Extraordinary Times

Typically I try and keep my politics/policy writing as formal and unbiased as possible. The last thing we need in this political environment is another partisan hack. Yes, there are people and policies at the federal and state levels that I utterly despise and there are people and policies that I think are brilliant and working to further the public good. That all being said, its hard not to pause, take a step back, and realize that we are living in the middle of history.

To myself, history seems cyclical. There are eras of great peace and prosperity and eras of chaos and destruction. Often such periods are dependent on geography and happenstance. The late-19th century was a time of great European grandeur and development with cities like London, Paris and Brussels developing into the spectacular locations they are today. It is important to remember that this prosperity and grandeur was financed largely on destruction and imperialism occurring in places far away from Europe. In a cyclical fashion, the prosperity of Europe fueled nationalistic pride, imperial ambition, a powerful class of vocal elites and a massive arms build up that eventually created an entangled powderkeg of dangerous alliances and volatile political situations. At some point the first world war essentially became an inevitability and if the assassination of an Austrian archduke didn’t light the powerkeg then something else surely would have somewhere down the line. And of course what was left of old Europe, that has not been burnt down by WWI, was then burnt down by WWII, a world war that had so many ties directly resulting from unfinished business from the first world war.

This is all to demonstrate that actions have consequences. So often, even if we cannot see it, the good times set the stage for the bad and the bad breaks down the old order to make way for a new period of good. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Right now Americans seem to be very shaken regarding their faith in their institutions. For eight years, half the country vehemently hated the other half and now the stage is clearly set for a role reversal. How easy is it to see a scenario whereby the Democrats were dominant from 2008 to 2010, a Republican reaction occurred that led to gridlock from 2010 to 2016, Republican dominance occurs from 2016 to 2018 and then Democratic pushback results in gridlock…so on and so forth until history throws the inevitable archduke at us and our world changes? Lenin, who seems to be back in vogue again,  has a brilliant quote that sums up the cyclical nature of history so perfectly:

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Who knew that the relative quiet of the 1980’s and 1990’s were actually setting the stage for all of the noise we have had since the 2000 election? No wonder so many baby boomers idolize Ronald Reagan and so many liberals idolize Bill Clinton…20 boom years and unrivaled unipolar dominance seem pretty sweet right about now. So much of politics makes more sense when you realize that millions of Americans are voting in search of that one “great” president who will dominate geopolitics abroad and the opposition at home allowing the U.S. to recapture that political, economic and cultural dominance that seems so near. After all Reagan recaptured that dominant American spirit in the post-Nixon dark years and took it to heights never before seen. Why couldn’t another great president recapture it from the malaise of the Bush/Obama years and take it even higher? Who says Pax Americana need only last a few short decades while Pax Romana lasted centuries

The problem with all of that is two-fold.

Firstly, the 80’s and 90’s were not quiet. The Soviet Union fell, Germany reunited, the internet and computing exploded onto the scene, China began its industrial post-Mao rise and global population exploded among many other historically critical events. The waters might have been calm in the United States but they were choppy and turbulent just about everywhere else.

Secondly, voting in search of someone great ignores the legwork that was already put in that contributed to the success of Reagan and Clinton. Much of Reagan, Bush and Clinton’s successes stemmed from the investments made in the prior generation and as poor policy decisions faded into the past. Vietnam and Watergate were long gone by the time Reagan took office but he inherited a massive military and government investment engine (space shuttle anyone?) that the Soviet’s simply could not match. Soviet attempts to keep up with American spending while simultaneously fighting their own version of Vietnam in Afghanistan were huge factors in their eventual early-90’s collapse. The economic boom of the 80’s and 90’s had as much to do with a massively educated population implementing new technologies and consumer products, as well as super cheap energy, as much as it did with public policy.

In turn the actions of the 80’s and 90’s have led to reactions today. Massive government spending decade-to-decade (implemented to fight WWII, win the Cold War and implement New Deal and Great Society reforms) has led to the belief that the government needs to tighten its belt, that our national and public debts are too high, and policies have reflected those beliefs. This can be seen with countless states in budget crises, extreme emphasis on economic growth and jobs, and shifting costs to consumers (healthcare premiums and increased tuition anyone?). Military and diplomatic decisions dating back to the 80’s have played a key role in the history of the Middle East to this point. But for the decision of the U.S. to support Iraq against Iran in their war and to support the Afghans against the Soviets who knows what the chain reaction would look like in the Middle East over the years? What if Reagan had conceded Afghanistan to the Soviets? Would the Taliban even exist? Would Osama Bin Laden have a safe haven to plan the 9/11 attacks? Without those what does the Middle East look like today? Is an elderly Sadaam Hussein still in power or does the Arab Spring topple his regime? Does the Arab Spring occur at all? What about the left/right split in U.S. politics that really tore open into the festering wound it has become over the Iraq War? In this game of “what ifs” once you go down the rabbit hole you’ll find there is no ending all the way back to the very first question: what if Eve hadn’t bitten into the apple?

We love to treat countries like companies for political purposes but to me countries have far more in common with people. They have start dates and end dates, a semblance of ancestry, complex histories, unique personalities and some get along better with others. Countries, like people cannot live in the past, because there is nothing to be gained from it. No one and no country wants to be the archetypal “high school hero” who peaks early then wakes up one day and realizes all of his friends have gone to college and moved on while he is still living in the past. Yet it happens all the time. How many people from high school do you know that never left or waited too long to grow out of it? Historically speaking how devastating was it for China and the Ottoman Empire to rest on their laurels and their past successes while those quirky Europeans sailed their boats on the other side of the world…

It might not be scientific and it might not be peer-reviewed but something about this era we are in seems historic and for the first time since the 60’s and the 70’s it seems historic here at home. For the first time in our national history we have a dominant political movement that seems focused on recapturing the power of the past rather than pushing into the future. Perhaps this cautious conservative mentality is not a bad thing? Even with a small sample size, we already have a plethora of evidence that the future, technology and automation enable destruction, exacerbate poverty and inequality and create a host of evils and societal ills that we are in no position to successfully adapt to. Every day the shouting gets louder and historically speaking those are times when history is made. It seems like we are in a bad chain of reactions that we cannot break free from and I can’t help but wonder if this loud period will peacefully transition to a quiet period as history cycles on, or are we are in a loud period that will only become louder until our own proverbial archduke bites the dust and the real chaos begins?

Currently, I’m technically a journalist but I’ve never really considered myself that. I’m 1/2 idea man, 1/s policy wonk and 1/2 amateur historian. Sometimes that convoluted mess coincides with journalism and sometimes it doesn’t. For the purposes of this blog, something I want to start doing is recording where American society stands today, why it is that way, and what can be done to fix the problems. Also what things are we doing right? America has always been an optimistic country and surely that optimism we are known for has not been strangled because “things got scary” for a little bit. It certainly wasn’t strangled in the depths of the Revolution, at the height of the Civil War or in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II. I’m not sure how this project is going to go. I’m not sure what the end goal of this project is. It is just something that I want to pursue and see what happens.

 

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