Think of this as Volume 18, Number 13 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
In the case of America, which has been a united nation for most of 225 years now, it can rhyme multiple times.
The Crisis of 1896, which resulted in the Progressive Era, rhymed in many ways with the first political crisis in our history, the dispute between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson resulting in the 1800 Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican victory over Hamilton's Federalists.
The dispute in both cases was one of basic finance. Hamilton wanted a strong central government, and a national bank, in order to grow manufacturing and assure that the new United States could defend itself. Jefferson sought a “republican” government, a full democracy in which all men could be treated equally because they were equal.
Reading Jefferson's own words from the 1790s, it's clear that what he objected to in Hamilton was less the means to his end than the end itself. That end was prosperity. Hamilton wanted America to become rich, and worked to create institutions aimed at doing that. Jefferson cared less about money than about rights. He believed money corrupted, that it was responsible for the injustices he'd seen in France.
Jefferson feared Hamilton was aping Great Britain, whose great banks had created a rich empire, mostly benefitting its great men. In this he was right.
But in the dispute between the two men, Hamilton was right and Jefferson wrong. Without wealth, America could have never protected its freedom, or any system of popular government. Power doesn't come from the barrel of a gun, but from a treasury. The equality Jefferson sought was the equality of Afghanistan, an equality without flush toilets, or electricity, or automobiles, or 1,000 other little things that make 2014 different from 1790, whether you're rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle.
When the germs of this crisis repeated themselves in the 1890s, Democrats took the side of Jefferson and Republicans that of Hamilton. Democrats focused on rights and equality, Republicans on economic progress from which reform might be built, leveling the playing field a bit, and creating the kind of social mobility needed to maintain support for the system.
Eventually, again, the Hamiltonians won. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, created a Federal Reserve System, essentially a national bank. He did it to disperse economic power among America's regions rather than see it centralized in New York. But he did it.
The current crisis is a test of both our economic system, which Hamilton did so much to create, and the political assumptions birthed by Jefferson. Whenever you see someone talk about “limited government,” they are hearkening back to Jefferson. We need to remember that while Jefferson sought limited government, he also sought a limited society, and a limited economy. It's wonderful rhetoric, but it can be absolutely awful economic policy.
The problem with Hamiltonism is that, in the end, Jefferson is right. His fear was that it would result in a manifestly unequal society, that the wealthy would become heriditary rulers over the rest. Charles and David Koch didn't start from nothing – they inherited wealth from their father Fred. The Walton siblings inherited from their father Sam, and Donald Trump also became rich because he was Fred Trump's son.
The same thing is happening throughout society. Luke Russert is a Washington reporter because his dad was. Ronan Farrow is a star because his mom was. Barry Bonds is the son of Bobby. There are countless other examples.
Sometimes, the sons or daughters of great men and women can equal or top their parents. John Quincy Adams did. I would argue that John Huston was a bigger figure in Hollywood history than his father Walter, the actor. But did George W. Bush? You'd have to be an idiot to think so.
Problem is, America today is filled with idiots. It's filled with people who haven't actually read books like Jefferson vs. Hamilton, people whose “history” and “precepts” are merely what they were spoon-fed by a media run by the ultra-wealthy, on behalf of the ultra-wealthy.
America's crises have, in the end, always had one subject in common. They were about democracy, about whether the majority would have its way and whether the system would be maintained in the face of new threats.
The Confederacy was a threat, not just to the Union, but to democracy itself, because a minority was controlling the country. The Progressive Era was, like the present age, about the limits wealth must face to maintain a free and democratic polity. The New Deal was followed immediately by the false choices of Fascism and Communism. Vietnam was about maintaining order against a generation that seemed devoted to disorder.
The current crisis has things in common with all these previous crises. Like the Civil War, it's concentrated in one region, the South, or more precisely our rural precincts, the same crowd that rose with William Jennings Bryan as Populists. As with the New Deal era, and the Vietnam era, there is a real question about whether democracy can survive in the face of both outright opposition to it and cynicism born of profound, honestly-derived disappointments.
But it always comes back to democracy, the right of the majority to rule, the requirement that minority rights be respected, the needs of the whole vs. the needs of the individual, a system that can balance all these things and constantly re-adjust that balance in the face of time.
As with earlier crises, the result of a single election doesn't tell the tale.
The election of 2008 set us on a direction, but the threat to democracy is not extinguished. And unlike the situation in 1938, the enemy this time isn't a foreign power – it's not Vladimir Putin. The real threat is within us. It's Fred Koch's sons, it's Sam Walton's sons and daughters, it's the effort of oligarchs to control the rest of us, to rule generation-upon-generation, to raise the social ladder behind them and burn it.
The answer lies inside our Crisis Leader, but it also lies beyond him. It is absolutely normal that, five years after a crisis comes, we're getting pretty damned tired of the crisis, and anxious to move on.
By 1866 Andrew Johnson was President. By 1902 Theodore Roosevelt was President. By 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the low ebb of his popularity, and in 1974 Richard Nixon resigned after being impeached by the Hosue.
So it's not surprising that Barack Hussein Obama is unpopular, that he's widely ridiculed, and that the specifics of his policy-making have drawn not just opposition, but widespread public wrath.
But it's vital, at times like this, to understand that Obama is just the vessel of democracy. He's not the answer. We're the answer. We chose him in a time of crisis for good reasons, because our system of self-government, the legacy of Jefferson, and our economic system, the legacy of Hamilton, were under imminent threat.
They still are. And it's up to us, now, to fight for the changes we need, to make that change happen. We need more opportunity for more people, even if it means the rich have to invest some of their money in making that happen. We need more rich people, not richer people. And we all need to invest in this nation's infrastructure – in its roads and its Internet and, most important, in every mind – if we're to face the climate crisis overtaking the world.
During an era of crisis you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Not utopia, but hope, and real change.