The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political ImaginationRoundup
tags: neoliberalism, political history, socialism, Utopianism
Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern and the author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
This essay is part of a series exploring bold ideas to revitalize and renew the American experiment. Read more about this project in a note from Ezekiel Kweku, Opinion’s politics editor.
The world didn’t expect much from Edward Bellamy, a reclusive, tubercular writer who lived with his parents. Yet if he lived small, he dreamed big, and in 1888 he published a phenomenally successful utopian novel, “Looking Backward, 2000-1887.” It told of a man who fell asleep in 1887 and awoke in 2000 to electrified cities, music broadcasts and “credit cards.”
Even more exciting than Bellamy’s technological forecasts were his political ones. Unforgiving capitalism would be replaced by a welfare state, he predicted, with universal education, guaranteed incomes and supported retirement. His readers started Bellamy Clubs and set off a craze for utopian novels. In the 19th-century United States, only “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold more copies in its first years than “Looking Backward.”
Bellamy, and his fans across the country, felt confident a “radically different” future was imminent. And why not? The United States was a dynamic, almost volatile, country then. During the 1800s, the United States grew more than four times in size, its western edge moving from the Mississippi River to the South China Sea. In the first half of that century, it had transformed from a patrician society run by the propertied into a rough-and-tumble one in which nearly all white men could vote. The second half, when Bellamy lived, saw the end of slavery, the military defeat of great Native American powers and the explosive growth of industrial capitalism — events that, for good or ill, profoundly altered the country.
Bellamy saw his era as “portentous of great changes,” and he was right. Not only did his technological predictions come true; his political ideas caught fire. In 1892, the Populist Party presidential candidate won five states running on a Bellamy-inspired platform that called for a shortened workday, a graduated income tax and the direct election of senators. The New Deal — with its income supports, economic controls and federal jobs — seemed straight out of Bellamy.
During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, “Looking Backward” occupied a conspicuous spot in the White House library. Roosevelt’s own book, published on his inauguration in 1933, was titled “Looking Forward.”
Our own era is, like Bellamy’s, “portentous of great changes.” A Bellamy-style character falling asleep just five years ago and waking up now would require patient orientation (“So, after the assault on the Capitol, the right seized on calls to defund the police and Mr. Potato Head’s gender as wedge issues, which …”). Alongside eventful episodes like Donald Trump’s presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic are deeper transformations: the internet’s upending of daily life and work, the faltering of the gender binary, the rise of China, the warming of the planet.
And yet it’s hard to imagine politics changing as a result, as Bellamy’s readers once did. Washington seems inhospitable to utopians; it’s deadlocked between those determined simply to hang onto power and those seeking modest tweaks.
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