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In a provocative recent essay in the New York Times, the political historian Jon Grinspan places the distemper currently afflicting American politics in a broader context. In essence, he contends that we’ve been here before.
Grinspan describes the period from the 1860s to 1900 as an “age of acrimony,” with the nation as a whole “embroiled in a generation-long, culturewide war over democracy.” Today, we find ourselves well into round two of that very war. But Grinspan urges his fellow citizens not to give up hope. A return to normalcy — boring perhaps, but tolerable — might well be right around the corner.
Mark me down as skeptical.
Party politics during the decades following the Civil War were notably raucous and contentious, Grinspan writes, with Election Day turnout “higher than in any other period in American history.” Yet, despite all the commotion, not a lot got done. “The more demands Americans put on their democracy, the less they got.”
Then sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, “Americans decided to simmer down.” Popular interest in national politics declined. So, too, did voter turnout. Rather than a participatory sport, politics became something like an insiders’ game. Yet “American lives improved more in this period than in any other,” he contends. What many today remember, fondly or not, as “normal politics,” dominated by once prominent but now forgotten white male pols, prevailed. Making this possible, according to Grinspan, was “the unusually calmed twentieth century.”
By what standard does the twentieth century qualify as unusually calm? Grinspan doesn’t say. Given that it encompassed two horrific world wars, the Great Depression, a Cold War, at least one brush with Armageddon, multiple genocides, the collapse of several empires, and the rise and fall of various revolutionary ideologies, calm hardly seems an appropriate description.
Even so, Grinspan finds in that century reason for optimism. “We’re not the first generation to worry about the death of our democracy,” he observes.
“Our deep history shows that reform is possible, that previous generations identified flaws in their politics and made deliberate changes to correct them. We’re not just helplessly hurtling toward inevitable civil war; we can be actors in this story… To move forward, we should look backward and see that we’re struggling not with a collapse but with a relapse.”
So, fretting about the possible death of democracy turns out to be a recurring phenomenon. Our impoverished political imagination misleads us into thinking that our own version of those worries is particularly daunting. If we were to peer a bit further into our own past, we’d recognize that lowering the political temperature might once more enable us to get things done.
So Grinspan would have us believe.
Kissing Normalcy Goodbye
A century ago, in 1920, Americans did indeed elect a president who vowed to lower the political temperature. Warren G. Harding promised a “return to normalcy.” Alas, the congenial Harding didn’t manage to live out his term and his promise, along with his presidency, was soon forgotten.
Precisely 100 years later, Americans terrified at the prospect of Donald Trump remaining in the White House for another four years turned to a Harding-like professional pol in hopes that he might simmer things down. As the New York Times recently put it, voters vaguely expected that electing Joe Biden and removing “former President Donald J. Trump from their television screens” would “make American life ordinary again.”
In fact, that was never going to happen. Like Harding, Joe Biden appears to be a most amiable fellow. Thus far, however, he’s demonstrated negligible aptitude for restoring even an approximation of ordinariness to American life.
Hysterical rightwing critics denounce the president as a socialist or even a Marxist. He is neither, of course. No evidence exists to suggest that the White House intends to collectivize American agriculture, nationalize the means of production, or convert the FBI into a homegrown version of the KGB or the Stasi.
Instead, Biden has merely offered anodyne promises to “Build Back Better.” A more accurate slogan might be “Spend More and Hope for the Best.”
Ten months into Biden’s term, his achievements remain few in number, even given the recent passage of a long-awaited infrastructure bill. To say that his administration is still finding its feet is no longer persuasive. An obituary of his presidency written today would highlight supply-chain problems, rising gas prices, a spike in inflation, a fumbling response to the southern border crisis, and a humiliating conclusion to the Afghanistan War. Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to claim a disturbingly large number of American lives.
On the global stage, despite various highly publicized overseas trips, the president has yet to score a notable success. As a party leader, his struggles to impose discipline on the fractious rank-and-file of the Democrats elicit from the chattering classes continuous chatter. And while Biden obviously relishes the opportunity to preach from behind the White House bully pulpit, he has failed to rally the nation, as the never-ending controversies over vaccinations and vaccine mandates amply demonstrate.
What are we to make of this disappointing record? Biden cut his eyeteeth on the conviction that government activism can solve fundamental problems affecting the lives of ordinary Americans. In that regard, he is indeed the heir to the progressive tradition pioneered by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.
Yet Joe Biden may well be fated to bring down the curtain on progressivism as a force in national politics. With American conservatism substantively defunct, Donald Trump having drained it of any lingering pretense of principle, the stage behind that curtain will then be left bare. That a mediocre Democratic senator from West Virginia and an even more obscure one from Arizona will have collaborated in sucking the last vestiges of substance from our political system should rank as one of the larger ironies of our age.
Progressivism Runs Out of Gas
The dizzying pace of contemporary history finds many Americans out of breath, angry, disgusted, or verging on despair. The magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the United States in Afghanistan and the staggering toll Americans have endured throughout the Covid pandemic await an honest examination. So, too, does last January’s assault on the Capitol, which exposed the fragility of the Constitutional order in a new way. Meanwhile, with the Lord of Mar-a-Lago and his lieutenants continuing to conspire, the possibility of the United States falling into a potentially terminal tailspin can hardly be excluded. So what is to be done?
Don’t look to the Biden White House for answers to that question. Depending on what news network you choose to watch, you’ll hear partisans describing the progressive tradition as either imperiling the Republic or offering the prospect of salvation. Neither judgment is correct. It’s more accurate to say that progressivism is now increasingly beside the point.
So, if Professor Grinspan counts on Americans to follow Biden’s lead and simmer down, he’s headed for a disappointment. The likelihood of the president easing our present distress, embodied by Trumpism but including a panoply of complaints, appears remote. The normalcy to which he hopefully alludes lurks nowhere over the horizon. If anything, the opposite is true: for the foreseeable future, normalcy will be defined mainly by its absence.
