In a Salon interview, Michael Lind
-- author of Land of Promise
, an economic history of the United States -- offers an analysis worth quoting. I give you the question and the answer:
You’ve touched on an issue that I was going to ask you about – the extent to which history offers a route out of the current economic malaise. You talk about reforms, but where are the reforms going to come from today? Three years into the Obama presidency, not much has changed.
I think you have to get the timing right. The Civil War started in 1860-61, and the period of reform came to a conclusion in 1877 with the end of Reconstruction, so it came about over a 15-year period. It’s the same with the New Deal. Most of the New Deal reforms came in the late 1930s, and in some ways the Great Society reforms of the 1960s were simply the finishing touches to the New Deal, so there you had a 15- to 30-year reform period. A lot of people thought that when Barack Obama assumed the presidency he would be in the position of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But, arguably, he was more like [President Herbert] Hoover. In other words, the real wave of reform will come after him. I may be mistaken about this, but I think that no matter who wins the next election – even if the Republicans recapture the White House and control both houses of Congress – their stated program simply will fail. Even an all-Republican government will have no alternative than to undertake some alternatives to this program of tax cuts for everybody. It helps them when they’re out of power, but once they’re in power it is not a governing program.
One of the arguments of my book is that during these periods of reform, the reform tends to be bipartisan. So, for example, if you look after the Civil War when the Democrats captured both the White House and Congress at the time of President Cleveland, they did not reverse all the reforms of the Civil War; they ratified them. The same is true with the New Deal. Under Eisenhower and Nixon, who were the Republicans in the 40-year New Deal era, they did not attempt to overturn the New Deal. So it’s not a matter of left or right particularly, but of political paradigms which become dominant in a particular era. I may be mistaken, but I think that we are toward the end of this period of neo-liberalism, which began arguably with Jimmy Carter rather than Ronald Reagan, and has included Democrats like Bill Clinton and Obama in his first term as well as Republicans.
This is spot on. Krugman has said much the same about that 40 year period.
However, I'm in a cynical mood today, and I suspect that Lind has fallen into an error that many historians make: He thinks in terms of cycles, and he does not consider the possibility that modern technology may be used to impede the wheel's ability to revolve. I'm referring to the technology of propaganda, which has demonstrated such an astounding ability to compel men and women to act against their best interests. History cannot be recaptured if it is rewritten, and the revisionists have succeeded in convincing many young people that those 40 marvelous years were hell on Earth.
Moreover, at no other point in our past -- not even during the Civil War -- were so many powerful people intent on ending the American experiment. Even Jefferson Davis wanted to maintain the U.S. as a trading partner. Although he favored southern agrarianism, he did not want the north's manufacturing prowess to decline. I think both Davis and Lincoln would have agreed that our current course -- outsourcing, de-industrialization, destruction of our infrastructure -- is a form of self-destructive insanity.
We are now in the grip of a libertarian ideology which defines democracy as socialism. The ideologists ultimately intend to do away with democracy altogether, and to see this country carved up into constituent entities whose assets can be sold at rock-bottom prices to a handful of oligarchs.
Perhaps we should
think in terms of cycles, but larger ones. Large enough to encompass the rise and fall and civilizations.