Think of this as Volume 14, Number 26 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Elections, by themselves, don't solve crises. They begin them. They set a political force against serious momentum, bent on transforming the country by tearing at its foundation. The success of the new movement is never guaranteed.
The problems of the time appear intractable. The uphill fight seems endless. Then, just when it's needed, an event occurs that allows the thesis to move forward, that shifts momentum just enough so that the thesis leader gains confidence and moves as he knows he must.
- During the Civil War, this was the Battle of Antietam. (Above, from Matthew Brady.) It was a bloody, narrow victory, which mostly turned on luck, when Confederate orders were captured. But it was enough to move Lincoln toward proclaiming the Emancipation Proclamation, which while it nominally freed slaves only in areas in rebellion, transformed the war from a struggle over commerce to one over human liberty.
- For the progressive era it was the Spanish-American War. It boosted nationalism, made Theodore Roosevelt a hero, and made America a world power, so he could stamp the age with a progressive thesis of slow, steady reform meant to maintain social peace and order.
- For FDR the crisis really came in 1935, when the National Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional. Much of its work had already been done, but the rejection gave Roosevelt an enemy he could focus on, rally people against, so the alphabet soup he created against the Depression might have a chance to change public attitudes.
- For Nixon the crisis was Cambodia. He sacrificed an entire people for domestic political advantage and it worked. The war, and the war against the war, united conservatives and also gave Nixon the image he needed to open China, which in the end may have been his most important legacy.
In all these cases there was one crisis, and one event, threatening the national future. There was one action that served to give the new thesis momentum.
This crisis is not like that. The Bush era didn't leave us with just one legacy, but a host of crises just waiting to explode. The financial crisis. Two wars. Deregulation, and a feeling among businesses they could act with impunity, that the cops would never come.
But at the heart of all is a more existential question, the immediate past demanding to rule the unknowable future.
Just as the assumptions of the Civil War period set the stage for the 1896 crisis, and the slow pace of progressive change made Roosevelt necessary, and the hubris of America's governing power made Nixon necessary, so Nixon-ism holds the seeds of our present difficulties.