Every Generation has its Challenges
Richard J. Garfunkel
With regards to the Atlantic Monthly’s endorsement of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, this year, they made their 3rd endorsement in the 156 years of their existence. Their choice was Hillary Clinton. Of course, the question arises as why! One could also ask why all of the major newspapers in the United States have rejected Donald Trump? We are facing a unique challenge in 2016, almost like none that has challenged the essence of our democracy. Unlike any election we have had in the past, we are facing a challenge to the core existence of our electoral system, the core acceptance of how are foreign and domestic policy has evolved over the last 100 years, and the potential reversal of our social and moral advances that has brought forth; voting rights for all, the rule of law, the end to Jim Crow, the liberation of women and the rejection of prejudice and mindless myth.
In the lifetime of many Americans, many challenges have been witnessed, experienced and overcome. This past June 6th, we celebrated the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, where many brave Americans, and their allies, took on the challenge of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi hordes. This challenge asked tens of thousands of young Americans, in the first waves, to hit the Normandy Beaches and to put themselves in harm’s way. Many of these men were inexperienced and untested by enemy fire, which we all know, was withering and deadly.
Since modern America emerged from the Civil War, America, in Lincoln’s words, went from a Union to a Nation. In the modern sense of this “new” and now unified Nation, the American people have taken on immense challenges. Whether it was closing of the frontier, the devastation of the Civil War, where over 700,000 Americans died, out of 31 million, which today would translate into seven million citizens of today, the building of the intercontinental railroad, the Great Immigration from 1880 to 1914, the economic meltdowns, which resulted in devastating Depressions and two massive World Wars, each generation has, in FDR’s immortal words, “A rendezvous with destiny!”
The world has always seen the rise of demagogues, tyrants, swindlers and snake oil salesman, who have promised prosperity and peace to a gullible, malleable public. We have witnessed the dictators who have pitted one group against the other, created scapegoats and have used the age old political tactic of, “Divide and Conquer!”
This age old tactic was first attributed to Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who said “Divide and Rule, or in Latin, “Divide et impera!” The great chronicler of politics, Machiavelli, wrote a similar thought in his book VI, of “The Art of War.”
Since the dawn of the 20th Century, as America moved into a new age of communication, transportation and demographic change, each generation has looked forward with a combination of hope and trepidation over the challenges they faced. Whether it was a flood of new immigrants, the degradation and filth of the city slums and ghettos, the monopolists, the pollution of our waters, the purity of our food and safety of our drugs or the flim-flam tactics of snake oil purveyors, Americans weathered each storm and grew from the experience. Of course, there was always, “blood in the water!” Of course, thousands died in the westward pursuit of manifest destiny! The abuse and historical criminality of Jim Crow, which had morphed out of two hundred and fifty years of slavery, lasted for over 100 years and we are still divided by the vestige of its stench.
No challenge is easy to overcome. No complex problem can be solved with simplistic nostrums, and no one group has a monopoly on virtue. Anytime we hear that there is an easy answer, beware. We must always scrutinize the promise of false G-ds along with the worship of idols. We have learned to fear and beware of men on “white horses” that tell us to blindly follow. These same folks never address us with the facts, they just ask us to put on blinders. There have been many Pied Pipers, religious zealots, Crusaders, and political charlatans.
Some Americans talk of guarantees! They talk of the loss of jobs like they magically appeared and disappeared. We suffered a great panic and ensuing Depression in 1907, we had a short, but severe recession in 1921 and there was much poverty, hunger, insecurity, family break ups and dislocation even during the Roaring 20s. The halcyon days of “Wonderful Nothingness,” was basically experienced in the cities, not by the population at large, as Prohibition created this era of the ever-lasting party! The lure of the speakeasy and the glamour of F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote of that era in books like, “Beautiful and the Damned” fed this fantasy! What happened to the earlier Progressive Era that brought reform, opportunity, and hope to tens of millions? It became victim of a new age of hucksterism, phony religious revivalism, and empty promises and panaceas. It brought on Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and the Crash!
Herbert Hoover, a Republican “progressive of that era,” compared to the Harding’s and the Coolidge’s, predicted in his August, 1928 acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidency, said, “One of the oldest and perhaps the noblest of human aspirations has been the abolition of poverty. By poverty I mean the grinding by undernourishment, cold and ignorance and fear of old age of those who have the will to work. We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, and [sic] we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this Nation.” There is no guarantee against poverty equal to a job for every man. That is the primary purpose of the economic policies we advocate.
The Crash and the greatest Depression in modern history followed in less than a year since Hoover took office! What happened? Was it the myth of American Exceptionalism? Why wasn’t America spared? Weren’t we better than everyone else? Weren’t we godlier, more prosperous and more deserving? Obviously not! It took more than the simple Hoover nostrum, “Prosperity is around the corner!” Many of today’s right-wing revisionists of that ugly era (Amity Shlaes, etc.) have written that the New Deal prolonged the Depression! But, what happened to the market forces in the three long years in the remainder of Hoover’s term? In fact, the “Do little to nothing,” Hoover Administration made the Depression worse, much worse!
How history repeats itself in this age and time. The same revisionists of the 21st Century now accuse the Obama Administration of prolonging the Bush II Crash! If only the policies of a 3rd Bush Administration would have been put in place! But, what did the right-wing offer as a solution? Many wanted the bankruptcy of the auto industry, the insurance giant AIG and Merrill-Lynch! How would have that solved the crisis brought on by the housing bubble? Would the destruction of an automobile industry done anything? Today, in 2016, over 17. 5 million American made cars will be sold! Can one just imagine what would have happened if the largest insurance carrier and brokerage house would have gone broke! This could have been the economic legacy of the right-wing, another Depression! So, we met the challenge and we recovered. Is every recovery like the last? Every recovery since WWII was in the wake of smaller recessions (the largest, was the 3rd Eisenhower one in 1957-8), was led by a housing recovery. This Great Recession was caused by the housing bubble, the unregulated mortgage brokers, like Countrywide Financial and their clones, who wrote 85% of the toxic mortgages, and the bundling of worthless Wall Street created derivatives. Was this the fault of the Democrats or the Progressives, ask yourself?
We now have new challenges, not world war, not Depressions, not the Jim Crow of the past, not a wild frontier, not filthy, disease ridden, ghettos, not rancid food and impure water, and for sure not the isolationist movement of the 1930s and the rise of an American brand of neo-Nazism.
Our challenge is adaptation to globalization, inter-dependency, confronting religious militancy; here and abroad, global-warming, and a realization that we are not the country of the 1920s or at the end of World War II, where we were the only industrialized nation standing. We actually benefitted economically and socially by our rise to worldwide power in 1918, and we abrogated that role by listening to the isolationists and the political ostriches. In the same sense, we learned in 1945, that we could not retreat from the world. But our hegemony of domination and power could not last forever, as we fought the communists, we squandered our educational system and we wasted our resources on unlimited commercialism, profligate spending, cheap foreign goods, de-regulation and giveaways to the most wealthy. Again, we have reaped what we have sown.
FDR said in his last undelivered speech that he was to give to the opening of the United Nations, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” In that same historical vein, let us reject the insane promises that tend to divide us and bring social disruption. Let us move forward with sane leadership.