American democracy has gone through dark times before

  • Malaysia
  • 03/11/2017
The announcements that Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos have been indicted by a federal grand jury on various charges, including conspiring against the United States, money laundering and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) deepens the current cynicism about politics, politicians and the Trump administration in particular.

According to the Washington Post, seven out of 10 Americans see the country being as sharply divided into warring political camps as during the Vietnam war 50 years ago. The division and inability of the Trump administration to pass any major legislative initiative about immigration, healthcare and now possibly federal taxes, despite Trumps repeated promises about making America great again, create doubts about democracys effectiveness as a system of government.Current events remind some people of Winston Churchills famous observation that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the rest. Or maybe its just like all the rest. What makes it particularly distressing is the view that this is not an aberration but rather the new normal.

It might help Americans to remember that we have been through these periods of disillusionment before.

In the 19th century, the country was torn apart by the civil war. More than 600,000 residents of the north and south perished in the fighting (and this in the era before machine guns, lethal long-range artillery, aircraft and atom bombs that killed tens of millions in the two world wars). At the time, Americans struggled to believe that the United States could ever function again as a unified nation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the durability of democracy once again seemed doubtful. The split between rural fundamentalists and urban modernists, between recent migrants to the United States from eastern and southern Europe and older assimilated Americans found expression in the National Origins Act of 1924, a discriminatory immigration act.

The so-called Scopes monkey trial in 1925 over the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes, which pitted religious reformists and secularists against fundamentalists, and the famous Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, which saw two Italian-American anarchists executed in a highly contentious case, convinced Americans that the country was permanently divided.

The country found momentary relief in the 1928 election of Herbert Hoover, who seemed to promise a new era of prosperity that would dissolve social tensions. But the onset of the Great Depression, with the stock market crash in 1929 and the downward spiral of the economy in 1930-1932, stimulated renewed fears that free enterprise and democracy in America were over. Hoover lamented the absence of a joke, a song or a story that could lift the pall of pessimism that had descended on the country.

The election of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932 proved to be the palliative that gave people hope. His fireside chats and many legislative initiatives not only lifted the spirits of the country, but also humanized the American industrial system and brought the country into the 20th century.

His introduction of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Youth Administration, social security, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the wages and hours law, setting minimum wages and maximum hours and the dam-building that promoted conservation and economic expansion all helped achieve this turnaround.

FDRs determination to bring representatives of recent immigrant groups Catholics and Jews, southern and eastern Europeans of every stripe into the mainstream of the countrys life, while attending to the needs of white rural southerners, largely healed the divide of the 1920s.

He was much less attentive to the abuse of African Americans by racists guilty of lynching. But the benefits to black Americans from the New Deal alphabet agencies shifted the loyalty of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It was all a prelude to the unity of the country that marked its response to Pearl Harbor and the struggle to win the second world war.

The struggle to maintain national unity dissolved again in the cold war, with conservative complaints that Democrats had fallen short in defending the countrys national security against communist advances across Europe and Asia.

Accusations about Roosevelts appeasement of Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and Harry Trumans failure to save China from Mao Zedongs communist takeover, underscored by Senator Joseph McCarthys charges of subversion by US government officials and anger over the stalemate in the Korean war once again demoralized the country. It was a prelude to the bitter struggle over the failure in Vietnam.

The tensions now over Donald Trumps alleged collaboration with the Kremlin to assure his victory in the 2016 election and the charges of administration corruption echo the run-up to Richard Nixons Watergate scandal.

We of course dont know where the current divide will end. While it certainly looks like another moment in the repeated history of Americas domestic struggles, it is a familiar enough battle to reassure downcast citizens that we have a resilient democracy that will generate another period of national cooperation and advance. Or at least, we can hope so.

Robert Dallek is the author of several books on presidents and politics. His new book is Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life.
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