A dysfunctional Congress, combined with an array of interlocking international crises, has given rise to a historically low level of respect for the government by the American people. This disaffection has created the sense that the present period is one of the darkest and most troubled in our history.
It is true that congressional paralysis is virtually without precedent, and the sense of helplessness felt by the people runs deep, but history suggests that despair is premature. These are troubled times, but it’s hard to recall times that weren’t. We needn’t gnash our teeth and rend our clothes just yet.
The period most often viewed as the American golden age was the 1950s, a time when the post-war economy experienced unprecedented growth. Servicemen back from the war were flooding into the job market as new opportunities opened up. GI benefits had provided many with a college education. The baby boom was in full swing, schools were going up across the country, highways were being built, new suburbs were expanding, salaries were on the rise.
And yet even that golden age was a time of turmoil. It began with the Korean War, which claimed more than 50,000 American lives. The first half of the decade was shadowed by the paranoia of McCarthyism. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, racial violence continued to claim lives, and President Eisenhower had to call out the National Guard to enforce the law.
In its aftermath, the period was seen as an age of conformity, when corporate America fostered a new kind of stifling middle class uniformity of thinking. In addition, subversion of foreign governments by the CIA — notably Iran and Guatemala — was sowing the seeds of future trouble.
Trouble in more recent decades puts our present problems in perspective. The 1960s saw great progress in civil rights and with social legislation such as Medicare, but it was a period of bloody racial terrorism in the South and burning cities in the North. Assassination claimed three great leaders. The Vietnam War divided the country more starkly than anything at present and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, the American government descended into the criminality of Richard Nixon, his near impeachment and his resignation, plus the angry beginnings of the culture wars that still haunt us. Crime and disorder were making the nation’s great cities dangerous places, and the nation suffered several energy shocks, driving up prices and dealing serious blows to the economy.
The ’80s began with the worst recession since the Depression, only exceeded in its severity by the recent Great Recession. Also, the Reagan administration set in motion a conservative anti-government movement that cripples the government still. Meanwhile, a criminal plot to secure weaponry from Iran to foster a reactionary rebellion in Nicaragua mired the American government in scandal.
A more recent so-called golden age occurred in the 1990s, a decade of sustained economic growth. But the bitterness of the politics became a prelude for the divisions of today. Republican hostility toward President Clinton gave rise to virulent whisper campaigns (that he was guilty of murdering his friend Vincent Foster, for example) and scandal-mongering that sought to elevate Clinton’s philandering into a constitutional crisis.
So when did we have a golden age? It wasn’t the 2000s, a decade that begin with 9/11 and carried on through a sordid saga of war, torture and deceit.
Was it the Gay Nineties of the 19th century or the Roaring Twenties of the 20th century? Not for African-Americans or the working class. It certainly wasn’t the decade of the Depression (1930s) or of World War II (1940s).
The present period of division and paralysis may be likened, perhaps, to the 1850s, a time when division became so severe that government was unable to act. The outcome was the Civil War.
Our failures today could lead us toward new troubles, which ought to be a warning. We have the capacity to shape our future if we choose. Our present isn’t as bad as it could be.MORE IN Commentary
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