We've Become a Nation Dangerously Beholden to the Past

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C. Wyatt Evans is associate professor of history at Drew University.

Michael Kazin’s recent call for a renascent left to combat the conservative assault on America surely resonated with many readers.  For those of us struggling to make ends meet and concerned about financial security these are bewildering times.  In the face of potentially ruinous fiscal collapse, our national legislature remains ideologically polarized and hence incapable of acting.  On Main Street, moderate-income Americans defend the rights of multi-millionaires not to be taxed while one of the wealthiest of them all, Warren Buffet, criticizes the current tax structure as fundamentally unfair—to moderate-income Americans.  Kazin’s brief history of leftist activism in America offers a hopeful vision of what a rejuvenated left might accomplish.  His recommendation that it root itself in institutions of its own devising instead of relying upon universities and unions also makes good sense.  However, before the activism Kazin advocates can gain full traction we must, as a nation, face forward instead of back. 

The golden age of leftist activism Kazin appeals to occurred under very different circumstances from those we currently face.  The two great depressions of modern times—the first stemming from the Panic of 1893 as part of the late nineteenth century’s “Long Depression” and ending around 1897, and the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, saw levels of suffering beyond what we have seen so far.  The Great Depression was accompanied by the Dust Bowl, an environmental disaster of huge proportion.  Tens of thousands of homeless people, including families, established encampments on the fringes of cities.  Organized protest was vociferous and widespread.  In 1894, “Coxey’s Army” walked from Massillon, Ohio to Washington D.C. to petition Congress for a back-to-work program.  In 1932, World War I veterans again marched on Washington, demanding early payment of a promised bonus.  Their peaceful encampment was broken up with tear gas and cavalry, leaving three dead and fifty-four injured.  Whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will influence public attitudes to the same degree remains to be seen.

During the Great Depression, conservative arguments that poverty was a moral failing and government intervention in the business cycle a crime against nature were rendered moot by the evident distress.  During the 1932 presidential campaign my grandfather, no liberal in his later years, told his starch-collared father-in-law that he didn’t care if a jackass ran against Hoover, he’d vote for the jackass.  In my family’s household, and in millions more across the United States, the need for change in our political and economic affairs became painfully obvious.  This was the setting that allowed for far-reaching economic and social reform, and this was the setting that energized the political left.  

It’s doubtful that we’re at the same point now. Discontent with political processes is on the rise worldwide, but a consensus in this country for meaningful reform has yet to solidify.  The Tea Party’s current power is evidence of this, for despite its calls for reform, the gist of its ideology is anti-change. 

Why is this so?  The explanation lies in the structural differences between these earlier periods and now. Despite economic instability and inequalities, the earlier periods saw rapid growth in manufacturing, agricultural output, urbanization, technological and organizational innovation, expanding energy resources, transportation and communications improvements.  The result was a vibrant society, plagued by gross injustices to be sure, but driven forward by an energetic, heterogeneous, and demographically young population. 

The situation now is fundamentally different. 

Technological innovation remains, and we are still a vibrant and diverse population.  But innovation, vibrancy, and diversity are stifled on multiple fronts.  Manufacturing has declined and we’re no longer awash in a sea of cheap energy.  Our transportation and utility infrastructure is decaying and in some cases has deteriorated to the point of collapse. Too much of our organizational life, public and private, is burdened with an outdated and inefficient bureaucracy. Despite individual good examples, the quality of our institutional leadership is dismal, more devoted to cultivating its self-image than effective management.  Most importantly, the U.S. population is demographically older.  This reality is shaping public policy and resource allocation.  Health care expenditures comprise over 15 percent of the gross domestic product, on par with military expenditures at the height of the Vietnam War.  Seniority salary raises, pensions, and medical benefits are a major factor in tax and price increases. 

These fundamental institutional and physical realities shape our politics, regardless of the ideological claims politicians and pundits may make.  Physically, institutionally, and morally we have become a nation dangerously beholden to the past.  Given the rapid developments in the world around us—globalization, democratization, technology, demographic shifts, diminishing resources—this is a bad time to be facing backwards.  Too many people in this country have convinced themselves they have too much to lose.  As a result change is viewed as a dangerous thing—no matter the consequences for younger generations.  Mottos like "I'll keep my guns, my money, and my job, you can keep the hope and change," reveal a pathological unwillingness to face the future.  Although couched in softer terms, the left’s nostalgia for a past age of activism when populists, labor unions, and the New Left rocked the establishment also imply that the solutions to our problems lie in past examples. 

This is not the case.  We live in a fundamentally different era now.  Simple appeals to economic and social justice are insufficient, no matter how well-intentioned.  Bad roads and collapsing bridges, dilapidated wastewater plants, the highest incarceration rate in the world, an antiquated electrical grid, dysfunctional school systems, self-serving bureaucracies and irrational health care—these are the structural bases of economic and social injustice; they are the broken pieces of a bygone era.  Fixing them requires political activism for sure, but this is neither a first nor sufficient cure.  We need a full accounting of our present woes followed by a roadmap to a better future. We must articulate the breakdowns in our present system, and offer a compelling vision of a future America whose infrastructures and institutions are adapted to meet the needs of its people in a rapidly changing world.  Only then can we hope to inspire consensus for meaningful reform; only then can effective progressive activism be sustained.

The alternative is further decay, and that's something we should not want to contemplate.

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