At the end of a decade, it is popular to look back to the many things that have changed. There are loved ones who have passed on, events that have thrilled or terrified us, and new inventions that made life a bit different. Yet for all of these turning points there is one thing that has not changed that probably should have in the last decade. Our political world is, more or less, about what it was ten years ago. That may not seem remarkable – but it is far more interesting than any of the great changes that swept over the same barren, dry landscape.
Like many amateur politicians, I have a central theory – but mine is a bit different. I believe that the scope of US history has produced a series of key debates that rose to the center of public consciousness to the point where political identity could be put on a one-dimensional line that defines a generation or two at either end. These debates have changed from support for the Bank of the United States to the need for high tariffs, to demands for an end to slavery then support for strong currencies and later an expansionist foreign policy on the world’s stage.
Our current debate was founded at the time of the New Deal. It essentially boils down to the kind of institutions that people believe are critical to maintain our way of life – on the left, unions and government and other social groups, and on the right corporations and churches and more private arrangements. People who call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” seek solutions in their set of institutions, and those who are “conservatives” favor their own set.
What is unique about this arrangement is that this time neither side won. Andrew Jackson ended the debate on the Bank of the United States by killing it, and slavery was prohibited after a terrible Civil War. Hard currency, or W J Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” went away with the founding of the Federal Reserve and the eventual abandonment of both metal standards. Tariffs went away more gradually, but are now antique. Our role on the world stage is, to Teddy Roosevelt’s pride, unquestioned by anyone.
In the last decade, there have been signs that both the “left” or the “right” has the upper hand in our current debate. Certainly, the role of our Federal Government has expanded constantly for the last 50 years or more, yet the language we use is increasingly cynical and prone to backwards references to “socialism”. Church membership is down, but the role of Christian identity in politics is a stronger force than it has been in a long time. Union membership is also down, but non-profits are a larger share of the economy than ever. In this last decade we went from one election where the patriotism of candidates on the “left” was nearly universally questioned to the next election where the “left” swept into a position of power not seen in generations.
Through all the swings we’ve seen between the two opposites, has anything actually changed? The role of the Federal government only expanded under the “right”, and the election of the “left” has seen our role in a key foreign war expand as a sweeping health care overall became terribly watered down, despite large majorities.
This decade of violent swings produced, in the end, little in the way of “progress”.
It’s not remarkable enough that the old debate is at a standstill. It should, reasonably, have passed out of existence – but it has not. The new debate that we see forming around us is not about which institutions we favor, since it’s obvious that all of these have their time and place. The technologies and new ideas that we’re likely to read about in more conventional summaries of this past decade tell us that people can spontaneously assemble to accomplish great things. Is it possible that all the institutions that we have been fighting over have limitations?
Certainly, some people believe that we are in a new era where progress comes one heart at a time, starting with one idea shared through space and by many hands making the load light. Others find comfort through something more permanent. Yet this distinction hardly ever makes our debates, our news, or any other form of our politics.
What’s been remarkable about the politics of this last decade has been that, for all the smoke and noise, very little has changed. It’s not as though there hasn’t been any reason to change – and, if anything, the pressure on institutions of all kinds is only increasing. But to our politics, it’s as if this decade never actually happened.
I think that’s about to change. But I said that ten years ago, too.