Hindsight is Not 20/20: History and Power in American Politics

by Benjamin Sawyer

People make history, but history also makes people. And despite what you’ve heard, hindsight is not 20/20. There are certain times when forgetting your place in history can cause a lot of trouble. Now is one of those times.

This piece and those that follow are meant to help you understand how this works and why you should care. This may make you uncomfortable, but it’ll also help you see why this perspective on our historic moment can help us travail the political storm that is upon us.

 It works like this:

The moment into which you’re born defines your generation. This can be a cultural generation (Baby Boomer, Generation X, etc), but it can also be something longer. You might call the longer periods something else (eras, epochs, ages), but it’s more helpful here to view them as generations because you already know that generations come and go, and that’s crucial. What matters is that you understand that a generation is a group of people who have a shared experience that shapes them and creates a sense of their place in the world. This generational experience is always temporary, but leaves a profound mark on a group that lived through it long after the moment has passed.

People’s sense of “normal” is primarily developed in their early years, and ever since the industrial revolution began making each generation’s life a bit different, the older folks have lamented the younger generation’s way of doing things. If you’re a millennial, you’re on your phone too much. If you were a baby boomer, you listened to too much rock and roll. If you were before that you probably played too much hoop and stick. In every case, the old folks agreed that you kids were ruining America.

Trends in recreation, technology, and consumption define your cultural generation. These generations are easy to see because they’re right in front of us. They’re tangible. VH1 can make an “I love the [insert decade]” about them. And since no generation has ever fully institutionalized their cultural moment, we’ve continued to move on and build some incredible things without the types of problems that might emerge if a pro-Pinball regime started a war to eliminate the perceived moral threat of an insurgent cell of Pac Men.

Behind these easily identifiable changes there are much slower economic processes taking place. Where you land in that long arc of change binds you into a different type of generation- an economic generation. These changes are usually longer and much harder to see in your daily life because they’re subtle and require that you step back and look at the big picture. They’re also tricky because they produce short-term effects that convince you that you know what’s happening. In 2009, you could see the stock market crash. In 2017, you can see the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting all-time highs. Because you can see these events, and you’re surrounded by people with short-term explanations for them, you think you understand what’s happening. But if you don’t understand the century before those events, then you really don’t know what’s happening. Getting a handle on history takes work, and it can also make us feel a lot less in control of the world (even though ignoring it makes the world a lot more in control of us).

Much like short-term shifts in cultural generations, these long-term economic generations produce their own sense of “normal” that is hard to shake. The difference is that economic generations can encompass several cultural generations at a time, which means there are points in history when the majority of a population has come of age within the same economic generation. This makes the logic of an economic generation appear to be “common sense” and not a product of the moment.

A person in their 40s today can remember the times that the stock market crashed, and when it recovered. They can remember the Cold War, and when America’s major communist rival collapsed. But the same person can’t remember the time Americans had to rethink the way they did things to save the crumbling foundations of the economy and preserve American democracy. They can’t remember when a brutal world war rocketed the US out of a terrible depression and into one of two so-called global super powers. And their parents can’t remember this either, so it’s hard to see that both they and their parents’ experience was marked by an economic generation that was built upon the conditions of a historical moment, and not on a universal truth.

For most of us alive today, the economic generation that shaped us began when the US entered into World War II. The combination of the post-war economic boom, the New Deal programs that ensured a broader distribution of wealth, and an ideological rivalry with communism that demanded a commitment to civil society and human rights, made the US a much better place to live for most Americans. This was one of the most exceptional periods in human history, but it was not the fulfillment of a divine promise, or the product of the American system’s inherent qualities that “unfolded” in these years. What defined this moment was a series of external, global forces (The Great Depression, World War II, The Cold War), and Americans’ responses to them. It was temporary, and so was the sense of “normal” that it inspired.

In 2017, the post-WWII economic moment is dead, and we are not dealing with it well. Democrats have spent decades denying this loss and Republicans have embraced a politics of anger, but neither party’s leadership has moved beyond these early stages of grief and on to acceptance. The GOP is in the final phases of passing a massive tax cut on the promise that it will restore the old moment, but it will not because it cannot. And the Democrats’ strategy of relying on GOP failure may help them to regain power in the Federal government, but it will be short lived if the party cannot formulate a set of bold solutions to the problems of the new moment. Given that the party remains dominated by old moment elites, it seems poised for failure.

As individual citizens, this leaves us facing one uncomfortable truth of the American system: we are ultimately the ones who decide how we are governed. If we want to move past these current political divisions and build a better world for future generations, we need to accept the loss of the old moment and begin investing in the new one. Whatever your party affiliation, the first step you can take is accepting this reality and encouraging others to do the same. History may not provide a simple solution to these new problems, but it does show that when citizens educate themselves and speak loudly, they will be heard.

Relevant Episodes
Episode 24: Jefferson Cowie on American Politics and the Legacy of the New Deal
Episode 30: Brian Rosenwald on the History of Conservative Talk Radio