Robert Dallek: U.S. Debt Deal: The Cracks are Starting to Show

Roundup: Historians' Take

Robert Dallek is one of America's leading presidential historians; his latest book is 'The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953'.

There is much that is admirable about America's politics: the growing opportunity for anyone, regardless of religion, race or gender, to run for any and all offices; and the long history of peaceful transitions set in place when Thomas Jefferson announced in his first Inaugural: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

Jefferson also counselled tolerance for those who saw republican government as an error: "Let them stand," he said, "undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

So it is with the many bizarre voices we have heard through the decades of American political history. The country's Right of centre has been a rich vein of distorted thinking. From the Know Nothings in the 1840s and 1850s, who declared Catholic migrants to the United States agents of the Papacy intent on destroying American freedoms, to the John Birchers of the Cold War years who saw Communists in every walk of American life subverting traditional freedoms, to the present-day Birthers decrying a President who they see as foreign born and an illegitimate holder of the office, American politics has never been free of apocalyptic voices predicting the country's demise at the hands of sinister forces.

The Left has had its share of crazies as well. Late 19th-century populists saw bankers and industrialists manipulating markets to enrich themselves at the expense of small farmers and labourers and favoured political candidates promising economic relief through free and unlimited coinage of silver. Mary Ellen Lease (widely described as Mary Yellin) from Kansas urged farmers to raise less corn and more hell. Pitchfork Ben Tillman from South Carolina campaigned for office in coveralls wielding his pitchfork, promising to stick it into President Grover Cleveland's fat ribs after angry voters sent him to the Senate.

At least when these firebrands of the Right and the Left preached their venom, they had some basis for their anger: economic downturns in the 1870s and 1890s fuelled the explosion of animus among suffering citizens, and the Sino-Soviet Communist threat of the post-1945 years gave a degree of credibility to Joseph McCarthy and other anti-communist tub thumpers....

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