If current leadership is intent on dismantling a series of institutional arrangements that have provided relative political, economic, and security stability among democratic nations, we should first understand the forces that have led us into this current cul-de-sac.
The most obvious economic tsunamis in recent decades have been globalization and the rise of the information economy. Historically, we have to go back to the late 19th century to find precedents. The industrialization of America, that shifted our economic base from agriculture to manufacturing, began in the first half of that century but was most powerfully felt in the 1880s and 90s. The dislocations caused by Americans leaving farms and small towns and migrating into cities to work in factories most closely parallels the late 20th century decline of steel, auto, textile, and other manufacturing activities and the shift of the economic center of gravity from the industrial East to the high technology West.
Reading The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter (1955) provides eerily similar patterns of social upheaval and political unrest that came to be known as the Populist era that then gave way in the early 20th century to the Progressive era focused on political and economic reforms. “A great deal of the strain and the sense of anxiety in Populism results from this rapid decline of rural America”, he wrote.
He continued: “Such tendencies in American life as isolationism and the extreme nationalism that goes with it, hatred of Europe and Europeans [Mexico and Mexicans today], racial, religious, and nativist phobias, resentment of big business, trade-unionism, intellectuals, the Eastern seaboard and its culture—all these have been found not only in opposition to reform but also at times oddly combined with it. One of the most interesting and least studied aspects of American life has been the frequent recurrence of the demand for reforms, many of them aimed at the remedy of genuine ills, combined with strong moral convictions and with the choice of hatred as a kind of creed.”
Added to globalization and information were other powerful social forces: the rise of immigration from the Central America, the culture wars that began in the 1960s over civil rights, abortion, and more recently gay marriage, and the replacement of traditional mainstream media (newspapers and television networks) by partisan media and social media. A potent symbol of the latter transformation was President Reagan’s abolishment of the “fairness doctrine” as applied to federally licensed radio and television programming. “Equal time” for opposing points of view became quaint overnight and propaganda poured forth.
Politically, the Roosevelt coalition of the Democratic Party disintegrated, especially with the decline of unionism, and the influence of “Dark Money” (Jane Mayer, 2016) created a right of center Republican orthodoxy that drove out moderates and established the red State system through gerrymandering.
A substantial contributor to the new Age of Anxiety was the transformation of war, the 9/11 attacks on America almost exactly a decade after the Soviet Union, and the Cold War with it, collapsed. “We will be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, and Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers,” the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century warned the new Bush Administration in January 2011. Nothing was done to prevent it.
The Age of Reform dated from 1890 to 1917 when it was overtaken by World War I and then the Great Depression. Out of necessity the latter event produced Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Following World War II, the Atlantic Alliance, with its security and economic stabilization rules and institutions was established by Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall and Acheson. Largely as a result, there has been no World War III.
If we are to abandon these alliances, and presidential utterances seem to vary day by day, we are entitled to know what, other than isolationism, nationalism, and nativism, is to replace them. So far, there is little evidence of serious, thoughtful, and statesmanlike thinking going into this.
America is greater than any single individual and its people have survived many curious detours. When this one is all over, we may recall Mr. Dooley’s observation about that earlier period of excess: “Th’ noise ya hear is not th’ first gun of a rivolution. It’s on’y the people iv the United States batin’ a carpet.”