboot.

Bozon said...

Interesting post.
I am still looking over it, but this passage caught my eye.

"...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. ...." DK

Just a few remarks on this very brief passage.

The liberal consensus that supposedly existed was largely what one really should call a Let The Good Times Roll consensus.

It was an anomalous electoral fluke, I think perhaps, not a vital or abiding center, within our rather fragmented and divisive history, frankly, and was undermined by other both older and newer agendas, even as it started, and then spent, its fortuitous force.

On the reverse side of the argument, one can take heart in never having lost something, a vital center, which one ever really even fully, and for any length of time, had had!

America was never even able to sustain something so execrable as democratic liberalism for very long, or very well.

Purely domestic income equality was rising, albeit strictly luckily, fortuitously, and accidentally, in that the American home economy was not shattered, as the rest of the West had been. Call it a liberal stooge ' peace dividend ', one of the few examples in modern history.

The New Deal and GI Bill also played a part, but they were both predicated on good luck in WWII. They were also not designed to help negroes much at all, or they could not have been passed.

Most European countries couldn't, and didn't, give their GIs much more than jack squat.

The Soviets' 'GI Bill', a huge victory dividend, not merely a peace dividend, was the ability, unfettered by the other 'Allies', to freely pillage Eastern Europe and East Germany, and then to take it over, thanks mainly to FDR's Newer And Better Deal, with Uncle Joe.

Increasing domestic inequality was also, nevertheless, then also well under way, and rising, but largely masked by social welfare programs for the poor, a WWII peace bonanza very unevenly distributed in favor of the military, then the Great Society, and resulting hegemonic trade advantages, 'the world is our oyster' Sovereignty At Bay reality, etc.

Global equality was not rising much, however, although global income convergence (different thing) was then already also well under way, and was rising at the same time as the political and economic basis for domestic equality was being fundamentally undermined.

All the best

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

You are absolutely the best at encapsulating the meaning of the past and present.

History is a humanity, so by training you should be free of the bias toward prevailing cultural normalities that characterizes the work of too many social "scientists." In this post however I think you overstate the power of the present normative disunion.

Humanity by nature displays a highly and perhaps uniquely contingent approach to belonging. That is, new things routinely overthrow old things, and often do so disturbingly quickly. (Remember the Walkman? Everyone on earth had two.)

Something will change in the near future that will resolve the Crisis. In the past three crises, that something was a war. Maybe the present division constitutes a cold civil war. Maybe this will become a hot war, or maybe not. But something will happen to end the Crisis and trigger the High, because that is what the pattern calls for, and patterns are the only truth.

Jude Hammerle

Unknown said...

Ahhhh, yes, good old-fashioned compromise. That can't occur while we have a narcissistic criminal in the highest office in the land who lies like he draws breath. The GOP is "the enemy of America." Get off the damn fence.

Unknown said...

I think today's crisis is going to be climate-driven, in that as conditions change rapidly on the planet because of carbon emissions-driven global warming, a panic will set in and people will either adapt by joining together to solve the problem or we will all collapse as not only a country or civilization but as a species. Maybe we humans can find common ground and get to work setting up a new carbon-free civilization, or one much less carbon emitting, or maybe not. But if we squabble over social issues or which phony version "economic growth" we can sustain, without addressing carbon emissions, we're toast.

Unknown said...

I really enjoy reading your column every week, thank you for the thoughts and insights.
I would like to call attention to the first part of your penultimate paragraph:

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.

I find this a very asymmetric assessment. Two sides, own media outlets, and own world views. The last of those is certainly happening but I don't see how you can say there are Democratic media outlets. We certainly know, it multiple ways, that Fox News, Sinclair, Broadcasting, and some others are blatantly and openly cheering on the Republican Party. I certainly don't see that on the Democratic Party side. The NYT and WaPo are extremely corporate in their outlook, not Democratic Party. A Democratic Party media outlet would not have had every front page story except one about Clinton's email a week before the election. The assessment rather defies any closer look.
Now, I would also urge a closer look at the subjects of the characterizations. "The Republicans" for one but "Democratic activists" for the other side. It's more than a bit of a stretch to say that The Republicans have equal power, equal funding, equal access, or any other power dynamic to Democratic activists.
I understand the desire to say both sides. I can certainly find issue with both parties, but I don't see this equal status of which you speak.

Bruce Wilder said...

