Surely Americans are the most historically amnesiac of peoples. Oh, we love antiques and historical re-enactments, colonial Williamburgs and Currier & Ives reproductions. Not to mention historical romances, preferably of the ripped-bodice genre. But we're antiquarians rather than historians; we search for artifacts rather than meanings. We love history so long as we don't have to do anything as strenuous as drawing parallels between past and present.
Why heed the past, that old nag? Ours is a New Order for the Ages, as it says on the dollar bill. This is the New World, which we tend to confuse with a blank world. Here we were to be born again as an entirely new species, the American. We assumed we could leave history safely behind in the old world, forgetting that we brought so much of it with us.
We forget the uses of history, and so, in Santayana's endlessly repeated phrase, are condemned to repeat it. There's a reason his saying is endlessly repeated. It needs to be. Phrases become cliches because they apply. Again and again. We're like the hero of the movie "Groundhog Day," who is condemned to go through the same series of events time and again till he finally catches on.
Consider this scenario:
Banks and investment houses founder, then fail. Jobs disappear; production nosedives along with the stock market. A new president is elected in the midst of this financial meltdown. A popular, intelligent and articulate leader, he sets out to restore economic stability and confidence in the future. He proposes a raft of new programs.
Some of them make sense like unemployment insurance, public works programs, reorganizing banks and insuring the deposits of those that can be saved. Others don't like having the government take control of a huge swath of the private economy, setting wages and prices, burdening businesses with new taxes and then expecting them to expand.
For a while things seem to be working. Unemployment persists but eases. Credit begins to flow again. Things are looking up. But then the president, seemingly unaware that some parts of his program are at war with others (like higher taxes vs. incentives for investment), gets carried away. He becomes obsessed with a single idea, one objective among so many. Public confidence in his leadership begins to dwindle. The more speeches he gives plugging his great idea, the less popular it and he becomes. But he plunges ahead anyway.
The president grows desperate in pursuit of his grand dream and refuses to compromise, confident his party has the votes to push it through Congress. Instead, the candidates he backs begin to lose elections. And the more moderate members of his party drift away from his wilder proposals, lest they displease the voters back home.
Sound familiar? It should. It's the stuff of today's headlines. Though the calendar may say 2010, in many respects it could be 1937, the year of the Roosevelt Recession. That's when another, even more charismatic leader lost his gift for practical politics, and became a prisoner of his own ideology. Convinced he had to seize control of the Supreme Court in order to save his social and economic programs, Franklin Roosevelt proposed a court-packing plan that never caught on. Americans were much too attached to the idea of an independent judiciary to subvert it. It seems we're more devoted to constitutional custom than some of our Great Reformers believe.
The year 1937 would prove the low-water mark of FDR's long, long presidency. Coming off one of the great landslide victories in the history of American presidential elections in 1936, he proceeded to lose touch with the American people. Hubris would produce its usual result.
Outwardly, the New Deal may have seemed confused and contradictory by 1937, but inwardly it was even more so. Having come to a fork in the road, FDR decided to take it. He cut back on the public works programs that had eased unemployment while continuing to attack "excess profits" when even minimal ones would have helped business recover. The result was a recession within a depression.
Now it is Barack Obama, obsessed with remaking, extending and generally complicating the county's system of heath insurance, who has jeopardized or at least neglected all the rest of his social and economic agenda. Now he, too, finds himself flailing. He may indeed be uniting the country against his ideas. And he may yet delay recovery as long as FDR did in 1937.
The taxes and fees embedded in the administration's cap-and-trade and health-care plans undermine confidence in the economy's recovery, but Barack Obama and ever more desperate company in Washington careen on, determined to do something, whatever his gigantic make-over of the country's health-care system turns out to be. The calendar may say 2010, but it feels like 1937 all over again. All that's missing are the men's double-breasted suits and ladies' strange hats. For Democrats, unhappy days may be here again. Welcome to Groundhog Year.
Useful thing, history. If presidents would learn from it.
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