History is a lot like forestry. In the latter, you often can’t see the forest for the trees, and in the former you often can’t see the epoch for the incidents. Though it hardly seems as momentous as the Great Depression or the civil rights era, our current period may be one of the most significant in American history — one that may well determine what kind of country we will be for decades hence. To put our own times in focus, it helps to ask: What will historians 50 or 150 years from now think of the early 21st century?
It is an apt question, because history has a way of challenging and altering the perceptions that any time has of itself. In its own day, for example, the 1920s were a boon period that gave rise to national free-spiritedness. In the long eye of history, they were the myopic prelude to the Great Depression. In his own day, Harry Truman was an accidental president, a pipsqueak who couldn’t fill FDR’s shoes. In the long eye of history, he is regarded as one of our most successful presidents, navigating the sticky post-war period internationally, and helping propel an economic boom domestically.
Predicting the historical long view is a risky proposition, but let me hazard a guess: Historians will wonder what bizarre convulsions this nation was going through — how it seemed to lose its moral, political, and economic bearings, how the gains of social and economic equality that were a century in the making were reversed, and, above all, how the country actually became less democratic, often with the acquiescence of many ordinary Americans.
The first thing historians are likely to fasten on is the historic economic inequality in America today. As the French economist Thomas Piketty has documented in his pathbreaking book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” America, the vaunted land of opportunity, has become one of the most unequal nations in the history of the world when it comes to wealth distribution — a country in which the top 1 percent own nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Historians will certainly also focus on the fight to disenfranchise poor and minority voters after 100 years of advancing civil rights. They will discuss how the Supreme Court and the Republican Party succeeded in rolling back many of those achievements — the court by ripping out a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, and Republican state legislatures by imposing onerous voter registration restrictions that, let’s face it, have one aim only: to suppress minority voting, which is likely to tilt Democratic.
They will cite the role of money in politics and the sudden turnabout by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, which released a torrent of big money into American politics.
They will look at the nation’s increasing churlishness — its reluctance to embrace health reform that would provide insurance to those who cannot otherwise afford it, its willingness to cut benefits, like food stamps, that primarily help the young and the elderly, its grudging extension of unemployment benefits to people afflicted by the economic downturn.
And historians will say that these are not discrete things but that they coalesce to form what may be called the age of inequality. Historians are also likely to see how this age of inequality answered what has been arguably the nation’s foremost question from its founding: Is America to be an aristocracy or a democracy? Ever since Andrew Jackson, the thrust, with a few detours, has been toward democracy. Historians will show that had changed in the late 20th and early 21st century, not necessarily because most Americans wanted economic inequality, voter suppression, big money in politics, or cruelty to the poor but because the system wasn’t responsive to them. It had become oligarchic.
I suspect that historians will view this as a terribly bleak period — another Gilded Age but worse. They will observe that the ever-fragile democratic enterprise was hijacked, perhaps permanently. They will mainly blame the Republicans, though if Republicans will be accused of lacking heart and brains in promulgating these policies, Democrats will be accused of lacking guts in not fighting them more strenuously. They will show how Ronald Reagan’s seeds of economic inequality finally sprouted into our society of the super-rich and everyone else.
And they will wonder: Why there was so little resistance?
The answer is complex, but it seems to have two primary components. The first is that resistance is basically futile, and everyone knows it. The wealthy have always worked the levers of power, and though we have had periods of greater equality — the period from the end of the Great Depression to the beginning of Reagan’s presidency — America is more or less an oligarchy by design. The only difference now is that there is nothing surreptitious about it.
And that leads to the second component. As intellectuals are fond of saying, ideas have consequences. It is just that the consequences may have less to do directly with policy than with mythology. The prevailing mythology has been that the wealthy are deserving of their spoils — that they are a living example of the proposition that anyone who wants to make it in America can. Of course, people want to believe that, but it provides great cover for inequality. You almost feel un-American protesting that it isn’t remotely true.
So the country rolls on, and it rolls back. And historians will wonder how the 21st century came to resemble the end of the 19th — a terrible time when the wealthy ruled and everyone else capitulated.