I feel I should apologize in advance for criticizing your narrative recounting of turnings in American history for leaving stuff out -- any finite narrative leaves stuff out, after all. But, I do feel you have slighted the interstices. And, we today, having "failed" our turn, we are launched on an interstice.

In your narrative, "Jefferson's Democratic Republican party established a national hegemony that lasted, in one way or another, until 1841" when surely any conventional account acknowledges that it died a terrible death with the rigged election of John Quincy Adams over the popular hero, Andrew Jackson, in 1824. And, surely the abolitionist idealism and nationalist fervor of the Party of Lincoln faded decisively after the election of Grant in 1868, the return to a gold standard and the first Great Depression (1873-78) -- the Party System was a perfectly balanced stalemate for 20 years of waving the bloody shirt from 1874 to 1894; it was the elections of 1894 and 1896 that brought the Republican Party the hegemony they enjoyed until 1930 (and sealed white supremacy into one-party rule in the segregated South). The ties to and sympathy with the white South that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson embodied were factors in their elevation to the national office.

I think you did better to note the renewal of Democratic Party hegemony in the 1950s -- there is a quiet realignment in the Party system, post-war, that is a quite different from the initial overwhelming Democratic majorities of the early New Deal.

Commenter Ed Boyle brings up the details of generational change, the foundation of these political cycles. The details really matter and maybe deserve more attention in a later essay. The War of 1812, largely forgotten by us, was a decisive break for political careers with as large an effect in bringing young men into politics in a great wave as WWII. The leaders it brought to the fore were, of course, nationalists, and the passing of their generation after 1850 was a decisive factor in the centrifugal politics of the antebellum 1850s. It was also subtly important to the course of the Civil War itself that so many northern generals and politicians, like Grant and Sherman, were born after 1820 while Confederate generals like Lee and Johnston were born before 1810.

My point, I suppose, is that if there are good analogies in past cycles to our present predicaments, they lie in the interstices of the cycles -- if 1788, 1860, 1932, 2008 marked inflection points in a great political syne wave, so did 1775, 1845, 1916, 1988 and so did, 1820, 1896, 1968.

Bruce Wilder said...

The initial eruption of Progressivism, with its idealistic but conservative institution building happened entirely in an interstice of the American political cycle -- after the decisive shift in the Party System in the elections of 1894-1896 and before the next great shift in the elections of 1930-32. Woodrow Wilson's elections defied Republican hegemony rather than overthrew it; his re-election in 1916 a very close thing indeed, resting on a relative handful of unexpected votes in California.

The failures of the United States in the 1920's to generate the political will and imagination to actively manage the new international order, political and economic, after World War I or to deliberately manage for the public good, the emergent New Economy of the Second Industrial Revolution of automobiles, movies, radio, food processing, mass-production and electricity (along with the terrible slump in agriculture) were critical factors in creating the catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War II.

It seems to me if there is a ripe analogy in past political and economic cycles for the current crisis in American politics, it may be found in the 1920's. Not parallel or isomorphic, though. Whereas, the 1920s were preceded by an era of institution-building -- notably by mostly conservative political forces -- our own era has been preceded by an era of institutional neglect and even demolition, by conservative forces (as you have articulated many times). But, crises in the international order and in the economy loom larger and larger before our refusal of will and imagination to respond.

It is sometimes forgotten that, despite the draining vortex of the Great Depression sucking all down, the Republicans actually eeked out a win in the mid-term elections of 1930 -- just barely, but they seemed to retain their control of Congress. It was only because of an unprecedented number of by-elections as Congress critters died off before the new Congress actually met for the first time in 1931, that Democrats achieved a majority in the House.

We often attribute the political upheaval of the 1960s to the Baby Boomers, but the Baby Boomers were, in fact, passive by-standers to that revolution in the political culture, at least in its original form. It was the generation born during the Great Depression and World War II that drove the idealism of our rebellious politics as well as financed much of the reaction against it. That Nancy Pelosi (b 1940) and Bernie Sanders (b 1941) and Joe Biden (b 1942) are still dominating figures is extraordinarily retarded. That political identitarianism is a largely empty rehearsal of dimly understood political enactments of the 1950s and 1960s is a sad commentary on our political consciousness and our collective reluctance to confront the challenges inherent in the collapse of American political and economic hegemony and the on-going catastrophe of climate change.