And that just might turn out to be a good thing.
To understand why this might be the case, you have to begin by acknowledging the exhaustion of the reformist heritage to which Biden adheres. That tradition emerged from an identifiable historical context, simultaneously deriving from and expressing an identifiable cultural consensus. True, in the heyday of progressivism, the voices heard tended to be mostly white and mostly male. Yet the narrow basis of American democratic practice in that era made agreement on certain fundamentals possible. However flawed and subject to recurring challenge, the resulting consensus persisted through the twentieth century, imparting not only a measure of predictability but also a modicum of cohesion to American politics.
Even today, progressives tout the altruistic component of their tradition, with its emphasis on equality, justice, and sympathy for the downtrodden. Yet high ideals rarely suffice to win elections. In practice, the progressive agenda has centered less on admirable intangibles than on concrete deliverables. On that score, progressives have sought to satisfy an all but insatiable American appetite for consumption, convenience, and mobility.
Here we come to the beating heart of contemporary American politics. As that system evolved toward its mature state — a mammoth enterprise that annually burns through trillions of dollars — uninhibited consumption and convenience, along with unbridled mobility came to define what citizens expected it to deliver. Hence, the outrage when store shelves are even momentarily empty and gas prices temporarily shoot up.
At root, the ultimate purpose of American politics in the modern era, seldom acknowledged but universally understood, has been to provide for more and better, quicker and easier, and faster and further. The very pursuit proved endless — the American political lexicon in those years did not include the word enough — and therefore, in the end, proved inherently disruptive.
Properly understood, in other words, the progressive project was never especially high-minded. Yet it was never anything other than deadly realistic.
Two cherished but spurious claims have helped camouflage its essential tawdriness. According to the first, what the American people really care about is not getting and going but a conception of freedom worth fighting for. As my neighbors in nearby New Hampshire like to put it, “Live Free or Die.”
According to the second, along with this love of freedom, what distinguishes Americans is their pronounced religiosity. “In God,” Americans insist, “We Trust.” A profound love of freedom and a conviction that the American experiment expresses the workings of divine (implicitly Christian) providence have ostensibly elevated the United States above other nations. Together, they imbued American crassness with a visible sheen of idealism.
Of course, in the century of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, neither of these claims withstand even casual scrutiny. In the present United States, freedom has become indistinguishable from the casting off of constraints. If advancing the cause of freedom entails sacrifice, citizens spare themselves the slightest inconvenience by hiring out fighting to specialists known collectively as “the troops.”
As for God, an increasingly secular society consigns him to the margins of public life. To an extent that a century ago would have been unfathomable, religion has become more or less a matter of personal taste, of no more significance than one’s preferences for movies or cuisine. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, race, gender, and sexuality command continuous attention. For the latest in theological insights, however, the curious should look elsewhere.
As a believer, a conservative, and a long-ago soldier, I may not personally endorse such trends, but it makes no sense to deny their existence. So, however much I might want to agree with Grinspan’s contention that “reform is possible” — full-out despondency being the sole alternative — more-is-better American progressivism is unlikely to provide a meaningful template for change.
Sharpening the Contradictions
The imperative of the present moment requires not reverting to some mythic normalcy, but facing the actual contradictions afflicting the American way of life. Any such reckoning will necessarily entail political risk. For proof, recall the price that President Jimmy Carter paid when he called for just such a reckoning in his famously derided “Malaise” speech of 1979. Americans responded the following year by revoking his lease on the White House.
Even so, what Carter proposed then may well be what we need now. With the nation mired in what he termed a “crisis of confidence,” Carter declared that “we are at a turning point in our history,” obliged to choose between one of “two paths.” One path, he said, pointed toward “a mistaken idea of freedom” centered on “constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.” The other, based on “common purpose and the restoration of American values,” pointed toward what he called “true freedom.”
No one has ever accused the Georgia peanut-farmer-turned-politician of being a deep thinker, so Carter was vague on what actually constituted true freedom. But his instincts were sound and his analysis prescient. Indeed, others since have rounded out his critique, even if with little more success than Carter had in persuading Americans to contemplate the true meaning of freedom more than four decades ago.
Perhaps our innate ability to “see further into the future,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright so unforgettably put it in 1998, renders any such second thoughts unnecessary. Of course, when Albright made her own stab at deep thinking, the future seemed all too clear. The end of the Cold War had left the United States in a position of political, economic, technological, cultural, and above all, military primacy. What could possibly go wrong?
By now, we know the answer: just about everything. To allow the promises contained within Biden-esque progressivism to conceal the extent of the debacle we have suffered would, in my view, be a profound mistake.
President Biden contends that as a nation and a species we have today arrived at an “inflection point” — a favorite phrase of his. Yet even if fully implemented (a doubtful prospect), the Biden program has no chance of curing our present disorders. A warmed over, if pricier, version of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, it’s too timid and too derivative. Progressivism once looked to the future; today, it’s stuck in the past.
So, the Biden version of progressivism may ameliorate, but it will never resolve a multi-dimensional crisis fed by soulless materialism, a deepening climate emergency, a perverse addiction to dehumanizing technology, and a bizarre conviction that military power, amassed and endlessly employed, holds the key to stemming the tide of national decline.
With the passage of time, Carter’s challenge to define true freedom has become more urgent. Time is short and global disaster looming. Yet arriving at a clearer understanding of what true freedom should entail will require more than simmering. To repurpose a phrase from an earlier era, “burn, baby, burn” may be the order of the day. At least metaphorically, identifying an antidote to our own malaise might begin not with reducing the heat, but turning it up.
Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.