American prospects: Confessions of a conflicted historian

This summer’s diet of the news has had me struggling to maintain a healthy optimism. Headlines have daily announced developments that bode ill for the United States — a stagnant economy, widening inequality and poverty, a deeply divided polity, a frustrated electorate, a global environment pushed beyond its limits, and regional powers less and less responsive to U.S. direction. These adverse trends are playing out on a remarkably broad front.

The historian in me warns against a rush to judgment. As a discipline, history inculcates a bias against forecasting. A familiarity with carefully drawn counterfactuals and a close acquaintance with lots of case studies drive home the unpredictable element that contingent events or personalities can introduce. A sudden change in one piece of a puzzle can dramatically change the overall picture. Historians also shy away from crystal balls because they are all too familiar with major events that even the most knowledgeable failed to anticipate. The future often heaves up on unexpected shores in unimagined forms as we have learned in our own times from the Soviet collapse and the Arab spring.

But if historians don’t attempt to see the future, who is better equipped? Only evidence systematically gathered and critically evaluated can get any analyst beyond pure guess work. Thanks to their devotion to evidence, historians have the data and the tools to chart the trajectory traveled by individuals, institutions, and nations and thus possess the most sound basis for contextualizing the present and imagining the future. Thanks also to their fixation with evidence, historians have at hand a rich catalog of case studies that suggest rough analogies and revealing comparisons and that warn against simple equations of past with present. History never repeats itself but it often rhymes.

One part of me wants to believe that this summer’s bad news has a silver lining. The pressures are building that must eventually produce a tectonic shift in American life. Americans may long for the return of the domestic prosperity, political consensus, and international dominance that prevailed during the decades after World War II. But surely, I say to myself, they must recognize that powerful trends mock their nostalgia, tear the fabric of their society, and undermine their international standing. How long can the country defer the enormous task of addressing festering domestic problems, grappling seriously with environmental dangers, and accepting a more modest relationship to the international community? It can be only a matter of time. That’s at least what I want to believe.

But when I put on my historian’s hat, I grow less hopeful. It then seems more likely that the United States is locked in paralysis rather than headed for transformation.

Perhaps the most entrenched feature of the current scene are all-encompassing consumer values. They define the outlook of virtually every American. They serve as the predicate for U.S. politics. And they have shaped the contours of the economy. But the consumer society has a built-in flaw that makes it unsustainable in the long run. That is its foundational notion that income will rise constantly across a lifetime and from generation to generation and that GDP is a good gauge of progress in that direction. This notion takes no account of environmental limits as people all around the world make claim to the same dream of steadily rising affluence. (For a timely reminder of the magnitude of this problem, see the recent New York Times piece “On Going Green.”) Nor does this notion recognize the way GDP omits social and environmental costs and ignores the value of unpaid services. Recent studies suggest that economic growth after a certain point ceases to yield higher levels of individual happiness even as it makes impossible demands on the earth’s resources. But challenging consumerism as a culture, an ideology, and an economic system and labeling GDP an outmoded fetish will prove extremely difficult. Popular inertia and entrenched interests will see to that.

Adding to the paralysis is the political system. The two leading parties are like crews on a sinking ship who sense something is wrong but don’t understand what. They busy themselves rearranging the deck chairs while quarreling over which way to line the chairs up.

Republicans are in denial so deep that they deserve to be called “the anti-science party.” Their base (perhaps a quarter of the electorate) and the presidential candidates courting that base make a point of pride their denial of global warming, their skepticism about evolution, their wishful thinking on sex education, and their embrace of simplistic economic nostrums.

Democrats may have by default become the party of science — but a lot of good it has done them. The policies of the Obama administration make the Republican base crazy while failing to impress most of the voting public fixated as it is on old dreams of endless plenty. A party already suffering at the ballot box is hardly in a position to confront the fundamental but electorally dangerous issue: the demise of a consumer society and the transition away from a mindless, self-destructive commitment to GDP growth.

Compounding this problem of an electorate in thrall to a vanished past are deep flaws in our democracy. It has become corrupted by money, burdened by cynicism, and gutted by apathy. This indictment may sound harsh, cranky, and even ahistorical. But there is reason for worry. Campaign fund raising has risen to an unprecedented level, forcing office holders to chase full time, not just on the eve of election, possible backers with deep pockets and to pause before giving offense to any interest group that might in retaliation target them. The cynicism is reflected in popular disapproval of Congress, now astonishingly high. Having bounced around the 50 percent mark from 1975 to 2005 (far from a ringing endorsement of the political system), it has recently risen to the 80 percent range (according to Gallup Poll). Cynicism is also reflected in the public’s conviction that half of every dollar the federal government spends is wasted (another recent Gallup Poll). This figure is at its highest point since 1979 and reflects deep doubt about the efficacy of the very state essential to addressing our national problems. Finally, apathy is easy to gauge in voter turnout, which has declined significantly since the 1960s and pales by comparison with the engagement of voters in other advanced democracies.

But the most worrisome feature may be an ill-informed citizenry. Voters are today arguably no more or less sophisticated than their counterparts fifty or a hundred years ago. But also, arguably, the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing the country are greater and thus require greater comprehension if the electorate is to have a meaningful role in supporting if not devising solutions to those problems. Most voters, with scant conception of how the economy works, want above all that it should work in a way that in effect reproduces the conditions of a by-gone day and that the president attend to that task. If one party can’t do the job, then the answer is to give the other side a try until someone succeeds. This strategy would be pragmatic were its restorationist goals realizable. But since they are not, U.S. politics threatens to become an endless, self-defeating round of missions impossible with each failure pushing public frustration ever higher.

Foreign policy adds to the logjam. Put simply, Americans’ conception of their relationship to the world is as inflated as it is outmoded. The elite long dominant in matters of policy have encouraged grand nationalist expectations in support of expansive international policies over the last half century. Yet U.S. global dominance that marked the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s has since steadily faded. Other powers have asserted themselves. In East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, Washington struggles to retain its relevance and hold its ground against what has become an extraordinarily long list of regional rogues and potential challengers (North Korea and China; India and Burma; Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil; Iran, Syria, and maybe Pakistan replacing Iraq and Afghanistan; and Russia). At the same time Washington frets over the reach of the very international organizations which the United States helped give life but which have come to serve a broad international constituency.

A foreign policy establishment, like the public, is deep in the grip of nostalgia. It longs for the return of the post-World War II dominance. The sturdy residue from that time — a commitment to the active promotion a world remade in the U.S. image and a view of security primarily through the prism of military power — stands in the way of charting a new relationship to a world much transformed since 1945.

Any historical moment is, in the ultimate sense, open. The adverse trends that clouded my newspaper reading this summer are likely to persist, even intensify. They will erode American wealth and power, and they could well precipitate a rapid downward spiral. But the historian in me whispers, “Remember, good things have happened in the past that no one at the time had imagined possible, and they can happen again.” Something may yet jolt Americans awake to the new world impinging irresistibly on their lives and force them to come to terms with it. From this possibility we can spin a thread of hope to cling to.

revised 21 September 2011; crossposted at UNC Press Blog

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