Monday, November 8, 2010

A New Gilded Age?

In the NY Times Sunday Week In Review, Stanford's David Kennedy argues that our current times resemble the Gilded Age, with massive problems but a government unable to meet them.

Here were the issues on our plate in the 1870s: "healing the wounds of the Civil War; managing enormous nation-building agendas in the conquered South and the dauntingly arid West; navigating the enormous and rushed transition from an agricultural to an industrial economic base, and from countryside to city; quelling the labor unrest that repeatedly erupted into bloodshed; accommodating the millions of immigrants who streamed ashore in the century’s closing decades; and defining an international role for an increasingly prosperous and powerful country."

Despite this, the political system of the time "proved unable to grapple effectively with any of those matters." The federal government was divided for 18 of 30 years, and the majority of the House flipped 6 times in 15 elections.

"Eventually," Kennedy writes, "leaders emerged in both major parties — most conspicuously the Republican Theodore Roosevelt and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson — who breathed vitality into the wheezing political system and effectively initiated the tortuous process of building institutions and writing laws commensurate with the scope and complexity of the society over which they presided."

But we didn't have to worry during the Gilded Age of global competitors rushing by us. Can we wait for a new Progressive Era to save us?

1 comment:

  1. I think Kennedy makes a fairly subtle, but important point. He states that “perhaps the stasis of the Gilded Age and the stalemate of our recent years reflect not so much the defects of our political structures as the monumental scale of the issues at hand.” Kennedy’s point is that it takes the American people quite some time to grapple with issues of this magnitude, and because of the principles upon which this country was founded, the American people deserve the right to take their time.

    David Brooks spoke on Tuesday night in Sanford about the “moderate majority” that he believes exists in this country. The real question is: what can we do to empower this moderate majority? Do we have to wait for the bond market to collapse to spur people into action? Or could a move back to the center by Obama give him enough support to tackle these major issues?